Taking its name from ancient river Clanis, which in Etruscan and Roman times ran through the valley from Arezzo southwards (before joining river Paglia and eventually spilling into river Tiber), today the (Tuscan portion of the) Valdichiana is administratively shared between the provinces of Arezzo and Siena.
A major (overland and waterway) trading and transportation corridor as well as an important gateway between the towns of Arezzo, Cortona, Chiusi, Perugia and Orvieto and the cultures of Emilia and Latium throughout antiquity, over the centuries the valley underwent major changes as frequent flooding by river Clanis gradually turned the area into swampland from which it would only be recovered through major drainage and reclamation projects undertaken under the Medici and the Lorraine which resulted in the development of a new agricultural landscape. Its cultural, geographical and historical homogeneity make it all but impossible to give an exhaustive account of its glorious past other than by viewing it as an unbroken whole.
In addition to that, population trends within the valley remained substantially unchanged over the centuries so that a clear insight into their urban and historical evolution can be gained for virtually all settlements in the area.
Widely quoted by classical sources as the “granary of Rome”, the Valdichiana was also notorious (at least in pre-reclamation times) as a “pestilential place”: suffice it to recall Dante’s verses describing the lento mover della Chiana (“the Chiana’s slow advance”), Saint Margaret’s journey on a small boat across the swampy valley or Leonardo da Vinci’s famous map of Valdichiana portraying a valley almost completely consisting of marshy land. In this respect, the Valdichiana was also a breeding ground for forerunners of modern science (such as Ristoro d’Arezzo), early scientists such as Francesco Redi as well as the privileged subject of a number of theoretical studies (such as those of Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti) and later pratical efforts aiming to restore the valley to healthier conditions undertaken under the enlightened rule of the Lorraine as well as under the sponsorhip of the Accademia dei Georgofili: under this light, the building of grand-ducal farmhouses, the so-called “leopoldine”, the introduction of silkworm breeding as well as the development of specialised crops such as beet, tobacco and vine (now grown with the aid of state-of-the-art farming techniques) should be regarded as part of a broader, long-term landscape enhancement initiative.
In the eyes of the early grand tourists, the valley was seen as a fairytale garden as immortalised in the famous words of Goethe: “Non è possibile vedere campi più belli; non vi ha una gola di terreno la quale non sia lavorata alla perfezione, preparata alla seminazione. Il formento vi cresce rigoglioso, e sembra rinvenire in questi terreni tutte le condizioni che si richieggono a farlo prosperare” (“Fields of such beauty are impossible to find elsewhere; every lump of earth has been tilled to perfection, prepared for sowing. Wheat grows lushly on this soil, where it seems to find all the necessary conditions to thrive”).
As early as the 1500s, the Valdichiana also established itself as a major centre for the revival of Etruscan culture sparked by the unearthing of important archaeological finds such as the Chimera of Arezzo, the Orator, the Minerva of Arezzo, the bronze figurinettes from Brolio and Montecchio Vesponi, the bronze idols from mount Falterona, the celebrated bronze chandelier from Cortona, the burial sites at Lucignano and Foiano della Chiana, the terrace altar at Sodo Tumulus II and the tabula Cortonensis; centuries later, the valley, and more in particular Cortona, were the birthplace of the celebrated Accademia Etrusca which was instrumental in spreading interest in this ancient civilization (which was to be ideologically associated with the Medici family) across Europe. Having been lagely “christianised” since the earliest centuries after the birth of Christ, the Valdichiana was home to a large number of churches and monasteries since the early Middle Ages and soon started to attract high-profile artists and skilled workmen; this continued well into the Renaissance, when the valley became a hotspot for well-established artists such as Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo della Gatta, and in later centuries with prominent Baroque painter and architect Pietro da Cortona and contemporary leading artists such as, most famously, Cortona-born Gino Severini.
This incomparable heritage has been beautifully preserved through the centuries and today is still there for visitors to see in the streets and museums of charming towns such as Cortona, Castiglion Fiorentino, Marciano, Civitella, Monte San Savino, Lucignano, Foiano della Chiana and Arezzo.