The Jury of the International Carlo Scarpa Prize for Gardens has decided unanimously to dedicate the 2012 cultural campaign, the twenty-third since the Prize was instituted, to the Bosco di Sant’Antonio, an area of wood- and pasture-land in the mountains of Abruzzo near the town of Pescocostanzo.
A bird’s-eye view of the Bosco shows an irregular oblong archipelago of vegetation stretching for about two kilometres along the bottom of a glacier-gouged valley between the south-western spurs of the Maiella massif. It comprises three parts with names that have varied historically but which always refer to a “first hill”, a “second hill” and a “difesa” or “safe haven”. The tree-covered surface of these three portions occupies an area of around a hundred hectares at an altitude of between 1,280 and 1,420 metres a.s.l. and it lies within a sinuous but well-defined boundary line, beyond which spread cultivated farmland fields.
The Bosco di Sant’Antonio features the form, life and dimensions of a wooded pasture, a bosco difesa, quite different from those that characterize a thick, timber-producing forest or shrubby maquis. Its texture, except for some visibly inauthentic areas and despite shortcomings in maintenance, consists of a superb collection of huge mature trees, mainly beech, including some with a monumental candelabra shape that are several centuries old. Thousands of individual specimens – over three thousand were designated for felling and put up for auction in 1952 – relate together within a broad interweave of light and shade, of thickets and clearings, and they have all the features of a space which is lived and governed on a daily basis by man, excluding wild animals of prey and voracious flocks of sheep and goats; shady and undisturbed for horses and oxen in the summer heat; a hospitable environment for a long and varied list of living organisms, some of them especially rare, in the mountain winters.
This place helps us to understand how pastoral-sylvan-agricultural civilizations have contended with the awesome and fearsome forces of nature throughout their history and how they have developed deep-rooted traditions of knowledge and techniques, arts and crafts, management procedures and maintenance practices, temporal and spatial scales to govern them. The Bosco di Sant’Antonio embodies a multi-millenary history of the presence of plant, animal and human life. It is a workshop in which arts and crafts have been developed and practised. It is a place of sequenced daily and seasonal mysteries. It is a lucus of pagan and Christian cults and rites, and in the 1500s the Saint in its name intriguingly mutated from Anthony Abbot to Anthony of Padua.
Francesco Sabatini calls it at once a «magnificent work of nature» and a «monument of human civilization», thus associating the history of the woods with the culturally sophisticated community of Pescocostanzo. Aurelio Manzi describes it as the «finest and most famous forest biotope in Central Italy» and Piero Bevilacqua writes of it as «one of the most important examples of bosco difesa – woodland-safe haven». In 1983, Elena Croce made a renewed appeal for «urgent and strict measures to ensure protection for as possible for the ancient trees of the Bosco di Sant’Antonio», and recalled the heroic battles of the early 1950s, conducted at first by a lone individual, Benedetto Rainaldi, who then attracted the support of Gaetano Salvemini and of Mario Pannunzio, who had a letter published in «Il Mondo», and finally of the then President of Italy, Luigi Einaudi. It is very significant that the recently published Italian catalogue of Historical rural landscapes, in which the Bosco di Sant’Antonio occupies a prominent position, has a foreword by the President of the Republic himself.
The Carlo Scarpa Prize, with its associated scientific and awareness-arousing campaign, now joins this illustrious tradition of cultural and civil militancy with the specific intention of helping to show how this long-established wood can be considered not only as an important naturalistic site but also as a unique accrual of natural and historical values, a record of the tensions and contradictions rooted in changes of mentality and behaviour at the level of both individuals and society in general.
This year’s Prize comes fully to grips with a type of landscape that it has often encountered in the past, in some cases at close quarters, such as in the “Forest of Memory” in Stockholm, in the defensa of the Fresneda of the Escorial and in the little chapel of Otaniemi, but which has never before occupied centre stage in the research and cultural campaigns the Prize dedicates to its chosen sites. The Bosco di Sant’Antonio of Pescocostanzo with its thickly layered history offers an exceptional opportunity to explore the more general history of woodlands, the various stages in their evolution, the encroachments they have suffered, the cycles of decay and rebirth, down to the present. Their current condition, which appears throughout Europe and in Italy in particular to reflect yet another shift in ideas and attitudes featuring an ever-increasing but indiscriminate demand for “nature” which in turn gives rise to the antithetical ills of illegal exploitation and chronic failure to act, abandonment and excessive footfall, not always useful expansion and persistently inadequate maintenance. Thus the Prize’s commitment to raising awareness cannot but entail a duty also to help, from the primary school on, to revive the culture of woodland management.
We believe the Bosco di Sant’Antonio to be an exceptional repository of natural and cultural heritage which, having survived various perils inflicted in times of both war and peace, is now endangered more by new human life-styles than by harsh geological circumstances and unremitting extremes of climate and exists in a condition of very relative safeguard. It remains, however, a condition that compellingly conveys the values it embodies as a sacred wood, protected because it is sacred, sacred because – and only if – it is protected.
And finally, but most important of all, it is an example of a wood as a commonly held property. The Bosco di Sant’Antonio is a universal place of nature and history, for which the municipal authority of Pescocostanzo is responsible. On 12th May 2012, this community, in the person of its Mayor, will take custody of the Carlo Scarpa Seal in Treviso; a gesture of support and encouragement to this small but remarkable mountain village which, though it has seen its population halved from 2,400 to less than 1,200 over the last hundred years, maintained its commitment with cultural intensity and civic passion throughout the difficult post-war period and continues to pursue a conscious collective undertaking to plan and strive for a future that is consistent with its ancient tradition of craft skills and artistic mastery.