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I Butteri, I Butteri, the Italian Cowboys

Cowboys and Herds in the Maremma by Giovanni Fattori

If you travel through Maremma – the Italian coastal area that encompasses southern Tuscany and northern Lazio – you are likely to see gigantic white and grey cows with impressive horns called vacche maremmane (cows from Maremma).

About a hundred years ago, in addition to these local cows, you would have seen men wearing coarse cotton pants, velvet jackets and black hats. They would be riding large dark horses, called cavalli maremmani, and poking the cows with a stick to keep them under control. Those men were called butteri, which literally means “those who poke the cows” or shepherds in ancient Greek.

Maremma used to be a harsh land, known for its hardship and malaria. Close to the sea, this land was characterized by a combination of marshes and macchia mediterranea, or low sturdy trees and bushes growing close to the shore. Unsuitable for agriculture, this vast territory was used for cattle tended by men on horses.

Does this sound familiar? The same profession emerged in Spain with the vaqueiro, and it was later brought to the Americas under many different names: cowboy in the USA; charro in Mexico; gaucho in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil; chalán in Peru; llanero in Venezuela, and huaso in Chile.

But what happened to the Italian cowboys? Nowadays butteri are more of a legend than a reality. The reclamation of land that transformed the Maremma marshland into a fertile area in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, combined with the agrarian reform that abolished large estates, caused the need for butteri and their cattle to dwindle. Those who continue practicing this ancient profession today do it because they want to keep their traditions and skills alive, and above all, they wish to leave a legacy.  A few butteri can be seen in the Regional Park of Maremma in Tuscany – only four butteri exist across 4,000 hectares of land (10,000 acres) – and others remain close to Santa Severa and Tarquinia in Lazio.

Nonetheless, the profession of butteri is still admired and a few events are held these days to celebrate and preserve the longstanding tradition. In April, the estate of La Roccaccia (in Lazio) hosts the Festival della Merca. At this event, calves are branded with a hot iron, symbolizing their entry into the herd.  The festival includes typical dishes of the butteresca culture, including acquacotta (a traditional soup, literally 'cooked water') and pappardelle with wild boar sauce.

In the countryside near Grosseto and Albarese (Tuscany) one can enjoy a show of butteri handling cows and performing the beautiful Carosello, where the riders make elegant choreographies on their horses.  

I butteri, the true once-upon-a-time Italian cowboys.

YouTube: Vita da butteri in maremma (IT)

Article written by Gaia Mencagli in collaboration with the ICC Editorial Team


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