From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 67
The Tragedy Hidden by Green Velvet
The hills and mountainsides, as seen from the windows of our bedrooms in Capanna Susanna and Casa Rosina, are cloaked in what appears to be green velvet. The hills are closer to Capanna Susanna, and when the wind blows, the velvet cloak ripples as if the mountains themselves were alive and dancing in time to the rhythm of the wind. The movement is hypnotic and peaceful, much like the effect of staring at ocean waves or water rippling over rocks in a mountain brook. The beauty of this green mantle that softens the underlying gray rock of the mountains hides a terrible tragedy.

Over two thousand years ago, the Greeks domesticated wild chestnut trees. Just as the Romans had adopted from the Greeks the planting of olives trees and the vine, they also adopted the planting of chestnut groves as they expanded their empire. The Longobardi greatly expanded the groves on the mountainsides from their capital in Lucca throughout the entire Garfagnana.

By the beginning of the 19th century there were close to 50,000 acres of ancient chestnut groves in the Garfagnana. As early as the 11th century, there had been statutes against the destruction of the chestnut groves, because chestnut flour and barley were the two staple sources of sustenance for the populace. Sometimes, while eating a big bowl of spaghetti al pomodoro (spaghetti with tomato sauce) or gnocchi all’arrabiatta (potato balls with spicy tomato sauce) along with patate arroste (roast potatos), it is easy to forget that the first Italian to have ever seen a potato or a tomato was Christopher Columbus--unless of course the story about the statuini salesmen from Barga is true.

Chestnut wood is not only very beautiful but is also resistant to rot and attack by tarli, the little wood worms that love to chomp down on pine, cherry, walnut, and other woods. The beams of nearly all of the ancient palazzi and villas were of chestnut as well as a great deal of the furniture that was handmade in Gioviano and the surrounding towns and villages throughout the centuries before the advent of modern furniture factories. Most of the doors and built-in cabinets in Palazzo Margherita are of chestnut, even those painted in the 18th century to resemble what were considered finer woods.

After 300 years, some of the Palazzo chestnut roof decking and cross rafters had rotted and had to be replaced. However, only one of the original beams was replaced

because of the German 88 shell that severed it during World War II. Even floors were oftentimes made from wide chestnut boards that were far warmer to walk on in winter than the rather cold terracotta tiles.

One of the tragedies that has been occurring over the past few decades is the tendency to modernize the interiors of ancient houses, villas, and palazzi. More often than not, this entails the gutting of the house along with its fine chestnut floor, huge beams, original windows, doors, and other items that gave the structure its charm and character. The wooden beams are replaced with concrete, the naturally undulating walls are squared up, and what had been a work of artistic handcraftsmanship has become a sterile concrete box.

Because Americans and English persons often insist on using the original materials when restoring houses, they are often willing to pay a premium if the ancient beams and terracotta or wooden floors are intact. The Garfagnini have begun to respect and appreciate the originality and beauty of their own structures. In some instances, but not enough, they refuse to gut their houses when they are modernized. Now back to the even greater tragedy concealed by the mantle of green velvet.

Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, it was discovered that chestnut wood is loaded with tannic acid which is used to tan leather. The Italians produce a lot of tannin to use in the manufacture of shoes, coats, belts, and other leather goods for which they are famous. Between 1850 and 1900, 16 tannin factories were established in Italy to exploit the ancient chestnut groves. In 1903, a French company built a tannin factory within smelling distance of Gioviano which was the beginning of the great liquidation of the chestnuts forests of the Garfagnana.

Of the 54 tannin factories established in Italy from 1850 to 1970, only one is still in operation. Want to guess which one? You got it right, the one just about a mile or so from Gioviano. Today at lunch, I looked out over the hills and mountains clad in the green velvet of trees. Since the chestnut trees are in bloom in the spring, they stand out, bedecked in yellow blossoms. There was one just below the parking lot and a few others scattered here and there amongst the millions of young acacia trees that now make up the mantle. The acacias have replaced the ancient oaks, beeches, elms, firs, and other trees of the original forests.

About the time that the French factory was built, a blight began to infect the chestnuts. The presence of the disease made people believe that since the trees were going to die anyway, that they might as well be cut down even if healthy. This is the same type of baseless argument that is used by the timber industry in the United States to destroy the last of our few remaining acres of ancient forests. The chestnut blight now appears to have run its course and the survivors, both from the blight and from the tannin factories, appear to be regaining their health and vigor.

Back in the 1970s, there were still many ancient chestnut groves mostly near villages on the higher slopes. Some of the trees were at least six feet or more in diameter and had no doubt been planted by the Longobardi before the year 1,000. This means that the trees were at least 1,000 years old. Some were hollow and the farmers had placed doors on them and used the living tree as little barns or cabins. One even had a small window.

When passing what we called the “bush factory” that produces tannin, there could be seen huge piles of logs cut from the ancient trees stacked like mountains fifty feet and more in height. The rendering of the chestnut logs released a sweet odor of death that sometimes invaded our windows in Casa Giorgio if the wind was just right. The smell was sweet but it was a very sad sweetness in that it represented the death of the magnificent forests that had once comprised the green mantle cloaking the hills and mountains. Today, due to the fact that the chestnut forests have been largely liquidated, the factory has switched to acacia wood which does not have the sweet odor of death and destruction.

In 1944, Ruth Kennedy, whose family had emigrated from Gioviano, wrote the following about her native village, which sheds another ray of light on the subject of the “The Tragedy Hidden by Green Velvet.”

”One change was even worse than Fascism,” she wrote. “When Enue went back to Gioviano in October of 1938 and saw the villagers loitering in the streets by day, she could not understand their lassitude. Why did they not stride off at dawn to spend hour after hour picking up the ripe, fallen chestnuts and filling the sacks to be taken to the drying sheds? What would they eat in the winter if they had no chestnut flour to make migliaccio (flat chestnut cake)? It was only then that she saw that the slopes above the town were strangely desolate and bare.”

“The chestnut trees were all cut down,” they told her. “A French company came with a machine-saw and cut them up for lumber.”

“For lumber! When their wonderful fruits were such a bounty of God!”

“But there were taxes to pay. So many new taxes and no money to pay them with.” And they begged her not to go to see the place where the groves had stood, terraced like palace gardens and as carefully kept, with not a stick or stone to hide the nuts or bruise the nimble fingers which gathered them; for now there is nothing there but brush and broken ground, and it is too sad, troppo triste.

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
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