The Maremma region of Tuscany is known for its spectacular nature and scenery, picturesque historic towns, wonderful wine and olive oil, and real-live cowboys.
From the sound of the loud rustle coming out of the dense brush, it’s hard to determine if it’s a roe deer, a wild boar, or the cow we have been trying to drive out of the thicket for the past half hour. It could well be any of the above since the three species are commonly found in the Maremma Natural Park, a roughly 42,000-acre coastal strip of woods, marshes, and steppes in southern Tuscany where I have come to ride with Tuscany’s butteri, Italy’s very own version of cowboys.
We are in Italy’s Maremma region, the traditional, historic home of the butteri. A disappearing breed, the butteri tend 500 head of cattle and 80 horses on an 8,000-acre spread within the park called the Azienda Regionale Agricola di Alberese. Once one of the poorest parts of Italy — a mosquito-ridden swampland where the ancient coat of arms proclaimed Misery, Malaria, Sweat, and Blood — the Maremma is now the unspoiled pride of southern Tuscany.
Drained several times over the centuries, today it is a luxuriant, fertile region suited to tourism (though the region remains largely undiscovered), agriculture, and raising cattle. The very place that gave us the word malaria — in Italian, mala aria, or “bad air” — the Maremma is renowned for unspoiled beaches on the Tyrrhenian Sea, rolling inland hills and pine forests, vast areas of protected land that are refuge to wild animals, Etruscan ruins, and historic towns dating back to the Middle Ages. And the Maremma is known for artisanal products from wines to honey to olive oil. In fact, the government-owned azienda produces its own Morellino di Scansano wine and olive oil and grows organic vegetables, making it a natural destination in the growing agri-tourism market, a popular European travel trend in which visitors get first-hand experience on farms.
But to the butteri, whose forebears rode this land when it was dangerously inhospitable — and populated with colorful characters like the Italian Robin Hood, Domenico Tiburzi — this is strictly cowboy country. And to anyone who knows the story of Italy’s cowboys, the Maremma is the butteri.
The sun was barely creeping over the tall umbrella pine trees when, earlier that morning, I met Stefano Pavin and his crew of butteri by the azienda’s tack room. In a nearby corral, the mandria, or herd, of Maremma horses quietly munched on their morning feed. We saddled up and soon hit a hard trot with a mission to sort and gather some cattle that needed to be brought to a fair in a nearby town the following day. Our mounts showed the typical traits of the Maremma horse: tall, stout, of bay color with a slight Roman nose. There is a deeply rooted tradition of using horses for labor in this region, and the Maremma horse shows it in his character and build. Surefooted, docile yet fierce, rustic yet elegant, powerful, and athletic, he has been the buttero’s companion for centuries. A descendant of the Mongolian horse, the Maremma horse was crossbred over the centuries with the Arabian and Thoroughbred, increasing its size and enhancing its conformation. Its large feet prevent it from sinking into the mud and don’t need shoes in this land of sand and marshes.
Although the buttero bears many similarities to his American counterpart in the type of work and riding style, I noticed differences in the tack and clothing. They ride the typical Maremma saddle, or scafarda, a deep saddle that has its origins in the Italian cavalry of the early 1900s. In the front, a thick leather-covered padded roll protects the rider’s thighs from the brush while securing him in his seat. Often used without a saddle pad, it is comfortable to both horse and rider and allows air to circulate between the tree and the horse’s back. A breast collar and crupper complete the tack. The rest of the buttero’s accoutrement — such as the khaki jodhpur-style riding trousers and matching vest that blend in with the natural environment, the flat-heeled high-top boots, and small spurs — evolved from military origins. Instead of a lariat, the buttero carries the uncino, a long, thin cornel wood stick with a hook on one end and a fork on the other. Used to open and close gates without dismounting, direct cattle, safely reach the cinch when saddling a colt, or pick up hats off the ground, it is considered the buttero’s third hand.
As we rode along an irrigation ditch, the butteri cheerfully conversed back and forth. One of them, a young buttero named Luca De Santis, shared his passion for his work and attachment to this land: “This is what I always wanted to do; this is where I am from. It’s hard, but it’s rewarding. You need to have the passion for it. Above all, it’s a philosophy of life.” Not so different from the philosophy of life held by a cowboy in, say, Texas or Wyoming.
A salty breeze coming from the nearby Mediterranean swept over the marshland, carrying scents of rosemary and mint. This was the famous palude, the fragrance of the Maremma — a scent of sea and salt and earth. Approaching a lush pasture, I asked about a horse peacefully grazing a short distance away. “That’s one of our two stallions. Don’t go anywhere near him,” Stefano instructed. “This one is particularly aggressive and wouldn’t hesitate to attack you and your horse. A couple of years ago, a buttero came too close. The stallion attacked, severely injuring both horse and rider.”
No such gory drama today. We gave the stallion a wide berth, quietly following the edge of the pasture while keeping an eye on the animal. Everyone seemed relieved once we closed the gate behind us. In the distance in the next pasture, we could see the gray shapes of the cattle. I’d been forewarned about their potentially aggressive nature. We fanned out and started gathering them, but the cattle took off at a brisk trot, their enormous horns silhouetted against the green brush. The elegant and powerful Maremma cattle originated in central Asia and were imported by the Barbarian armies, which invaded Italy and subsequently caused the fall of the Roman Empire. Born a light brown, they gradually change to a silvery gray. Today, this hardy breed is raised for beef and milk.
After a short pursuit, we managed to head them off and hold them while Stefano selected and cut out the cows that would go to the fair. Once the sorting process was finished, we started pushing the small herd toward a set of corrals tucked under tall pine trees. All was running smoothly until one cow decided to break loose and go explore the thick of the brush.
Which is where we presently find ourselves, waiting for the cow to come out. Stefano, swearing at low-hanging branches, tries to drive the elusive bovine out of the thicket. As the rustle of branches grows louder, almost covering Stefano’s shouts, I faintly see a gray shape moving rapidly through the trees. I pick up my reins, ready to take over and prevent the cow from turning back into the brush, when suddenly a deer jumps out just a few feet in front of me. Accustomed to the park’s wildlife, my horse barely flinches. Amused by this diversion, I watch as the deer gracefully bounces away across the pasture. Finally, Stefano manages to push the cow through a clearing. It comes out at an elongated trot, carrying its head up with its magnificent horns pointing skyward, and joins the rest of the herd.
The sun is high by the time we reach the corrals. From here, the cattle will be loaded into a trailer and taken to the fair. The anxious bawling of a young calf that was separated from his mother during the gather catches the attention of one of the butteri. The cowboy dismounts without hesitation and carries the calf in his arms back to its mamma. Our morning work is done. Time to head for the azienda.
We ride back on a small country road shaded by the omnipresent umbrella pines. A short distance away, the rolling hills of Uccellina, covered by centuries-old olive trees — some are said to have been planted by the ancient Etruscans — overlook the park. Pink farmhouses, concealed by clumps of maritime pines, dot the landscape. A few horses quench their thirst by a windmill and a small stone cabin, a scene that calls to mind images of Texas Hill Country ranching. After the tension and frustration of the chase through the brush, Stefano is now relaxed and satisfied with the outcome of the day thus far. And everyone is looking forward to the lunch that awaits us at the azienda.
After turning our horses loose, we gather in the cookhouse adjacent to the tack room. After several hours in the saddle, we have worked up an appetite. The Maremma — and the butteri, in fact — are synonymous with certain regional food products, and our meal is a perfect example. A glass of the local red wine, Morellino di Scansano, starts things off nicely. The acquacotta, literally “cooked water,” a traditional vegetable soup with egg, poured over rustic bread with cheese spread over it, hits the spot. Then, a piece of pecorino, or sheep’s milk cheese, completes the meal. In this atmosphere of camaraderie, the butteri reminisce about good horses, wild cattle, and pretty women — favored topics of cowboys everywhere.
The next day finds me a half-hour north at the Fattoria del Marruchetone, a 700-acre historic farm where, from June through October, the butteri perform for the public, demonstrating their skills in a legendary show of ancient horse-and-cattle traditions. The property lies amid a patchwork of rolling vineyards and silvery olive groves. The elegant main residence, owned by the Countess Anna-Maria Spada, is a beautiful example of Tuscan architecture, with its characteristic green shutters on a colonnaded stone farmhouse that is centuries old. The land has been in the family for three generations. On the lawn we eat a delightful lunch of tender barbecued beef and sausages accompanied by a tasty Maremma pasta dish and fresh green beans, followed by a homemade tart. While sipping true Italian espresso, I learn from Domenico, the property’s foreman, about the connection between the butteri and the American West.
On June 25, 1876, a short distance from the Little Bighorn River, Lt. Cooke, one of Custer’s officers, gave trumpeter John Martin a written message to carry to Capt. Benteen requesting support and ammunition. John Martin was born Giovanni Martini and grew up in Italy as a buttero. His riding skills enabled him at age 15 to join Garibaldi in his fight for Italy’s independence. After moving to America in 1873, he changed his name to John Martin and enlisted in the cavalry the following year as a trumpeter. The young Martin wasn’t lacking courage. Although his horse was struck in the hip by a long-range shot when he was spotted by Sioux warriors, the hard-riding bugler managed to deliver the note to Benteen, thus becoming the last surviving white man to see Custer and his men alive.
Perhaps the most famous encounter between the Italian butteri and the American West came in 1890, while Buffalo Bill was touring Italy with his Wild West Show. The butteri of the Count Caetani di Sermoneta challenged the cowboys in a rodeo showdown. According to local lore, the cowboys were no match for the wild Maremma colts and the butteri came out the winners.
After lunch, we are treated to an authentic buttero show during which the butteri demonstrate their skills at sorting cattle or wrestling a powerful yearling calf to the ground, as for branding. Then, the horsemen perform in a variety of butteri games. The game of the rose, which finds its origins in the jousting tournaments of the Middle Ages, involves two teams. Each rider wears a rose strapped to his arm. The team that ends up with the most roses snatched from the opponents is the winner. The game tests the rider’s horsemanship skills as well as the horse’s athletic abilities. In the game of the ring, a buttero attempts to drive a spear through a ring at a full gallop. The show ends with the horsemen performing in an equestrian quadrille, choreographed in perfect unison.
It is a beautiful and impressive spectacle, the perfect ending of the day and of my time with the butteri. As the Tuscan sun goes down in a haze of orange and pink, I think of the centuries of sunsets that these cowboys, their big bay horses, and splendid silver cattle have seen. Theirs is an Italian story, but it is the story of cowboys everywhere. Guardians of open land threatened with encroachment, leading a hard life threatened with extinction. The few who are left carry on the centuries-old traditions with passion, proudly keeping their rich cultural heritage alive. In this ancient land, it is the buttero, his horse, and the cattle that remain the true embodiment of the Maremma, the still-unknown, wild, and remote countryside of Tuscany.
From the January 2008 issue.