Tag Archives: Pietro Leopoldo as Grand Duke of Tuscany

Leopoldina

14 Jan

The first time I remember seeing a Leopoldina was in 2014. It was a warm summer morning and we were headed to Rome from Cortona for our flight home. The driver took a different route than we had been accustomed to – one that avoided the interstate as long as possible and instead wove past a beautiful field of sunflowers and a fascinating abandoned structure. I was intrigued by the structure, and at the time, knew neither its name nor its history. I soon learned that this farm-house is called a Leopoldina.

The following year, Len and I set out to find that same field of sunflowers (girasole) and that Leopoldina. With no place to be but there, we parked the car and took in the sights. Thousands of sunflowers, with faces open to the sun, spread out before us.

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And at the end of a curve in the road, still standing proudly albeit tired and worn, stood the enchanting Leopoldina.

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To me, the abandoned structure looked much more like a lovely watercolor subject needing to be loved and preserved than an abandoned structure needing to be forgotten and demolished.

In the weeks that followed, I discovered that Leopoldine (plural) could be found in many areas around  Cortona as well as in northern Umbria.

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As I photographed many of them, I wondered… Who had lived in these houses? How long ago? And why did they all look the same?

While learning the name of the structure was easy, finding the history not so much so. Although I spent hours searching the internet, I mostly came up empty-handed. So I turned to my friend Ray, a history buff, for assistance. Happy to have a history project, he provided most of the following explanation.

Some of the most iconic sites in Tuscany and northern Umbria are the rows of abandoned farmhouses, with their distinctive dovecotes, spread throughout the countryside.

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Called Leopoldine, they look ancient but they are of relatively recent origin, at least by Italian standards, dating from the late 1700’s until the middle 1800’s.

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Much of what we know as modern Tuscany, including the Valdichiana, Maremma, and lower Valdarno, was swamp for most of its history. The hill towns that we love were built there not only for defense but also for health reasons to avoid malaria (mal aria: bad air, marsh fever) from the mosquitoes.

 

Plans to drain the swamps (clearly no connection intended) had been proposed since Etruscan times. Probably the most famous map depicting the swamps was the map of the Valdichiana done by Leonardo da Vinci in 1502, (supposedly at the request of Cesare Borgia), which shows the water extending right up to the hills in the area of Montecchio Vesponi.

Valdichiana by Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons

Major efforts to drain the area began in the mid 1600’s and continued through the next century. A significant impetus came with the ascension of  Pietro Leopoldo as Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1765. A  younger son of the Austrian Empress Maria-Theresa, he started a series of public improvements designed to strengthen agriculture and improve the position of the peasantry.

 

The drainage projects produced huge amounts of rich reclaimed farmland (bonifica) which was distributed to peasant families under a share-cropping system (mezzadria) similar to that in the American South. On an inspection tour of these properties in 1769, he commented on the poor quality and condition of the peasant houses. He commissioned a study by an institute in Florence to design an ideal structure for the peasant families. The farmhouses, named after him, are the Leopoldine we see today.

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The design was for a structure of three levels. The ground floor had space for the animals as well as storage and the oven. The upper floor included a kitchen, living space and the bedrooms and the upper floor was the distinctive dovecote. Every part of the building was planned including the size and positioning of the windows. The external staircase and loggia were designed on the south side to protect the farmer from the tramontana (cold north wind) when he went to check on the animals.

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The bedrooms were designed to accommodate two beds each for the large families. Even the positioning of the different stalls for horses, pigs, sheep and mules was designed around the peculiarities of each animal. 

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While originally designed only for the grand-ducal properties, the obvious value of the structure led private landowners to copy the design. The project continued under Leopoldo’s successors and the last Leopoldine were probably built in the middle of the 19th century just before Italian unification.

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After the World War II, with the movement of Italians to the cities and the increased mechanization of agriculture, the Leopoldine gradually became abandoned and fell into the ruins that we see today. 

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Currently, there is a movement underway within the Regione Toscana and some of the communes to save the Leopoldine. Let’s hope.

And thanks to Ray, we now know both the name and the history of the intriguing Leopoldina.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

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