"Ah! Nous voici en Italie !” - “Ah! Here we are in Italy”
The 19th century. What a large century it has been, century whose end only came in the wake of the First War, as Eric Hobsbawm’s blessed interpretation says. Era whose dense fullness of facts, trends and new ideas made one hundred years not enough to contain such a huge reservoir of history’s long-waves. Era that was scenario for Italy’s own Resurgence and for its pursuit of Unity, whose accomplishment’s 150th anniversary we celebrated last year. This is the reason why “acini di storia” (berries of history) proposes such a travel through time, a journey in search of foreigner sights whose first glance at Italy as a whole took place back then: a whole is what they sought for politics and for culture… was it as unite and whole also for wine?
The ultimate display case of any kind of national production was back then, as it is still today, the scenario of the World Fairs. As it has been remarked, “they are one among the most spectacular expressions of an exceptional lapse of European history. They represent the vast scenario of a world in which Europe, divided into competing states, was as well aware of its being one cultural unity showing it self to the world.”.
In 1851, London was the city where the first Word Fair took place, and many other similar events hence followed, in Europe as abroad. Several cities turned in hosting multitudes of visitors coming from all over the world to admire our not yet too old continent. The success of such fairs grew year after year, getting to its highest point in 1900, when Paris, the Ville Lumière welcomed forty-eight millions people visiting it during six ongoing months of fair .
To this day, in London as in Paris the marks left by such great events still bright: Tour Eiffel and Crystal Palace, there where they are, our reminders of the modernity of a long gone epoque. Each State would reveal in its hall the treasures it had and all the modern discoveries
Italian wine producers attended for the first time a national exhibition in Florence in 1861, being it among such event’s purposes, as it was clear also for the ruling class, the will to be just the preliminary step for the participation to those greater international fairs… “ because this Reign shall show itself as it is appropriate when attending the forthcoming London Fair”.
In a time when, quoting Massimo D’Azeglio famous words, “Italian were creating themselves” it was hence an opportunity not to be missed that to make of such an international kermesse the stage of Italy’s own national glories. An opportunity that could turn to be the very first step in the process of building a national identity whose roots would be traced in our national culture, that is cultivation when talking about wine. That exhibition could indeed represent a pioneering and surely original showcase for a recently formed State, for a unified Italy looking for its place among Europe's great ones. This is why, as many authors have noted, despite the country's financial difficulties, Italy always struggled to maintain high the standard of its presence to these events and the quality of its exposed products .
Therefore, in 1862, those exposers that had just attended our general Fair in Tuscany, they sailed across the Channel, being awaited on the other side by the foreign public opinion.
“We may next pursue our course through the foreign portion of the Nave, on our way to the Western Dome. Passing along the south side of the Nave, we had the great gratification, for the first time, to recognize a United Italy as an exhibitor.
Florence, in 1861, presented to the world the first fruits of Italian Unity and freedom in its Italian National Exhibition. Previous to this memorable day year, several of the Italian States had held their exhibitions, which, whatever their excellence, had never brought under one roof the productions of all Italy, so as to afford the opportunity of comparison and instruction. Italian and their visitors could now, for the first time, form a correct estimate of the products, the industries and fine arts, as they were found in every portion of the country, extending from the plain of Lombardy to the most distant part of Calabria. […]
For the first week, the visitors had the opportunity of viewing the cattle of Italy, which were shown in a building near the Exhibition the various breeds exciting much admiration. The agricultural implements presented a remarkable variety, extending, as they did, from a plough, as rude as any used in the time of the ancient Romans, to the most perfect imitations of our own improvements. A very great attraction was the house of a Tuscan peasant, with its living occupants, all the implements of his craft, and his live-stock. The horticulture and agriculture of the country were well represented in most beautiful specimens.”
The British press also had the opportunity to admire the industrial potential of such newborn Italy, who was not yet threatening to the pride of the great powers, those whose rivalry was far from being masked in that display of own national glories.
Five years later, Napoleon III responded to the challenge launched by London's International Exhibition of 1862, with what came to be an even more important showcase for Italy and its products. It was 1867, the Exposition Universelle intended to represent the Second Empire's encyclopedic ambitions, thus : “the concept of universality got inextricably tied to exhibitions”, for they had become cultural, political and economic events characterized by absolute international legitimacy. Italian agricultural products, Italian food and Italian fine arts resulted among the items that foreign observers celebrated the most. In Henry Thiers' words, words that he dedicated to Italy and its wine when in 1867 he attended Exposition Universelle:
Italy is quite rightly the country whose fate most concerns our spirits at this time. But while all eyes are turning to the theatre of its political activity, we shall not neglect the study of this people on a quieter scene , a scene in which its intellectual and moral development, its trade resources, and the progress of industry, they are all affirming and revealing themselves to the attentive observer.
[…] The greatest tribute that has been recognized to this new installation, is in my opinion just the phrase with which I have always heard the audience saluting the Italian section : "Ah! Here we are in Italy! ", resulting effect of the pure and only appearance of the places. Is it not true that if the visitor got it right, it has to be because Italy is concretely here, alive, with its genius so sensible and striking that speaks to all eyes?
If turning the attention from the useful and valuable materials that the soil produces, we let our eyes wander over this very vast territory - more than 25,000 hectares indeed- nature will submerge us with its prodigious fecundity. All cultivations succeed in the warmth of this atmosphere. Vineyards, grasslands, rice fields, olive groves, chestnut groves, woods, forests, pastures, one by the other, everywhere they highlight the soil's force and this land's eternal youth [..] What about those vineyards whose products have universal notoriety? And what for the oils, so much demanded by all markets? It shall be said that, as for soil's fertility, no European land can join together so many elements of prosperity.
A united Italy is this, a country whose glory was not only related to its artistic heritage as it had roots in the earth, in the very soil, in such universally notorious wine.
Such praise's significance is even greater considering how the time following Italy's unification was also the time in which our country had to socially and economically struggle, further tested by plant-pests as odium (1845), pernosphera (1878) and then phylloxera: this last one more than the others caused a huge crisis to the Italian and european viticultural production, lasting over 50 years, it destroyed vineyards across the whole old continent.
The economic situation at the end of the century was so unfortunate that it became necessary to wait over half a century in order to see a real recovery in the wine production, in Italy more than anywhere: our peninsula's countryside needed indeed institutional reforms and, in addition, at the beginning of the new century, the World Wars came to deprive agriculture of its labour force.
This is the reason why, at the beginning of the XXth century, a certain american wine-producer, while dealing with the writing of a monumental and omni-comprehensive ''Story of the Vine” criticized the Italian production for not being enough attentive to all the enological processes. Still, as Thiers did, he had to recognize '' the absolute perfection of both soil and climatic condition” of a country whose main fault was it the lack of modernization and those aforesaid unfortunate pests that had destroyed our vineyards.
Now, bringing the focus within our national borders, we can find Italo Giglioli's similar analysis of such situation. He was among the jurors of Paris' World Fair in 1900 and he was director of Rome's Agrarian Section. In his “Report on Italian Agriculture”, comparing our agriculture's conditions with what was happening abroad, he accurately sketched the malaise that was affecting the Italian agricultural world as a whole, also dedicating few pages to that wine world that was being so much devastated by the aforementioned epidemics, albeit needing to compete with the production rates of all the other European nations. Although concerned about the unfortunate economic situation Giglioli gave way to some positive observations, indicating the best path Italy should have had to to go on as soon as possible:
Italy is, more than any other nation in Europe and abroad, extensively covered of vineyards […] In Italy the very production of wine clearly shows, more clearly than that of any other thing does, signs of improvement, as much for the growing total volume as it is for the enhancing quality.
And further on:
These considerations about the production of wine in different countries and those about how alcoholic beverages are consumed by different peoples, they all show how bright and beneficial is the path that Italian industry is facing […] Hence, we shall not wait until it is too late to take advantage of such a favourable period in history.
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