The Valpolicella toponym: meaning and derivation

The uncertainty surrounding the name “Valpolicella” is inversely proportional to the quality of the wine made from the grapes grown on such land. Someone says it derives from the Latin “Vallis-polis-cellae“, literally “Valleys of the many cellars”, while others claim it first appeared in the 12th century, and should be ascribed to the fact it was customary for the officers of the Commune of Verona to reach the Pol (now Santa Lucia di Pescantina) before heading to the neighbouring villages. Hence, the name “Valpolesela”.

According to a more imaginative interpretation, it comes from the Greek term “polyzelos”, translated as land "of the many fruits". The most accredited theory was proposed by Giuseppe Toniolo, who associated the name “Pulicella” with “pullus”, which originates its derivatives, terms used for identifying places bearing specific characteristics typical of a river environment. Yet, Luigi Messedaglia, the politician from Verona also remembered for his agronomy studies, was puzzled by Toniolo's hypothesis.

A Brief history

The earliest settlements in the Valpolicella area date back to the Paleolithic, with an increase in number during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. In the 2nd century BC, when the Roman domination started, the Valpolicella area was inhabited by the Arusnates, who first settled in the area as early as in the 5th century BC.  A number of items ascribable to these ancient pre-Roman people have been brought back to light, and are now treasured by the  Museo Maffeiano museum and by the museum annexed to the  Pieve di San Giorgio di Valpolicella church. The Valpolicella area was a paragon of prosperity, as proven by the two Roman villas situated in the municipalities of   Negrar and of San Pietrio in Cariano. The early forms of vine farming are associated with such period.

FROM 1500 TO THE 12TH CENTURY

Sure enough, the Valpolicella area was renowned for producing excellent wine as early as in Roman and medieval days.  It was nearby San Pietro in Cariano, in the hilly Castelrotto area, that the famous Edictus Rothari was issued in 683, ratifying the strategic and military importance of the site, then called Castrum Rothari. Administratively wise, the area did not include the Negrar valley, in those days know as Veriago. It was only in the 11th century that official documents started bearing the wording “Val Polesèla” to identify the present-day boundaries. Around year one thousand the Valpolicella area experienced economic and social recovery, as proven by the establishment of Signorias, castles, monasteries and religious institutes.  Among the latter, the Pieve di San Giorgio church and San Floriano church, the hub of Valpolicella's Christianity between the 11th and the 12th century, both striking examples of Romanesque architecture.

THE UNSETTLED "SERENISSIMA" YEARS

From 1276, the Valpolicella area was subject to the domination of Mastino della Scala, the lord of the homonymous Scaliger Signoria, marked by a slight delcine in independence.  After the fall of the Scaligers, occurred in 1387, the valley was briefly ruled by the Visconti family and, subsequently, by the Carraresis, who left in favour of the "Serenissima" (The Most Serene Republic of Venice) in 1405. The Valpolicella area played a strategic role for Venice, as it constituted a natural boundary with the Lessini Mountains and Chiusa di Ceraino. According to what claimed by an anonymous manuscript dating back to the 1600s, the Valpolicella area boasted 27 municipalities and stretched for as long as 25 miles. In1576 and in 1630 it was hardly stricken, like the rest of north Italy, by a plague epidemic wave.
The typical Veneto-style villas thrived uder the rule of the Republic of Venice, yet prosperity and serenity were swept away by 1796's French invasion. Despite an insurrection (the Pasque Veronesi - Verona's Easters), the French army, led by Napoleon, conquered Verona and the Valpolicella area.  The vicarage fell and the Valpolicella area lost its share of independece, being transformed into one of the ten districts the province of Verona was broken up into.

THE 1800s 

Successivamente alla Restaurazione e al Congresso di Vienna, nel 1814-15, la vallata passò definitivamente sotto l'egemonia del potere Austro-Ungarico, che condusse ad un rinnovamento amministrativo e delle vie di comunicazione. Ma nel 1817 la carestia indebolì la popolazione, spesso colpita da pellagra. Intorno alla metà del XIX secolo i moti risorgimentali giunsero in Valpolicella, con la popolazione ferma nel sostegno al dominio austriaco. Solo i nobili, animati da grandi ideali politici, furono in grado di interpretare al meglio queste istanze.
Questi anni coincisero con gravi danni ai vigneti, colpiti da inverni particolarmente rigidi, dallo oidio e i bachi da seta dal calcino. In seguito alla terza guerra d'Indipendenza, il Veneto fu annesso al Regno d'Italia. Gli anni seguenti furono particolarmente pesanti per l'economia del territorio, provocando ondate di emigrazione. Molti Valpolicellesi furono costretti pertanto a spostarsi all'Estero in cerca di lavoro. La peronospora nel 1880 colpì le viti, arrecando ulteriori danni all'economia della valle. Nel 1899 venne inaugurata la nuova linea ferroviaria Verona-Caprino-Garda, che diede impulso alla rinascita dell'economia locale. Comparvero anche le prime macchine agricole.

Following the Restoration and the Congress of Vienna, in1814-15, the valley was finally passed under Austria-Hungary, which sparked a new lease of life as regarded administration and the communication network.  But in 1817 famine weakened the population, who often suffered from pellagra. Around mid 19th century, the Valpolicella area, whose population firmly supported the Austrian rule, was reached by the revolutionary Risorgimento movement. Only the aristocracy, who endorsed the great political ideals, were able to best interpret such issues.
Such years coincided with serious damage to the vineyards, stricken by particularly cold winters and by powdery mildew, and local silkworms were affected by Beauveria.  As a consequence of the Third Independence War, Veneto was annexed by the Kingdom of Italy.  The following years were extremly hard for local economy, causing emigration waves.  Therefore, several locals had to move abroad in pursuit of work.  The 1880's downy mildew outbreak attacked the vines, causing further damage to the valley's economy. 1899 was the year of the opening of the new Verona-Caprino-Garda railway, which triggered recovery in the Valpolicella area. Farming machinery made its debut as well.

THE 20TH CENTURY: THE WARS AND THE ECONOMIC GROWTH

New farming techniques were introduced in the 20th century.  The outbreak of World War I saw a number of young men heading to the front, and sacrificing their own life in the name of their homeland. In the meantime, small farms were overwhelmed with demand from the front and, hence, saw their own profit grow.  During World War II the Valpolicella area was the scene for killings and distruction and, in 1943, after the violent impact of the German army, it was occupied, with numerous villas, schools and private buildings confiscated. In the post-war years the inhabitants started rebuilding in earnest.  In fact, as many as four villages had been razed to the ground during the war. Said settlements were rebuilt, almost fully, and the same applied to great part of the road network.  Since those sad war years, the Valpolicella area has experienced remarkable economic growth, guaranteed, today and not only today, by the winemaking heritage and by the local marble quarries.