The Casentino is a place of ancient castles, villages frozen in time, Dante Alighieri and my mother-in-law. I realize that not many articles on the mountains and valleys east of Florence begin in this fashion, but although these two people were separated by 650 years they both have interesting and violent stories to tell about this less traveled part of Tuscany.
On the morning of June 11 1289 the 24 year old Danti Alighieri was one of 2,000 knights and 20,000 foot soldiers arranged on the open fields of Campaldino, right in the center of the Casentino valley near the above photograph. He was going into a battle on the side of the Florence Guelphs against the Ghibelline forces of Arezzo and though these two factions were supposedly about the fight for supremacy between the Pope’s authority and that of the Holy Roman Emperor, it often became simply a struggle for local power. The Guelphs versus the Ghibellines was a constant theme of the conflicts that played out all over central Italy during the Middle Ages.
The Battle of Campaldino that fine June day was a fierce and bloody engagement between two well matched forces that left plenty of bodies strewn all over the battlefield and their bleached bones would be unearthed by ploughs from time to time over the next six centuries. It was a victory for the Guelphs of Florence aided by other Tuscan Guelphs from Lucca, Pistoia, Siena and elsewhere and Dante would write about it later in Canto V of Purgatorio in his Divina Commedia.
One morning in late 1943 in the last house on the edge of the small town of Rassina, not far from the site of Dante’s battle, my mother-in-law, Lisa, who was a girl of seven at that time, got up early as she always did to help her grandmother make the day’s bread. Lisa’s mother had died two years earlier and the kitchen had become her sanctuary in the turbulent war years. Late 1943 was an uneasy time everywhere in Italy after Mussolini’s fall and the country’s abrupt change of allegiance to the Allied cause. The Germans were no longer on the same side, but rather an enemy in their midst and the open field opposite Lisa’s house (above photo) was bivouacked by scores of soldiers who had recently poured into Italy as an occupying force. They were not happy with the Italians and they were inclined to behave as an invading army does.
Lisa's father had understood the implications of their arrival immediately and in the middle of the night he had spirited away his elder daughter and seven of his eight cows along rugged mountain trails known only to locals. He kept one cow at home for milk.
It didn’t take long of course for the Germans to cross the road and find the last cow and when they barged into the house that morning they forced the animal to walk up the stairs to the coldest room at the top, away from the kitchen fire, and then butchered it and hung it from the rafters. The blood poured from the dying beast through the floorboards and into the room below where it pooled into puddles before dripping another level down into the living room. The soldiers took the meat they needed and returned over the next two days for the rest of the edible carcass, leaving rotting entrails behind.
Seven year old Lisa was exposed at a tender age to a very rough world and it was about to get even worse because a few months later, after partigiani activity nearby, Lisa’s father was arrested by the Germans in reprisal actions and bundled off to Germany. His experience in the field with animal husbandry and crops saved his life and he was put to work feeding the German army. Meanwhile the family, without a mother or father, but at least a grandmother in the house, had to manage as best they could for 18 months until Lisa’s father was able to return in August 1945.
The kitchen has remained a place of comfort for Lisa ever since those dark days and almost 80 years later she still spends half the day there, even after decades of working as a professional cook. Now she lets me take charge of the dinners a couple of times a week, but always with some friendly advice over my shoulder, and that includes her favorite Sunday lunch of Arista.
The Casentino and the Pratomagno massif have not changed a great deal during Lisa’s lifetime. The field opposite the house of her birth is still a field and the photograph taken last summer looks exactly the same as a painting of it a century ago.
Away from the main road that follows the river Arno along the valley floor, the hills and mountains on both sides remain undeveloped; the towns of Poppi and Stia seem frozen in time and the castle of Romena still sits alone surrounded by open countryside. And therein lies its appeal to us. We have spent many of our July and August weekends in this part of Tuscany over the past 8 years and before that Elena used to spend some time here every summer since she was born.
So where exactly are the Casentino and Pratomagno?
The Casentino starts in the high Apennines on Tuscany’s border with Romagna. It’s here, near Monte Falterona that the river Arno rises and begins its journey to Florence, Pisa and the sea. The river flows south down the Casentino valley then turns west at the end of the valley just before Arezzo and then turns again, north to Florence as it rounds the bottom corner of the Pratomagno.
It is this Pratomagno massif, peaking at 5,200 feet, that blocks direct access to the Casentino from the west with only the 3,400 feet Passo della Consuma allowing traffic from Florence into the northern part of the Casentino. There are various other small roads crossing mountain passes in the north and east into Romagna, all of which make great cycling itineraries, but the main entry point to the Casentino valley is from Arezzo in the south.
The Pratomagno plateau is accessible from the many villages dotted around its lower slopes but all the roads come to an end sooner or later as they push into the higher elevations and from thereon it’s all about hiking, mountain e-biking or horse riding. Ancient forests of oak, beech and chestnut as well as newer spruce carpet the sides of the Pratomagno but it gets its name from the open pastures and meadows higher up (prato means lawn in Italian) on the ridge line, many with cows or horses in the summer and with views in every season stretching south-west across the Chianti hills.
In the southern part of the Casentino, which starts at Subbiano there are old castles and towers on both sides of the valley, some more impressive than others and some, like the one at Faltona that we tried to find, no longer even castles but long since converted into houses with only the fortress walls remaining. The village of Castel Focognano near Rassina retains its 11th century tower as does Chitignano with its Castello dei Conti Ubertini from a similar period. We didn’t see a soul in either place because even in the summer these are mostly deserted places with many people preferring the seaside; this is about as far away from the coast as you can be in Italy.
Some years after the Battle of Campaldino the Guelphs of Florence were consumed by internal squabbles and two factions emerged, the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs. In 1300 Dante was elected to Florence’s nine member Council of Priors as a White Guelph and opposed the Pope’s proposal to annex Tuscan lands. A year later when Dante was in Rome, a much annoyed Pope despatched a French prince to Florence to take control of the city in conjunction with the Black Guelphs. A wave of terror was subsequently unleashed and in March 1302 Dante was sentenced to death by fire in absentia; he wisely went into exile and never set foot in Florence again.
In 1315, after Dante refused the terms of an amnesty, another judge changed the sentence to death by beheading, but also to include the poet’s sons. Dante continued to refuse amnesty offers for the rest of his life because none of them removed the charges against him. In the successive centuries after his death 700 years ago, Florence made repeated requests to have his remains returned to his home town. All of them were rebuffed by Ravenna, where he had spent his final years, and to this day no official expunging of the charges against Italy's national poet has ever been made by Florence.
T.S Eliot wrote an essay titled 'What Dante means to me' that was first presented as a speech to the Italian Institute of London on July 4, 1950. In this quote from his speech he elevates Dante beyond all others, including Shakespeare (remember of course that Eliot was an American before he became British) :
"Dante seems to me to have a place in Italian literature—which, in this respect, only Shakespeare has in ours; that is, they give body to the soul of the language, conforming themselves, the one more and the other less conspicuously, to what they divined to be its possibilities. And Shakespeare himself takes liberties which only his genius justifies; liberties which Dante, with an equal genius, does not take. To pass on to posterity one’s own language, more highly developed, more refined, and more precise than it was before one wrote it, that is the highest possible achievement of the poet as poet".
We came across Dante during his exile in the article on Poggio della Dogana when he crossed the Apennines on his way north and then again in our article on Verona when he was the guest of Cangrande della Scala in that city. But before either of those encounters Dante spent time in the Casentino, close to Florence but sufficiently out of their jurisdiction to avoid his adversaries being able to carry out his sentence of death.
In 1310 Dante stayed at Poppi castle as a guest of the Guidi ruling family and wrote some of the Purgatorio there. There are many local places that appear in his Divina Commedia, including the medieval Castle of Romena which is one of the highlights of a visit to the Casentino. Monte Falterona is also mentioned in Canto XIV as the source of the Arno though it can’t have been an easy place to reach in the early years of the 14th century.
In Canto XXX of Inferno Dante tells the story of a forger by the name of Mastro Adamo 'Adamo il falsario' who was burned alive in a place called Omomorto. Omomorto today is basically just the Agriturismo Podere Omomorto, consisting of a few small dwellings for tourists where we have spent many weekends over the years. It’s just off the Passo della Consuma road as it descends to the Casentino and every year the owner seems to add another feature or create another apartment from his collection of old farm buildings. It’s a rustic but comfortable place to stay though perhaps not in winter as it’s quite high up, close to 3,000 feet.
Half way down to the valley below this non-existent hamlet of Omomorto (which nevertheless has its own street sign, probably thanks to Dante) is the Castello di Romena.
This is the oldest castle in the Casentino, first mentioned in documents in 1008, and sits about 600 feet above the Arno and the valley floor with a direct line of sight to Poppi and its equally impressive castle. Romena is how all old castles should look today, surrounded by nothing but open space and views in all directions so you can see exactly as they appeared when first constructed.
The Campaldino battle was the beginning of the end for this castle because, after being on the losing side, the Guidi family consolidated their power further away from Florence with the construction of their castle at Poppi. Florence took control of Romena in the middle of the 14th century and by the time the Medici dynasty took over they had no further use for it, because by then Florentine power stretched way beyond the Casentino.
The walk to the castle through old cypress trees lining both sides of the trail is so much better than an overflowing car park filled with coaches; it's typical of the less frenetic tourism in the Casentino and like stepping back fifty years or more. Gabriele D'Annunzio was here in the summer of 1902, following in Dante's footsteps, and wrote part of his Laudi series of 4 books during his stay. A section of his poetry is on display at the castle that references many of the places in the Casentino that are described in this article.
Not all of Dante’s references to the Casentino appear in the Inferno or Purgatorio even though it seems that way. The Sanctuary of La Verna gets a mention in Canto XI of Paradiso as the place between the Tiber and the Arno where almost 100 years earlier in 1224 Saint Francis (of Assisi) received the stigmata a couple of years before his death in Assisi.
La Verna today is home to Franciscan monks and is a place of pilgrimage for many Catholics. As a teenager after the war Lisa would sometimes walk the 20 miles through the night to La Verna from Rassina, and then back again, as it was a common thing to do in those days.