Postcard Pienza – Exploring Urban Boundaries

            When I traveled through Europe by train 30 years ago I marveled at how cities seemed to stop and start at defined points on the broad landscape, in stark contrast to American cities that bleed forever into the rural (or at least “non-urban”) periphery.

             Thirty years later I marvel again as I travel by car through small Tuscan towns and villages.  One moment you are surrounded by wheat and barley fields, olive groves and vineyards, but when the sign says you’ve entered the town you’ve truly entered the town. 

             With the exception of Rome and Florence and a few other larger cities, you don’t ease into the urban area.  You move from countryside to developed village like you would move from a kitchen to your garage.  You’re in one or the other, but never between.

             I’m sure someone here can explain it all to me, and I’m confident that if I had read the right book before I came (hint: it would not have Fodor’s, Frommer’s or Steves in the title) I would understand both the cultural and regulatory mechanisms behind these lines of urban/rural separation.

             Everyone  has pet peeves, and #78 on my growing list is the American who knows and cares nothing about rural life, who lives an otherwise entirely urban existence, yet who insists on filling the rural landscape with subdivisions that are completely divorced from and visually incongruous with farmlands and fields.  Pet peeve #79 is the same American claiming that he lives “out in the country.”

             In Tuscany you can see for miles from most vantage points, across the fields and the vineyards, and all the scattered houses and manors you see appear to preside over the immediately surrounding fields and vineyards.  There is something about this pattern that seems “right” in an absolute sense that needs no explanation or defense, just as one need not defend Divinity or the progression of History.

             Such a simple, almost black and white, construct doesn’t mean that the American rural landscape should not support quarries where the rock exists or industry where interstate interchanges create their own distinct human-to-land relationships.  But the construct does imply a “rule” that Americans seem to honor only in the breach, that we assume cities themselves are bad and physical escape into surrounding suburbia is a form of triumph.

             The European model, however, shows that boundaries can exist.  That cities can be cities and countryside can be countryside, and we don’t have to chew up the spaces between them with subdivisions if we can find ways to make the land profitable, something the Italians can perhaps more easily do because the world continues to buy its wines and its cheeses and olive oils, and because tourists with money come here by the thousands to experience these foods and to see first hand the results of a renaissance of human mind and spirit.

             We’re staying this week at Santo Pietro, a renovated 13th century convent outside Pienza.  It’s been redesigned for travelers, but the design incorporates the 72 acre farm that came with it.  Now owned by Italian brothers who spent early years in the U.S., Santo Pietro has vineyards and olive groves and produces two wines and wonderful olive oil under its own label.  The jams and jellies we’ve eaten are its own, and we’ve actually watched the chef walk to the garden to pick more lettuce when we ordered a salad.

             When he’s not providing a personal concierge service to one of his guests about places to visit, owner/manager Giuseppe Savignano enjoys telling you about the farm that he and his brother continue to build – a farm surrounded by other working farms that you can see as you sit on the veranda looking out at Pienza about three miles away.

             Why can’t we – “we” in the inclusive American sense – do this?  Why do we insist upon paving our fields and destroying the old in favor of a McDonald’s or a Super 8?  The fact that we prefer to do this is, in a large sense, what defines us as American. 

             There are other factors at work and it would take a book to explain, but tonight I prefer to spend my time sitting on a veranda overlooking miles of countryside while I enjoy one of Santo Pietro’s 5-star meals whose olive oil and vegetables and wine are more than local.  They are part of this farm.  They are part of this home.

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One Response to “Postcard Pienza – Exploring Urban Boundaries”
  1. Mike Fox says:

    Tom, sounds like you are enjoying the trip. Likewise, I am enjoying your observations. Safe travels, Mike Fox

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