The buttero habitually rides the horse typical of the Maremma, a Maremmano, and tends livestock, especially cattle (such as the native Maremmana breed) and sheep. The characteristic saddle is called a bardella. The buttero's attire consists of coarse cotton pants, leggings, a velvet jacket and a black hat. He protects himself from the rain with a large mantle called the pastràno. He carries the mazzarella, a stick employed for herding oxen and horses.
They are still present in the memory of older Tuscans and in folk celebrations. On the day of Sant'Antonio Abate (January 17) for the benediction of the animals, they parade in the centers of Tarquinia, Tuscania, Marta, and Valentano. Butteri participate in the various fetes of the merca in Alberese, Blera, Monte Romano, Tarquinia, and Tuscania. In the merca held in April at the Roccaccia, not far from Tarquinia, after having branded the young calves born in the year, the butteri compete in games of ability.
Solemn participation in various celebrations of Jesus Christ's Passion assumes particular color and vivacity in the procession of the Resurrected Christ held in Tarquinia in the late afternoon of Easter. The mounted butteri precede the statue through the crowd, firing salvoes with their maremmana shotguns.
The life of the buttero of other times was not to be envied from a qualitative point of view: the hard job in the marshes of the Maremma began before dawn, with rounding up the herds on horseback. They would take a unique meal before midday:
- We made loaf with bread and chicory accompanied (but not always) from a piece of ventresca or budellone. We picked up tomatoes, chicory, potatoes and ferlenghi for the acquacotta. At dusk, after the return to the barn, the only comfort was the rapazzola , a rudimentary bed, close to the beasts. The town was sometimes visited, for the inn, to warm up themselves with the wine of the wine cellar, to discuss livestock and to tune up a song "a braccio".
Roots in Northern Italian military history
The image of the military mercenary of the 14th and 15th centuries in Northern Italy (called cavalieri) riding in suits of armor wielding the mazza' (mace) persists in that of the buttero. Many pastoralists of Northern Italy found better pay as mercenaries of the period, but when unemployed returned to their pastoral lifestyle. They brought back their accoutrements of battle and adapted them, whimsically, to herding.
Current roles in Italian society
With only five or six large herds still tended by butteri today in the unspoiled national park of Maremma (the rest of Italy's livestock largely raised by commercial concerns), the tradition of the butteri is still relived outside the park in small demonstrations in the region's rural towns and in the Italian equivalent of rodeos.
It is still possible to ride with the butteri as they check their cattle in the Parco Regionale della Maremma (Maremma regional park).
Buffalo Bill and the butteri
In 1890, Buffalo Bill took his Wild West show to Rome and northern Italy (during his tour of Europe) to display cowboy skills, such as the capture of young cattle and the taming of wild horses. Unimpressed, the Italian cowboys (the butteri) challenged Buffalo Bill and his show to a contest of skill. As the story is told, the butteri proved far more experienced than the Buffalo Bill troupe, and the national moment of glory for the butteri was savored for many years.
The first Sunday in August in Tuscany still provides an annual festival to commemorate the skills of the butteri.
Existence outside of Italy
Italian emigrants to California brought the tradition of the buttero with them, where they called themselves cavalcanti. They brought with them skills in rounding up large herds of cattle, usage of the lasso, and horsemanship.