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Conference in Italy Finds Modern Lessons in Ancient Farming

Mar. 24, 2011
By Laura Rose

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At the Accademia dei Georgofili in Florence, a March 11th con­fer­ence gath­ered hun­dreds of intel­lec­tu­als, polit­i­cal wonks, and agri­cul­ture buffs from across Italy to dis­cuss some very old farm­ing his­tory.  The school, which is the center for agri­cul­tural study in Italy, was cel­e­brat­ing the fifti­eth anniver­sary of the Rivista di storia dell’agricoltura (Journal of the History of Agriculture) with a day ded­i­cated to changes and con­ti­nu­ities between ancient Roman times and the Middle Ages.  Entitled “Agriculture and Environment through the Roman and Middle Ages”, the con­fer­ence focused on the his­tor­i­cal real­i­ties of this thou­sand-year period and its sig­nif­i­cance for today’s highly con­se­quen­tial bal­anc­ing of farm­ing and envi­ron­ment in Italy.

One of the most sig­nif­i­cant themes for all present was that of con­ti­nu­ity — the pres­ence of crops and even meth­ods that began with the Romans and con­tin­ued through the Middle Ages, and in some cases even up until today.  The Romans of antiq­uity, immensely focused on cul­ti­va­tion and expan­sion of crops, intro­duced plants from the far cor­ners of its empire and made them plen­ti­ful through­out the Mediterranean region and larger Europe.

With olive trees from Greece and grape vines from the Bordeaux and Bourgogne region of France, the Romans spread pro­duc­tion of olive oil and wine through­out the con­ti­nent, shap­ing cul­tures and cuisines for mil­lenia.  In Italy, espe­cially in south­ern regions such as Puglia, many of the trees used to pro­duce today’s olive oils date back a couple of thou­sand years and were planted by the Romans. The con­fer­ence high­lighted the ways that cur­rent farm­ing cul­ture is as much descended from the Roman and Middle Ages as is the artis­tic and social cul­ture of Italy today.

However, the other theme of the con­fer­ence was change — change gen­er­ated by the envi­ron­ment and envi­ron­men­tal change pre­cip­i­tated by agri­cul­tural prac­tices.  Sharp vari­a­tions in food pro­duc­tion, such as olive oil, had severe con­se­quences at the end of the Roman Empire.  As Paolo Nanni, Professor of Agriculture at the University of Florence, explained at the con­fer­ence, “Suffice it to say that Rome, which was the largest city in the world, went from eight hun­dred thou­sand inhab­i­tants to sixty thou­sand in the space of two hun­dred years, from the fourth to the sixth cen­tury.”

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Italy remains a very pas­toral coun­try with rich agri­cul­tural activ­ity, and the con­fer­ence, while focused on a very dis­tant age, was very much address­ing the cur­rent age of agri­cul­ture and the threats to the envi­ron­ment.  In fore­gone ages, first Rome and then the smaller cen­tral cities of the Middle Ages orga­nized agri­cul­ture around them along path­ways of trans­porta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, thereby leav­ing plenty of untouched forest and nat­ural land.

With today’s ease of trans­porta­tion, cities are no longer the hub of local trade and there are no limits on land-use.  It is, as Paolo Nanni con­cluded, “doubly impor­tant that agri­cul­ture is done in a sus­tain­able way, both eco­nom­i­cally and envi­ron­men­tally… and that the gov­ern­ment rec­og­nizes the impor­tance of the eco­log­i­cal strat­egy.  This is why we held this con­fer­ence.”  As with so many of the modern prob­lems of human­ity, we look to antiq­uity for answers.