Stealing beauty: The fight for the soul of the Tuscan landscape

An idyllic house in Tuscany commands the only unblemished view in the entire region. But an application to build a new quarry on its doorstep is threatening to spoil a vista which has remained untouched for 10,000 years. Peter Popham reports from San Quirico d'Orcia
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The Independent Online

Belvedere is a special house. If your eye has so much as brushed across posters or calendars of Tuscany, you probably know the house already. It stands on a dune-like hill amid the pale sweep of the Val d'Orcia landscape, closely set about with cypress trees but otherwise alone, master of all it surveys.

It's just a Tuscan farmhouse, nothing fancy: no architect was needed to conjure up these plain perpendiculars, the simple ridged roof. It's a child's drawing of a house. Yet it occupies its hill with perfect aplomb, as if it has been here for ever, as natural and inevitable as the cypresses and the clumps of scrub and the citadels of distant towns.

The view it enjoys is unblemished. If we were standing on some windswept spot in the Cotswolds or Devon or Shropshire, that would be no big deal and no great surprise. Whatever our other mistakes, we in Britain we have done a rather good job of looking after our more stunning landscapes. The National Trust and others have taken their task seriously.

But in Tuscany that is not something that can be taken for granted. This is a land ruled since the end of the war by communists and then post-communists - the same people. The industrial workers and their workplaces are their vote bank, the source of their values. So just as Tuscan as the cypresses and the olives is the fact that, over the hill from Belvedere, is the headquarters of Cotto Senese, a large clay quarry and a brick and tile factory. But it doesn't matter because it is out of sight and out of mind. The magic of the landscape prevails.

In 2005, an Irish businessman called Alistair Tidey came to the Val d'Orcia looking for a house. And after six months scouring the countryside for the perfect simple farmhouse with the immaculate view, he and his wife Jane alighted on Belvedere. They knew at once that this was the one. "It's got the only totally unspoilt view in Tuscany," he said. "No grain silos, no factories, no flyovers - it's the way it's been for 10,000 years."

Would it stay that way for another 10,000 - or another 10? "The selling agent told me, you'll never see another house in this landscape," he said. "And he brought out a Unesco map to prove it, and showed where the house fitted into the new heritage site."

Because, as the agent explained, Unesco granted the Val d'Orcia World Heritage Site status in 2004. The listing was in recognition of the fact that this is one of the places where the European idea of a beautiful landscape was brought into being, by the concerted effort of architects, farmers and their merchant patrons, much in the way that in England landscape architects like Capability Brown took raw countryside and fashioned it into a domesticated image of wildness.

Val d'Orcia, runs the Unesco citation, is "an exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was rewritten in Renaissance times ... to create an aesthetically pleasing picture ... The landscape that resulted was one of careful and conscious planning and design and led to the beginning of the concept of 'landscape' as a man-made creation.

"Although reflecting the wealth of Siennese merchants ... the landscape layout was not designed to reflect their prestige as much as their ideals of good governance." One example of their compulsion to create "pleasing pictures" was "the persistent tradition of planting roses to embellish vineyards".

The Tideys decided to buy. The price tag was €2.7m (£1.8m) which is what you pay these days for a substantial Tuscan house with this sort of a prospect. But the day after the sale went through, Alistair and Jane met an ex-girlfriend of Belvedere's former owner in San Quirico, the local town, and she invited them for a coffee. Whereupon she dropped her bombshell. "Are you aware of the clay quarry?" she asked them pleasantly.

Of course they were aware of the clay quarry, the one just over the hill from the house - aware of it and unbothered, given the Unesco listing and the selling agent's emollient words. "There is a planning application to extend it over the whole hill," she went on - the whole hill meaning the unblemished roll of pale green that unfurls below Belvedere's drawing room window. The Cotto Senese quarry, so discreet, completely hidden from view, was bent on coming over the hill; paradise was about to become hell. "I spilt my coffee all over the place," Mr Tidey recalls.

Cotto Senese was created at the end of the First World War by a group of ex-soldiers looking for a way to make ends meet in peace time. The quarry and the brickworks have been here ever since, providing up to 100 jobs in the town, helping to underpin the local economy as agriculture slipped. It was a gritty enterprise but it was tucked into the bottom of a valley outside San Quirico and thus unseen from most points of the compass. White smoke from the kiln chimney and the occasional grinding brick lorry were the reminders of the firm's existence.

But then in 2000 Cotto Senese was swallowed by a larger firm from the north of Italy and things began to change. Pollution from the plant, never before a concern, began to worry people from the town; rumours began to surface that trucks were bringing paper waste into the plant during the night to add to the clay as a way of disposing of the paper and increasing the firm's income - but also its noxious emissions.

Readings taken by Arpat, Tuscany's environmental protection agency, confirmed last year that traces of fluorides and chlorides in nearby fruit trees had soared. A number of umbrella pine trees outside the quarry sickened and died in 2005, victims of the pollution. The smell from the quarry became ranker. Last October Arpat demanded that the company take urgent action to cut its emissions.

Nothing was done. As a result in November the firm was reported to public prosecutors in Sienna. The quarry's new, aggressive attitude also accounts for its hunger for land.

The application to jump the hill, in effect creating a brand new quarry, was made in 2000, and the matter became serious two years later when the firm bought 18 hectares of land on the hillside from a local politician for the exorbitant sum of €1.2m (£800,000). At €67,000 per hectare, that was well over three times the market rate. Why the firm was prepared to pay so much and where exactly the money ended up are questions that remain obscure. But clearly the firm was in earnest about expanding. At this point, or somewhat before, the quarry should have been stopped in its tracks.

Even before the Unesco listing, Val d'Orcia's rare beauty was not a secret: Tuscany knew what a treasure it possessed. In 1999 the region was made an "Artistic, Natural and Cultural Park" and protected as such. And the quarry's expansion was not just a matter of nibbling at a field, or spoiling some rich foreigner's view: the fields around Belvedere are visible from all the high points in the Val d'Orcia, from Pienza, Monticchiello, Radicofani, Capella di Vitaletta. The new quarry would be the original carbuncle.

But expressing disbelief and outrage was one thing: getting the expansion scheme overturned was something else altogether. One of the peculiarities of Tuscany is that the power of the local comune - the smallest unit of municipal authority - can trump that of authorities higher up the food chain.

"It's the only region in Italy," says one of Mr Tidey's allies, "where the town or provincial authority can modify what's laid down by the regional authority." Admirable example of democracy, but like any democracy, only as wise and far-seeing as those who serve it. Perhaps it takes a foreigner, or at least someone from outside the valley, to see that the unique beauty of the Val d'Orcia is the area's one fabulous asset and resource; and that it can either be handed down carefully to the next generation, or destroyed for ever.

Alistair Tidey vowed to fight the scheme. He mopped up his coffee and began canvassing for allies. It would be nice to report that the good burghers of San Quirico were quickly persuaded that the Irishman had right on his side - but untrue. The exquisite little town of San Quirico, with its beautiful miniature Romanesque church and famous Horti Leonini public park, is unpersuaded.

"The local people have been red for 60 years," says one of Tidey's friends in disgust. "Eighty-five per cent still vote red. They've got the worker mentality: before the tourism came this was a solidly working class area, and the last thing they want is for the brick plant to close. That view has been aided by San Quirico's mayor, Marileno Franci, who told them that if it couldn't expand over the hill the plant would close. He published an article claiming that foreigners wanted to put the quarry out of business so they could build a tourist village in its place."

Tidey and his local allies insist that they want the plant to stay where it is and continue doing what it does, but the bogeyman of closure and redundancy has been let loose.

But despite the local opposition, the campaign to stop the quarry's expansion has made big strides. Campaigners have galvanised the region, lobbying the region's planners holding up giant photographs of Belvedere and its landscape now and in a quarried future. Twice the planned expansion has been sent back by the planning authority, each time coming back reduced in scale.

Francesco Rutelli, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Culture, has been dragged into the fray. The director of Unesco's World Heritage Sites, Francesco Baldarin, an Italian, is said to be deeply upset, and is studying the case. Rumours fly that Val d'Orcia's listing could be removed if the quarry's expansion is not cancelled. Today Italy's Environment Minister, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, meets Claudio Martini, president of the Tuscan region, to try and force a decision.

The quarry's backers put it like this: either Tuscany can be pickled in aspic, preserved as a picture postcard, frozen in time; or new factories, new enterprises, new quarries, must be allowed to do their thing. But the choice is a false one: Tuscany can obviously have both dynamic industries and picture postcard-beautiful scenery. But it can only have both if it also has politicians with vision, and a population that is awake and paying attention. Both seem to be lacking.