Cornelio Bentivoglio writes from Montalcino to fellow officer Giovan Luigi Vitella in Siena on the 5th of July 1559
I wish to find a way to better endure this heat with some type of delicate wine more suited to the season and to my health than those that they have here (in Montalcino). I have always found that the wines of Montepulciano are more to my taste; I am convinced that through your means and kindness you will be able to send someone to buy some wine in Montepulciano and to then bring it to me to meet my needs .
Campanilismo, or regional rivalry, has always been one of the central features of Italian identity. From favoured proverbs to favourite artists to local specialities in food and drink, the Italian peninsula has long witnessed rivalries between one town and another over who could claim supremacy in every field of human endeavour. The wine-growing areas of Italy are an obvious example of regional rivalry: the Piedmont sniffs its nose at Tuscan vintages while Tuscans are wary of the new growers in the south.
As is demonstrated in this plea for assistance written in July 1559, preferences suggesting the superiority of one local product over another were common. Here, the seasoned military officer the Marquis of Gualtieri Cornelio Bentivoglio (1520?–1585) writes to his military counterpart Giovan Luigi Vitelli (1520–1575) who is in Siena overseeing the removal of French troops after the Florentine victory over Siena and her French allies.
Asking a personal favour, Bentivoglio—who comes from Romagna and is not a Tuscan—says that he finds the wines of Montalcino too heavy for the summer heat and not to his liking. He prefers the wines of nearby Montepulciano. Montalcino and Montepulciano were among two of the top wine-producing towns in Tuscany, and there was an intense rivalry between them. The outsider’s preference for the lighter wine of Montepulciano was not just a question of taste and bouquet. Each regional wine had varying medicinal properties and these health-giving properties are implied when Bentivoglio writes of his ‘needs’.
This letter between military leaders demonstrates that ‘whining’ about personal discomfort, in this case intense heat and the absence of a wine suited to both palate and health, may occupy as much significance to the individual concerned as other loftier affairs of state.
An observant historian will also note that the estimation of a vintage can change dramatically with the passing of time. Montalcino was esteemed in the middle of the 16th century for its sweet white wines similar to a Moscadello. Nowadays the town is associated with its outstanding Brunello, a red vintage only first produced in the beginning of the 19th century.
Did Vitelli find the time while rounding up French prisoners to organise a delivery of Montepulciano wine to his military colleague in Montalcino? Perhaps in the Medici Archives lies a thank-you note from Bentivoglio written while supping the lighter and healthier desperately requested vintage?
The research and translation of this document was done by Mark Rosen of the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow on behalf of The Medici Archive Project.
The Medici Archive is a virtually intact diplomatic record of one the most prestigious ruling families of the Italian Renaissance. Covering over two centuries of correspondence, the three million letters are held in 6,429 bound volumes originally filed by the family’s bureaucrats. The Medici Archive Project, a non-profit organization, is creating worldwide public access to the historical data in the Medici Granducal Archive by way of a fully searchable on-line database. This priceless treasure provides an insider’s day-to-day log of the activities of princes, courtiers, agents and advisors.