Cowboys seldom spring to mind when we think of Italy. Historians may imagine the grandeur of ancient Rome, the Colosseum or the Pantheon while art lovers might be reminded of the Renaissance, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci or Caravaggio. For others good food and fine wines, pasta or pizza might spring to mind.
Spaghetti Westerns are famous and it is common knowledge that some of them were filmed in parts of Italy like Abruzzo. Less well known are the authentic Italian cowboys known locally as the butteri (pronounced bootery) or buttero singular.
These rugged herdsmen owned a vast and inaccessible land known as the Maremma, an area bordering the Tyrrhenian sea and stretching from north Lazio into south west Tuscany.
The buttero needed to be tough. Like his American counterpart, he was adept with cattle and horses and endured a hard lifestyle. The working day was long, typically concluding at dawn. The terrain, immortalized in Dante's Inferno, was harsh.
Much of the swamp land has been drained in the past hundred years but it was not always like this. Dante's description of the area around Corneto, as the picturesque village of Tarquinia was known at that time, is at once unflattering whilst also depicting something of the wild beauty of the Maremma in its haunting passages
“Not verdant there
The foliage, but of dusky hue; not light ”
This was a land where only those animals that “hate cultured fields” hide. Among these beasts, the wild boar and cattle along with the butteri would come to symbolize the Maremma and contribute to the unique culinary traditions of the area.
The butteri, in addition to their legendary animal handling skills, enjoy a reputation for being both cunning and proud. In 1890 Bill Cody, the legendary Buffalo Bill, was touring Europe. When he stopped in Rome on 29thMarch of that year, a series of contests took place between his entourage and some butteri. In one of these he famously lost after challenging the butteri to ride one of his wild horses. Thisevent is remembered and recounted in local folklore to this day.
Modern farming techniques and the reclaiming of marshland have changed the landscape of the Maremma down through the years. These changes have also witnessed a decline in the number of butteri however their characteristically resilient and strong sense of tradition means that they are not likely to become extinct any time soon. Butteri are still found today working farms such as the one at Alberese in southern Tuscany.
Shows and exhibitions of butteri horsemanship and general lifestyle take place regularly throughout the year such as the “Butteri Sotto le Stelle / Butteri under the Stars” festival which takes place in Tarquinia in north Lazio every July.