the falcon of the Maremma

History, stories and legends




A walk through memories and alleys and across little squares along houses that record past lives and places that have their own tales to tell… Stories written by someone who loves her village even if she does not live here permanently. We offer them to our guests hoping this will help them to share with us the history of our village and persuade them to come back soon and enjoy once again being up here on our hill.

– David Rigoli


-by Prof. Manfred Pfister – Free University Berlin

Welcome to Montepescali and to the ‘Falco della Maremma’. We want to introduce you to our village, our miniature town and its inhabitants. We love it, and we hope you will learn to love it too.

Of course, Montepescali does not boast as many stars in guidebooks as Florence and Siena do, not even as many as Pitigliano or San Gimigniano; but then it is not as crowded. Its charm is of a more hidden and quiet kind and can only be discovered by travelers who look for gems off the beaten tourist track and want to meet the people of the region. This introduction shall help you to do so. It is in itself a token of hospitality, and open hospitality towards strangers beyond all language boundaries has always been a virtue characteristic of the people of Montepescali – as you will find out for yourself.

The author of these lines has had the privilege of enjoying this hospitality for many years and wishes you a pleasant and delightful stay.


by Elena Cipriani M.

A few minutes suffice to cover the distance of fifteen kilometers between Grosseto, the main city of the Maremma – and Montepescali. A narrow winding road turns off from the Via Aurelia in Braccagni and leads through olive groves up the hill to the medieval village defended by watch towers. In spring, broom and clematis line the road with their yellow and white blossom past green copse and fields. This new road for cars connects Montepescali with the province’s capital located not far away, and private traffic and a public bus service spare locals as well as guests the arduous climb on foot.

The old road, the STRADA VECCHIO, still exists. It has kept its magic and the half-hour walking tour is more than worth one’s while. It branches off the Via Aurelia about two hundred meters after the new road. You can see it from your car below on the left, as it winds up the steep hill between blackberry bushes that surround it in wall-like fashion, often growing so high that the path seems to lead right through a tunnel of green light. For a long time this used to be the only road down into the plain and to the railway station. If you wanted to take the hissing and sooty steam train you had to descend down the bumpy path only to climb up the road, which was not much more than a mule track, laden with bundles and luggage. Today with the undergrowth cleared away the old path has been restored for walkers and ramblers and offers the most wonderful views.

Halfway just before the old path joins the new road the old well and wash-house of the village invites you to dally for a while. Called the FONTE VECCHIE, it dates from the 13th century. It was restored in 1999 and its two big dark basins remind us of how hard the life of Montepescali’s women, who had to carry the washing here, must have been. Some say that on certain days, when a light breeze blows, the sound of splashing water, beaten washing and voices chatting can be heard from far away, but maybe it is only the rustle of wind in the blackberry bushes.

Many tales are told about the old well, legends that feed on shadows and the remoteness of the place, on memories that have turned into ghosts. Visions and the presence of spectres haunt those unlucky or thoughtless enough to come here at night. If you are lucky, they will only snatch your hat from your head with a gust of wind, as happened to a Montepescalian a couple of years ago, who has haunted the place himself ever since. His hat was found the next day hanging in the blackberry bushes – who was responsible? Was it only the wind or the ghost of the well? Nowadays people laugh about such stories but still avoid the place after dusk.

Near the upper part of the old road, that has since been cemented over, one finds, after the last curve and under the first houses the more recent laundry, the LAVATOIO. Those women who prefer the social ritual of working together to the modern, automated hygiene of washing machines still use its wide, rectangular basins and do their washing together in the friendly solidarity.

The road finally takes us to the PORTA VECCHIA, the old gate, which for a long time used to be the only entrance to the village. Its square or semi-circular watch towers with their embrasures rise high over the dilapidated archway. The city wall to which it belongs dates back as far as the 10th or 11th century and has basically remained unchanged. Of course, time takes its toll and the hardest stone crumbles; so even this sturdy edifice has had to be repaired. The most original renovation took place in 1553. Count Lionellodi Todi, commandant of the garrison in Montepescali, caught five hundred German soldiers stealing grain and cattle in the plain. Instead of putting them in chains, as the law demanded, he sentenced them to work on the city wall and its six towers that protect the village.

In the north and west, the watch towers stand closest to each other because through their windows and embrasures one was able to overlook and control the entire plain right down to the sea. Even though some of them may have become rather fragile by now, they have kept their original form. Of special interest is the TORRIONE BELVEDERE, the big Belevedere tower, which today is privately owned. It is in quite a good condition, extends along Via Grottenanelli and ends in a rotunda for the men on guard. Back in the fifties the building was used for the village’s social entertainment. It was a dance hall with little, hidden supper tables and romantic lighting from Chinese lanterns. From the round tower the small dance orchestra, “Luna negra” would supply the music. The sound of rattling swords and of guards marching in step was replaced by laughter and whispers, the seductive call of names and quiet music. Today the light of the Chinese lanterns has gone out; they are now, together with the soldiers and officers, in the kingdom of shadows. What remains is the wonderful view one has from here: over to Vetulonia and Buriano on their dark and severe mountain crests that rise over the valley of the Bruna, which is visible from here as a fine line in the plain.

From tower to tower – one tower almost overgrown with shrubs, the other cleared from weeds – our walk takes us to the PORTA NUOVA, the new gate. It was opened in 1553 during the Sienese Wars, by mercenaries of Emperor Charles V in the pay of the Medici to facilitate access to Sticciano and Roccastrada. The TORRIONE DEL GUASCONE – the great tower of the Gascogne captain – also speaks of war. Its name commemorates the captain of mercenaries Bastiano Guascone, who, together with the French army serving under general Biagio de Molluc, withdrew to Montepescali after having fought for the Republic of Siena. A short and steep street also carries his name, the Via del Guascone, which had witnessed the brawls of drunken soldiers, the heaps of dead warriors and their blood streaming down all night towards Via Pannocehiesca.

From the outlook of the Baluardo fortress the Gascogners searched the plain, only to jump onto their horses, keen on robbing unsuspecting farmers and helpless and simple wagon trains on their way to impoverished markets. Like falcons, rapacious and proud, they would dive down the olive groves into the valley. And it is probably due to these sudden descents of the rapacious soldateska that Montepescali got its epithet IL FALCO DELLA MAREMMA, the Falcon of the Maremma.

The most important checkpoint over the fields in the valley and the surrounding hills was without doubt the BALUARDO, the imposing, sharply-cut bulwark made from unplastered square stone blocks, that is now used as the village square, jutting out like a terrace and, like a terrace, planted with bushes and trees. A breathtaking view reveals the beauty of the region: the eye can wander from the distant peaks of the Amiata massif to the Argentario promontory: from the Etruscan city of Vetulonia to the islands of Giglio, Montecristo and the Formiche di Grosseto, over to Castiglione della Pescaia and along the mirroring coastline that disappears in the distance. All of this is framed by hills with prickly forests and their macchia of holm and cork oak, myrtle and the wild strawberry tree.

In the 11th century, Montepescali, the falcon castle, was the seat of the counts of Pannocchieschi. One of them was a relative of Nello (his (Castello della Pietra near Ribolla can be seen from Montepescali), who killed his wife Pia Tolomei by either pushing her out of a window – the famous “leap of the countess” – or abandoning her to the deadly swamp fever, the malaria of the Maremma. Without much ado Nello then married the irresistible, blonde beauty Margherita degli Aldobrandeschi. “Divorce Maremmana style!. Margherita’s fame, though. has faded while Pia’s has survived. We think of her when we walk down the Via Corsi Salviati beneath the windows of the palace of the Tolomei. Everybody here knows by heart what DANTE has her say in the Fifth Canto of the Purgatorio:

Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia;
Siena mi fe’, disfecemi maremma:
Salsi colui che ‘nnanellata pria
Disposando m’aveva con la sua gemma. (Purgatorio, Canto V)

Do thou remember me who am the Pia;
Siena made me, unmade me Maremma;
He knoweth it, who had encircled first,
Espousing me, my finger with his gem. (transl. H.W. Longfellow)

Montepescali was also ruled by the Aldobrandeschi from the county of Sovana/Pitigliano, But in March 1147 the village was able to constitute itself as a free municipality under the military protection of the Republic of Siena. The village established laws, the Statutes of Montepescali, which set their own norms for the administration of justice and political authority and distinguished the little town above other settlements in the vicinity.

Wars and rulers came and went: the Medici and the Guadagni, the Salviati and the Corsi. One is constantly reminded of the multifarious past when reading the street signs, and the past is also kept in memory by the buildings and works of art that adorn Montepescali.

We find, for example, the beautiful CHURCH OF SS. STEFANO AND LORENZO dating from the 13th century whose church tower used to house sixteen bells – of which only three remain. As well as treasuring two valuable, marble basins for holy water from the 14th century, the church holds an antique font carved out of stone and an impressive fresco from the school of Siena (second half of the 14th century). It pictures the Assumption of Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels and saints and the Holy Abbott Anthony with a little boar at his feet reminding us of the ancient hunting traditions of Montepescali still alive today. The presbytery contains a remarkable stucco altar from the 15th century.

A couple of steps from the church we reach the former marketplace, today the PIAZZA GRAMSCI, dominated by a richly decorated palace with spacious loggias and brick-built arches. On it time has also left its mark, but once the illustrious Lazzaretti and Concialini families used to live here. – From here the Via Garibaldi and the Via Grottanelli lead to the former Grancia palace. once owned by the Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala in Siena. A labyrinth of alleys, steps, open and closed arches takes us, past areas where we have to learn to read the traces of different professions and trades, to further buildings, which used to be important places of residence. Nowadays it needs an expert’s trained eye to see the former splendour in the crumbling facades. The long Via Corsi Salviati boasts the historic townhall and buildings whose names renund us of the great houses of Tolomei and Guadagni.

The further one ascends, the narrower the alleys become between the shaded houses. If yon take a slight turn to the left, a short alley takes you down to the former asylum that how houses the small, yet intriguing MUSEUM OF LOCAL HISTORY. Its exhibits record the forgotten arts and crafts of the past and make the history and traditions of Montepescali tangible and alive. Cavaliere Giotto Minucci, guide, founder and curator of the museum, is wonderfully skillful in making the objects and documents come alive – even if he does not speak the visitor’s language.

Our walk takes us back to the main track. After the Vicolo Buio (the dark alley) turn-off, the road becomes so narrow that a regular-size car cannot pass through. Here a white-blue enameled sigh reminds us of the former TEATRO MINlMO, today the Giardino di Elenina’, Elenina’s little garden, hidden behind grey walls. From the turn of the century onwards Montepescali’s cultural life centered around this spot: Plays were staged, music was performed and silent movies, and later, “talkies”, were shown. You can still tell where the stage sets were kept and the projection cabin used to be, and when the owner opens the door to the garden one can still hear the silence and the voices of long ago or listen to quiet music and the story of the ‘Minimo’ and its founder Enrico Cipriani with his son Florio.

The via Corsi Salviati ends at a flight of stairs that takes a steep ascent on the right, up to the CHURCH OF SAN NlCCOLO. San Niccolo is a Romanesque jewel dating from the 11th to the 12th century and impresses its visitors with the noble simplicity of its design. Originally the church was decorated with frescoes by the schools of Siena and Florence. The fresco’s remains, only discovered recently, have been restored and show episodes from the life of Virgin Mary. However, the most precious art treasure of the church and of the village is the panel on the left wall, “Mary Enthroned with Child” by Matteo di Giovanni (around 1480). The Madonna wears a wonderfully rich and beautifully painted dress of golden brocade and is worshiped by saints, standing and kneeing. Underneath we see St Mary Magdalen – a cloister was dedicated to her on a hill nearby; today only a ruin, but worth a visit – and San Guiglielmo da Malavalle, a French aristocrat who lived the secluded life of a hermit in the Maremma.

Montepescalians love their church and dozens of couples from the village or the vicinity get married here every year. With its beautiful organ, it is often used as a venue for organ and chamber music concerts organised by the local ‘Circolo Culturale, which also hosts the pre-Christmas poetry festival ‘Musica e poesia fra le antiche torri’ (Music and Poetry between the Old Towers).

A few steps take one from here to the PIAZZA DEL CASSERO, the castle square. It marks the highest point of the old fortress and is framed by plain and earnest palaces. On the left is the PALAZZO DEL MUNICIPIO, the palace of government, with its flight of steps that lead one – only secured by pots with gardenias and basil – to a loggia with an arch of double windows. One can easily imagine the four honourable priors with their high hats swaying on the steps; or how the seventeen councillors and the fifteen members of the small council, all elected from the different professions gathered beneath the arcades. Facing the palace of government stand the former law-courts and the clock tower which used to be the bell tower of the Benedictine monastery. From these political and ecclesiastical authorities the little community received its spiritual orientation and its laws. On the authority of the ‘Statutes of Montepescali, outlaws, criminals and the quarrelsome were kept away from the village. Paragraph 5, article 156 even provided that all those who did not cultivate a plot of land or graft trees, in short, all the idle, should be punished. Also daggers and swords were forbidden in the village; carrying ‘weapons for attack and defense within city walls’ was only tolerated on the way from the gate to one’s own house.

The tower, the TORRE DEL CASSERO, is impressive, but of the original embellishment of its parapet with swallow-tailed pinnacles – a symbol of the village’s affiliation to the Ghibellines – no trace is left. The insignia soon became inopportune in the course of history with its changing alliances and power structures and were wisely removed by the Government of the Nine and replaced by those of today. We have seen it all before – it suffices to change the design of the pinnacles…

The tower’s location is ideal to spot enemies from afar, whether they approach from sea or land. A loud cry of alarm from the top, the sound of the bell and within seconds women would order their little ones, playing in the streets, to come into the house. Defenders would gather beneath the tower and those without any weapon would arm themselves with pickaxe and spade: The falcon spreads its claws and fluffs up its feathers to descend upon the enemy and defend its territory But the falcon did not manage to protect the valuable clockwork in the tower, when in 1555 mercenaries occupying Montepescali under the command of Captain Chiappino Niccolo Vitelli – carried it away. A painful loss, because in those days only large cities such as Siena, Milan, Florence, London, Paris or Salzburg could pride themselves on having such a clock. Master Paolo Buonaccorso had serviced it for a yearly wage of l2 lire and 10) soldi and its artistically decorated bell of almost pure gold and silver, which the local Count Tolomei had cast, loudly struck the quarters and the full hours on time. But wars, just like nowadays, always find their ‘Chiappinos’ and so during the last war the tower also lost its beautiful bell – it was ignominiously melted down together with ordinary ironware to help win glorious victories. The simple bell of today was installed in January l951 – the state’s pitiful offer of reparation to the people of Montepescali for its wilful destruction. The clockwork, though, circulated among antique dealers and collectors, until it finally found its last resting place in Geneva’ clock museum where Giotto Minucci recently tracked it down with painstaking detective work. Identification was easy: the clock in the Geneva museum exactly resembles the replacement clock made by the Cecchetti brothers in l874 and still working in the tower to this very day.

If after all of this wandering up and down stairs and alleys you might be in need of a rest, the Bar Cipriani – the APPALTO (the salt and tobacco shop) – on the Piazza Indipendenza, kept in true 1950s style, is an inviting spot to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Here is the simple bas-relief ornaments also refer to the Moutepescalians favourite pastime, the hunting of the WILD BOAR.

In Montepescali the hunt is not simply a sport, but a time-honoured ritual. It starts in the autumn and ends in the new year. People – most often, of course, men – of all ages and ranks, locals as well as foreigners from the north and south, take part, and submit to the first huntsman and the “canaio”, the leader of the pack of hounds. One of them, the sturdy octogenarian Eugenio Rigoli, is the undisputed leader of the pack even though the position has been officially transferred to his son. The first huntsmen have written boarhunt-history with their names and appearances: with their fustian boots, the heavy ammunition pouches, the jerkins made of stout cloth, their imperious voices that do not allow protest.

Over the centuries the Venier, the Tolomei, the Medici and the Grottanelli, no less than men from less illustrious families, have strictly followed the commands of the first huntsmen in taking aim or waiting for the order to fire. The present captain of the hunt, Mario Fiorilli, knows and follows the ritualised gestures and words when he lines up the hunters and passes on the rules of the hunt. They have remained unchanged over the generations and, as with religious laws, any breach of them would arouse almost superstitious fears.

Over more than a thousand hectares of fields and woods, with which Count Grottanelli and the ‘Amministrazione degli Usi Civici’ (the Administration of the Common Land) provide the hunting party, do angry dogs chase the boars. The air is filled with their barking, with the call of voices and the dry sound of shots. Then fires blaze. The count’s hunting party stops to admire the trophies. Then a meal awaits the hunters on the clearing between cherry trees and cork-oaks, and it will take three or four hours for the strain of waiting and aiming to ease with a few glasses of red wine and the discussion over yet another challenging hunt met bravely. The heated discussion about the past day of the hunt, the reciprocal reproaches and rivalries continue later on the Baluardo and flare up again after supper in the Appalto. Looking back, the hunting day is remembered for a long time and a film, made by journalist Gianni Lugari with the assistance of Mauro Lenzini from Montepescali, has made this memory available to a wide audience in Italy and beyond.

There are other events to enhance the social life in the village, which adorns itself with flags and lights for the occasion: the festival day of Saint Nicolaus, the patron saint of the parish; the carnival procession with floats, masks, acrobats, and street singers; the award of the art prize ‘II Falcone’, for which established painters and young talents have competed for l0 years now; the ‘Sagra’, the fair organised by the sports club and lasting several days in August.

The Sagra is old; its roots are lost in the mist of history and probably are connected with the cycle of the seasons arid the work on the fields. It offers a few days of rest, of carefree exuberance at the peak of summer, before autumn brings back the daily grind and the strenuous toil of harvest. As a lovingly preserved tradition, it is an important element in the social life of the village that unites children, young grown-ups and adults in preparing and organising the festival. it is lively and exuberant and attracts thousands of guests to the village every year – mainly to a feast of boar, of course, and afterwards to dance on the Baluardo, to buy colourful bits and pieces of beautiful arts and crafts (sculptures in olive wood, embroidery, dolls made of salt dough, ‘verre eglomise’ pictures,jewelry, pottery) that are on offer on the stands or in the workshops. If you feel like it, you can watch the film about the Montepescalian boar hunt and the village history on the Piazza del Cassero, buy a ticket for the lucky draw or simply enjoy the cool of the evening, sitting on the wall that runs along the street.

Montepescali is not a place of memories, but also of life today, that continually gets new impulses from the activities of clubs and associations, new arts and crafts workshops and from a school of music which attracts young pupils from Montepescali and beyond.

And if yon want to enjoy typically Maremman dishes and exquisite wines you only have to stop off at the restaurant ‘II Falco della Maremma’: it shades in name, location and atmosphere into Montepescali’s history, stories, and tales.

– translated by Simon Nicklas/Manfred Pfister)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *