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Italy’s Legendary Cowboys of the Maremma, Photographs by Gabrielle Saveri

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The butteri, or Italian “cowboys” — hailing from the lands spanning from the plains of northern Lazio up through the coastal Italian region of Maremma into southern Tuscany — have a long-standing connection to Buffalo Bill and the history of America’s Wild West.

In 1890, Buffalo Bill brought his Wild West Show to Naples, Italy and proceeded to Rome as part of his European tour to offer the world an authentic wild frontier experience and showcase American cowboy skills.

During that time, he met a local duke and prince named Onorato Caetani and a bet, or sfida was made between the two men as to who had the better horsemen.

In March, 1890, during Cody’s Wild West Show, La Sfida took place on the outskirts of Rome between the Butteri of Cisterna di Latina (located in the Agro Pontino region, where the original butteri came from), and the American cowboys.

According to Italian lore, the butteri handily defeated the American cowboys thanks to the superior riding skills of a humble, shy, and soft-spoken horseman named Augusto Imperiali.

To this day, modern-day Italian cowboys claim that they won the event and Buffalo Bill never paid the 1000 Lire he owed from the original bet.

American historians insist it was the Americans who won — the Italian riders failed to tame their horses in a reasonable amount of time, so in the end Buffalo Bill and his ensemble were the big winners.

The story of La Sfida or challenge between Buffalo Bill and his troupe, and the butteri, has become a part of the oral tradition of the modern-day Italian cowboys, who still maintain that their ancestors won the bet.

Despite the outcome of the historic event, the butteri have managed to preserve their rich, colorful and unique Maremma traditions, which date back to the spread of agriculture in the region during Etruscan times.

Their culture, however, is currently under threat. With Italy’s severe economic downturn, combined with low wages and the intensive physicality of the job, increased grain prices due to the war in Ukraine, and the coronavirus pandemic, the number of authentic, working butteri is on the decline. It is believed there are fewer than 30 full-time butteri across Maremma, and the numbers grow smaller each year.

Read the article just published in Cowboys & Indians Magazine about the exhibition here.

Cowboys and Indians Magazine – GS Butteri Story – May 2024 page 1
Cowboys and Indians Magazine – GS Butteri Story – May 2024 page 2
Cowboys and Indians Magazine – GS Butteri Story – May 2024 page 3