ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
The Etruscans were an enigmatic race that had an almost obsessive passion for building walls of gargantuan stones. In fact, at a quick glance, that’s all they seem to have left in the way of architectural remains to signify their passing. Well, a gate or two have roofs of a sort, but as accommodation they tend to be a bit on the draughty side. To emphasise their presence, they conveniently left plenty of artefacts among the foundations to prove they were extant three thousand years ago, and not a mere legend. However, they left nothing quite as exciting as Pompeii, where whole streets of buildings have managed to emerge from near extinction complete with their street artists graffiti work intact. Some modern cities have grown up over those Etruscan metropoleis that had managed to survive as living organism, quidem: Cortona, Volterra and Perugia, but not even a sixth century BC bijou apartment or a sagging rovina bucolica (country ruin) on their once prolific estates can now be found to goggle over. Vanished they have. Therefore, the hopeful new owner of a Tuscan pile in an effort to find a nice little Etruscan detail to incorporate in the dream will find nothing to compare with Roman symmetry; low pitched pediments and manageable columns; or frescoed semi-circular vaults visually remaining from the Renaissance make-over. Not anything. Just stones the size of a SUV. All right for a bomb shelter, I suppose.
For a polytheistic civilization you’d have thought they could at least manage to create a temple or two, which with a little divine help generally contrived to survive the bulldozing of ages. If they resembled the archaeological remains of the Sanctuary of Menerva, Portonaccio (Etruscan Veii) then they were very small affairs indeed, with room for six at a push. Otherwise, nothing like their massive walls often referred to as Cyclopean, where the stones might weigh a ton or two. It’s probable that their gods, being so diverse and everywhere in nature, troubled them to hold such ceremonies in their tombs which were bespoke for the family. In that case, avoiding any more pantheistic slips, let’s continue contemplating the banana-skins of the stranieri instead.
Like all expat’s, the Etruscans came looking for a dream, bringing their gods with them, apparently this lasted for a thousand years before they were worn out. What they did leave behind was a tradition of building in stone. After the Roman period, and the usual Germanic catastrophe, Medieval and Renaissance homes continued to be built in the hard stuff; cottages of roughly laid courses in random sizes, villas of dressed stone of uniform size. The cottages had problems from the start, as no one had seen fit to ask the Romans for the secret formula viz. using volcanic dust mixed with lime and gypsum to make cement capable of keeping the sedimentary parts of the building watertight. The leaky old buckets had to be rapidly plastered over to hide this imperfection. Even so, they had an architectural harmony that is simple yet subtle. By adding the colour to the plaster the finish isn’t uniform, but patchy, which in effect becomes a sort of camouflage blending in with the kaleidoscope of nature’s hues surrounding the building. Less intelligently aware owners and planners, hoping to stay within some arcane law, have their modern stucco garishly painted in a bland pseudo lookalike colour so they become merely an unsympathetic blob on the Tuscan landscape.
Like the Etruscans, hopefuls will start looking in Spring when the deception will be at its flattering best. There’s blossom on the trees that have blossom, and the blackbirds are making a racket again as they debate the twig like fixtures and fittings of a new home. I’m not sure if they restore them or build anew, but for sure they’re averse to the small matter of planning permission. For all I know they probably have squatters rights on our almond trees which, like the pergola where they tend to hang out, is handy for the fig tree, their corner Coop. Unlike the hopeful punters debating on how to ‘live the dream’, they have few cares except locating the morning worm for breakfast, and digging hell out of the Alyssum. So they’re all right, quite unlike the dreamers who will have worries, if not about breakfast, then keeping a roof over their heads in a foreign country.
For the French, German and Dutch, such a step is quite different from that for a British citizen, because they haven’t cut the umbilical cord, and are still attached to their country of birth which is somewhere next door, or the next street. Going home for them doesn’t necessitate taking their feet off the ground so to speak! The strip of water that separates the Brit’s from Europe proper is a psychological barrier that no amount of stargazing will ever quite suppress. It is much better than Hadrian’s, or Trump’s new wall, though the former after almost two thousand years has cemented an Italic interest in a motley collection of schoolboys, and haunted their future psyche. Italy must be full of these wonderful stone walls – regions that are inundated with castles and towering fortifications umpteen feet high, a ‘must see’ if there ever was one. Therefore, it’s something of a shock to find that most of the stone walls are now stone houses. But after much debating one realizes that can only be to the good. You’re not likely to be able to buy a wall up to sixty feet high, or find anything to do with it if you did, but the very same stones can be fashioned into a box with a lid on it, and that you can still get your hands on. The Etruscans did this sort of thing for a thousand years in Etruria, and if that can’t shake your psyche, nothing can. Your beloved of course is a different kettle of fish. She will not be shaken, or stirred for that matter, on the strength of a whim. An Etruscan semi-detached will not do. And no! Converting a cosy Tomba Etrusca is out – and as I’ve said somewhere before, planning permission for a pad with only a door and no windows being harder than difficult to come by, despite the ecologically friendly aspect of being cool in the summer and warm in the winter. You’ll probably be arrested for suggesting it anyway. Here you have to be like the blackbird. Locating the worm.
The task might seem simple enough, as stone houses are everywhere, whole villages and towns are full of these grey and blonde impenetrable edifices that litter the countryside in every shape and size, and for the hermit type who wishes for splendid isolation, there are expansive piles of stones hidden in hills and forests where no one will ever find you.
On the other hand, there’s no doubt you will find yourself fitted up, if not stitched up! Believe me, if you stand in the bar long enough cuddling your cappuccino, someone into the smart money is bound to turn up. I say this because any local who introduces you to a vendor is in for 1%, and you will undoubtedly look the business. For sure they’ll have a friend just dying to get rid of the legendary pile of rubble that was once a castello grande, or more likely a porcile di maiale! Don’t turn your nose up, for here lays the bare bones of a country villa. All you need is money. Lots and lots of the stuff. Go on. Tell me. You’re a do it yourself buff who fitted your own kitchen bought straight from Ikea. You’ll need more than a Black and Decker to drill holes in the local stone round here, I can tell you.
The Etruscan’s managed it, but then their gods invented the stuff, and seemingly left it lying about all over the place. It’s still there. You can’t dig a hole in the ground without a lump or two of attractive Panchina turning up, sometimes with a fossil shell neatly embedded. There were so many discarded stones that the medieval folk built walls everywhere to stop their olive trees from wandering off. As for homes, in the early days of the last millennia the locals just piled them up, and put a wooden roof on top. Later, they managed to fashion one flat face on the pieces of rock. It took about thirty minutes a go, and if they managed to live long enough, created regular walls for their houses on which to mount the new-fashioned clay tiles, a practice imported from Greece and purloined by the Romans. It was an idea that caught on, but while the stones shrugged off an earthquake or two, the terracotta had a long way to fall, so it’s not likely you’ll find a complete set for the pile of rubble you’ve just bought. This is unfortunate, as being hand made they cost an arm and a leg, especially if they had the gutter built in.
Where there’s a will there’s often a way, and if the will’s a testament, the way is the folding stuff. Mum and Dad still going strong? All right, invest in a few bags of Portland, plus a few quintale of sand. This will be your moment of truth. How do you get a stone with no flat sides to sit on another one of similar ilk? Difficult when some ancient builder has pinched all the pre-prepared Etruscan ones. Right. Purchase a very heavy dumpy hammer and get whacking. That should last you a day or two.
Even the loos were made of stone, sometimes even of marble when it must have been a sort of up market thunder bin. If during your digging you come across a strange 10 inch circular piece of marble or some other hard stone with an antiqued handle on top, believe me, it’s no use looking for the other piece to go with it. After extensive enquiries it appears no one has the slightest idea of what happened to them all. At least no one is saying, possibly because there’s no market for second hand loos, even an Etruscan one. As there seems to be nothing new under the sun, the toilet lid can stay out in the garden.
In Italy they say ‘everything is impossible, but everything is possible’, though you don’t have to have a pile of brown envelopes to make it so. Tuscan builders have a lot of experience in recreating history, and the best of them have stock piled a cache of building materials from ancient half ton Chestnut beams to medieval terracotta embrice, gronda and tegola tiles. “You’re lucky”, Antonio the builder will say, as he stacks them neatly outside what will one day be your front door, “they’re like gold dust”. There is a similarity, not so obvious until you come to pay for them. Luckily, if you’re not a purist, and by now are feeling the strain on your purse, modern versions exist made in the old fashion way. They probably won’t last for hundreds of years, but that’s not likely to be a big concern is it. On the other hand, those mass produced churned out versions from Romania or somewhere, will be gone before you are!
To recap: you’ve found your accumulation of stones that with luck will be half standing when St Peter calls and asks you to quench his thirst. Ah! Where’s the tap? Don’t be silly; this plot of stones, like most of the others, is two kilometres from the mains. But you do have a well. It’s under that pretty little domed construction which might include a rather odd mixture of Roman Doric columns and Romanesque corbels standing in the patch earmarked for the garden. It will be famously empty. Ezekiel might have said ‘where ever the river flows there will be swarms of living creatures’, but he didn’t say anything about water. Not in your well he didn’t. There will be natives though who know how to change its direction, straight into their own pozzo, (well). Note. Order two kilometres of plastic pipe, and at the same time do we have to make do with that smelly old diesel motor for electricity? No problem, ENEL will be along next month to sort things out. That’s if they can find you. “Pertwee? Mai sentito parlare di lui!” (Never heard of him.) Life amongst the stones can be character building.
No doubt you’ll have great ideas on what to do with the cantina if you have the remains of one. That is the space on the ground floor where the builder tells you in days of yore it was where they kept the hams, and demijohns of wine. Romantic stuff you’ll think. That may be, but before it became quaint it was where they kept bovine or equestrian members of the family. Sadly their manners were not up to much, and when they got caught short the terracotta floor was it. The fact that this happened, perhaps a hundred years or more ago, is deceptive. In the heat of summer there is not a hint of any bovine bouquet, or the odd niff to tease olfaction. For that you have to wait for a period of humidity when the very walls reek of an acrid scent that turns the strongest stomach. Take heart, after ten years of central heating it miraculously vanishes. You have to be made of stern stuff to be a straniero living amongst the stones in Tuscany.
In the end, if all else fails you can always draw another million or so out of the bank and buy a nicely restored Renaissance apartment in town or, if you’re set on the country, a completely renovated, properly certified edifice, that was someone else’s crucifix! The gods will be waiting.
FOR THE INTREPID: BAF SPEAK (Baffle language used by Italian Estate Agents) Something I dreamt up while we were window shopping for a pile of stones of our own. Keep it in mind..
“Milliardi, or so.” (£500.000 +)
Unspoilt stone farmhouse. Derelict
A tranquil village. A deserted hamlet.
Well situated property. Next to autostrada.
Semi detached. Subsidence
Believed to be 14th century. According to Luigi
Interesting bread oven. No kitchen
Partially restored. One wall still standing
Secluded position. No one will ever find you
Full of charm and character. Italian agents.
First class restoration. D.I.Y. project.
Many original features. Sitting tenants.
Solid structure. No doors or windows.
Ideal for touring. Nearest town 20 miles.
Part of a complex. Planning problems.
Unusual rustic property. One English owner.
For sale in lots. Enough to restore one.
Habitable. Permanent squat.
Romantic atmosphere. No electricity.
Fully functioning shower. The vendors.
Every convenience. Cemetery next door.
Reached by private road. 4km. 4 wd. 4 get it!