Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Livorno: another side of Tuscany

Livorno is the youngest city in Tuscany, gaining in importance only after the progressive silting of the ancient port of nearby Pisa. And it is certainly less known to foreigners. Or even to other Italians, for that matter. But in a way it is one of the most authentic expressions of the Tuscan character; the character, that is, of the irreverent and suffering-no-fools-gladly toscanaccio.

Around the year 1600 ruler Ferdinand I declared the city a free port and passed laws encouraging the permanent immigration of just about everybody, including people who had been very naughty indeed in their own country. This gave rise to what we now call "diversity" and a long tradition of tolerance and open-mindedness, making it among other things the most left-leaning town of left-leaning Tuscany, and the site of the establishment in 1921 of the Italian Communist party. Despite this, and proving that they do in fact tolerate everyone, it has been home for decades now to an Army post of American forces, and as such was my first home in Italy (no, I was not a soldier, I was seven years old). Well, they tolerate almost everyone, except for their arch-enemies, the Pisans.

One of its most famous sons is Amedeo Modigliani, born into the important Jewish community of the city, a cosmopolitan and innovative artist (see one of his works, below) with - how shall I put this?- an unconventional lifestyle. He exhibited the spirit of freedom and even iconoclasm of Livorno, taken in his case to self-destructive extremes. Its most famous dish would certainly be the cacciucco, a rich fish stew- a sea-based mixture of all sorts, just like the livornesi.

Livorno was heavily damaged by Allied bombing in World War II; despite this, it retains many historic sights. These include the politically incorrect (you can't expect political correctness from livornesi) statue of the Four Moors, where our friend Ferdinand lords it over four groveling dark-skinned men in chains- a representation of Livorno's triumph over pirates, who were too naughty even for them. The town even has its well-preserved Little Venice area, as seen in the photo above, left. Luchino Visconti's movie Le notti bianche is set in this part of the town. Incidentally, at one point in history Visconti's aristocratic forebears owned Livorno.

The town is surrounded by areas along the sea, inland, and out to sea (Elba and other islands) that are of major interest to tourists. Cuisine is both land- and sea-based, because of the near proximity of hills to the water. Some very fine wines can be had, such as Sassicaia. To the south you have the beginning of the Maremma, a great favorite of mine. Its history goes back millennia to the Etruscans; in fact the coast south of Livorno is known as the Etruscan Riviera. The water quality is also among the best in Italy. Hiking, cycling and horseback riding are also popular.

Can you tell I have a soft spot in my heart for this underdog among Italian cities? Find out more about the town at the site Livorno Now.