Florence to Milan

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Florence to Milan

(COURIER: Scenically, this is probably the dullest stretch of road in the whole of Europe, so you'll have to gauge your commentary to the mood of the group. You might use all-purpose sections like "Italians and Hypochondria" or "Italian Highways and Tourism" to supplement the notes given here. It might be best to start the trip with a little commentary, and of course, you'll want to say something as you enter Milan; for the rest, give as much commentary as you think the group would like to hear.)

Tuscany  As we proceed north from Florence, we cross the region of Tuscany, which, as we'll soon see, is mainly mountainous. Tuscany is unique among Italy's regions because it was settled by a people separate from the ancient Italians: the Etruscans, who, some archaeologists believe, originally came from Asia Minor (Turkey). In Roman times, the area was called Etruria, from the Etruscans. These people probably arrived here in the 8th century B.C., when Rome was just a village on the Tiber. Over the years, they built cities and united the cities into a confederation (including Perugia). But the gradual rise of Rome led to the area's conquest by the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. The Etruscans were absorbed into the Roman state, and their language and culture gradually dissolved. However, Etruscan culture had a great influence on Rome (after all, the Etruscans were culturally more advanced than the Romans at this early stage). The Etruscans had grown rich by mining iron, silver, and copper, and a whole class of artisans developed the art of working with these metals. The Romans took over these skills. The Etruscans were refined, yet cruel (Asiatic origins): they practiced human sacrifice — which was too much for the Romans to stomach. Their gods were those of the Greeks, and these the Romans did take over, re-naming them. Various semi-religious superstitions and cults were also incorporated into popular Roman religion: e.g. cutting open animals and "reading" the entrails, which any Roman general did routinely before deciding to go into battle. Since the Etruscans believed in life after death, their towns had elaborate burial grounds, with underground chambers decorated with wall paintings. This practice the Romans also adopted, which is why you see so many "necropolises" ("city of the dead") all over Roman Europe. One other custom that the Etruscans gave to Rome was gladiatorial combat. We don't really know much more than this about the Etruscans, since their alphabet has not yet been deciphered. We're dependent on accounts by ancient historians like the Greek Herodotux, plus art works and other remains, many of which have an Oriental flavor, strengthening the view that they migrated here from Asia Minor.

Medieval and modern Tuscany: The glory of Tuscany returned again at the end of the Middle Ages, when the great cities of this area became independent and powerful states - supremely Florence. The Medici family of Florence became the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, and under their patronage, artists like Michelangelo and da Vinci worked in and brought glory to Florence. Dante Aligheri was a Tuscan, and his great work, the Divine Comedy, was written in the Tuscan dialect. So influential was this poem that it helped to make the Tuscandialect standard Italian. (Up to that time, there was no "standard Italian", only a collection of local dialects, with Latin the language of law and learning. Scholars and poets tended to look down on their native dialect, which is why the Divine Comedy was such a breakthrough for the Italian language.)

For a brief time, in 1865, Florence was actually the capital of Italy. At the time, Italy was still divided up into little states, with the area around Rome ruled by the pope. The movement for Italian unity started up in the north, in the Kingdom of Piedmont (capital at Turin). Tuscany joined itself to Piedmont to form the Kingdom of Italy, and Florence was made the capital. But of course, the goal was to unify the whole of Italy, with the capital in Rome, which was finally accomplished in 1871 when King Emmanuel of Piedmont became King of Italy.

Apennines  The twisting and turning, and the mountain passes we're crossing are an apt reminder of Italy's most outstanding geographical phenomenon: the Apennine Mountains. This chain of mountains is the backbone of the Italian peninsula, starting north in the Alps and sweeping down the length of Italy to Sicily. The mountains were formed eons ago by a geological fault in the earth's crust: the two sides of the fault overlapped each other, pushing rocks and soil upward, which created the mountain peaks. Like most geological faults (e.g. the San Andreas fault in California), this chain once had dozens of volcanoes and was earthquake-prone; volcanic eruptions and earthquakes kept changing the face of the land. Today, however, only two volcanoes are active: Vesuvius and Etna (Sicily). The highest peak of the Apennines is Gran Sasso (9,500 ft.), located near L'Aquila, about 70 miles northeast of Rome.

Bologna  We skirt another important city, off the highway to our right. Like most Italian cities, it goes back to Roman times, when it was called Bononia. It is important for several reasons: first, its food ("Bologna the Fat" is a popular nickname). Bologna is the culinary capital of Italy, where many of Italy's most famous dishes were invented. Small wonder: the city is located in the middle of some of Italy's most prosperous farmlands — with wheat for macaroni and other types of pasta, vineyards for wine, pork for sausages, and many fruit and vegetable farms. The suffix, alla Bolognese, is tacked onto many a prime Italian dish. Bologna is also a great commercial and manufacturing center. It is the capital of the region of Emilia, named for the great Roman road (Via Emilia) which ran from Milan to the Adriatic along the edge of the Apennines. Bologna's population today stands at 500,000, almost the size of Boston.

University of Bologna: The oldest university in Europe. The university goes back to Roman times (425). During the Middle Ages, it had a full 10,000 students — gigantic enrollment for those times. You've all heard about the status of women in the Middle Ages — that their place was in the kitchen, that most couldn't read or write or hope for an education. At Bologna it was different. Not only were women students allowed, but many of the professors were women. Imagine the fair sex dressed in black gowns, solemnly giving instruction on canon law, theology, logic! Bologna grew to rival Paris, attracting the best minds of the day. One women professor was so beautiful that she had to lecture from behind a screen, lest her appearance distract the students from the subject. The university's tradition of greatness hascontinued into modern times. Its medical school is outstanding, as is the scientific research done by its professors. The physicist Marconi (1864-1937) pioneered in the development of radio. Bologna rivalled Padua for the medical studies that went on during the Renaissance. Corpses, fresh from the latest battle, were wheeled in and dissected on the spot. In times of peace (which were far and few between), the local prison was besieged by medical students who desperately needed a cadaver in time to complete their term paper!

Bologna today: One of the earliest major Italian cities to have a Communist administration. Reason: many of the voters are workers in the huge industrial and food plants in the city. When the Communists came to power, they put ideology aside and ran the city like any respectable middle-class party. E.g.: offer tax incentives to woo investment capital; negotiate with the biggest Italian firms for plant sites; sponsor huge trade fairs every year in May. Nobody seems to mind, least of all the businessmen, and so they keep on getting re-elected.

Emilia  Bologna, as we said, is the chief city of the region of Emilia. The area owes its existence and development to a single man-made object: the old Roman road called the Via Emilia. The road was built by AEmilius Lepidus to facilitate the movements of the Roman legions. In this area of the peninsula, the early Romans encountered very little resistance, so the road was constructed quickly. The road went northwest up to Milan, and all along the way the Romans established garrisons. (Bologna started out as one.) This was the usual Roman pattern of colonization: lay down a road with forts at regular intervals. If one fort was attacked, reinforcements from the nearest fort could be rushed down the road. Gradually, settlements grew up around these forts, and these settlements became the cities that now straddle the highway we're on. If you look at a map of Italy, you'll see how the cities in this part of the country are situated on a straight line — the Via Emilia, running along the foothills of the Apennines, going from southeast to northwest: Bologna, Modena, Reggio, Parma, etc.

Who populated these early settlements? Again, the Romans followed their usual pattern. Soldiers who had served for 25 years with the legions were discharged and awarded plots of land to farm. In the case of this area, the land along the Roman road was marshy, so the soldiers had to drain the land, build dikes, and set it up for farming. An old legend has it that the soldiers who settled here were discontented at being dumped, virtually penniless, into swampland, and that their discontent was passed along from generation to generation, explaining the political unrest which has, in fact, marked Emilia throughout Italian history. The unrest took the form of constant warfare among independent city-states, during the Middle Ages. These cities jealously guarded their independence and always rebelled against the idea of being subject to a central government. They lost that independence when Italy was united in 1871, but the unrest didn't stop: the people of the cities always tended to side with the political party that was anti-government; perhaps that's why Communist influence is strongest here than anywhere else in Italy. However, one of the old city-states did manage to retain its independence when Italy was united: San Marino, still a separate, tiny country completely landlocked by Italy — located to the east of us, near (but not on) the Adriatic. Anyway, going back to the political unrest of this area, the people even in ancient times tended to be anti-government. When Hannibal the Carthaginian crossed the Alps and entered this area, the people assisted him. But after his soldiers had been here awhile, they rebelledagainst Hannibal, attacking his rear guard. Centuries later, during World War II, this was an area, appropriately enough, of intense anti-German resistance. Partisans hid in the foothills of the Apennines, then swooped down on German supply depots at night, blowing them up. The Germans took savage reprisals, which is why more horror stories are told about this area of Italy than any other. By April 1945, after heavy fighting, the Allies pushed the Germans out of Emilia to the north; but by that time Germany surrendered, when many German soldiers were still in northern Italy.

Modena  This city of 150,000, off to our right, was, like Bologna, a Roman garrison established along the Via Emilia. As we said, the whole area around here was originally marshlands, and difficult to build on. The Romans looked around for areas of solid earth which rose up like islands from the swamps. They called these areas "terramare", and Modena was built on one of them. Its Roman name was Mutina. Centuries later, Modena became a separate kingdom ruled by the Este family — a long dynasty, lasting from 1288 until 1859, when the movement for Italian unity brought it into the emerging Kingdom of Italy. The result of that 600-year rule is some splendid palaces in the city, with squares and fountains that make it look like a miniature capital.

Today, Modena is an important agricultural center, where foodstuffs are brought in from farms, processed, and shipped by rail to other parts of Italy. It's also a manufacturing center: the famous Ferrari and Maserati sports cars are made here.

Reggio  The full name of this city, off to our left, is Reggio nell'Emilia (Reggio in Emilia), to distinguish it from another Reggio, Reggio di Calabria (located right on the toe of the Italian "boot"). Like the other cities along the Via Emilia, Reggio is mainly an agricultural and manufacturing center. The famous Parmesan cheese is made here. In ancient times, the Romans called the city Regium Lepidi. The old Via Emilia runs right through the center of the city, and forms its main street! (It's still called "Via Emilia" on the street signs.) From 1409 to 1796 it was part of the duchy ruled by the Este family (who were based in Modena): its most peaceful period.

Canossa: About 20 miles outside the city is a spot famous in medieval history: the Castle of Canossa. During the early Middle Ages, northern Italy was racked by a conflict between two forces in Europe: the Papacy and the German Empire. Some Italians sided with the pope (they were called the Guelphs), others with the German Emperor (they were called the Ghibellines). Often, a city would opt for one or the other, not really out of conviction, but because its rival city had chosen the opposite side. The conflict between Pope and Emperor reached a climax in 1077. Pope Gregory VII excommunicated Emperor Henry IV and released his subjects from all obligation to obey him. Henry found it hard to govern under these conditions, and finally decided to submit to the pope and have his excommunication lifted. He came all the way down to Canossa, where the pope was staying at the time, and pleaded to be forgiven. The famous legend says that he stood barefoot out in the snow for four days (in winter there's sometimes snow up on the hill where the castle stood) before the pope decided to heed his pleas. Only ruins of that castle remain today.

Parma  The second city after Bologna in the Emilia region. Parma is not only a busy agricultural and industrial center, but has a strong artistic and intellectual heritage. Like the other cities of this area, it started out as a Roman garrison along the Via Emilia, and became a fiercely independent republic during much of the Middle Ages, until Pope Paul III gave the city to his (illegitimate) son Pier Luigi Farnese. The city was passed from one noble to another until the unification of Italy. Its most brilliant period was the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. Artists and musicians came to the city, drawn by its patronage and appreciative public. The typographer Bodoni, creator of some of the most famous typestyles (still used), worked in Parma, and the city was the birthplace of Verdi the composer and Toscanini the conductor.

The cheese, Parmesan, was created in the city, although most of the manufacturing of it is done in Reggio.

Po River Valley  As you can see, the land we're crossing is relatively flat, because it's part of the huge Po River basin. The Po River, which we'll cross soon, brings tons of water from the Alps and drains it in the Adriatic Sea. This abundant water has made the basin a major agricultural area in Italy. Rice fields abound, with patches of sugar beets. To grow rice, vast quantities of water are needed, and the Po and its tributaries bring it from the mountains. Unfortunately, there is occasional flooding, but modern dikes and dams have reduced the danger to most farming towns. There's also fish breeding in the marshes and ponds, and fishing enthusiasts flock to the rivers during holidays. Silk processing is another industry of the area, based on the abundance of mulberry bushes (where the silk worms reside), planted on the edges of wheat fields (look for them). Large herds of cattle yield many dairy products, and especially some excellent cheeses. The most famous cheese from this area is Gorgonzola; the sweet version, called Gorgonzola dolce (Gorgonzola soft), will melt in any mouth. Something else you'll notice are the oil rigs and derricks. There isn't much oil in Italy, but in those few places where there is (like here), the Italians exploit every drop.

Lombardy  We're now in another region of Italy, Lombardy. It is one of the most diverse regions of all, stretching from the Po River Valley, where the land is iron-flat, to the lakes and mountains of the North, near the Swiss border. The name "Lombardy" goes back to the Longobards, meaning "Long Beards," a tribe of barbarian invaders who settled here after the fall of Rome. The Romans themselves had called the area Cisalpine Gaul (meaning "Gaul-on-this-side-of-the-Alps" — i.e., the southern side). But the earliest settlers of all were the Etruscans. Once organized as a Roman province, it was given much freedom, and the area contributed some of Rome's men of genius: Vergil, Catullus, and the historians Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger hailed from this region. After the invading Lombards had settled down, they resurrected the old Roman cities and formed, eventually, the "Lombard League" to preserve their independence against the German Emperor. But foreign intervention couldn't be avoided: the Spanish and Austrians controlled the area at one time or another. When the movement for Italian independence gained momentum during the 19th century, Lombardy was quick to join the Kingdom of Piedmont in struggling against the Austrians. During World War II, local partisans rose up against the Germans even before Allied forces reached the area. Allied prisoners of war, who were stockaded in or near Milan, often escaped, and could always count on getting help from the people of Lombardy.

(COURIER: Now give your introduction to Milan.)


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