Passerano Marmorito’s bio-cultural landscape



  • AGER International Agency for the Protection of Bio cultural Landscape


  • 20/12/2011

  • REGION :

  • Southern Europe


  • Italy (hilly regions of Northern Italy)


  • Passerano Marmorito (hereafter referred to as “Passerano”) is a little village located in Piedmont, North-West Italy, in a hilly wooded region in the Asti province. The peculiarity of this landscape is of being a residual testimony of a traditional historical rurality that took complete form between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and that has survived mostly intact until today. We can consider this landscape as a real bio-cultural landscape, a landscape where rural culture is still sometimes hardly legible in the manifestations of agro-ecosystems’ natural components, in the architectural typologies, in the landscape shapes, in people’s memories and in the biogenetic heritage of native breeds and cultivars. The farmer’s natural substrate shaping action in this land was based for centuries on a weak and extensive land exploitation model, subsistence-oriented, distributed on small properties. This model has left an important mark on biodiversity, and on people’s culture, Among the several critical factors that seriously endanger the survival of Passerano’s bio-cultural landscape, the major and most dangerous ones are people leaving the countryside to move to the cities, the mechanization and the use of chemicals in agriculture, the pressure exerted by food market; the urban sprawl. Survival of bio cultural residual landscapes allows us to take many lessons from the past, in order to build up a new sustainable development model. In the present text we show how in the case of Passerano some steps toward this direction have already been taken and we point out the medium/long term solutions that could be taken in the future to keep counteracting forces that tend to banalize and erase forever landscape's memory and values.


  • bio-cultural landscape, traditional agricultural practises, biodiversity and cultural heritage, new rurality, extensive exploitation model, crop diversity


  • Lucio Graziano naturalist, freelance consultant, president of AGER. He works on ecological networks, environmental planning, and applied research on ecosystems. Like all AGER members, he is focused on saving the residual areas of bio-cultural landscapes by identification and promoting them as biodiversity and cultural hot spots and as models of societies in harmony with nature. Franco Correggia AGER founding member, nature scholar, flora and fauna expert, Author of numerous books, papers, editor of a prestigious scientific journal: “I quaderni di Muscandia”, that collects articles on nature, history, ethnography, rural culture, landscape, in the Asti province, active biodiversity defender engaged in many local campaigns to save territory’s natural integrity.

Passerano Marmorito’s bio-cultural Landscape

Passerano Marmorito (hereafter referred to as “Passerano”) is a little village located in Piedmont, North-West Italy, in a hilly wooded region in the Asti province. Here you can still feel the old political-administrative identity of the Radicati and Cocconato noble families that held the power nearly up to the 15th century.

The peculiarity of this landscape is of being a residual testimony of a traditional historical rurality. Among the factors that have greatly helped building the Asti-region’s territory deep character, in its specific natural context, the most important role is played by the peasant culture that for millennia has permeated and shaped rural landscapes, that now in few cases are miraculously resisting a powerful push for more intensive and market oriented global economy.

We can consider this landscape as a real bio-cultural landscape, a landscape where rural culture is still sometimes hardly legible in the manifestations of agro-ecosystems’ natural components, in the architectural typologies, in the landscape shapes, in people’s memories and in the biogenetic heritage of native breeds and cultivars.  (Malvasia of Schierano, Capriglio peppers, Asti onions, Piedmonts’ Tonda-Gentile nut, Piedmont cow).


Photo 1,2 Views of Passerano Marmorito’s rural landscape

Regarding the general landscape structure, there still are cultivated mosaics of fields, vineyards, hedges, small and large forested areas, rows of reeds, punctuated by the discrete presence of votive pillars, country churches, isolated crosses, all evidence of rural and religious life. The settlements with red roofs, towers, castles and palaces overlooking the hills, seem unmoved witnesses of the evolution of these “landscapes of the time” (Photo #1, 2).

Driving forces that have shaped Passerano's landscape

Farmer’s natural substrate shaping action in Asti’s region has been based for centuries on a weak and extensive land exploitation model, subsistence-oriented, distributed on small properties. This model has allowed for the establishment of a natural community in balance with the agro-ecosystem, leaving an important mark on biodiversity, and on people’s culture.

Few mechanized crops with very low chemical inputs, woods managed with the primary objective of a regeneration of annual and long-term wood availability, therefore, with light cuts, aimed at extracting, from time to time just what was strictly needed, a careful and economical use of water, have allowed for the survival of natural forest fragments, lentic and lotic wetlands, xerothermic paranatural grasslands, riparian wooded strips, dry-type gullies, grassy cenosis, hedges, etc. These habitats are still refuges for flowers, insects, birds and mammals of high naturalistic value and they determine all the conservation interest of these areas.

Another key element that led to and partly still results in the formation and survival of the bio-cultural landscape in this region, is crops diversification. Once diversification was vital for the population to offset drops in the production of single crops, due to weather adverse conditions, diseases, market fluctuations.

Traditionally these areas were living in a dynamic and self-sufficient economy; in fact, diversification was a source of pride, a compendium of knowledge and competencies. Each farm was a point of contact for many soft skills.

Fields were cultivated with a specific crops rotation; there were orchards and large gardens. Even breeding was diversified, although the main gain was from cattle, with an average of 5-10 cows per farmhouse. Today, for different reasons, a small part of this diversity remains and maybe that is one of the things we appreciate the most about Passerano’s landscape

Passerano's landscape bio-cultural approach

If you explore Passerano’s territory and you encounter an element of its bio cultural landscape, you can acknowledge its dense and complicated network of relationships with other elements, material or immaterial, belonging to different thematic fields. This brings you to reflect on its importance and its value today, as evidence of an ancient balance and wisdom, and you feel the need to reactivate this wealth of knowledge. This way of “reading” landscape, starting from single visible details and then extending to all the connections created by them with other elements, is the essence of the bio-cultural landscape approach. Here below we report three examples, among the many existing, of Passerano’s countryside traditional elements, and their network of connection with other elements.

The case of Heather (Calluna vulgaris)

A traditional and non-intensive forest management allows better conservation of heather, an evergreen shrub of the Ericaceae family, which grows on hilltop forest clearings.

With their pink flowers, heather stretches used to “paint” forest clearings, thus, they used to leave a strong visual imprint on the forest landscape, plus, heather was used in sericulture to provide support for the silkworm to weave its cocoon, so it was linked to the cultivation, now disappeared, of mulberry trees and silkworm. In addition, heather meadows are tied to a specific insect fauna, today of a considerable conservation interest.

The case of the Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas):

Cornelian cherry is an autochthonous shrub that has become rare in Asti’s regional countryside because it’s typical of an ecotonal habitat. Traditional farming included the use of hedges to separate properties, in these hedges Cornelian Cherry used to thrive. Some specimen of Cornelian Cherry still survive today in Passerano; some of them are very old (Photo #3).

Photo 3 old Cornelian Cherry shrub

Local artisans and carpenters used the very hard cornelian cherry wood to make handles, or other wooden tools that could bear heavy loads. Women used to collect Cornelian Cherry fruits to make jams because Cornelian has a great concentration of vitamin C.
The Cornelian Cherry is a medicinal (astringent) plant; it is a great melliferous plant because it blooms early in March when leaves are not yet born. For the same reason Cornelian Cherry hedges used to give a really attractive mark on early spring’s landscape, with huge yellow flowerings along a network of country hedgerows, while all around there still were winter brown and yellow dominant colours

The case of votive pillars
This case regards a typical element of the rural architecture, not monumental but very characteristic of Piedmont’s rural landscapes. From the beginning of the seventeenth century until the middle of the twentieth century, popular belief said that those who had received a pardon had to build a pillar to thank God.
Pillars are small buildings, very aesthetically pleasing, made entirely from local materials (stones, bricks). Their architectural style was an expression of popular culture and they still have a great significance as an expression of popular religiosity (Photo#4).

Photo 4 Votive Pillar in Passerano

Pillars were also historical documents, as they used to represent the memory of the persons who had built them and the historical events in which they had been involved.
Pillars were milestones of ancient religious penitential and propitiatory processions (called “rogazoni”). Pillars had to be visible, so they have been positioned at strategic locations on roads (Photo#5), on hilltops or near crosses; actually pillars were very useful as markers. Pillars also used to create shelters for farmers during storms. Even insects and lizards often choose dry environments created around the pillars.

Photo 5 Votive Pillar positioned on a road

The network of relationships between different elements of a landscape, as mentioned above, is the very essence of bio cultural landscapes and determines their high and valuable information content, which we now have a duty to protect.

Risk factors in Passerano’s bio-cultural landscape

Among many critical factors that presently endanger bio-cultural landscape survival in Passerano, the most dangerous ones, which tend to undermine the very landscape, are the following.

First, the Italian economic boom after the Second World War and the exodus from the countryside into the cities, which began with the great social and economic changes and still continues today. This flight resulted in landscape abandonment and degradation of its forms.

The second factor has been the hard mechanization and the use of chemicals (pesticides and chemical fertilizers), associated with crops industrialization: it has saved enormous fatigue to farmer’s work, but at the same time, it has caused the disappearance or the banalization of many agro ecosystems, fundamental in characterizing the landscape.

The third factor is the global market pressure; today’s farmer no longer produces for their family consumption but according to an international food market demand, so the amount and type of productions and consequently space requirements in agricultural land have changed dramatically: farms tend to decrease in number and grow in size, to specialize their production and to reduce crops diversity.

The fourth factor is urban spread, which dangerously recreates town suburbs settelment patterns into the countryside, with houses, warehouses, shopping centres, etc., which greatly downgrade landscape and its harmony and introduce pollution and soil sealing.

What allowed Passerano’s bio-cultural landscape survival?

Passerano’s landscape today is partially maintained thanks to a number of factors that we try to describe succinctly.

First of all, this hilly land, with very steep slopes, makes agricultural intensification very difficult and the same applies to its urban transformation.

Second, rural depopulation has meant that today inhabitants are, on average, older, and still tied to agricultural practices of which they have memory. Actually, it’s thanks to these seniors that we can recall traditional rural life memory.

Thirdly, it still exist a type of “part time” agriculture in Passerano. Already in ancient times, many farmers in these regions were working for half of the season in huge farms in plain areas not far away from home. In these regions, there was a kind of capitalist agriculture driven by large landowners who were taking seasonal workers from other regions of Piedmont and Italy.

Today there still are part-time farmers that work for most of the year in industry or in the services sector in the city or in the province’s major towns, and come back home to work their land over the weekend.

Moreover, in some cases, ancient practices, having disappeared with the advent of modern agriculture, have been re-discovered more recently. For instance, fertilizers, that before were completely self-produced (with farm waste processing, manure, etc.): with the arrival of cheap chemical fertilizers, farmers had brilliant yields at first, but accompanied with water pollution, soil fertility loss for nitrates leaching, and dependence from chemical companies for products. With more recent chemical prices increases, farmers have found themselves in great difficulty, so today many of them have returned to organic matter recycling systems enhanced by modern agronomic knowledge. Now many farmers usually make by themselves and regularly use highly effective free of charge recycled products such as compost.

Another example of a virtuous phenomenon is the recent re-diffusion of traditional cultivars previously grown by old rural families: with the global food market, agro-biodiversity experienced a great decline. Very few dominant varieties are cultivated in any soil, either suitable or not, thanks to agro-industrial methods (with pesticides and fertilizers). Today, there’s a recovering demand of ancient crop varieties by consumers, promoting healthier and tastier food, and the producers also verify that they have lower costs and better yields.

Considerations on existing/feasible connections between Passerano’s bio-cultural landscape model and a new sustainable economy

Traditional agricultural landscape was created by farmers in an era in which agriculture was the population‘s basic means of subsistence, so peasants were just involuntary biodiversity managers and caretakers; on the contrary, now the whole community must participate in this effort, because agriculture is no longer an activity practiced by everybody.

In a substantive sense, there’s a need for public intervention in order to protect what remains of the current bio-cultural landscapes evidence, and, at the same time, to direct production and farming toward less impacting models encouraging landscape preservation.

Examples of public interventions that are currently working this way in Piedmont are:

  • European Community Rural Development Program which provides funds for farmers who maintain landscapes and are willing to convert their farming into environmentally friendly productions (organic, integrated);
  • regional funds for Landscape Projects (pursuant to 14/2008 Regional Law), with which Piedmont Region provides financial support to buildings’ architectural renovation or landscape restoration or other projects made up in respect of project areas’ landscape identity and history.
  • Conservation and protection measures. Protection and security are now imperative to prevent landscape values from the risk of disappearance, whilst we are working to conceive a new development model. For instance, recently Passerano’s town was  designated as “area of remarkable landscape interest” according to Cultural Heritage National law (Law 42/2004)
  • Training activities: In recent years public awareness of Passerano’s landscape value increased, the municipality has invested heavily on farmers and citizens training, e.g. organizing courses to teach what is biodiversity and why it is important.

Passerano’s bio-cultural landscape survival is essential to maintain a knowledge, biodiversity and sustainability “reserve tank”; it’s a further chance for a different world, where man is living in harmony with other living beings.

Actually, Italian and European bio-cultural landscapes are maybe not so significant in relation to food security for their inhabitants, in comparison with socio production landscapes in poorer countries, but they represent a guarantee and a point of reference for the further elaboration of sustainable lifestyles and for a high level of quality of life.

Passerano’s bio-cultural landscape future

If government intervention is essential to promote and support bio-cultural landscape rebirth, in the future a fundamental role will be played by producers, stakeholders and citizens’ private initiatives on the territory.

Today, landscape-friendly business activities are those linked to farm holidays, food and wine tourism, organic farming, or those related to local products marketing, in opposition to the supermarkets concept.

These activities are now slowly recovering in Passerano and, for being strongly linked to the territory and depending on its integrity, they are candidates to play a key role in the economic and social revival in the region and in promoting people’s return to the countryside.

Furthermore, under the current economic crisis conditions, a certain return to the countryside and to a small scale real economy, with low initial investment that focuses on the quality of the product is likely conceivable.

However, it’s unthinkable to reconstruct a peasant culture similar to the past; it is more likely that today’s world draws lessons from the old rural knowledge and instils them into other non-agricultural sectors including: tourism, energy production, services, etc.

For example, in these territories it would be desirable to set up small-scale productive activities’ districts, based on matter recycling (which was a peasant culture conceptual foundation), or new activities that use raw materials obtained locally, or a village‘s program for energy independence through renewable sources, to make the sun and wind main actors again in the production of energy, or even a program for buildings recovery, finalized to match high energy efficiency standards, in order to mimic peasant good practices, like money saving and resources waste containment, and finally an investment program on low impact and high-tech soft technologies.

This is a bet that some local communities, in some respects, have already begun to place, Passerano first and foremost among them. However, there is a fundamental condition to be met for succeeding: that this territory bases itself on ancient knowledge while simultaneously interfacing and making systems with external realities that are pursuing the same goals.


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