Maremma, southern Tuscany, is a timeless region with ancient roots. People have thrived here for centuries. From the Etruscans to the Medici's to today’s modern Tuscans all have left their mark. And its here, amongst the green hills, flat marshes and secluded beaches of the national park that you have the chance to glimpse the horseback 'butteri' of Maremma; the last of the Tuscan cowboys. Let’s saddle up for the ride.
Tucked in the southern-most tip of Tuscany the Maremma national park is a perfect microcosm of the Italian peninsula and heaven on earth for hikers, cyclists and nature lovers.
Formed in 1975 its serene, secluded sandy beaches and rugged shoreline frame the territory’s western edge offering wonderful coastal views. Black rocky crags, sweeping wooded slopes and low hills flank the eastern park. And in between lie wide-open, unspoilt stretches of marshes, dry flat lands and natural thermal pools.
The variety of ecosystems in this one park is astounding but it’s the Maremma marshes that hold the key to this story.
For centuries the Maremma was a malarial swamp. People clung to the slim strip of agricultural land on the coast or huddled atop the rugged, iron-rich hills but few ventured into the marshes. Only a handful of hardy fishermen and cattle herdsmen could withstand the demands of life in amongst the wetlands. The latter were the 'butteri' of the Maremma marshes; the famous Tuscan cowboys.
Marsh life didn’t just require tough people though, the livestock needed to be up to the challenge too. Fortunately the native Maremmana cattle are perfectly adapted to their home.
With a light grey coat and lyre-shaped horns the Maremmana is a robust breed that adapts brilliantly to difficult environments, living exclusively outdoors, roaming and grazing freely. Today they’re raised largely for their meat and it’s their open-air home that makes them wholesome, flavoursome and particularly sought after particularly for Tuscany’s classic 'bistecca alla fiorentina' (we will have this famous dish at our final gala dinner at the villa). In centuries past however the Maremmana, one of Europe’s oldest breeds, were used for their raw power on nearby farms or hauling marble from the local Monte Amiata quarries. And for large parts of the year they would roam free, wandering over vast stretches of inhospitable wilderness, swamps and wetlands; that’s where the butteri cowboys came in.
Tuscany’s butteri herdsmen have been an intrinsic part of the Maremma region for centuries, gathering, herding and farming the wild longhorn cattle in traditional style. The working day of the hardy buttero was a long one starting before the sun rose and tending the herd from dawn till dusk. And there are two pieces of “equipment” that enabled each cowboy to do his job. The first is their long, thin dogwood mazzarella or crook, also known as an uncino. It takes its name from the Italian mazza meaning mace and is an invaluable tool to do everything from steering the animals to deftly hooking their legs to stop them to unhooking gates, as well as being a symbol of authority for the cowboys. The second is their prized Maremmamo horse, the original natural 4x4 that allows them to follow the oxen wherever they meander.
But ultimately it’s the incredible fluid, expert horsemanship of the butteri, traversing every environment from dense, knee-high scrubland to mosquito-infested marshland to almost impenetrable woods that elevates them from simple herdsmen to masters of the land.
The butteri spend their days in their specially adapted saddles, reins in one hand, mazzarella in the other. Their prime concern is to marshal and herd the animals from grazing to pasture. And their year in the fields is punctuated by two main events; a livestock fair in early May and the branding round-up in early August when all the oxen are assembled up to be checked and branded by each farm.
Its not just physical strength that is needed, however. A good buttero needs to be able to read the minute body language signals and behaviour of the cattle to anticipate its every move. And these all-weather cowboys need strong, calm mental expertise too to deal with such enormous, potentially lethally dangerous animals. It’s a tough, dangerous life in the saddle and one that is sadly seriously declining.
Work to drain the swamps began as far back as with the Medici's in the 1700s. But it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that the work was completed. Mussolini commissioned reclamation projects in the 1930s and 40s before the 1950s saw great changes with the mechanization of agriculture. Sadly the drainage and industrialization led to the break up of many large Tuscan estates and with that the demise of much of the feral Maremmana’s wilderness grazing land. Counts in 1956 recorded 157,387 head of cattle in the region but by 2012 that figure had fallen drastically to just 9801.
And if there are no cattle, there’s no need for herdsmen and so the fate of the butteri could be sealed.
Today just half a dozen herds of Maremmana oxen tended by butteri inhabit the Maremma Nation Park. The velvet waist coated horsemen are keen to keep their tradition alive but few, these days, make a living from herding alone. Many have turned to tourism, slow food and organic farming to ensure that their way of life persists in a world of mechanization and tractors. And so now you can spend a day or a weekend riding out with the butteri simultaneously sharing the experience. There can be few better ways to connect with the Tuscan landscape than on horseback; long may these wonderful Tuscan cowboy traditions continue.
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.