Across the Atlantic, Filippo Mazzei should rightly be considered one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, together with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. But he is hardly a household name. Filippo Mazzei (1730-1816) met Franklin in London, where he arrived in 1754 to start a prosperous business importing Italian products, among them wine. It is no wonder: his ancestor Ser Lapo Mazzei (1350-1412) was the winemaker in Carmignano and chancellor of the Florentine Republic responsible for obtaining the ‘Chianti' denomination, and Filippo, born in nearby Poggio a Caiano, grew up among the lush vineyards of the province of Prato.
Filippo Mazzei had the spirit of an agronomist, planting seeds in soil and in mind, but he also had the curiosity of an adventurer, travelling from Turkey to England and America to Poland as a physician, merchant, entrepreneur, farmer, diplomat and intellectual. He was a free spirit with a practical attitude, the embodiment of the earliest Florentines who travelled the world for curiosity and business.
When Mazzei met Franklin in London, the latter was a commercial representative for the American Colony of Pennsylvania. While commissioning from Franklin two special stoves on behalf of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Pietro Leopoldo, Mazzei talked to Franklin about his idea to import Tuscan products, wine and olive trees, to the New World. Franklin and Thomas Adams invited Mazzei to give it a try, and on September 2, 1773, he boarded a ship from Livorno to Virginia. Among the things he brought with him were plants, seeds, silkworms, 10 farmers from the Lucca area, a tailor from Piedmont and lots of enthusiasm.
While visiting Jefferson at his estate, Monticello, the two became great friends, and Mazzei was granted a large allotment of land to start his experimental plantation: the first vineyard in Virginia was born. It was a fruitful commercial partnership that bloomed into an intellectual rapport that lasted some 40 years. Moved by the liberal turmoil in the colony, Mazzei gave voice also to his ideals of freedom and equality, which pleased Jefferson so much that he translated them into English to denounce the oppressiveness of English domination.