The National Park of the Cinque Terre, the smallest and most densely populated of the National Protected Areas, protects an area in which the signs of man’s presence are not obviously evident, but which represent the very identity of an unmistakeable unique landscape, “a cultural landscape”, nominated by UNESCO as one of the World Heritage Sites.
The first traces of anthropic activity in the area are the Palaeolithic finds of flint artefacts and human bones in the Grotta dei Colombi on the island of Palmaria, which at that time was probably still joined to the mainland.
The thick covering of woods, the abundant wild life and the presence of rocky shelters made this territory particularly suitable for hunting, as shown by the discovery of smoothened axes and other tools to kill animals, which can be ascribed to the Neolithic period. The use and date are uncertain, however, of the menhirs found in the area around Campiglia Tramonti, near today’s Capella di Sant’Antonio.
During the Bronze Age, as in other areas in Liguria, a territorial organisation was imposed known as pagense, as the primitive nuclei met in districts called pagi, which were ruled by specific castellari, prevalently defence structures. The small towns in the Cinque Terre were protected by a fortification on Mount Castellaro dominating the pass into the Valley of Pignone.
Roman colonisation took place slowly due to the strenuous resistance of the local populations, as reported in many military chronicles. There was a more significant presence during the reign of Augustus, as some nuclei living in the hills of Liguria joined the Romans from nearby Val di Magra and founded some settlements along the coastline. Even the Latin origin of many of the place names – such as Corniglia, fondo di Cornelio; Riomaggiore, rivus maior; Monterosso, mons ruber – leads us to imagine a progressively more assiduous Roman presence and an increasing use of the roads of communication.
It was in the Middle Ages, however, that occupation of the area of the Cinque Terre became more stable and the town layouts used at the time are still visible. In the 11th century, nuclei from the Val di Vara settled definitively along the coast, now no longer subject to Saracen invasions, where the mild climate enabled them to cultivate products such as olive trees and vines. 5 main towns were founded – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Riomaggiore and Manarola – in addition to some secondary villages, all initially inhabited by farmers. Only at a later stage did the inhabitants of these areas look seawards – first as a communication route and then as a possible source of sustainment – and dedicate themselves to fishing and working the fields according to the seasons. Documentary sources testify that a few years later, in 1170, a galley from Vernazza took part alongside Genoa in the war against the Pisani.
From the 11th century onwards, man’s monumental work began to transform the territory. He gradually eliminated the natural vegetation and where previously there had been steep slopes, he created flat areas to cultivate crops. This led to the creation of a system of terraces and dry stone walls, the feature that identifies the landscape of the Cinque Terre and has made it famous throughout the world.
Everything was done using material that could be found on-site. Sandstone extracted from the ground and broken into suitably sized pieces was used for the dry stone walls. The soil was sieved and piled on to the terraces on top of a layer of vegetation, dug in to make the soil more fertile. Thus, they obtained flat strips, locally known as ciàn, supported by dry stone walls, where they began to cultivate citrus fruits, olives and, above all, grapevines.
As we have said, the growing anthropisation led to villages being founded to replace the older settlements half way up the mountain.
Monterosso is the town furthest west of the Cinque Terre, situated in a hollow overlooking Mesco Point to the east, surrounded by a series of hills sloping down towards the sea. Founded in the 11th century by people who had descended from the slopes of Soviore, where the inhabitants of Albareto had taken refuge in the 7th century during the invasion of the Rotari, Monterosso was a fiefdom of the Obertenghi and of the Da Passono lords. In 1276, it was handed over to Genoa, and fortified. The town consists of two nuclei overlooking the shore: Fegina and Monterosso. The latter, the older settlement, has partly maintained its linear village structure along the Buranco Torrent, now covered.
Vernazza was founded around the year one thousand by the inhabitants of a nucleus located at the current site of the hamlet of Reggio. It rapidly acquired strong maritime traditions and, in 1276, was ceded by the Fieschi to the Republic of Genoa, which gave it strong fortifications and a port. Built along the Vernazzola Torrent, its urban layout has remained untouched and is divided into alleyways connected by steep steps and short transversal paths. The presence of precious architectural elements, such as loggias, porticos and doors are witness of the high tenor of life compared to the surrounding areas which this town enjoyed for a long period of time.
Corniglia, a hamlet of Vernazza, perhaps founded by the Romans, was part of the domains of the Counts of Lavagna and then of the lords of Carpena during the Middle Ages. In 1254, Pope Innocence IV gave it to Nicolò Fieschi, in whose possession it remained until 1276, when the village passed under the dominion of Genoa. Traces of mediaeval buildings are still visible in parts of the town. The tower, on the other hand, was built in the 16th century as a defence against Saracen raids.
The origins of Riomaggiore date back to before the Middle Ages, as it was founded in the 8th century by a group of Greek refugees, who had escaped persecution by Leo III. The first certain historic news regards its concession by the Fieschi to the Republic of Genoa (1276). The town layout is organised according to paths laid at right angles to the main axis. The houses are built following the curves in the level of the land. The oldest are built according to the “Tower House” model.
Manarola, a hamlet of Riomaggiore, was founded at the end of the 12th century by the inhabitants of an ancient nucleus, halfway up the mountain side near Volastri. It stretched along the final length of the Torrent Groppo, now covered, around which a series of ancient Tower Houses were built, nowadays multi-coloured houses. In 1276, Manarola also passed from the hands of the Fieschi to the Republic of Genoa and was given a defence fortification, around which the main nucleus of the town has developed over the years.
Over the following centuries, the inhabitants of the Cinque Terre continued to dedicate themselves to agricultural activities. The terraced area gradually reached a considerable size and covered the slopes up to a height of 500 m. This result was obtained by enormous sacrifice on the part of the farmers, in an environment which made it continually difficult to create and maintain the cultivated areas. From the second half of the 16th century the economy began to stagnate and then to decline slowly. In recent times, the impossibility to mechanise some agricultural production processes and to introduce other technological innovations that would facilitate work in the fields has helped increase this phenomenon – common to other areas of Italy – of a decline in agriculture. The inhabitants of the Cinque Terre began to leave their homeland and emigrate and the subsequent abandonment of the land triggered preoccupying phenomena of landscape degradation.
This trend was broken by the increasing interest in tourism the area aroused and, as a result, new activities were created, beginning in the second half of the 20th century. This was followed by the creation of the Park with the aim of protecting nature and the landscape and of creating socio-economic conditions, which would enable man to constantly guard the territory.