The abundance of history and literature is one of the most intriguing characteristics here in Val d’Orcia. The clay hills are infused with tales of long gone times and adventurous heroes, and one of my favourites is the story of Ghino di Tacco, the gentleman bandit who lived in the second half of the 13th century and is one of the Val d’Orcia’s best-known figures.
His kingdom was the isolated and impregnable fortress of Radicofani, not far from La Foce, perched like an eyrie high up on the bleak clay hills.
Born near Sinalunga, in the province of Siena, Ghino came of a noble family, though his father and uncle regularly set off to plunder neighbouring farms and castles – a bad habit that was shared by many other feudal landowners, with the excuse that they needed to make up for the dent in their income caused by the crushing taxes on land.
When justice finally caught up with his father – he was publicly executed in Piazza del Campo – Ghino fled to Radicofani, overlooking the Via Francigena, the road that lead from Siena to Rome.
There he made a career of robbery and plunder, swooping down like a hawk on wealthy prelates and pilgrims but allowing students and poor people to proceed unhindered.
More curious still, Ghino treated all his victims with great courtesy and allowed to keep a small part of their possessions. He soon made a name for himself as Il brigante buono, the gentleman bandit, a sort of Tuscan Robin Hood. So what makes this nobleman turned bandit different from the many other feudal lords who regularly resorted to pillaging and plunder? Why has his name gone down in history?
The fact is that Ghino’s name is quoted by none other than Dante and Boccaccio. If the truth be told, Dante’s opinion cannot be considered favourable – on the contrary, he quotes Ghino (Purgatory, sixth Canto) in connection with the ferocious murder in cold blood of Benincasa da Latrina, the judge who sentenced Ghino’s father to death. Set on vengeance, Ghino led his followers to the Papal tribune in the very heart of Rome, where he cut off Judge Benincasa’s head, impaled it on his pike and displayed it on the tower of Radicofani for a long time.
Boccaccio, on the other hand, praises Ghino’s nobility of spirit, generosity and innate sense of justice in the second tale of the tenth day of the Decameron, the story of the kidnapping of the Abbot of Cluny. Having been informed that the banquet-loving prelate was coming his way to seek a cure for his stomach-ache at the thermal baths of San Casciano dei Bagni, Ghino prepared an ambush and carried the Abbot off to Radicofani. He then locked him up and kept him on a strict diet of bread, wine and dried beans, with miraculous results. Overjoyed to be rid of his stomach pains, the Abbot on his return to Rome convinced Pope Boniface VIII to grant Ghino a pardon and even name him Knight and Prior of the Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem.
Visitors to La Foce will see the tower of Radicofani in the distance, dominating a landscape that is still wild and harshly beautiful. They may be inspired to climb up to the fortress, now partly in ruins, to be rewarded with a stunning view of the whole of the Val d’Orcia.