‘Strong, mighty Vulcan, bearing splendid light, unweary’d fire, with flaming torrents bright’
(Orphic Hymn n. 66, ‘to Hephaestus’)
As students of the academic course of professional training in Photography and Multimedia, one of our main purposes is to track down subjects that stimulate our imagination. So, at the end of the first trimester of studies, determined to text our new abilities, we decided to organise a two-day trip to discover the ‘Colline Metallifere’, an almost unknown area in the south of Tuscany corresponding to the high part of the territory crossed by the river Cecina. It is one of the most impressive landscapes to be found in Italy, for it offers a unique combination of antiquities, wild woods, acres of farmland and geothermal facilities. A kind of paradise for an aspiring photographer.
The scenery is a charming type of hell: geysers both great and small, called ‘fumaroles’, and ponds of boiling mud. It’s easy then to understand why the territory is still called ‘Valle del Diavolo’ (‘Devil’s Valley’, literally). Scholars say the Colline Metallifere inspired the ‘Father of the Italian language’, Dante Alighieri, for his depictions of Hell in the ‘Divine Comedy’. Much has changed since the very ancient times, when the Etruscans and the Romans took advantage of the metal-bearing lodes below the surface to build their prosperity.
In the nineteenth century, Monsieur François Jacques de Larderel decided to exploit the fumaroles for the production of boric acid (a chemical that is mostly used in pharmacy) and later Prince Pietro Ginori Conti for the generation of electric energy, adding a thoroughly new character to the appearance of the area. These days, what immediately hits the attention of a visitor are the cooling-towers, where the residual heat is released. They appear as huge grey chimneys, from which columns of white vapour continuously rise up into the sky, creating a deeply astonishing contrast with the green of this wide valley enclosed by the mountains. Big silvery ducts for the transport of hot vapours traverse the whole territory making it shine, like snakes crawling everywhere.
On the solitary tops of the several hills that stud the territory, enchanting tiny villages, dating back to the Middle Ages, proudly loom over the underlying woods. It is a real pleasure to walk thorough the narrow streets and enjoy the breath-taking view from the panoramic terraces. Besides, it is important not to think that such places are lifeless. As first-time visitors, we were so surprised at how vibrant they can be, especially from a cultural point of view. It was unbelievable when, in Montecastelli Pisano (where we were staying), just before dinnertime, we were offered an impromptu violin concert!
On the first day of the trip, we decided to have a visit at the abbey of Saint Galgano, a Cistercian Monastery found in the valley of the river Merse, between the towns of Chiusdino and Monticiano. The edifice was erected following the tenets of Gothic architecture which had originated from France. Conversely, the beautiful combination of Travertine stone with the bricks of Siena is very Tuscan. The absence of the roof makes the abbey unique. The atmosphere is magical at specific times of the day: at the sunset, when the red golden rays of the sun filters through the gaps of the decrepit windows creating a stunning game of lights and shadows, and at the blue hour. You can breathe peace fully when you walk by the ruins.
On the second day of the trip, the tour in the Colline Metallifere included: a visit to the geothermal facilities in Larderello, Castelnuovo Val di Cecina, Monterotondo Marittimo and Lago Boracifero. The presence of industrial structures in a natural land offers the possibility to investigate how to relate landscape and architectural photography, in order to compose an image both harmonious and descriptive. At the same time, the fact that we had a chance to spend a whole day on the spot, from the dawn until the sunset, made us understand how the light ‘chisels’ the landscape as the hours go by. But that’s not all. The lack of widespread artificial lights allowed us to do star photography with great results.
From so many points of view, it was a great experience!