I was in Tuscany on holiday last week. Like many Glaswegians, I have a special bond with this beautiful region of Italy. Over the years I have found many unusual connections with Scotland, particularly with Glasgow and Paisley. Recently, the Economist ran a piece – 'Chianti or Irn-Bru, signore' – about the mysterious Glaswegian connection with the mountain town of Barga. It hosts a festival celebrating 'an unlikely two-way traffic in people, tastes and ideas, between this walled medieval Tuscan town and Scotland.' It continues, '…in summer, when emigrant families come to renew their links, you are as likely to hear Glaswegian English as Tuscan-inflected Italian.'
An Australian academic based in Prato once told me that on a visit to Barga he came upon two little old ladies dressed in traditional Tuscan dress, engrossed in conversation. 'I had never heard that dialect,' he said. He thought perhaps they were talking in a language he'd never heard. As he drew closer, he realised they were chatting in broad Glaswegian. Barga also hosts a regular sarga: an event to which local people cook local delicacies for visitors. Barga's sarga celebrates the fish supper, pesce e patate. In fact the grandfather of Paolo Nutini – the singer-songwriter from Paisley – ran a renowned 'chippy' in Paisley.
The prominent cultural Barghese-Glaswegian links are well-documented, but the association remains somewhat elusive. Why would Tuscans emigrate to the poorest, darkest parts of the outskirts of Glasgow to set up their shops and cafes? I don't know, although economics is likely one of the motivations.
The Italian economy has never been particularly robust, and is struggling now with massive debt. The current president of Tuscany, Enrico Rossi, was schooled in the historical Italian Communist party tradition. His government in Florence is of the same radical tradition which has not changed since the second world war. His priority is the needs of young working-class Tuscans. In 2011, his coalition launched the Giovanisi programme costing 400m euros to assist young Tuscans by providing a right to education, financial support for vocational education, and grants for rent.
Commended by the European Commission, Rossi's programme provided over 14,000 internships in Tuscany, financed 1,500 young businesses, and 80,000 scholarships. He also launched 'Solidarity Tuscany' – a war on poverty – to support poor families and workers, which included a version of Scotland's baby-boxes, a 'baby bonus,' of 700 euros for every child born, and credits for Tuscan workers who can only find occasional work, usually in the tourism industry.
But the left is in trouble. Rossi's coalition could lose next time, even in the most radical of Tuscan towns, the city of Prato. The reason? Immigration. I spoke at length to a Pratesi activist and friend of the centre-left, who told me that immigration is now a serious problem in the region and is unlikely to be solved without a pan-European approach. 'We were fervently anti-racist in Tuscany when there were not many races here,' he sighed. Chinese immigration to Prato, including draconian workplace practices of these new entrepreneurs in the textiles industry, has been a source of much unrest, now exploited by the right-wing populist Northern League.
The Left's response to La Lega's populism has been to argue that it doesn't make sense to have mass immigration without a policy of integration (La Lega is opposed to integration too). In Prato itself, local politicians are trying to separate the first generation Chinese youth from the 'intolerant, pre-industrial' traditions of their forebears. A huge banner erected by the council in the main piazza exclaims 'Against barbarity. Rekindle human rights' in Italian and Chinese, with the internationally understood rainbow banner of human rights in a direct plea to the younger Chinese inhabitants. Apparently this has won over the Chinese-Italian youth, but whether it will promote integration in the long-term remains to be seen.
Prior to my leisurely travels to Tuscany, colleagues and I used to accompany first year art, design and architecture students from the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) to Prato, who, at the time, were from state schools characterised by 'acute disadvantage.' These wonderful Glaswegian students shared my passion for the place – Prato is not the Tuscany of rolling hills, second-home, converted barn, olive grove Brits, but the rugged, radical, industrial Tuscany – a province with the last communist council in Italy. Again, I was intrigued by the links to Scotland. Prato has two local pubs called the Wallace Bar and the Ben Nevis, replete with Saltires and the rest of the Scottish paraphernalia. Until the Glaswegians from GSA descended in Prato in 2001, I doubt that few, if any Scots, hitherto drank in these hostelries. I have yet to discover their provenance.
Prato is also a world-renowned textiles centre and has a wonderful textiles museum, the Museo del Tessuto di Prato, founded in a partnership between the city and the craft unions, and situated in a converted textile mill in the centre of the city. The museum celebrates its industrial heritage with a collection of beautiful historic and contemporary textiles including a magnificent Italian Renaissance collection and, yes, samples of Scottish textiles including tartans and Paisley-patterned cloth. Jack McConnell, Scotland's first minister at the time, attended the opening of the renovated museum.
The missing link in explaining the Tuscan-Scottish cultural connections, I'd wager, is underpinned by a shared industrial heritage. We also share a radical political tradition with the Tuscans, although unlike the Italians, we have never achieved political power. So, the next time you consider visiting Toscana, yes, visit the picture-postcard beauty we associate with the region, but consider too getting down to its industrial heartland in the plateau. It really is fascinating. Buongiorno!