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The Chiana: a river, then marsh and finally, a canal and fertile valley. After all, clan or glan in Mediterranean languages refers to a slow, muddy waterway (“chiano” in the Campania region still means “slow”). There was a large Etruscan capital here, Chiusi, which had been crippled in later centuries by the stagnating water, malaria and warmongering surrounding cities. In recent years, the population has been boosted with the arrival of the railway, but the total number of inhabitants is still only about ten thousand. Montepulciano is the new reference point of the area, but the whole municipality, with the various villages included, does not exceed fifteen thousand inhabitants. Then, there is Chianciano with its spa treatments (7,500 residents). Further north, Sinalunga, Torrita di Siena and Trequanda together exceed twenty thousand people. The sense of wanting to be a city, but never fully succeeding is emblematic of Pienza which has a grand coat of arms, but not the size to match it. The further south you go, the more spread out and smaller the villages become: Sarteano, San Casciano dei Bagni, Cetona. A turbulent history has pitched every town in the Val di Chiana against the other, but with none emerging the victor. It is no coincidence that even the diocese is split up between Chiusi, Montepulciano and Pienza. In the same way, in the past, a part of the Chiusi area belonged to the Papal state. But perhaps this coveted status of a city, which never came about, does, in fact, exist: it is Val di Chiana, a rare and fascinating place with multiple centres.
The one aspect which defines the Val di Chiana is its location in the centre of a network of communication routes. A river and a large marsh in the middle have turned it into a meeting place for various systems. For the Etruscans, the ridge of the Chiana was a arrival point for trade in iron and salt from the coast and farming products from the inland towards the sea. Up until Roman times, you could travel on the Clanis (the Chiana river) as far as Rome (there was a place with a meaningful name in the area: Porto). The Cassia vetus, passed through here whose course was altered in the Val di Chiana by Hadrian. The risks of wars between the Lombards and the Byzantines and the subsequent transformation of the area into marshland meant that routes further inland were preferred. For example, along the Val d’Orcia, resulting in what we now incorrectly call Cassia, which more or less followed the Via Francigena or Romea. The Via Teutonica also passed through the Arezzo and Lazio side of the Val di Chiana, so it was natural for these medieval road systems to be joined in a network of roads, hostels and inns. Forms of accommodation were widespread, often linked to military orders. Pilgrims passed through from all over the world: modern day tourism is not definitely not a novelty. Then, there was also the Lauretana road which linked Siena to its ally Cortona in the Middle Ages, continuing on as far as Assisi and Loreto as well. Montepulciano was the hub of a number of roads like the one from Amiata. Paths and dirt roads still provide an opportunity for an adventure-filled quest to discover hidden, beautiful places today.
Everybody knows the Via Teutonica and Francigena. They have become very popular and are a reference for the network of roads which linked Rome and thus, the Holy Land, to various countries in northern Europe. These roads replaced the Roman Via Cassia which more or less followed route of the present-day motorway. But there were alternative routes like the one created to connect the inner kingdoms with those on the coast. After crossing Centoia (from centuria) and the walled bridge on the river Clanis below Valiano, it met up with the new Cassia Adrianea road. From here, heading west, the old route still passes through Gracciano today, where, by no coincidence, there is a “Podere strada” (farmhouse road). It then climbs up to Montepulciano and enters the Val d’Orcia, proceeds along the slopes of Amiata and descends into Maremma as far as Talamone and Orbetello. As the Chiana became progressively marshier, an alternative road developed from the initial route, still intersecting it, created to link the allied cities of Cortona and Siena, as well as Florence and Montepulciano. From a strategic point of view, this road, after the valley became a marsh, was the most important one in the area. From Cortona, it crossed the valley floor in a straight line to Centoia and went to the castle of Valiano via a hill route. It crossed the Chiana marsh via the Valiano bridge which, together with the one in Chiusi and the three bridges in Arezzo was the only, viable route across the large stagnant lake. The Florentines used the protection of a canal in the area well-defended by Valiano, passing through Parcese and Corbaia (now the station of Montepulciano) and the castle of Gracciano Vecchio to reach the hill where Montepulciano stands.
The branch road of the Lauretana for Siena, separated, however, at Parcese and went to the monastery of San Pietro d’Argnano, the abbey which would give its name to the villa and castle of Abbadia Arganano in the era of medieval communes, a place that was also known as Badia de' Caggiolari or Badia in Crepaldo, now Abbadia di Montepulciano. Some people living in the town of Abbadia still remember the name strada vecchia (the ‘old road’ now Via Morandi) which indicated a brief section of road which branched off the Lauretana at the town of Santa Maria. The place name leaves no doubt to the ancient origins of this branch road of the Lauretana which continued on to Palazzo (indication of a fortified farm), the Tombs and Sambuono (two burial areas from Etruscan and Roman times). At Abbadia (given that Montepulciano was governed by Florence for a long period), you entered the state of Siena, at Torrita, passing below the Guardavalle castle and the Fratta and Amorosa farms. The route is, in part, the same as the current provincial road 326. The Lauretana road then ran through the village of Rigaiolo, went up to Collalt, skirting Sinalunga, reached Asciano, and once past Ombrone, descended as far as Taverne d’Arbia and Due Ponti, just outside Siena. The name of the road clearly refers to Loreto, a place which was located below in the flatland under Cortina in the Sodo area. From here, the first branch of this road departed, which Repetti called the “Antica Lauretana” to distinguish it from the Regia Lauretana” road.
In a fertile and much sought-after land for centuries like the Val di Chiana, crossed by a navigable river, trouble set in with the Roman Empire. To stem the floods of the Paglia, a tributary of the Tiber, a retaining wall was built on the Clanis (the big wall) which began to create a marsh, but did not prevent Charlemagne from crossing the Cassia in the winter of 786. Chiusi started to become trapped by the waters, after being caught in the grip of the Lombards and the Byzantines and could not be reached by the cities rising around it. An unhealthy and marshy Cassia road (malaria set in after the year 1000) meant that the Francigena and Teutonia roads became more popular. The words of Dante in the Divine Comedy are symbolic: “All of the sick who endure disease's course in Val di Chiana's hospital from July all through September”. The impressive size of the marshes can be seen in the map drawn up by Leonardo da Vinci between 1502 and 1503. Bettolle, now a motorway toll gate, was a port. However, from 1551, at the instigation of the Medici and Julius III, the Big Wall began to be demolished and the valley floor reclaimed. But the war against the waters began again: in 1600, Pope Clement VII restored the big wall and added another two dams (Bastione and Buterone), creating the diocese of Città della Pieve as a garrison.
The reclamation in Tuscany went ahead with the Order of Saint Stephen, in an atmosphere of tit and tat, so when the Papal state, in turn, built the “Campo” dam in 1680 to block the waters once again, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany erected the “Callone” dam, to which the pope in turn responded with the “Callone pontificio” dam in 1780. An agreement identified the watershed embankment between the two states in the Montelungo stream: Chiusi Scalo on one side, Pò Bandino on the other. The big wall was later demolished and at the end of the eighteenth century, Vittorio Fossombroni, continued with the work of the “land reclamation”. The operation was aimed at promoting agriculture, as demonstrated by the dozens of Grand Duchy farms and several hundred farmhouses and the famous leopoldine homesteads. Lastly, Alessandro Manetti demolished the monks’ weir and created the right and left connections which are still working today. The “Sentiero della bonifica” runs along the Canale maestro of the Chiana river, the road used for canal maintenance, now open to cyclists and walkers.
One theatre, one academy and at least one museum. This is the rule of the Val di Chiana, an area that has cultivated knowledge throughout the ages, as well as solidarity and the desire to socialise: associations and popular festivals abound. But this land is, above all, a workshop in Humanism, which showcases its architectural “manifesto” in the creation of Pienza. The popes, high prelates, local men of culture belong to a period that coincides with the advent of modern academies, as an alternative to universities which remained loyal, apart from a few exceptions, to the method of educational philosophy even during the Renaissance. So, the humanists felt the need to create alternatives in which to promote their cultural point of view. The “Accademia degli Oscuri” in Torrita di Siena is a reminder of that tradition and the names of other academies remain, such as the “Arrischianti” in Sarteano or the “Georgofili Accalorati” in San Casciano dei Bagni, which were matched by the same number of municipal theatres. They were cultural structures and movements created on the wave of the Enlightenment, which were not met with too many obstacles in Tuscany, especially with Peter Leopold of Lorraine. Here are the theatres. In addition to the one in Torrita, which still has close links to the academy, there are theatres in Petroio (established by the workers’ society), in Sinalunga (dedicated to the composer, local celebrity, Ciro Pinsuti) in Chiusi (dedicated to Mascagni) and in Sarteano, with its inevitable name: Arrischianti. In the Val di Chiana in the province of Siena, space is made for culture in numerous libraries and in the magic of cinema with two multiplexes, in Sinalunga and Chiusi.
The statue of the ploughman in Arezzo (around 430 BC) bears testimony to two cattle similar to the current “chianina” breed which were used to pull a plough. Used as “tractors” until a few decades ago in the Tuscan countryside, this animal shares the interest of its origins with the Etruscans. Studies on genetics reveal a possible connection with animals living in Anatolia, leading to the theory of a migration of men with animals in tow. But leaving these rather fanciful theories apart, what is certain is that the selection process started in the last century by Ezio Marchi, who perfected a white giant which survived to feed man: the famous Florentine T-bone steak comes from this animal, packed with protein of course, but also low in cholesterol. Specimens of Chianina cattle can be found all over the world, just as the Nobile di Montepulciano is now a well-established international wine. The heart is the Sangiovese grape from Tuscany, but in the local variation of Prugnolo gentile, with an unmistakable taste. It is just the flagship product of a production of fine wines, even outside the traditional boundaries, perhaps little known but rich in tradition: take the Bianco Vergine Valdichiana for example. And how can we forget “vin santo”?
Another local claim to fame is Val di Chiana garlic which goes well with tomato sauce and pici (strictly hand-made). Obviously, there are other variations in the seasoning and even in the shape, such as the Lunghetti di Trequanda or the Pastrignocchi di Cetona, of a dish that is rather famous, but not the only one. Extra virgin olive oil reaches heights of excellence in Trequanda as in other areas. The Val di Chiana has always been the valley of wheat, historic animals like the Cinta Senese pig, truffles and legumes, including the “beans” of the lake.
The lake is obviously linked to fish ranging from pike to carp, perch and tench. You can enjoy “tegamaccio” and “brustico” with the different varieties of fish stewed or respectively roasted (“abbrustolito” in Italian, hence the name) with lake rushes. The local recipes include “bico” which is a sort of focaccia for filling. The list shows the inevitable contaminations from Umbria and Lazio ranging from boar stew with croutons, bruschetta with oil and “nana” (roast duck). Cold cuts of meat, “scottiglia” (meat stew), stuffed goose neck are other key dishes before passing on to the desserts: “ciaffagnoni” (crepes) from San Casciano Bagni, “ciambellini incotti” (a sort of dougnut) from Sinalunga, braided biscuits from Sarteano and “cuculi” (biscuits) from Cetona.