© 2024 Wyoming Public Media
800-729-5897 | 307-766-4240
Wyoming Public Media is a service of the University of Wyoming
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Transmission & Streaming Disruptions

The Cowboys of the Wild West in… Italy? A new exhibit focuses on the Butteri

A purple wall with a photo of people herding horses on horseback. It says "Italy's Legendary Cowboys of the Maremma" "Photographs by Gabrielle Saveri" on the wall above the photo.
Kamila Kudelska
Wyoming Public Media

Karen McWhorter, the Collier-Read director of Curatorial, Education, and Museum Services at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, walked into the center’s temporary photography exhibit space.

“We'll walk through and check out a couple of these. Some are printed in larger format on metal,” McWhorter said as she started a quick tour of the newest photography exhibit, Italy’s Legendary Cowboys of the Maremma.

Along the burgundy walls are scenes that could very much take place just outside the doors of the museum in Cody, but if you look closely there are subtle differences.

“Their clothing in particular is one thing that our visitors may notice a difference,” McWhorter explained. “These incredible clothes with roots in historical dress.”

Their hats are not as tall or wide brimmed as the American cowboy hat.

The Butteri are located in Maremma, a region just outside of Florence and Rome where they have been practicing this kind of cattle herding on horseback since some say the 1400s. University of Wyoming (UW) historian Renee Laegreid said one main difference between them and the cowboys we know is that the land they work used to be mainly marshes and swamp land.

“This is where you see the equipment and the dress that the Butteri have,” Laegreid said. “So they have these long sticks for chasing after the cows, but also they can pick things up without getting off their horses because you don't want to get off into the marshes.”

Today there are only about 30 or so “real” Butteri left. But there is a renewed effort to keep and revive the tradition.

Sophia Zanelli is a 27-year-old who grew up in and lives in Maremma. She is an agronomist for a sustainable farm in the region. There is one Butteri tending to the cattle at the farm. She goes out with him almost every day and does everything he does, but she will not claim the Butteri title because it is so traditional and hard won.

“I started to go with them [the Butteri] out with horses and help them with the work with cows and cattle in general,” Zanelli said, adding that the reason why she went out and helped was because she knows how to ride.

For Zanelli, it is very important to maintain the tradition of the Butteri. For her, it is a starting point to more sustainably manage the land and the cattle in the future. As people migrate to cities a lot of rural land is being left behind. She said the Maremma cattle, which the Butteri specialize in, are gentle in the way they graze.

“So Maremma cows can be a solution to enhance those areas because they don't need particular care and they eat plants that usually the other cows don't,” Zanelli said.

Gabrielle Saveri is the photographer of the exhibit in Cody. As an Italian American, she was intrigued by the Butteri, but was never able to find a connection to them. Until she met a French guy who knew a lot about horses.

“I told him, ‘I had this dream always to go riding with these Italian cowboys.’ And he says, ‘Oh, I can help you.’ And he says, ‘I know them.’ And he says, ‘I'll give you the name of the guy to call,’” said Saveri.

She called and soon enough Saveri traveled to the Maremma region.

“If you go to Maremma, what the Butteri will tell you is that they are the oldest cowboys in Western Europe,” Saveri said.

The beginnings of the Butteri are not so clear, but a competition in the 1890s is seared in the Italian Cowboy memories. That is when the two worlds collided. UW Historian Renee Laegried said Buffalo Bill Cody traveled to Rome with his Wild West Show. He wanted a face off between the American Cowboy and the Butteri. One of the competitions he made a bet on matched the two different cowboys to see whether they could mount three wild stallions and stay on.

“One of the [Italian] riders rode two of them and they're about ready to do the third one when Buffalo Bill says, ‘Sorry, competitions over. You exceeded the time limit. You didn't do it.’” Laegried recounted.

Buffalo Bill had won some of the other competitions so Laegried said he stopped it because he realized he was going to lose the bet.

“So it becomes this huge thing in the papers,” she said. “And Cody's called a cheat, dishonorable, all sorts of things. And the reason, they say, the reason that he ended the competition is he didn't want to have to pay, which is probably true.”

To this day photographer Gabrielle Saveri said the Butteri remember the event.

“This whole thing, it's become known as La Sfida [the challenge]. And they all talk about it,” Saveri said. “So the importance of this is that Buffalo Bill now has a really prominent role in Butteri history, in modern day history. Because now it's really become part of their tradition that they beat Buffalo Bill and they talk about it all the time.”

The story illustrates how much pride the Butteri have in their long lineage. And that pride continues to this day as they work to keep the tradition thriving. Right now, more men and women are training to become Butteri. They see this practice as one that can help sustain land in the future.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
Related Content