Medieval Tuscany to conquer the EU

On the Day of Archaeology2015 I shall be designing a new project. Quite unexpectedly, Siena University in a partnership with The American University of Rome has been awarded a prestigious ERC Advanced grant by the European Union (under the Horizon 2020 scheme). Giovanna Bianchi (who lectures at Siena University) and I thought up the concept and gave it a very academic title:

‘The creation of economic and monetary union (7th to 12th centuries): mining, landscapes and political strategies in a Mediterranean region’.

This mouth-full is not exactly what comes to mind when you think of the Maremma, with its glorious miniature Sienas at Massa Marittima and Campiglia Marittima. Our ponderous title, though, is rich with romantic promise. The Tuscan coastal strip runs from the Etruscan promontory sanctuary and port at Populonia past Piombino, the industrial gateway to the island of Elba, and as far as Grosseto.

The motive for the project lies in the hills that discretely rise up from the coastal plain and disappear under a thick covering of chestnuts and firs. These are the Colline Metallifere. The Etruscans first procured copper and iron here, transporting it down to Populonia to ship to the Celts and the Greeks. The Romans seemingly acquired better mines and let the hills be. But a Lombard family with strong Frankish connections, the Aldobrandeschi – whose scions still live in these parts – returned to the Etruscan adits. On and off a thousand years of metal prospecting followed.  In recent decades mining has given way to acquiring sulphur and gas, providing continued employment for the tight villages connected by snaking woodland lanes. Here, believe it not, are the riches that helped to shape Tuscany, becoming as it did by the 12th century the cornerstone of medieval Europe.

Cugnano: the location of one of the excavations of the project

Cugnano: the location of one of the excavations of the project

Our project is explicitly a scientific one. Our objective is to understand how this region that was reduced to prehistoric circumstances in the later 6th century (after the Gothic wars), by steps was transformed to boast splendid townscapes like Massa Marittima by the later 12th century. After decades of research by my old friend, Riccardo Francovich, and his energetic pupil, Giovanna Bianchi, the Siena University hypothesis is that mining in the hills started in the later 9th century at lost villages like Cugnano. The ore was then passed down a river corridor to a lost port on the coast at Carlappiano. Close by is the earliest castle excavated in Italy at Ventricella.

So, working with many collaborators, we aim not only to excavate at these three points in the procurement chain, but also to use a battery of new techniques to analyze the mining and the coins minted from the local silver, while new research takes place on the plentiful 8th-to 10th century charters here.

With this squad of scientists there is a wealth of material to add a vital new chapter in Mediterranean history. Added to this, there is the prospect to make the Maremma the centerpiece of a new medieval story, part of Charlemagne’s legacy and the stage upon which the Renaissance was constructed.

Charlemagne & Rome: Discovering a Lost Renaissance

It’s really hot today. It is one of those days of May in which summer seems to have pushed spring away. We are waiting for a key. After a few minutes, a keeper arrives and opens a little gate: we walk down a few steps and, slowly, we pass through thousands of years of history. You will never be able to say that you know everything about Rome: it will always surprise you, there will be everytime something to discover, that you didn’t know before. While over our heads the traffic is flowing, we attend to a little miracle of urban archaeology: the early medieval houses in the Forum of Nerva are waiting for us, even if they are neglected every day by the rest of the world. But we must be very quick, because this area is not open to the public, we are not allowed much time, and it is very hot… Only twenty minutes, maybe less, then we must leave the archaeological site. Prof. Hodges and Prof. Mitchell are trying to use every single moment, in order to understand the importance of those buildings, but the keeper is waiting for them at the top of the stairs. He gently tells them off with his eyes: they should be a little bit faster. Some hours before, at S. Maria Antiqua, the charm of the place was also ruined by the same problem: we had to complete our visit in only fifteen minutes.


An early-medieval house in the Forum of Nerva

This is just a brief summary of what happened during the second day of a Masterclass organised by The American University of Rome, in partnership with the “Istituto Italiano di Studi Germanici” and “Zètema”, and with the financial support of “Fondazione Roma”Turning Charlemagne into an Asset for Rome”. The purpose of this course was to show to a group of professionals and students how to define, conceptualize and market a “cultural” asset. The Masterclass program had been well designed: during the first and the second day there were lectures, led by some important professors and introduced by Prof. Richard Hodges, in order to discuss which relationship there was between Charlemagne and Rome and which were the most important events and places of the Carolingian Rome (we were able to see some of them: S. Maria Antiqua, SS. Quattro Coronati, the Forum of Nerva, Crypta Balbi Museum); the main subject of the remaining days was “marketing”, with lectures, introduced by Prof. Peter Gould, useful to understand what a “cultural asset” is, and how to define and conceptualize it. Then, we were ready to achieve the real aim of the Masterclass: making a touristic project to value the Carolingian Rome. We suggested creating some urban itineraries, in order to help tourists to discover and visit the most important carolingian monuments and places around the city. What is really fascinating about this project it’s the fact that we already have these itineraries, made in the VIII and IX Century: the Einsiedeln Itinerary. We could suggest to the modern tourists to follow the itineraries of the medieval pilgrims. Through modern technologies (the internet, web sites, an App, etc.) we could easily reach a wide number of people, and they could discover some beautiful places to visit, in addition to St. Peter’s or the Colosseum. But are tourists really interested in Medieval Rome? On the last day of the course, we interviewed around a hundred tourists in the centre of Rome, and the result was astonishing: 85% of them wanted to know more about Medieval Rome and the Charlemagne’s Renaissance. The outcome of our work was presented to the audience during the conference “Lost renaissance? The legacy of Charlemagne in Rome and its future”, held at the “Istituto di Studi Germanici” on the last day of the Masterclass.


The Masterclass work group

I graduated in Italy, and this international Masterclass showed to me how we can think at Archaeology in a more modern and engaging way, compared to that I am used to. But for all of us, the participants, there was another important aspect, which didn’t leave us indifferent. We were witnesses of a clash between two different worlds: on one side Prof. Richard Hodges, who can’t understand the reason why, in Italy, we aren’t able to value our incredible cultural heritage; on the other, the bureaucracy of the “Soprintendenze”, unable to open up to the contemporary world. Why can’t Italy value his cultural heritage? All the answers are in the anecdote I recounted at the beginning of the post:  it isn’t understood yet that it’s a useless effort “protecting” monuments or archaeological sites without “sharing” them. If I can’t discover a monument, if I can’t visit and “touch” it, I will struggle to consider it something of mine, something I should preserve and defend. “Communicating” and “sharing”. These are characteristics which give value to every story, and should be important for disciplines like Archaeology and History: otherwise, monuments will remain just a cultural and moral ruin.

Turning Charlemagne into an Asset for Rome Masterclass (Conference Video)