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Tourist Trap: How Big Investors Are Changing The Tuscan Valley Forever

Along with mass tourism, large investors have arrived in the Tuscan Valley — investors with no ties to the traditions and agriculture of the place. If the residents leave, the landscape of this countryside will disappear forever.

Tourist Trap: How Big Investors Are Changing The Tuscan Valley Forever

Tourists walk along the city wall of Pienza, a Tuscan town in Italy.

Alessandro Calvi

PIENZA — The farmyards in Val d'Orcia are closing, the new owners locking themselves away in farmhouses transformed into villas . A world that has always been open disappears, without fanfare — almost without a voice at all.

“The farmyards were intended for the use of the farm, but they were also a free plot: people with animals in tow could stop and find hospitality,” says Marco Capitoni, a farmer and winemaker. “Now, they have become green fields, irrigated, lit up day and night, monitored by video cameras, and surrounded by fake stone walls or railings.”

His is not the lament of someone who looks to the past regretfully. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Capitoni's company stands on the side of a hill by the town of Pienza, surrounded by splendid, almost empty countryside , windblown and silent on a peaceful Siena afternoon. From his farmyard di lui, he looks at the hills and recounts his bewilderment at a sudden, almost violent change, that is affecting Val d'Orcia — even the very landscape, which is what transformed the fortune of this otherwise poor valley not long ago .

A heartbreaking change

Before COVID-19 , mainly foreigners came to Val d'Orcia. Now, Italian tourists have joined in,” he says. Despite being widely used in cinema and advertising , these towns had always remained outside of Italy's mass tourism routes.

The chapel of Vitaleta, for example, is a small rural church in the countryside of San Quirico d'Orcia. It is one of the symbols of the valley, and in many ways its appearance summarizes Tuscany itself. Next door, a restaurant also serves as an event venue. The website says, "From the city of Florence to a non-place in the Val d'Orcia," which perhaps reveals more than intended.

Indeed, the slogan seems like a reckless foray into the theories of French anthropologist Marc Augé. In his 1992 essayNon-Places, Augé described "spaces of the provisional," where "one could not decipher social relations , nor shared histories, nor signs of collective belonging." Such places are devoid of identity, disconnected from the social context and from history, and for this reason, create feelings of solitude. In short: airports, supermarkets and parking lots — and, of course, tourist villages, which the towns in Val d'Orcia are now in danger of becoming.

Val d'Orcia, San Quirico D'Orcia, Siena, Italy.

Walking in the Sienese hills, discovering the Val d'Orcia, San Quirico D'Orcia, Siena, Italy.

Stefano Cappa/ZUMA

The damage caused by mass tourism

In fact, the new post-pandemic wave of tourism seems to have very rapidly formed a relationship with the territory. The occurrence seems to follow the now-known one in which services for tourists replace the activities necessary for the life of the residents. A decidedly stereotyped self-image becomes prominent.

Just look at the restaurants that are taking the place of the old taverns, or those that modify their appearance and menus to meet the expectations of tourists rather than the needs of residents, but end up turning into a kind of caricature of Tuscany.

In these parts, it is called "pientizzazione," from Pienza, which, alongside Montalcino, is the best-known center of the valley. In Pienza, this process began years ago, and a walk in the center is enough to observe the consequences it has produced.

Along the main street, you walk within an area doubly protected by UNESCO. In the center, there are now mainly shops that sell the well-known local pecorino cheese, a few souvenir and antique shops, and then again, cheese — and of course, restaurants. Only the pharmacy and the tobacco bar seem to be destined for those who live in Pienza.

Something similar has happened in Montalcino. Here, the protagonist is Brunello, one of the most important Italian wines, and which alone drives the economy of a valuable part of the valley. However, Pienza and Montalcino were the exception until the pandemic, while the rest of the Val d'Orcia had not been affected much by the phenomenon which is now spreading in the countryside and villages. The town of San Quirico, for example, which has always been a lively village, now shows many signs of pientizzazione — which is not without consequence.

In fact, the problem is no longer just the transformation of towns and countryside into hotels, but more generally the transformation of these spaces into stages on which tourists come to have a mostly artificial experience. Everything becomes entertainment, with the valley forced to make itself the scene, trading its cultural identity, landscape and its own history for the promise of economic enrichment.

"People no longer come to take a walk in the countryside."

“There are tourists who call me and ask me to do experiential tourism. I answer that I don't do animation,” jokes Alessia Farina, whose company produces cheese between the Val d'Orcia and the Crete Senesi. But obviously, not everyone thinks like her. There are agencies that organize tours of the countryside, providing old Fiat 500s and Vespa 50s, promoting a sort of "Italian experience" that makes visitors relive an imaginary, idyllic and rural past, very similar to postcards from Italy. In short, a sort of ‘Roman Holiday’ in the countryside.

People no longer come to take a walk in the countryside or to see the wheat fields near Pienza where Ridley Scott's Gladiator was filmed. Instead, they come to experience the gladiator, to interpret him. Until recently, it would have been difficult to meet anyone in those fields. Now, they are full of tourists lining up to take their photo – all the same – as they walk down the slope, stroking the wheat with their hand in imitation of the gesture of Massimo Decimo Meridio, the film's protagonist.

Political responsibility 

The Val d'Orcia represents an archetype of the Italian landscape, in its most recognizable form all over the world. But even if such an aggressive phenomenon can take root in such a well-known, protected and iconic place, it feels as is a boundary is being crossed, after which there will be nothing left that can save the real identity of the Italian landscape.

“A responsibility of politics" also hangs over everything, says Elena Salviucci, secretary of the Young Democrats of Siena and a wine entrepreneur in Campiglia d'Orcia. The region lacks a strong political voice, and there's little political will to take on some of the broader issues affecting the valley, including the arrival of large entrepreneurs from outside the region or overseas, who are reshaping the region's land ownership, Salviucci says. These investors often have "no relationship with the traditional agriculture of the valley,” she says, and their accumulation of hundreds of hectares of land is driving up prices and forcing locals out.

More than rural gentrification, “It is a kind of financialization of agriculture," Salviucci observes.

“The territory,” confirms Capitoni, “is now used as a financial instrument. In this way, however, we are eroding all the improvements that had brought well-being to these parts with difficulty since the post-war period, starting with the work of the farmers on which the beauty of this countryside is based. The large estate is another thing.”

"You have to decide whether to focus only on the landscape or also on production."

These processes, according to Alessia Farina, the cheesemaker, could also have been facilitated by an excess of territorial protection. “You have to decide whether to focus only on the landscape or also on production, because if you focus only on the landscape you risk creating an amusement park for tourists," he says.

“Of course, we are left with the landscape that attracts tourists, but small entrepreneurs are economically weakened and cannot afford investments like the big investors who are arriving. And in the end, if they offer a lot of money, many are tempted to sell their land and companies. In short, we have preserved a beautiful landscape but now we are forced to sell it to those who come from outside," he says.

Woman walking through the streets of Pienza.

Woman walking through the streets of Pienza, a Tuscan town in Italy.

@italia_on_travel via Instagram

A facade

The paradox is that the landscape that tourists appreciate for the beauty of the sparse and wild hills is not entirely natural either, but rather the result of the cooperative work of humans and nature — a collaboration that has produced a miracle, and is the reason that the Val d'Orcia earned UNESCO protection as a cultural landscape in 2004. “It is an exceptional example,” reads the reasons for the recognition, “of how the natural landscape was rewritten in the Renaissance to reflect the ideals of good governance and to create an aesthetically pleasing image,” which “profoundly influenced the development of landscape thinking.”

Between the 1930s and the 1960s, the valley was partially recolonized. New space for agriculture has been created by excavating the hills, sometimes with dynamite. Sardinian shepherds arrived to lead the sheep, and Sicilian cereal farmers to work the grain, introducing mechanization. But perhaps the most dramatic change is happening right now.

"If the wine supply chain is fundamental for this land because small producers are able to take care of it up to the final product, the same thing has now become very difficult in other sectors,” Marco Capitoni explains. This includes crucial crops like wheat, which is vital to the Sienese countryside and culture — something that may soon disappear, Capitoni says.

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The Last Boss: Messina Denaro's Death Marks The End Of An Era For The Sicilian Mafia

Eight months after being arrested, following 30 years on the run, Matteo Messina Denaro died Monday. The son of a mobster and successor of Sicily's notorious boss of bosses, he had tried to transform Cosa Nostra into a modern criminal enterprise — with only partial success.

photo of Matteo Messina Denaro

Matteo Messina Denaro after his arrest

Carabinieri handout via ZUMA
La Stampa Staff

Updated Sep. 25, 2023 at 4:45 p.m.


PALERMO — Matteo Messina Denaro, who for more than a decade was the Sicilian Mafia's "boss of bosses," died on Monday in an Italian hospital prison ward. His death came eight months after being captured following decades on the run as a fugitive from justice. His arrest in January 15, 1993, came almost 30 years to the day after Totò Riina, then the undisputed head of the Corleone clan, was captured in Palermo.

Tracing back in time, Messina Denaro began his criminal ascent in 1989, around the first time on record that he was reported for mob association for his participation in the feud between the Accardo and Ingoglia clans.

At the time, Messina Denaro's father, 'don Ciccio', was the Mafia boss in the western Sicilian city of Trapani — and at only 20 years of age, the ambitious young criminal became Totò Riina's protégé. He would go on to help transform Cosa Nostra, tearing it away from the feudal tradition and catapulting it into the world of would-be legitimate business affairs.

For 30 years he managed to evade capture. He had chosen the path of ‘essential communication’: a few short pizzini - small slips of paper used by the Sicilian Mafia for high-level communications - without compromising information by telephone or digital means.

“Never write the name of the person you are addressing," Messina Denaro told his underlings. "Don’t talk in cars because there could be bugs, always discuss in the open and away from telephones. Also, take off your watches.”

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