Pitigliano and the Hill Towns of Italy

A long-ago history, yet not far away

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 Pitigliano is a small, quaint town in the region of Tuscany and province of Grosseto. It is known for its winding roads and impressive elevation, standing over 1,000 feet above sea level.


Time blurs and yesterday slides back and forth in Italy’s enigmatic hill towns, where what is lost isn’t easily found.

I hear myself sigh as I glance at the Italian words I’ve written while waxing poetic in my intermediate Italian. Mozzafiato … radiante … affascinante: breathtaking … glowing … spellbinding. Italy has a way of making even halting speakers of this lilting tongue wish to write poems and sonnets, comment on clouds that float in impossibly blue skies or rhapsodize about the sienna-roofed villages that, like Cubist paintings, seem to tumble along each of Toscana’s colline or hills.

Despite the tragic earthquakes that have shaken Central Italy along a fault that divides the Umbrian region to the east from Tuscany to the west, the hilltop villages of Toscana … Tuscany … still conjure the romance that Byron and Shelley found so intoxicating. 

Here, layers of civilization, from the enigmatic Etruscans to the Romans and their progeny, seem only a few generations removed. Yet in this part of what often still feels like medieval Italy, the particular drama, the passionate point of view, the life that in the past violently or enthusiastically erupted from young and old alike seems in flux. There remains, of course, an Italian optimism that still pulsates from the big cities of Florence and Milan; but from these perched villages’ elderly inhabitants, it is mostly nostalgia that flows. Even from the ancient stones and iron gratings, the Gothic arches and faded frescoes, and the hundreds of empty churches that stand like hollow grottoes populated only by muscular saints in their drapings of red and blue, a new story seems to be emerging. 

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This city is also referred to as “The Little Jerusalem.” Pitigliano is active in preserving its Jewish history.  

Over the years, I have begun to “accumulate” these hill towns, visiting one or two with each trip to Italy. Orvieto — actually in lower Umbria —  Montepulciano, Arezzo, Montalcino, Volterra, San Gimignano, Cortona, Sorano, Pitigliano … all of them lie in a kind of crescent to the south and southwest of Florence and about halfway to Rome. Here, rolling hills are populated by sheep whose oddly human “baaa’s” sound like baritones and tenors rudely interrupted by their own clanging bells. This is the region where each ridgeline silhouettes a medieval walled city of spires and towers that, even as the parapets protect it, today seems vulnerable. In our century, these hill towns have slowly become underpopulated outposts of nervous dwellers clinging to their precipices, worrying now not so much about a siege from Siena or Firenze (Florence) as the economic blight that, as surely as a 13th century plague, is casting a pall over these bastions of fairy-tale beauty.

“If you are young, you do not stay in Arezzo,” says Lorenzo Sobrini. “There are better jobs in Milano or Firenze. To make a living, you must leave.” Sobrini and four other older men laugh, ruefully. But they aren’t among the ones leaving. The crew is in the midst of hoisting and positioning an Etruscan urn weighing nearly 600 pounds onto a flat space in Arezzo’s sprawling, mostly empty, central piazza. Sobrini and his team haul ancient pieces of sculpture and pottery all over Tuscany, visiting antiques fairs and shops where he hopes international buyers will pay prices he can’t obtain here. “Etruscan art never goes out of style,” he says hopefully.

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