The mention of pigeons in Italy usually conjures images of tourists in Venice being smothered by masses of the unruly birds, left with hair dishevelled, clothing akimbo and the odd splattering of egesta. The feeding of pigeons in Piazza San Marco was legally banned in 2008 with a penalty up to €700 to discourage the practice. While we saw the occasional pigeon on our travels, they were very discreet and didn’t exhibit any manic flock behaviour. A paddle in the waters of Fontana dell’Acqua Felice cooled the feet on a warm day in Rome.
The ancient stonework of the Colosseum now serves as a comfortable columbarium. The word is from the Greek for pigeon or dove and describes the niches in walls designed for roosting and breeding.
The merging of local and imported breeds over the centuries has led to an array of colours and markings. There aren’t many places better to enjoy the morning sun than the walls of Chiesa di San Pietro at Porto Venere.
Pigeons have long been maligned as bearers of disease, possibly due to their indiscreet toilet habits and their link to the infection, psittacosis, which causes a pneumonia type illness in humans. Along with that, it seems they were responsible for the closure of five rooms in the Uffizi Gallery in April 2016. An infestation of ticks was discovered by a security guard and the rooms, displaying 15th century Italian paintings, were closed for two days to undergo pest control. The outbreak was blamed on the pigeons that perch on the Uffizi’s windows. No such problem in the Torre Guinigi at Lucca, there is plenty of aeration and fabulous views.
Pigeons obviously have a head for heights, what bird doesn’t? They can fly at altitudes of 6,000 feet or more with speeds up to 90 mph and can travel 700 miles in a single day. Some are happy to just find a quiet perch and admire the fabulous vista in Pienza.
One of the most intelligent birds on the planet, the pigeon can apparently recognise itself in a mirror as well as all 26 letters of the alphabet. Sounds like interesting research, some do look more inquisitive than others.
The belltower of Chiesa di San Donato in Bagnoregio provides a perfect niche from which to observe the wanderings of tourists in the piazza.
Pigeons have been used as messengers for centuries, the earliest reference dating back to 2500 BC. They have been credited with saving tens of thousands of lives in both World Wars with their efficient, reliable service. It wasn’t until 2006 that the last service, used by the police force in Orrisa, India, was disbanded. Presumably, the Orsini family relied on the birds to keep in touch at their palazzo in Pitigliano.
As well as breeding for food, sport and as messengers, pigeons were found to have another valuable resource. In the 16th century, their excrement was found to contain saltpetre, a substance used in the manufacture of gunpowder and fertiliser. It seemed to be in plentiful supply on the window ledges of Acquapendente.
The first mention of domesticated pigeons being used for food was in Egypt in 3000 BC and it is not unusual to find a piccione dish on menus throughout Tuscany. In January 2016, Italian celebrity chef, Carlo Cracco, caused controversy when he cooked a pigeon with turnips on Masterchef Italia. The president of the Italian Institute for the Protection of Animal and the Environment reported him to the police for encouraging people to cook wild animals. He overlooked the fact that pigeons are farmed for food and the law protecting pigeons only applies to wild ones. Of all the pigeons we encountered in Italy, this was by far my favourite.