CHIAVARI, Italy – As a kid one of the things that fascinated me about my father, who was born in Italy, was that he had been a cowboy when he was in the army. I would listen to his stories of riding out into the vast hinterlands of America’s west, rounding up wild horses and turning those bucking broncos into serviceable animals the U.S. Calvary could use.
|The Butteri of the Maremma|
He would tell tales of how he learned to stand up on the bare back of a galloping horse, like the Roman gladiators did at spectacles held at the Coliseum for the Emperor. And he was proud of being able to reach down and pick a handkerchief up from the ground while his horse barreled along at top speed, a trick that required not only skill, but a large amount of courage as well.
It was all true. He had the photos to prove it. But it wasn’t until we went to Argentina and were invited to have lunch at an estancia, outside of Buenos Aires, that I saw it for myself. It happened quite by chance, my father had been talking about his experiences in the Calvary, and the next thing I knew we were saddling up for a ride into the countryside with our host and some of the gauchos.
I watched as my father, who was in his seventies, slipped his foot into the stirrup of one of the largest horses I’d ever seen, take hold of the reins and levitate into the saddle as if gravity had been suspended. He sat that horse like he had just saddled up the day before instead of 40 years ago.
It wasn’t until I moved to Italy and visited a cousin who lives in Lazio, near the border with Tuscany, that all the cowboy stuff came together. His leg was in a cast, an injury sustained while riding his horse and that was how I learned about the Italian cowboys of the Maremma, the butteri. It was then that I realized that my father, city boy that he was, had spent his early years around horses, and that explained everything.
Unlike my cousin and my father, the cowboys of the Maremma work with cows. Big cows, enormous cows that weigh up to 2,500 lbs and have very large horns, and they do it on horseback with only a long wooden stick with a hook on one end to help them.
There are not a lot of butteri left in Italy, but then again there are not a lot of Maremmana cattle either, only about 7,500 according to the last cattle census, although they are making a comeback.
While the Maremmana are gaining in numbers, they have been listed by the European Union as potentially at risk of extinction. They are not, in fact, endangered, but having that status entitles the farms that raise them to subsidies that help assure the breed’s survival. And with an increase in the number of cattle, it is hoped the number of butteri will increase as well, continuing a tradition that goes back to the days of the Etruscans.
Today, men, horses and cattle roam the thousands of acres of recovered marshlands that run along the coast of Tuscany and Lazio. Maremmana cattle are raised primarily for their meat, which is sold in selected butcher shops in Tuscany. It is also on the menu in Tuscan universities, but difficult to find anywhere else.
It is generally believed by the locals that saving the cattle will also preserve the century-old traditions of the butteri and increase related farm jobs. Others think it will promote tourism. One state owned farm already offers tourists early morning horse rides with the butteri, and will soon have the cowboys teaching riders how to knot the butteri’s rope.
The butteri still participate in many local festivals including the Festival of Sant’Antonio Abate on January 17th when animals are blessed and paraded in the center of Tarquinia, Tuscania, Marta and Valentano, in Lazio. In April a rodeo, merca in Italian, is held at the Roccaccia, not far from Tarquinia as well as in Blera and Monte Romano in Lazio and Alberese in Tuscany. The Festival of Sant’Antonio Abate is also celebrated in many other towns in Italy, primarily in rural areas.