Landscapes of the Tavoliere

Ascoli lies on the south-west fringe of the great plain known as the Tavoliere di Puglia. Throughout the early modern period, the economy was dominated by the Regia Dogana, the Royal Customhouse of the Kingdom of Naples. This institution managed one of southern Europe's largest and most closely supervised systems of large scale transhumance. A classic study in English is provided by John Marino 1988 Pastoral Economics in the Kingdom of Naples.

The agro-pastoral system of the Regia Dogana

One of the aims of the Regia Dogana was to balance the production of corn and livestock. Cultivated land was set amongst pasture, producing a landscape of different colour patches. Privately owned arable land was grazed in the fallow period, whereas royal pasture was never cultivated. Both wool and wheat were produced as cash crops.

The grazing land owned by the royal customhouse was divided into 'Locations' which were assigned to graziers. Each location was supposed to have a fixed ratio of pasture and cultivable land. Because of policy, perhaps reacting to demand in Naples, the ratio fluctuated over time. The ratio was not the same for all locations, as it varied according to the quality of the land. A formula was used to calculate the possibile, the maximum number of sheep that could be grazed on a given location. For other animals a fixed set of calculations determined their grazing requirements in comparison to sheep. In time particular locations were used by grazers from a single town of origin, and these locati could not move from one location to another.

A treeless desert

Many descriptions of the Tavoliere in the 16th-19th centuries stress the emptiness of the plain. It is seen as 'almost without production and deserted of inhabitants'. The lack of trees and water or the heat in summer were stressed. In fact tree crops have been grown in the area for thousands of years. The impression of a barren wilderness is largely due to the strictly managed agro-pastoral regime which dominated the area for hundreds of years.

This image of the Tavoliere as the Italian 'steppes of Tartary' intensified during the Neapolitan enlightenment. It is worth noting that Doganal cartography of the late 17th and 18th centuries (from which most of the pictures in this section were taken), provides a much more balanced view of the interdependence of town and country, and of pastoral and arable production.

Towns and vigne - islands in a sea of open land

Looking at the early maps of the Locationi the landscape is of pasture, with large arable fields in some areas, interrupted by small intensely cultivated spaces.

Towns are portrayed at the edges of some maps. They were not directly relevant to the Dogana and therefore appear as points of orientation at the margins of the maps. Around each urban settlement are small enclosed fields in which small buildings, crops and trees are shown. These represent vigne, literally vineyards but in fact used for a wide variety of crops. Such plots were cultivated by townspeople for subsistence and trade. This is clearly seen in cadastral documents .

The Tavoliere - wide areas of pasture and corn

Rural land was divided into three main categories:

saldo vergine
land used only for pasture
land used for cultivation and occasional pasture
land grazed by working oxen

Most of the land in the Tavoliere was given over exclusively to pasture. The maps show the wide extent of such tracts, portraying shepherds and grazing sheep.

Locations were subdivided into 'posts' which were assigned to individual graziers or groups. A 'post' consisted of the capanne (huts) of the shepherds amid pens fenced by ferule, a type of fennel. The site often had a church and some farm buildings associated with agricultural production. Under the Dogana regime, there were strict limits to building. The abolition of the Dogana led to a rapid programme of massaria building in the countryside.

The number of posts varied greatly over time, with frequent changes in boundaries. These pastoral settlements are scattered within the grassland areas.

Some of the maps clearly show arable land, sometimes represented in brown with a striped texture. The mix of pasture and arable gave the region its other name of Tavoliere or checkerboard. The amount of cultivated land permitted by the Dogana varied according to the demands of population pressure, but was always strictly limited.

Patches of enclosed land with buildings and trees represent masserie . These were the centres of large farms owned by local notables or the central place of a pastoral locatione. Other similar areas with or without buildings are mezzane, the land put aside for the grazing of draught animals. In periods of high cereal production, mezzane were a particularly scarce resource. In late 18th century Ascoli, the cost of renting such land (with the associated buildings) was about 10 times that for renting open pasture.

A protected landscape

The maps portray the region as seen from the perspective of the Dogana. Towns and their small fields are marginal. The only activity shown is grazing and guarding sheep. Marino has analysed the symbolism of the map of San Andrea, which shows a flock of sheep with a shepherd and dog within the locatione, and horses with a dog on the same pastures. Outside the boundary, another flock of sheep grazes, but these are 'protected' by a wolf carrying a shepherds crook. Rather than horses, two deer are shown. Above is the motto Recta servat custodia iustitia pacem - 'Proper custodianship preserves the peace through justice'.

The manuscript images from this section originate from the documents of the Regia Dogana now kept in the Archivo di Stato Foggia.

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