The Valtellina: The Evolution Of A Landscape

Using Serres’ parasite analogy, we can understand how a set of agents took up residence in Valtellina, playing an essential role in forming its natural and cultural features

The Valtellina is a valley in the Central Alps that lies just south of the Swiss border, in the province of Sondrio. It is and always has been a relatively hot, wet and green gash in the middle of two relatively dry, cool and barren mountain ranges, the Rhaetian to the north and the Orobic to the south. At the eastern end of the valley lies Lake Como, which helps keep the valley’s climate moist, moderate and stable. That the orientation of the valley is almost perfectly parallel to the equator ensures that it receives the maximum amount of sunlight for its latitude, at least on its Rhaetian slope, equaling that of Pantelleria, an Italian island that lies so far to the south that it actually is closer to Africa than to Europe. For these and many other reasons, the Valtellina is an ideal place to live.

The history of Valtellina and Serres’s theory of the parasite

This is not to say that it has not had its share of problems, both natural and cultural. As in all mountainous regions, transportation has always been difficult. And as in all border territories, political dealings have been fraught and contentious. Throughout history, the Valtellina has been prized by the French and the Spanish, by the Duchy of Milan and the Republic of Venice, and by the Grisons and the Roman Catholic Church, as well as other powers. Sometimes the attention and interventions of these powers were beneficial to the valley and its inhabitants, but more often they were damaging and exploitive.

How therefore should we read the history of the Valtellina? I suggest that Michel Serres’ theory of the parasite is useful in that it equally facilitates the investigation of both natural and cultural agents and agencies. So I will say a bit about Serres’ idea of the parasite before I use it to lay out a brief geographical history of the Valtellina.

Any dedicated reader of the medical and science sections of online newspapers will have come across discussions of the human biome, the collection of microorganisms that lives in the digestive system of each one of us and is increasingly implicated in the regular functioning of our bodies, from how we metabolize the food we eat to how our brains function, so both physiologically and psychologically. In this sense, each of us, and each of our bodies, is less a unitary mechanism, a single being, and more an ecology, a landscape that hosts several species that play an integral part in how we live and who we are.

So one can take the idea of a bacterial colony that has permanent residence in our intestines and plays an essential part in forming our bodies and minds, and use it to understand how an analogous set of actors took up residence in a landscape and played an essential role in forming its natural and cultural features. The parasite works not only across ontologies – human, animal, vegetal, and mineral – but also across scale, from the molecular to the universal, with an Alpine valley lying somewhere in the middle of the first half of that range, much bigger than a person but much smaller than the world. And because the parasite works across multiple ontologies, it churns through the mixed body of a valley, with its mountains and streams, its towns and institutions, with consummate ease.

French monks, Swiss Grisons, Romans and grapevines

So who and what were the parasites who made the Valtellina what it is? We can start with the French monks of St Denis monastery who established terraced agriculture in the valley, but also with the Catholic Church more broadly, and more specifically the Diocese of Como, who oversaw their administration, including local production as well as the development of markets, first ecclesiastical, then more generally internal, and then further still international and transalpine, at which point we must consider the long and deep impact of the Swiss Grisons, who more than any other group left its imprint on the landscape of the valley as well as on its inhabitants. And let’s not forget the Romans, who left their mark centuries before the arrival of the monks of St Denis.

But when we talk about parasites we of course cannot talk about only humans. What about grapevines, Vitis vinifera, to use its Latin binomial? Certainly these vegetal agents had their effect on local people, on their mechanisms of trade and on their systems of laws, not to mention on the behavior of the Valtellina’s inhabitants, considered both singly and collectively. Grapes, and especially wine, as parasites, played an intense and enduring role in shaping the valley’s natural and cultural features. Most notably, their presence caused its hillsides to become lined with thousands of kilometers of dry stone walls, permanently altering its function and appearance. It also dramatically altered the valley’s political economy, moving it from one of local subsistence to one of international trade in just a few hundred years. And what of the rocks themselves in those very stone walls? Are they not parasites also, along with the river soil they retain and the landslides that make it all come tumbling down under a heavy rain?

Using Serres’ parasite theory to interpret the geographical history of an Alpine valley can quickly leave you exasperated and overwhelmed. Humans, plants, rocks, soil and rain are all parasites and they have all played an important role in making the Valtellina what it is today. The theory is so adaptable and inclusive as to make it virtually impossible to use to research and write an exhaustive and definitive account of the valley’s evolution, but what advantage would a simpler approach offer?

Parasites drive evolution

Looking back on other themes, one could count also earthquakes as a kind of parasite that has made regular impacts on Italian landscapes, Sicily’s Val di Noto, for example, and the peculiar qualities of its Baroque architecture, both functional and aesthetic, many of which developed in direct response to the 1693 earthquake that made reconstruction both necessary and possible.

Parasites drive evolution, both natural and cultural, and Italy has played host to countless varieties of them over its long and complex history. It has suffered, but in part because of this suffering, it bears a beauty that is unmatched throughout the world.