Interview: Alistair Moffat, author and director of the Borders Book Festival

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SUNSET over Pitigliano. The medieval hilltop town is silhouetted against a fiery sky, while the valley below floods with muzzy golden light. Alistair Moffat gazes at it with the astonished pride of someone who has stumbled across a little piece of paradise.

Moffat – who set up the Borders Book Festival in Melrose and the inaugural Lennoxlove Book Festival at Haddington this weekend – has a house here. It's the fruit of a love affair with Tuscany which goes back nearly 40 years. Though most of his new book, Tuscany: A History, was written at his farmhouse in the Borders, it is infused with the spirit of Pitigliano. He lovingly evokes the rhythms of village life, the chatter outside the Cafe Centrale, the buzz of two-stroke engines in the narrow streets.

Some who buy a house in Tuscany would retire to live la dolce vita. But such is the energy of Moffat, a former director of the Edinburgh Fringe and director of programmes at STV, that he'd rather write a history of it.

It was, he says, no hardship. It is almost as if he has been gearing up to write it since he first fell in love with Tuscany as a student in 1971, and, as a postgraduate at the Warburg Institute, sat at the feet of Ernst Gombrich, the eminent art historian. "When I came to write it, it just tumbled out. It never became 'That damn book!'"

For every snippet he already knew, there was more to discover: Sciennes Gardens in Edinburgh, for example, named for St Catherine of Siena, after a convent in the area. Or that Siena shares with Selkirk the ancient practice of casting of the colours, a custom thought to be spread by the wool trade.

Though it covers more than 2,000 years, Tuscany: A History is not weighed down by an excess of information. Facts and figures are woven into a sun-drenched meditation on the character of the place and its people. Tuscan life, Moffat contends, is one of remarkable continuity. The lovingly tended farms and vineyards have changed little in centuries, and the old men who sit outside their doors in Pitigliano catching the sun and exchanging news are simply doing what their fathers and grandfathers did before them.

"Once, we arrived in the village, parked about 150 yards from the house, and it took us an hour to get there," Moffat says. "I met everybody that I knew in the street, and they all wanted to tell me the latest gossip. It was wonderful, I call it the Republic of Talk." In the narrow streets, past and present live side by side: the heads of wild boar – traditionally hunted in the region – are fixed to lintels above the ancient shop fronts (the rest will be made into sausages or prosciutto, or put straight on the menu of local restaurants). One of the town's main streets is named for Hildebrando, the family name of Pope Gregory VII, the most astutely political of the medieval popes.

Go deeper and more history unfolds. Caves under the town sheltered Jews in the 16th century and the Roman viaduct has been seamlessly incorporated into the medieval walls. In the valley below is a complex of Etruscan tombs, and several mysterious sunken roads, believed to link Etruscan ceremonial sites.

The Etruscan civilisation, which gave Tuscany its name, is largely lost to us, having been trampled by the growing Roman empire. The origins of these traders, craftsmen and (if their pottery is to be believed) bon viveurs par excellence, is largely a mystery, but scientists who have studied Tuscan DNA say it is different from that of the rest of Italy, giving substance to the myth that Etruria was founded by the Sea Peoples, warriors and traders from the Near East.

To see the full flowering of Tuscany, however, it is necessary to take the Via Cassia, the old Roman road, to Florence, the epicentre of the Renaissance, where culture-hungry tourists train their cameras on Michelangelo's David, and crowd into the gift shops in the street where Dante first glimpsed Beatrice.

Tuscany, after all, was a tourist destination long before EM Forster's Lucy Honeychurch found herself lost in Florence without a Baedeker. It was so beloved of the British in the 19th century that the local word for foreigners was simply gli inglesi.

Presiding over the city of Florence is the Duomo, the great cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori with Brunelleschi's magnificent dome. It is testimony not only to great art and architecture, but to great wealth. The Florentines were pioneers of banking and commerce. Beneath the cultural marvels of the Renaissance is the more prosaic invention of double-entry book-keeping.

It was here in the Duomo, in 1478, that the Pazzi conspirators – members of rival banking families – murdered Giuliano de Medici in cold blood during mass, and attempted to do the same to his brother Lorenzo. "The old business of thuggery, murder and money – nothing changes," declares Moffat.

"This is really the reason for the book, because you can come and see this wonderful art and architecture, but you don't get the narrative that underpins it. You can't explain works of art, but you can talk about the context against which these things appeared. I was interested in the political and economic background because I think it makes (the art] more intelligible."

A must-see on Moffat's personal map of Florence is the Brancacci chapel, tucked away some distance from the main tourist thoroughfares. It was here in 1971 that he and fellow student Tom Pow, now a writer and poet, knocked on the door of a monastery to ask to be allowed to see the masterpieces by Masaccio and Masolino. "Sometimes things catch you. Tom and I were just knocked out by it. The evident skill, and the peace of the place, although the paintings are about Christ's martyrdom. I'm always attracted to things which are slightly out of the way."

Moffat fell in love with Tuscany then, when he travelled to Florence for three weeks' language tuition at the British School. "I was born in a prefab and brought up on a council estate. This was possible because it was free and the Scottish Education Department paid sustenance. It was the first time I'd been in southern Europe and I thought it was magical. My God, education went on, no question. It was life-changing."

He and his wife bought their house in Pitigliano in 2002 after selling their Edinburgh home to move to the Borders. "That was the only time we were ever in possession of a big amount of money. I said to my wife: 'This is no time to be sensible, this is the time to do something daft.' I've always wanted to have a house in Italy. I occasionally mutter that we don't use it enough and we really should sell it, and the kids look at me murderously. I think it will be with us for ever."

Another Tuscan sunset, this time on the broad sweep of the Campo in Siena. As the light fades, the buildings turn the colour which has been named after the town. "This," says Moffat, sipping a glass of beer, "is one of my favourite places in all the world."

Here, too, history and modern life intertwine. Twice a year, this vast campo becomes a race track for the Palio, a furious, bare-back horse race in which the city's 17 contrade (districts) compete for money and fame. The palio is medieval and ruthless. Far from a custom revived for the tourists, it is treated with the utmost seriousness. It is also very dangerous.

"I wouldn't ride in it for all the world," says Moffat, who raises horses at his farm in the Borders. "The way the animals are treated makes you wince." But the Palio persists, embraced with the same passion by each new generation. No Sienese would have it otherwise. The Sienese, Moffat says, are "so thrawn they could be Scots". "When the Florentines took the city in 1557 they decamped to Montalcino and set up the Republic of Siena at Montalcino. It lasted for four years." Long before, the city had planned a cathedral to outshine that of the Duomo in Florence. It is still possible to see the shell, built before plans had to be halted during the onset of the Black Death.

Rivalry between the cities of Tuscany continues, but these days it is largely confined to the football pitch. "The footballers are the modern condottieri (foreign mercenaries who frequently made their fortunes fighting for Tuscan city-states]. The footballers are paid the same fabulous sums as mercenaries like Sir John Hawkwood, and they serve a similar purpose.

"That's why the football is so passionate. I think in Tuscany the past very much informs the way people think and how they act, partly because their history is so evidently splendid. Sure, they may have a clown for a prime minister, but their history is so glittering from Rome and the Etruscans onwards, do they care? If Scotland had a tenth of the artistic achievement that Florence has alone, we'd be absolutely unbearable.

"History infuses every bit of life, but not in a dusty, waistcoated antiquarian way. It makes them stand up straight. They believe that they are the chosen of the earth, and I like that. (American writer] Elizabeth Romer said that Tuscany is the place on earth where most people would like to live. I think that's right, and the Tuscans know it. And they got there first."

&#149 Tuscany: A History, by Alistair Moffat, is published by Birlinn, priced 17.99. Alistair Moffat is at the inaugural Lennoxlove Book Festival today at 12:30pm.

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