In the late Middle Ages, the principal road between Florence and Bologna crossed a stretch of Apennine mountain ridge that also connects the Mugello towns of Scarperia and Firenzuola. This strategic route, known today as the Passo dell’Osteria Bruciata, or ‘Burnt Inn’ Pass, has been noted by historians as the first Apennine passage in the Tuscan region. The Ligurians, early inhabitants of the Mugello region (which takes its name from the Ligurian tribe called Magelli), made use of it in their travels between territories. Some centuries later, Hannibal crossed the Apennines during his celebrated traverse through Italy via this very pass, having learned of its viability—as yet unknown to the Romans—from the Gauls.*
By the 13th century, this stretch of road saw high traffic by standards of the time: pilgrims on their way to the Eternal City, merchants delivering goods to Florence, locals moving livestock. Contemporary ‘itineraries’ (similar to travel guides) speak of stopover points for travellers at the nearby villages of Cornacchiaia and Sant’Agata, referencing churches with annexes where weary guests would find food and a place to rest, briefly or for the night (structures known as ospedaletti).
Use of the pass peaked in the year 1300, the first Jubilee year (organized by Pope Boniface VIII), which resulted in heavier-than-usual pilgrim traffic; however, a few years later the Comune of Florence diverted the pass—to the Futa and Giogo Passes, still used today—in a political move designed to undermine the powerful Ubaldini clan, adversaries to the Florentine Comune and rulers of vast portions of the Mugello, through whose lands the popular route passed. No longer a viable thoroughfare connecting Italian and European cities, the pass fell into a period of disuse, its attendant hospitality structures all but abandoned.
The only primary source documenting a ‘burnt osteria’ along this road is from 1585, almost three centuries after the pass was effectively cut off from traffic, in the context of a border dispute between the parishes of Marcoiano and Montepoli. An area plan drawn up on that occasion indicates an ospedaletto rovinato (meaning ‘ruined’ or ‘destroyed’ inn). A linguistic side note: here the words ospedaletto and osteria are very similar, both meaning structures that offer lodging to travellers, the former being more a place for sick or elderly in need; whereas today the terms osteria and ospedale have two distinct meanings—one a place to eat, and the other a place of medical care. The English words hospital, hospice, hospitality, host, hostel, and hotel all derive from the same Latin term for guest (and host), hospes, as these Italian words.
Back to the story. While the precise year in which the osteria was burnt down is not known, historians have extrapolated that the event took place between the early 1300s, when the pass was diverted, and 1585, the date of the only known documentation of its existence. But why was the pass named thus? And why was the inn after which the pass takes its name destroyed? Collective local memory is both unambiguous and fantastical on this point. The legend of the Osteria Bruciata has been handed down from one generation to the next for centuries in this part of the Mugello, and it is a tale not easily forgotten.
An innkeeper, whose establishment was located along the once-vital pass, took to killing lodgers in their sleep. Beyond stealing their guests’ moneys and belongings, the inn staff used their flesh in meals prepared for other guests. This horrific enterprise is said to have been discovered by a friar stopping over at the inn on his way to Florence from Bologna. The friar discerned right off that something was ‘amiss’ with the meal he was served (imagine that Yelp review). He requested some meat to take away with him, saying he wanted to give it to his fellow friars at the nearby Bosco ai Frati monastery. The innkeeper obliged, according to the tale giving the friar a package of flesh from a guest killed just the day prior (artistic license on the part of yarn spinners, no doubt). But instead of going to the convent, the friar went directly to local parish authorities. The flesh was identified as that of a human. Guards were dispatched to the inn, where additional victims were discovered. The innkeeper and his family members were hanged, and the inn burnt down.
In the 1914 third volume of his Dizionario Biografico, Geografico, Storico del Comune di Firenzuola, Stefano Casini describes the site of the osteria: ‘Now there remains only a mound of red, burnt stones’ and goes on to recount the legend, widely known in the early 1900s, of what happened to the ‘evil innkeepers’: ‘When they were in need of meat, they killed passing travellers and fed them to next guests to arrive. When two friars discovered what was going on, the building was razed to the ground.’
Today the Osteria Bruciata Pass is still traversable, by foot, as part of the vast network of hiking trails covering the entire Apennine mountain range.
*Recent historical events have demonstrated the viability of the pass. On September 15, 1944, during the battle on Monte Altuzzo, Allied troops made use of the pass as they fought to break through the Gothic Line.