Suvereto today and yesterday

Today the visitor arrives at Suvereto from the coast, coming down the Costa degli Etruschi along the via Aurelia and turning inland at Piombino or Venturina. The culture and traditions of the village are entirely rural, however, and the countryside surrounding it unmistakably that of the Tuscan hills – although indelibly marked as a Maremman landscape, that fascinating environment which reflects the delicate balance between Man and Nature.


Suvereto is an evocative medieval village with its circuit of walls still intact, situated but a short distance from the Etruscan city of Populonia. The village, which boasts a particularly mild climate, nestles among the foothills, where the Cornia valley descends from the Colline Metallifere – the “metal-bearing hills”. From the village the eye takes in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Gulf of Follonica and, beyond, the island of Elba. Inland, roads and tracks wind amongst the hills towards Volterra and Massa Marittima. The local landscape – rich in cork oak, olive groves and vines – mirrors a local economy rooted in agriculture, forestry and stock-rearing. Today, activities linked to craft production and tourism may be added to the list. The forests of cork oak characterise the area along with aromatic tracts of Mediterranean scrubland. The cork oak itself – in Italian sughero, and in the local dialect suvero – gave rise to the name of the village, and may be seen on its coat of arms together with a Lion passant. The saying goes that in the past this lion was rampant – as if to demonstrate the historical importance of the village. The lowlands around the bed of the Cornia river are dotted with farmsteads – an inheritance of the mezzadria, sharecropping system of agriculture. This is also true of the lower hillsides, but the slopes of Monte Calvi and the area around Montioni are almost entirely covered by woodland and scrub. These latter are highly valued environments for they are remarkably rich in numerous species of flora and fauna. In particular this is true of the extensive area around Montioni, which in recent years has become a Provincial Park, where paths and bridleways snake amongst natural resources and archaeological remains, making it a paradise for trekking and horse-riding (see the pages on the Park of Montioni and the Parks of the Cornia Valley). The recurrence of poggi – isolated hillocks – (Monte Peloso, Monte Pitti, Poggio Castello) further enriches the countryside of Suvereto with charming miniature landscapes and diverse natural and historically important corners waiting to be discovered and appreciated.
Today the territory of Suvereto houses some 3,000 inhabitants, half of these in the village itself and the remainder spread about the countryside and in the small centres of San Lorenzo, Montioni, Forni, Prata and Belvedere. The houses in the historic centre of the village, lovingly restored in recent decades, have taken on the colour of the local stone – a living stone similar in character to the Maremmans themselves, used to living in close contact with nature but at the same time open to, and curious about, any novelty.
The Cornia river courses through the valley at rhythms which vary with the seasons, sculpting new twists and turns, narrowing between steep banks or lazily flowing through wide beds. In all its variety the river forms a natural environment to be explored, a living axis around which past generations built their homes, farmed, gathered food and hunted. Along the length of the river lies the Val di Cornia area of Tuscany, where the integration of tourism on the one hand, and environment and culture on the other, has been most harmoniously achieved.


Suvereto yesterday

Around the middle of the sixteenth century a Bolognese monk on a trip to the Maremma described Suvereto as a “castle abounding in wine, oil and other fruits”. Two centuries later Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti presented the village as a place “enclosed by walls, with two gates and a large castle”. These two passages – taken at random from those describing the long history of Suvereto – sum up the character of this quiet rural community. The visitor may still enjoy the beauty of the historic centre, the quality of the agricultural produce, the comfort of the countryside. All of this is offered in that part of the Tuscan Maremma, unrolling between the Colline Metallifere and the sea, which has been since antiquity one of the most authentic regions of Italian civilisation.

Here we are on Etruscan land, but leaving aside any reference to the settlements of that era– which make the hinterland of Populonia so interesting for the study of that period – it is enough to say that the origins of Suvereto can definitely be traced back to before the year 1000. Written documents of the tenth century in fact refer to the castrum of Suvereto, indicating this as a well-organised and functional centre which had grown up around the church dedicated to San Giusto. The foundation of this church surely reflects a point intermediate in time and space in the transferral of the seat of the diocese from Populonia to Massa Marittima in the eleventh century. At this time the Aldobrandeschi Counts – Lords of the local castle, were attempting to consolidate their dominion over the local area and population: Suvereto was a key element in the strategy of this noble house.

In the twelfth century the first tower was built on the summit of that hill which was to see the growth of the complex of buildings known as the Rocca Aldobrandesca. To this same period date the first defensive ditches encircling the inhabited areas. Toward the end of that century the inhabitants of Suvereto organised themselves in the form of a free comune and at the very dawn of the new century, in 1201, they obtained further economic and political concessions from the Count Palatine Ildebrandino VIII. By this time the habitation area (the borgo) was extending southwards down the hillsides beneath the castle itself: this too was later to be protected by walls. ComuneThis urban development continued throughout the thirteenth century along with an increase in the population, such that Suvereto became a significant local centre, able to construct a Town Hall (Palazzo Comunale) and other buildings of noteworthy architectural merit, both civil and religious – the Convent of San Francesco being a fine example. The thirteenth century should be considered the golden age of Suvereto for all of these reasons, even though demographic and urban expansion continued on and off throughout the Lower Middle Ages and the beginnings of the modern era.

Thus Suvereto took on the form we see today primarily in the years between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries. Other than the city walls, the Church of San Giusto, the Castle (Rocca), the Town Hall and the Cloister of San Francesco were all built or enlarged during this period. From the political point of view, Suvereto remained for a long time a feud of the Aldobrandeschi, but following its participation in the Ghibelline League (1237), the community entered ever further into the political orbit of the Pisan Republic. This latter was responsible for the new fortifications added to the castle in the last decades of the thirteenth century. This alliance with – and in some senses subjection to – Pisa was to have on the whole a positive outcome. Indeed, during the period of Pisan influence, Suvereto was host to the body of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII of Luxembourg, during its trip from Buonconvento to Pisa, where work was being finalised on his tomb.

In 1399 Suvereto became part of the Signory of Piombino, this being created when Gherardo Appiani, the Lord of Pisa, retired to Piombino having sold his realm to the Visconti, Counts of Milan. Here he laid the base for a new, independent state, which was to survive for centuries, one of the numerous fragments into which the map of Italy was divided. This territory bordered on political units often in conflict between themselves, such as those of Siena and Florence. As a consequence, the neighbourhood suffered from the passage of armies, from looting and siege. Amongst episodes of this type, in the fifteenth century Suvereto, “a land with neither arms nor soldiers” as Francesco Inghirami was to call it, underwent siege at the hands of Baldaccio d’Anghiari, whose tragic end at Florence is known to all, the condottiero’s life ending as his head rolled on the paving in the Piazza della Signoria.

Since medieval times the urban fabric of Suvereto has been sub-divided in wards, or terzieri, which take their names from long-since suppressed churches: San Niccolò (the oldest of the three), San Salvatore and San Martino. This subdivision is a distant, but not wholly forgotten, echo of the division of the village know existing for the games and contests which take place in the historical pageants of the village. Today, these terzieri are known as Castello, Borgo and San Francesco.

Suvereto had a final period of growth between the fifteenth and the first half of the sixteenth centuries. New churches such as that of the Madonna sopra la Porta (ca1480) and those dedicated to San Leonardo and San Rocco (both dating to the 1520’s) bear witness to this flourishing activity, as do the visits of famous artists such as Andrea Guardi, responsible for the bas-relief of the Madonna and Child on the sixteenth century Fonte degli Angeli. And so Suvereto too had its own renaissance. Fonte degli AngeliOn the economic side, too, novelty was in the air. Amongst new enterprises dating to this period, the most important was the Ironworks established in the area known as I Forni on the river Cornia. This became a sort of industrial estate, using the river as a source of power, and the iron ore from Elba along with timber from Montioni as raw materials. At the close of the sixteenth century, cereals and iron were at the base of the local economy, the two elements that formed the contribution of Suvereto to the finances of the State of Piombino.

In the middle years of the sixteenth century demographic decline was to set in, however, Not merely locally, but throughout the Maremma as a whole, these years witnessed a process of depopulation and environmental decay. The local authorities attempted to stem this process through the introduction of new laws and initiatives aimed at attracting newcomers to the area. “A land without occupants” – as Suvereto was termed – tried, sometimes desperately – any road to repopulation. One result of such policies was the foundation of Belvedere on the panoramic and healthy hilltop site above the village. This dates to 1573, and was brought about by an act of Iacopo IV Appiani “to give heart to outsiders who come to live here” – these outsiders being from the region of Modena and Parma, invited by that same act.

Labourers coming here for seasonal work from the distant Appennines, shepherd wintering with their flocks, the odd artisan employed in the Cornia Ironworks, occasional merchants dealing in wheat and oil, woodcutters looking for work…. These types made up the social strata of the area of Suvereto at the dawn of the modern age. The slow decline was also reflected in the agricultural organisation of the land. “Suvereto was once well populated” the Florentine Targioni Tazzoti noted in the mid eighteenth century “and was at the centre of a very well tended landscape, with many olive groves ……. Now the countryside is deserted, full of olives run wild, and the air is none too healthy”. A population estimated at around 1,000 in the mid fifteenth century had dropped to a few hundred: in 1787 there were a mere 570 inhabitants, along with some 300 ‘foreigners’, that is those who came and went, and were not permanent residents. Any general improvement was to wait until the nineteenth century.

For several centuries, from the Middle Ages to the Napoleonic era, Suvereto had been an integral part of the Principate of Piombino, governed first by the Appiani dynasty, and later the Boncompagni-Ludovisi. These rulers had, as noted above, founded the village of Belvedere, established the Ironworks and constructed the Fonte degli Angeli. Thereafter, however, very little was done, and Suvereto languished amid her difficulties, and those of the Maremma as a whole, wrapped as it were in a medieval mist. Between 1796 and 1799 Suvereto was to partake in anti-feudal revolutionary movement which prevailed throughout Europe following the fall of the Bastille. The so-called rebellion of the coccardes against the despotism of the representatives of the Prince of Piombino was followed by the occupation of the Piombinese dominions by the French, and the subsequent creation of a Napoleonic state.

In fact in the early years of the nineteenth century Suvereto, along with the rest of the State of Piombino, was granted to Elisa Bonaparte, the sister of Napoleon and wife of Prince Baciocchi (hence her nickname La Baciocca). The Princess established a village in the forest of Montioni around the thermal springs to be found there. She was responsible for much new land being brought under cultivation and also for the introduction of vines and vineyard practices from the Bordeaux region. Public, demesne and religious lands were privatised, the Convent of San Francesco in Suvereto being suppressed. In the countryside forests were uprooted and new plantations – particularly of olives - came into being. Scrubland was cleared by burning, the roots grubbed up, and the land organised and brought under the plough.

Foto del comune

In 1815 Suvereto finally became a Tuscan village, entering the Grand Duchy. The ruling Lorraine dynasty were responsible for various land reclamation schemes, the regeneration of agriculture and a host of activities encouraging a general revival of economic activity. These several initiatives led to a new and enduring phase of development. The territory of Suvereto, to the eye of a nineteenth century visitor, “proclaimed fertility”, and the intensive cultivation of cereals, vines and olives did seem to symbolise a new era. On his arrival in 1835, the Florentine Lapo de’ Ricci could describe “a level road flanking the rio Merdancio” which crossed “the fertile and cultivated plain of Suvereto”. He went on to contrast this with the lands “that lie towards Campiglia” which seemed to him “unwholesome and ill kept”. The very main road – the “Piombinese” or “Pisana” as it was known – saw an increased volume of traffic: goods, livestock and travellers. To improve viability, those years saw the construction of a bridge over the rio Merdancia, the stream which runs from north to south through the territory of Suvereto. The population of the village grew, surpassing the 1,000 mark in 1850, and the number of houses in the surrounding countryside (the so-called poderi) increased constantly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The physical appearance of the village also changed. Any empty spaces within the walls or immediately outside them tended to be filled with new housing. The streets, until then at the mercy of mud and dust, were paved. Around the middle of the century drinking water made its appearance in the central square. An open conduit ran from the source at Belvedere to the walls of the village. From there it was carried through underground iron pipes to a fountain constructed beneath casa Vildosi. This latter house had been modified and became public property and was also used as a school and for public meetings. In the second half of the nineteenth century Suvereto turned its attention to its physical appearance. The southern approach to the town was revitalised with the construction of rectory and the Oratory of San Giusto, thus enlarging the complex around the ancient church. The drastic decision to demolish the old gateway and several nearby houses was taken in the years 1855 to 1856,with the aim of “rendering the village more attractive and … better ventilated, with consequent benefits to public health”. It must be remembered that these were the years of endemic cholera. Thus the gate variously known as Porta al Piano, Porta a Mare, Porta Piombinese, Porta Grande came down, along with the houses built into it, and the present crenellated arch took its place. . The other gateway (called Porticciola, Porta di Sassetta and so on) had been modified some decades earlier. Many locals felt that the long medieval epoch departed together with the old gateways, to be replaced by a new, more open era, and that in a more open village.

Suvereto shared the fortunes of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany up until the formation of the new Italian state. The village became a lively local centre, basing its fortunes on the growth of the local economy, primarily agriculture and forestry. This growth was continuous, running from the period of the Lorraine Dukes of Tuscany through into the years of the newly united Italy. The village was included in the province of Pisa at the inception of the Kingdom of Italy, and passed into that of Livorno at its creation in 1925.

The years at the turn of the twentieth century saw a massive extension of the sharecropping system in agriculture (mezzadria) along with the reorganisation of the small farmsteads (poderi) into larger units. These changes, alongside the creation of a large steel industry in Piombino, had a profound impact on the socio-economic structure of the Cornia valley. These changes – common to certain other areas of the Maremma – gave a further impetus to the process of doemographic growth. Expansion was steady: in 1901 the population of Suvereto was around 3,300, but by the middle of the century the number had surpassed 4,000. The construction in the 1930’s of a large new school near La Cortina is a physical symbol of this increase. The period following the war and liberation of Italy – years lived with passion and difficulty by the pople of Suvereto – were here as elsewhere characterised by the laborious toil of reconstruction. In the years of the economic boom which followed, Suvereto as with many other parts of Italy shared for good and bad in a process of modernisation. In 1951 a decision was taken to tarmac the central avenue of Pian della Fonte “so as to remove the problems caused by mud during the winter and dust in the summer”. However, it was also in these years that several multi-storey buildings were constructed, of a type simply incompatible with the balanced and historically rooted typology of the villag. The exodus from the countryside, accelerated by the vicinity of the industrial centre of Piombino which created the mirage of a more comfortable, urban lifestyle, gave rise to a new demographic decline.

The close of the 60’s and beginning of the 70’s, however, saw a strong revival of local traditions. With various initiatives which still continue today – such as the Maytime celebrations (cantar maggio) and other festivals – that local, rural tradition which had for so long characterised Suvereto returned to the forefront. What once seemed irremediably lost has today regained dignity and vitality, the life of the village accurately reflected in a re-evaluation of the countryside, in the quality of its produce and – why not – in the quality of the villagers themselves.