Due to its geographical position the Casentino has always remained an island in the heart of central Italy. Although it is less than 50 kilometres from Florence, only few people know of it. There are no invitations in the sense of highways or long-distance railways. It is difficult to visit the Casentino by accident; you really must want to go there.
The mountains, which surround the valley, protect the largest forests on the Italian peninsula and the valley is nowadays a national park. This too is a legacy of its long isolation, as is the presence of deer, badgers, wolves and many other wild animal species. Even in their daily speech the locals speak a pure, classical Tuscan, which remembers us the archaic dialect, in which Dante wrote his Divine Comedy.
It is a land of castles, ruins, parish churches (pievi), spiritual spots and places, looking if they just came out of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Casentino, a green oasis is considered by right one of the most beautiful valleys of Tuscany. The borders are marked by the mountain ridges of Monte Falterona, Pratomagno which separates the Casentino from the Chianti region, and the mount of La Verna, which separates it from the upper Tiber valley. In its centre the Arno River flows, from around Arezzo towards Florence.
The valley stretches for approximately 700 km2 and there live about 35.000 people. Casentino has a long artisan tradition of woodwork, wrought-iron work, stonework and “woollen cloth”. Many Casentino sites have been important to famous men as Dante and D’Annunzio and saints as St. Francis and St. Romuald.
The history of this valley has been turbulent, because its forests supplied wood, necessary for so many things in the middle Ages and Florence and Arezzo fought over its ownership for many years. It is said the Cupola of Saint Maria of the Flower of Brunelleschi is made out of Casentino wood, as was the whole fleet of Florence. Logical, you only had to cut the trees and throw them in the Arno, the wood flow automatically with the stream to Florence.
So the fights over its ownership were hard and long and in the 13th century, the age of the Guelfs and the Ghibbellines, the two cities joined separate fractions, Florence joined the Guelfs and Arezzo the Ghibbellines. On 11 June 1289, the Casentino was the stage of an epic Tuscan battle; the battle of Campaldino where Florence and the Guelfs defeated Arezzo and the Ghibellines. This fight is remembered by Dante in the Divine Comedy and it is historically proven, that Dante was a participant in this battle. The conquest of the Casentino concluded in 1440, after the battle of Anghiari where Francisco di Poppi, conquered the enemy of the Republic, who were forced to renounce their claim over the valley. Since this time the fate of the Florence is the fate of Casentino.
The abundance of water has always been of major importance to the Casentinese landscape. It of course took care of the beautiful vegetation, but all the small springs and waterfalls create an atmosphere where you every moment expect an elf or fairy to materialize. There is a magical touch in the landscape, similar to Ireland, were also history sometimes gets confused with myth and legend. This atmosphere of peace and spiritual gathering, combined with a sense of expectations is stronger than many other mystical places in the world.
Probably there are strong lay lines in the area, although we hardly find traces of St. Michael in the surrounding churches. The “pievi”, the castles, the ruins, quaint little towns, together with the overwhelming nature are all decorum for the vicissitudes of all kind of figures, fairy tales are made from. They colour the rich patrimony of anecdotes, myths and legends or hear sayings. In this kind of world poets and saints feel absolutely at home and so the Casentino became the home of some of them.
We already mentioned Dante Alighieri, who stayed in the Casentino as an exile for many years and took part in the Battle of Campaldino. Many parts in the Divine Comedy talk about the Casentino, for example, when he wrote about La Verna in his Paradiso defined it as “crudo sasso” (bare rock) “intra Tevero et Arno” (between Tiber and Arno).
The solitude and the isolation of mountains covered with its forests give an ideal atmosphere for praying and that’s the reason why Saint Francis d’Assisi chose La Verna to live. He loved this place so much, he stayed here for the rest of his life and it was here he received the stigmata.
Sanctuary La Verna on the sacred mountain is together with Camaldoli (Saint Romualdo) the highlight to visit in the Casentino. One of the places most known in Christianity; here Saint Francis d’Assisi received in September 1224 from Christ “the last seal” of his stigmata. Rich of natural beauties and works of art, from nearly eight centuries it is the centre of attraction and irradiation of the Franciscan message.