A closer reading: “The vine is the greatest commodity of Tuscany, if not of Italy.”

This just in: taste old Australian Semillon with me at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego on Saturday, September 26… yes, Australian wine, can you believe it?

Above: At the time of Dallington’s visit to Italy (1596), Bacchus was often depicted with Ariadne, his wife, as in this painting by Guido Reni (1557-1642). Today, we think of Bacchus (or Dionysus) as the god of wine. In fact, he was the god of luxuriant fertility, which was symbolized by the vine in antiquity, and so by association he became the god of wine. In ancient Italy, he was associated with the indigenous god Liber, who was celebrated with joyous abandon during the time of the grape harvest.

My post the other day on an “earlier Tuscan sun” and the description of grape growing and viticulture in late 16th-century Tuscany elicited some interesting comments and questions. Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to read and comment.

Simona, author of Briciole, brought up an important point: in the first line of the passage, Dallington uses the term Italy.

    The Vine.. without comparison is the greatest commodity of Tuscany, if not of Italy

Italy, as we know it today, was unified for the first time for a brief period in the modern era under Napoleon (1805-1814). Only in 1861 did Italy — as a nation — achieve independence from foreign domination. Until that time, the Italic peninsula was divided among its principalities or microstates, which often aligned themselves in league with foreign powers but never achieved a confederation defined by Italy’s natural geographical boundaries.

According to the OED, the toponym Italy begins to appear in the English language toward the end of the sixteenth-century, the same time that Dallington made his trip to Tuscany. (The terms Italy, Italian, and Italo, derive ultimately from the Latin Italia, in turn from the Latin Vitalia from vitulus, meaning calf; the ancient name Vitalia was owed to Italy’s abundant cattle.)

Even though the notion of the Italian nation and the term Italia had distinctly emerged by the 14th century (think of Petrarch’s song 126, Italia mia, ben che’l parlar sia indarno [My Italy, although speech does not aid]), the citizens of the Duke State of Tuscany encountered by Dallington would hardly have called themselves “Italians.”

Simona was right on: it’s truly remarkable that Dallington uses the term Italy and implicitly refers to an Italian nation. But what I find even more remarkable is the fact that he calls the vine the “greatest commodity of Tuscany, if not of Italy.”

More than two centuries had passed since Petrarch reproached the gluttonous cardinals of Avignon for their immovable love of Burgundian wine, asking them, “Is it not a puerile ambition to malign the many types of wines, so plentiful, found in all parts of Italy?” (See my post on this famous letter by Petrarch to Pope Urban V here.) The papacy was returned to Italy in 1378.

More than two centuries later, a foreigner arrived from Elizabethan England, and called the vine “Italy’s greatest commodity” — a preview of how viticulture would become a sine qua non of the Italian nation and Italian national identity.

This is the first in a series of “closer readings” of the Dallington text inspired by visitors’s comments. Next up: the origins of the term zibibbo. Stay tuned…

2 thoughts on “A closer reading: “The vine is the greatest commodity of Tuscany, if not of Italy.”

  1. Thanks, Jeremy. The political unification of Italy is an interesting topic, still very much alive. And the role of the papacy is important. Then one looks at the situation now and wonders…

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