I spent a lovely week on a farm in southern Italy recently. The farm - a semi ruin - was bought a few years ago by two British business partners who have sensitively restored the original features of this beautiful masseria and turned it into a high spec, luxury retreat - it also boasts a swimming pool and art studio.
Jan, the owner, has done so much more, though. She is a "donna vera" ("a real woman") said her 83 year old neighbour to me, while grabbing my arm and looking straight into my eyes. She has, as a foreigner, completely taken on the whole community - which is a very unusual attitude for (Italian) buyers of second homes in Italy. Living most of her time in south east London, Jan travels with booked groups to her Masseria della Zingara - and once there, she has coffee with her neighbours, most of whom are older couples, some with their children as carers, still living the rural life. These are people living in relative poverty, with a simple way of life - chickens in the back yard, a guard dog on a leash, cherries on the trees, olive groves and vegetable plots. It is a hard life, and they are proud of their sons and daughters who have moved away from the land into the town. But their link to the countryside is central to who they are.
The region of Puglia is known as Italy's vegetable garden - my own recipe for minestrone (Italian vegetable soup) comes from my greengrocer - who set up shop in Milano but was originally from Puglia.
While enjoying the wild fennel salad, the fresh broad bean coulis, the chocolate and caramelised broad bean mousse... I started to think about what it takes to make a difference to the Italian heritage sector. Especially, I have been perplexed about why in Italy it is so rare to consider culture as a catalyst for the economy, and for regeneration generally, not simply a side benefit of the tourist industry.
Jan's approach to the restoration of her ancient masseria was to have the side chapel (the view above) reconsecrated by the parish priest on Easter Sunday, to return it to its original role for this countryside. Once upon a time, the chapel brought people together from across the land, who would gather and socialise, exchange news and gossip, organise their weekly trip to town and to the market to sell their produce, mingle with the landowners, catch up on new births and deaths, on the news from town... a civilta' contadina marked by hard work and strong relationships, carved in the sweat and heat of this land.
She told us of the trickle of locals who came by that day, some dressed in their black Sunday best, the older women with their heads covered in black head dress, each bringing something to share, and each with memories and stories of when they were children, of the hard times on the land. One old gentleman brought pictures of him standing proud next to his ravaged older father, next to the chapel of the Masseria. (The picture above is from an Italian website http://tradizionipopolari.splinder.com/post/1970140/la-festa which gathers archival material on traditional farming in Molise, one of the poorer regions of Italy. Unfortunately, I have no old pictures of the Masseria della Zingara)
Jan has built a formidable business, but not by pillaging the land, stealing its beauty and secluding it for luxury retreats - rather by injecting back into it what makes it a part of our living heritage. She has brought back meaning to a civilisation that is fast disappearing, and refreshed its value for other people who, though not born here, all have memories of grandparents and ancient roots. If the Italian state understood that this is the point of conserving heritage and history, Italy would not simply be a conservation society, but a living society built on its history.