This is the one and only time I’ll ever admit this, but I know most people have never heard of the undiscovered slice of Tuscan holiday paradise that is the Maremma.

But you can bet your fluffy slippers they’ve heard of the adorable creature featured above.

And despite my very best efforts over the last two years, this dog still comes up first when you google the Maremma.

In fact, it probably always will because for some reason completely unknown to me, people love this dog. They love it so much, they google it endlessly.

Now that’s fine by me. The Maremman sheepdog or cane da pastore Maremmano is a beautiful dog. I want one, but our garden is too small.

But I recently came across an article that mentioned conservationists in home country, Australia, conducted a world-first trial where they used the Maremman sheepdog to guard the dwindling penguin population of Middle Island, just off the coast of Warrnabool.

The trial was a huge success and, reading it, I felt pretty smug. Trust an amazing territory like the Maremma to raise a dog smart enough to protect, rather than eat, penguins.

But to born and bred Maremmani, this dog is much more than shepherd with four legs or the in-vogue pet of the nouveau rich.

It is a living representation of the hardest, but most defining years of their history. The years when Italy was newly unified and a meagre livelihood was scraped together from the land.

Twice a year the Maremman farmers were forced to make the long and arduous transumanza (transhumance) into Abruzzo and greener pastures, their sheepdogs at their side.

There is this beautiful poem of the Maremman sheepdog, so white, it blended with the sheep it looked after. The locals called it the ‘White Watchman’, the protector in a time when Italy was still wild and fraught.

Curzio Malaparte writes:

“Many and strange are the voices of the Maremma, but the most familiar, the most noble and ancient is the voice of the Maremman dogs, shepherd dogs with long white hair and ears both alert and lazy. Their bark full of stately indolence covers every other voice, blends with the murmur of wild herbs, the roar of the surf, the whistle of the wind, the neighing of ponies .. and there is no encounter more dear to the heart than that of the white Maremman dog that suddenly appears on the side of hills or on the edge of the forest of tamarisk, between the dunes of the ocean, along the south-west wind ruffled fur, the fawn eyes where the delicate glow of day dies. 

They are sheepdogs , that is, guardians of the flock, but more than guardians, they too are custodians of the traditions of this land. They are the faithful guardians of the landscape, of the meadows, the olive trees, the cypresses, the oaks with black foliage, the keepers of this lean ground where there are the imprints of the strong and gentle Etruscan Apollo, long braids scattered over athletic shoulders.”

It’s even more beautiful in Italian, trust me.

For those in Abruzzo, the arrival of the shepherd and their sheep would mean milk and long forgotten fresh cheese. It was a time of celebration, as their small mountain towns expanded to embrace the visitors.

But back in the Maremma, women and children would mourn the long absence of fathers and grandfathers, uncles and brothers. The money they scraped together and sent home no salve for the lack of comfort and company.

While the transumanza is hardly practised anymore, the Maremman sheepdogs remain as a symbol of the past.

Thought to have been introduced into the territory in the 3rd century BCE, il cane da pastore Maremmano has sat at the feet of Roman generals and Medieval dukes, but it is best remembered as the companion of those wind weathered men who travelled the countryside to feed their families.

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