Filippo Mazzei

The unsung ‘American patriot’ from Tuscany

Margreta Moss
November 22, 2012

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.


From his start as a farmer he became a politician: if Virginia was deprived of olive oil and wine because its soil and climate were not suitable, it acquired a passionate orator in favour of political and religious freedoms. In six months, he became Jefferson's inspiration, fuelling concepts and ideas that found everlasting fame in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. He even had a role in the design of the new American flag, suggesting something similar to the coat of arms of Ugo di Toscana, with its red and white stripes.


Mazzei's drafts and scripts were piled on Jefferson's desk, and he obtained citizenship in Virginia and volunteered in the first War of Independence. In 1778, Jefferson and James Madison sent him back to Europe to promote the American cause, raising funds, buying weapons and acquiring military and political information, in addition to promoting trade relations between the European states and Virginia.


He served as a diplomatic envoy with the practical sense and genuine spirit of propaganda. He really did believe in the ideals that ignited the American revolutionary movement.


‘The rights by Nature of Man are the basis of a free government,' he wrote. ‘All Men are created equal,' he remarked. And his paternity of this concept was also underlined by President John F. Kennedy, who called Mazzei in one of his books a ‘patriot from Italy.'


Mazzei returned to Italy to spend his last years in Pisa, homesick for Virginia and embittered over the restoration of the ‘ancient regime' in Europe after the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), a marked contrast to the United States, a young nation, still striving for stability and unity, where the new process that had been engineered was proving to be unstoppable.


‘I thank you for your obliging act of the culture of wine,' George Washington wrote in 1779, but Mazzei offered him more than just wine. He was one of the enlightened minds who worked to promote a set of values and ideals that would later help shape modern civilized societies.

Two hundred and fifty years after his birth, the United States dedicated a postage stamp to Mazzei. However, in Italy, his accomplishments have thus far been overlooked. Regardless, his spirit is probably still lingering around the vineyards of Carmignano, where his ancestors tended grapes, planted seeds and fought for an independent attitude, still alive today in the culture of wine.


Exploring Carmignano

The name ‘Carmignano' is first mentioned in 998 CE, when the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III of Saxony granted the bishop of Pistoia the domain of this land. But centuries earlier it was an Etruscan settlement, and recent excavations have brought to light the Tumuli of Boschetti and Montefortini, found along an interesting Etruscan trail near Pistoia that interlaces the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim route to Rome. The abbey of San Giusto, the church of San Martino in Campo, and the oratory of San Jacopo in Capezzana are all medieval jewels in Romanesque style, while the imposing Rocca of Carmignano testifies to great battles. In town, vistors can also admire the glorious painting by Jacopo Pontormo in the parish church (see TF 50): the Visitation is a landmark of Mannerism for the harmony of its composition, its vivid colours, and its aura of mystery and uncompromised beauty.


Then, there is the temple of Bacco. A museum dedicated to the vine and wine, it was inspired by the cultivations on the hills around Carmignano, from those that once belonged to the Mazzei family to those of today's vintners and devoted farmers. Among the latter are Rossella Bencini Tesi, the owner of Bacchereto estate. The only woman tending vines in the Carmignano area, she is a successful entrepreneur producing the renowned sassocarlo and terre a mano wines using the biodynamic method. She is also very proud of her dried figs, another speciality of Carmignano, which attracted the attention also of Prince Charles of Great Britian during an international agricultural fair.

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