Exploring the History of Tuscany’s Iconic Olive Landscape

While evidence of the first olive trees in the iconic Italian region date back to the 14th century, the proliferation of olive oil culture started centuries later.

Castle of Capalbio, Tuscany, Italy
By Francesca Oliva
Jun. 8, 2023 19:51 UTC
Castle of Capalbio, Tuscany, Italy

Contrary to pop­u­lar belief, the appear­ance of Tuscan hills densely cov­ered with olive trees is a rel­a­tively recent land­scape that dates back to the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury.

Not only did the num­ber of olive trees increase in many areas that may have pre­vi­ously had sparser plan­ta­tions, but olive groves also spread to recently reclaimed areas, such as the Maremma or the Valdichiana.

For cen­turies in Tuscany, lard and pork fat were the most preva­lent dietary fats for the work­ing class, espe­cially farm­ers. Conversely, olive oil had a more urban” and some­what lux­u­ri­ous” char­ac­ter.

See Also:Tuscan Producers Manage Difficult Harvest to Achieve Outstanding Results

Only after the 15th cen­tury was there an eco­nom­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant long-dis­tance expor­ta­tion of Tuscan olive oil, which was already highly appre­ci­ated based on con­tem­po­rary prices.

Before the emer­gence of Tuscany, oils from Liguria, Marche, Campania and Puglia, espe­cially the lat­ter two, had started to travel across the region.

In these last two regions, as early as the first half of the 14th cen­tury, Florentine mer­chants were sourc­ing oil for soap man­u­fac­tur­ing and wool prepa­ra­tion for cloth pro­duc­tion.

Although wild olive trees were doc­u­mented in some coastal regions, Tuscan olive cul­ti­va­tion was devel­oped as a slow burn largely dri­ven by human effort.

It was cer­tainly slower and more com­pli­cated than the spread of vines, partly due to a lower capac­ity for cli­matic and alti­tu­di­nal adap­ta­tion and greater eco­nomic dif­fi­culty in invest­ment since the olive tree only begins to reward the grower years after plant­ing.

In Italy, the first cul­ti­vated olive trees are believed to have appeared in Sicily and Magna Graecia, likely influ­enced by Greek colonists (it is note­wor­thy that the Latin and Etruscan vocab­u­lary related to olive and oil is almost entirely of Greek ori­gin).

In Etruria – a his­tor­i­cal region of Italy includ­ing present-day Tuscany, along with parts of Umbria and Lazio – oil pro­duc­tion is attested to at least from the mid­dle of the 7th cen­tury BC.

However, olive cul­ti­va­tion did not have a sig­nif­i­cant role there, while pig farm­ing was much more impor­tant.


Nerola, Italy

However, a Tuscan doc­u­ment from the early 9th cen­tury AD, after the col­lapse of the empire and the influx of pop­u­la­tions from the north and east had con­tributed to the re-emer­gence of the use of ani­mal fats in Italian cui­sine (the dietary habits of the invaders and the expan­sion of uncul­ti­vated land and ani­mal hus­bandry were mov­ing in the same direc­tion), curi­ously and sig­nif­i­cantly referred to the tem­pus de lar­ide, the time of lard, as one of the mile­stones of the agri­cul­tural-pas­toral cal­en­dar.

Most likely, noth­ing sim­i­lar could have been said about olive oil in any cor­ner of Tuscany, not even in Versilia, the hin­ter­land of Livorno, or the hills of Lucca, which are the areas where most reports of olive cul­ti­va­tion were doc­u­mented in the early years.

However, the sit­u­a­tion began to change in Tuscany in the fol­low­ing cen­turies. The grad­ual expan­sion of olive cul­ti­va­tion can be attrib­uted to sev­eral fac­tors.

Firstly, the cli­mate and soil con­di­tions in cer­tain parts of Tuscany favored olive tree growth. The mild Mediterranean cli­mate, with its hot sum­mers, tem­per­ate win­ters, and well-drained soils, pro­vided suit­able con­di­tions for olive trees to thrive.

The cul­tural and eco­nomic exchanges with other regions of Italy and the Mediterranean also played a role in the spread of olive cul­ti­va­tion. As trade routes devel­oped and com­mu­ni­ca­tion improved, knowl­edge and tech­niques related to olive cul­ti­va­tion and oil pro­duc­tion were shared and adopted. This exchange of ideas and prac­tices con­tributed to the grad­ual expan­sion of olive groves in Tuscany.

Furthermore, the increas­ing demand for olive oil, both domes­ti­cally and inter­na­tion­ally, also stim­u­lated the growth of olive cul­ti­va­tion.

Olive oil was a food sta­ple and had var­i­ous uses in indus­tries such as soap man­u­fac­tur­ing and tex­tile pro­duc­tion. The eco­nomic poten­tial of olive oil pro­duc­tion moti­vated farm­ers to invest in olive groves and increase their cul­ti­va­tion.

Over time, the land­scape of Tuscany started to trans­form as more olive trees were planted. The hill­sides that were once cov­ered with other veg­e­ta­tion or used for dif­fer­ent agri­cul­tural pur­poses grad­u­ally became adorned with the char­ac­ter­is­tic sil­very-green foliage of olive trees. The pic­turesque scenery of rolling hills dot­ted with olive groves became syn­ony­mous with the Tuscan coun­try­side we rec­og­nize today.

The cul­ti­va­tion of olive trees in Tuscany has shaped the phys­i­cal land­scape and influ­enced the region’s culi­nary tra­di­tions and cul­tural iden­tity. Tuscan cui­sine relies heav­ily on olive oil, which imparts a dis­tinct fla­vor to the local dishes.

As a result, olive oil has become an inte­gral part of Tuscan gas­tron­omy and is highly val­ued for its qual­ity and organolep­tic char­ac­ter­is­tics.

Share this article


Related Articles