Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Farnese: What's in a Name?

Most flahutes are still celebrating Tom Boonen's historic 4th win in Paris-Roubaix to equal Roger De Vlaeminck's record. But curious minds in Classiques Klassieker Classiche wonder why the name "Farnese Vini", the sponsor of the yellow glow team led by the unfortunate Pippo Pozzato, sounded so familiar to Low Countries history buffs.

Photo by Cindy Trossaert, under CC BY-NC 2.0.
Indeed, the name of the Farnese Vineyard the sponsor is the same name as that of Alessandro Farmese, Duke of Parma. And here is a short history of how the Duke's deeds in the low countries came to shape what we now know to be the Netherland, Belgium and Luxembourg.

The Spanish Habsburgs in the Low Countries

Once upon a time, there were not yet the countries Netherland, Belgium, nor Luxembourg. The entire collection of lands was simply known as the Low Countries (literally in Dutch: Nederlands in plural). It was an important one as it controlled riverine access to the interior of Europe, in what is now Germany. Rivers were key transport facilities as barges can transport goods much more efficiently than oxen-drawn (or human-drawn) carts could, and bicycles weren't invented yet.

Thus, Antwerp was the trading, cultural, and political capital of Europe up until the late 16th century. Flemish tapestries sold in Brussels were famous, considered to be the pinnacle of style, and as highly-coveted as Campagnolo carbon cranks are today. All the riches were administered under the Spanish Habsburgs, who came to control the Low Countries through political marriage to the family of the Dukes of Burgundy. At this time, there was not yet the concept of Netherland, Belgium, and Luxembourg. There were simply holdings under names such as the Duchy of Brabant with its capital in Brussels, the County of Flanders with its capital in Bruges, the County of Hainaut with its capital in Mons, the Bishopric of Liège, and so on and so forth. They were very mercantile (thus the riches) and in fact Habsburg rule was largely indirect.

Alas, not all were picturesque and tranquil: over time, the Habsburg Empire became unwieldy in size yet unbounded in ambition: they wanted to expand their territories into the Americas, wage battle against the Ottomans, expand their Italian holdings, and maintain their cultural supremacy. In practical terms, this means the Habsburg court increased taxes in the Low Countries to feed more money into their coffers while at the same time they were very slow to react to clamors for change. In fact, the Nederlands-speaking local courtiers cynically say that the Habsburg Court in Spain refers to the Low Countries as De landen van herwaarts over, or "the lands over there." The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose birthday we at Classiques Klassieker Classiche celebrate each year by drinking copious amounts of a beer brewed in his name, may have been born in Gent. But the populace of the Low Countries felt too little love from the crown far away in Spain. All came to boil with the Eighty Years' War.

Is it a wonder that Charles V's personal motto was Plus Oultre?

How Belgium Came to Find Its Shape

At its onset, the Eighty Years' War vacillated back-and-forth as it defines itself as a struggle for self-determination, and as a war for religious tolerance, and once again as a struggle for self-determination.

If anything else, this war was a showcase of how over-extending one's domain and one's army can really turn the tide around. The Habsburg regent Margaret of Parma dispatched news to Spain that all is well in the Low Countries, only to find that the Duke of Alba had been sent there with a large army angry for revenge and thirty for blood. She was pushed aside the government, some cities were sacked, and discontent grew. Alba and his army marched its way all over the Low Countries sacking one city after another, to the point where it was known as the Spanish Fury. It was customary for a victorious army to be allowed a few days' worth of pillaging as a form of reward.
Spanish Low Countries and the current border of Belgium - Netherland. From Wikipedia.

His marauding army was not exactly discouraged from doing this: he was tasked with putting down a large rebellion using a mercenary army and he was told to raise his own funds as the Habsburg crown was um.... defaulting on its debts due to warfare against the Ottomans. Left unpaid, entire armies mutinied and helped themselves to sacking the local populace, including a few cities who had up to that point remained loyal to the Habsburgs. Thus, all these war crimes further united the Low Countries against the Habsburgs.

His adversary William of Orange also made the same mistakes, if arguably less frequently. He had to abandon his conquests in Brabant (which lends its name to the race Brabantse Pijl) as he didn't have money to pay his army. Basically, both armies had to play whack-a-mole against each other. With the abandonment of William's Brabantine conquest, the effective border receded northwards just around the Scheldt river (which lends its name to the race Scheldeprijs).

The Habsburg realizes that their choice of Duke of Alba was not optimal, thus came a succession of leadership changes until Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma, was sent to the Low Countries from Italy. Unlike Alba's unyielding and inflexible manner, Parma decided to capitalize on regional disagreements between the Catholic south and Protestant north, and differences in Nederlander culture versus Flemish versus Walloon. As a result, he was able to stem the rebellion right around the west-east run of the Scheldt river just north of Antwerp. The malcontent Catholic royals of the south had pledged allegiance to the Spanish crown, and there was finally peace.

Begium as we know it today. From the US State Dept World Factbook.
In time, Protestantism spread rapidly in the northern parts and Catholicism strengthened in the southern parts. So strong was this duality that even though the entire Low Countries had become independent following the division of Napoleon I's Empire, the south seceded from the north and became Belgium in 1830 after a stirring night at the opera. Thus, arguably the Belgium that we know today was due to Alessandro Farnese's diplomatic and military skills.

Farnese Vini the Vineyard

Now that we have shared the story of how Alessandro Farnese helped shape what became the modern country of Belgium, we shift our attention now to his father Ottavio Farnese came to prominence. He married Margaret of Austria, an illegitimate daughter of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who had been recently widowed. The bridegroom was 14 years old and the bride was 15 years old. What had started as a political marriage (Margaret had previously been betrothed to a member of the Medici family) turned into a genuinely affectionate union.

Parma the primary domain of the Dukes of Parma is in the northern part of Italy, Emilio-Romagna, that is cycling-mad today. In their old age Margaret purchased a town in the central part of Italy called Ortona, and ordered the construction of a palace to use as a place of residence. It is around this palace that the winery Farnese Vini exists today.

So, how good is the wine that sponsors Pippo Pozzato? Unfortunately nobody here at Classiques Klassieker Classiche has ever tasted this wine. So if you have tried a wine from this winery, please drop us a line!

If you are interested in learning more about how races in this region came about, we recommend one of our previous articles which covered the history of de Ronde, Brabantse Pijl, the Scheldeprijs, and many more.

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