When most people think of Italy we think of a place as old as the hills literally and metaphorically with gardens conjured in the mind's eye of renaissance statuary and lush rolling hllls with cypresses pointing heavenwards – right and wrong.
The country we now know as Italy consisted of many powerful and autonomous states right up to 187?. Most of them forever fighting each other. Each with its own natural beauty, agricultural gifts and traditions built on timeless patterns of human activity with a lot of input from the natural world. Italy is split down the middle by a massive fault, with tectonic plates which are pushing the whole country toward iits neighbours across the Adriatics pitted with active volcanoes and constantly reminds us of the fact.
So let's remind ourselves of those elements which now constitute Italy.
Let us start with Rome and the Roman Empire. The Romans tried to steal and dominate most of Europe succeeding for the most part for nearly five hundred years. The power and might emanating from the seven hills of Rome. Not surprising therefore they left a mark on other lands.
And now Rome surrounds the enclave of the Papal State. Now there is a force to be reckoned with.
Map of Italy by Tourizm Maps © 2006
Florence, Genoa, Sienna, Padua, Venice - names that trickle off the tongue. Some more powerful states than others. Each had their own centre of learning and it is not surprising that the Republic contains more that 30 botanic gardens, the first being the 13th century garden of herbs at the Vatican. Latin of course was the academic language of the world as we knew it and in fact is still not dead and wont lie down. Gardeners certainly know this.
When I visualise and remember what is so wonderful about the gardens and horticulture I remember the fruit trees of the north heavy with blossom, - remember their pears, cherries? fruit trees lining the roads mile on mile. Then the rolling wheat fields of Central Italy , the basis of pasta and the pizza, interspersed with heliotropes, the large sunflower used for oil. Also lets not forget the other key horticultural wonder – the olive industry. Go south to the lemon groves of the Amalfi coast. To see the tomato harvest of plum tomatoes travelling in overflowing lorry loads to the canning factory is gobsmacking eye wateringly astounding given the dirt poor nature of the very south.. The Italian tomato – the food of the people is now a global enterprise.
The North South divide – The link between the foods able to be grown, the climate of each area and the cultural habits that flow from these factors is sharply brought into focus here in Italy.
Ignoring the phenomenal coastline of the Republic which allows for everyday fishing.is mistaken as I guess it is a very good source of fertiliser - (a point I will check up on).
The real key to the states of Italy then is really its horticultural diversity which has managed to keep ordinary people eating and living relatively well despite its feudal history.