London’s Mysterious Mithraic Temple

Today we have a guest blogger, Alexandra Cipriani Pettitt, who is well-known and highly regarded as a Trip Advisor reviewer. So far Alexandra has written sixty seven T. A. reviews which have earned her the awards of “Attraction Expert Level 14” and almost 7,000 points!

All Alexandra’s reviews are of particular interest, especially for visitors to London, and she writes with style and knowledge. This is her latest review on a particularly unusual London attraction which she visited in 2018.

Alexandra has given us plenty more information about Mithraism of which I was unaware when I wrote on the London Mithraic temple in my post addressed to an Italian audience at

PS You may also know Alexandra as my wife!

Mithraic Mysteries was a religion on the god Mithras.

A rival of early Christianity Mithraism was subsequently suppressed and often Mithraic Temples are found below church crypts such as Santa Prisca Rome.


It was mainly an orally transmitted cult although there are some written references to the practices in early literature. Worshippers of Mithras were mainly military, minor merchants, customs officials and bureaucratic officials; thus it was mainly a  male cult but some women, it seems, were involved with Mithraic groups.

One can admire a most endearing copy of the sculptural head of Mithras wearing a Phrygian hat.


Mithras was born from a rock as a bas relief testifies from the Baths of Diocletian. So Mithras slaughters a sacred white bull and then shares a banquet with the god Sol (the sun). This, again, can be seen in cult icons which were portable and double sided reliefs with, on one side, the depiction of the Tauroctony (slaughter of the bull) and, on the reverse side, the banquet scene of Mithras and Sol feasting on the bull.


The Mithraic Festival was held on 26th June the then Summer Solstice which coincided with the feasts of Roman clubs or collegia. Indeed, this cult held initiation ceremonies consisting of seven grades which were connected to the Planets and at each grade the initiates were placed under the protection of different planetary gods and called Syndexioi “those united by the handshake”. They prayed three times daily to the sun and Sunday was sacred.

As you enter the now ground floor you view a wall of Roman debris or artefacts found in the archaeological dig some everyday items of Londinium explanations are given throughout on an interactive mobile device as well as by guides.

You then go to a mezzanine level to discover Mithras and the Mithraic cult.

Finally you descend into the lower level of the site, seven metres below the modern pavement level.

At this point of the visit you can actually experience a revocation of the reconstructed Temple of Mithras a kind of son and lumière. As the lights dim special effects recreate the Roman Temple of Mithras – a most convincing experience. We might even have expected to see Ulpius Silvanus, the original founder, appear amongst the seven columns.

These Temples were, indeed, built underground. They were windowless and very distinctive and known as Mithraea or Mithraeum. Rome was the cult centre and the Mithraea were found in Roman Africa Roman Britain as well as Roman Syria.

The visit also includes the Bloomberg SPACE gallery as you enter. At present there is an extraordinary tromp d’oeil wallpaper exhibition inspired by Wren-aissance visions of London:

The whole Mithraean experience is situated in the European headquarters of Bloomberg close to Cannon Street Station.

Date of experience: October 2018


The Secrets of Villa Ada

Every year a ‘luogo del cuore’ (place in one’s heart) campaign is launched  by FAI, the Italian conservation body, in which people vote for a building or place worthy of protection from the ravages of time.

A friend had recently been campaigning hard to save Bagni di Lucca’s magnificent Villa Ada in the old part of the town on the hill.

Originally a late Renaissance structure owned by the De Nobili Lucchese family, the Villa Ada was completely renovated in the nineteenth century, by Sir MacBean British consul at Livorno, when the two tall hexagonal towers were built giving the villa its present characteristic appearance. The building is surrounded by a large English-style park, enriched by artificial limestone caves, wrought iron railings in the shape of intertwined branches, and other elements of garden furniture typical of the period.

A path, starting from the terrace near the villa, leads to a pergola and continues towards an artificial cave.


The villa, purchased in 1975 by the Municipality of Bagni di Lucca, was used as a spa treatment establishment. Today, however, the villa is abandoned, with obvious structural problems due to poor maintenance.

Regretfully the citizens of Bagni di Lucca, through lack of interest, couldn’t muster sufficient votes needed for a building to qualify for preservation and appropiate funding for its restoration.

Yesterday, on a beautifully serene winter afternoon such as we have been blessed for some days now at Bagni di Lucca, I decided with two friends to venture into urban exploration of the interior of the Villa Ada. (Clearly, we will not divulge how we entered as we do not wish to encourage further vandalism).

What we experienced was a scene of sad dilapidation, of melancholic abandonment, of rapid deterioration extending to the beginning of the collapse of part of the ceiling of the top floor.


We also saw the site where at least two marvellous marble eighteenth century fireplaces had been ripped out and were now lost in a sordid international black market.

Before the theft of a fireplace in 2013:

Where the fireplace was, now:


We were, however, relieved to note that the magnificently carved wooden balustrade of the grand staircase spanning three floors was still in relatively complete state, although several of its corner finials had either been removed or were partially complete.


We were also thankful that the opulent marble floors of many rooms were still intact and that the herring-bone terracotta floor of one grand salon was complete.

What struck me most in our exploration of the forlornly decrepit majesty of Villa Ada was its sheer size and the impressiveness of its state rooms despite the fact that there was little evidence of the decoration that once must have adorned its walls and nothing of the furnishings remained.

What stately occasions must have taken place in the Villa Ada’s belle-époque heyday! What elegance of powdered and perfumed ladies, trailing their chiffon and silk skirts down the monumental staircase. What waltzes, quadrilles and polkas danced to the mellifluous sounds of a salon orchestra? What grand banquets, what delicious spreads of canapés, what excellences of wines. What gossips and courtesies, what merriments, what intrigues, what secret flirtations, what words of love or censure, what plots hatched, what dreams realised and what hopes dashed in this havishamesque cobweb of an age  passed away into the sands of time?


Surely, surely there must come one fine day for a knight in shining armour  (or a Russian oligarch or Chinese Trillionaire) to awaken the sleeping beauty of  Villa Ada before it is finally enveloped in the mists of time, the strangling brambles of its garden and the evanescence of faithless memory…



The World’s First Shopping Mall?

Shopping malls or, as they are known in Italy, ‘centri commerciali’ are often accused of closing down the individual shops which traditionally dominated our high streets. With their car-parks, protection from inclement weather, their one-stop shopping possibilities and their faciities such as bars, restaurants and movie theatres it is small wonder that the ‘centri commerciali’ have taken so much trade away from old-style street-lining shops. I’ve discussed the very serious problem that is afflicting Bagni di Lucca’s shop-keepers in my post at .

Let’s not blame America for the rapid proliferation of shopping centres in Europe and Italy. London’s Brent Cross, Westfield and Dartford’s Bluewater all have European origins. Bluewater’s architecture, in particular, I found stunning enough to merit a poem :


Blue water lap me under zodiac’s dome,

enring me within the sphere of my sign

encompass eyes below crests of whitest cliffs;

inside your silvered pavilions cover

my being with bright tellurian riches,

join me in dances on coralline floors,

interpret inscriptions on the vast frieze

raising hearts to thoughts greater than they know,

breathe the argentine trellis of roses,

run your fingers down deep eastern forests

while pacific pines shade estuary suns;

make me forget this is just another

bloody shopping mall, stuck in a quarry

and I cannot pay off my MasterCard…

(Bluewater Shopping Centre, Dartford Kent)

Before the modern malls there were the Victorian covered markets. No visit to London would be complete without a window-shopping stroll down Burlington arcade


or Leadenhall market, and there’s nothing to beat Milan’s extraordinary example of architectural eclecticism, its stunning Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II, otherwise known as the ‘Salotto’, or salon, of Milanese society. Here is the galleria on my visit to it in 2009.

But let us go further back in time and enter a shopping mall that was built almost two thousand years ago and which still has its shops intact, though now no longer a functioning ‘Centro Commerciale’ but a magnificent example of Imperial Roman architecture at its most imposing.

Trajan’s semi-circular market is just part of the grandest of all the imperial fora. Funny things may have happened on the way to the old Roman forum but, with the passing away of republican Rome and the heralding of the age of the imperial city, the old forum became, frankly, too small.

(The original Roman Forum)

Successive emperors build new fora, not only to add to public meeting spaces but to mark their place in history, Of these the most distinctive are those of Caesar, Augustus, Nerva and, most superlative and extensive of all, Trajan’s Forum, designed by Apollodorus of Damascus around 100 A.D. and celebrating the emperor’s conquest of Dacia, modern day Romania,

In its glory days the forum looked something like this:

The complex comprised a public square, a basilica, a temple to the deified emperor, the famous column with spiralling reliefs of the conquest of the Dacians and the world’s first ‘Centro Commerciale’ or shopping mall.

The market museum (opened in 2007 and beautifully set out) gives one of the best ideas of what everyday life in imperial Rome must have been like. Trajan’s mall would have made a welcome change from the narrow canyon-like streets that characterised most of ancient Rome and exist to this day:

The new market would also have provided easier access for the delivery of goods and foodstuffs.

There’s so much to take one’s breath away here: from marble floors, to amazing concrete and brick vaulting, the library and a balcony from which one can enjoy some of the best views of Rome. All I missed were the ancient Roman themselves and the multifarious smells of market goods. What a wonderful place to, at the very least, have held a Christmas market. After all, this beautiful shopping mall was built during the birth of a new religion, Christianity.

But let my photos show something of the atmosphere of this Roman ‘Brent-Cross’ shopping centre:


Who knows? On-line shopping could clearly make even the shopping mall a relic of the past, After all, why even bother to lift yourself from the comfort of your armchair when you can peruse all your big shops and compare prices at the drop of a digit.



Merry Christmas – Buon Natale!



Terminal Infection for the Greatest City in the World

Exiting from Rome’s Stazione Termini – itself one of Rome’s iconic buildings and the mis-en-scene of Vittorio de Sica’s heartrending 1953 film ‘Stazione Termini’, AKA in a bad US cut version as ‘Indiscretions of an American wife’, starring Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift –


one enters the city’s largest square the Piazza dei Cinquecento (incidentally, named cinquecento, ‘500’, in memory of the Italian soldiers who died in the 1887 battle of Dogali against the Ethiopian empire. I would have preferred Piazza Termini or even Terme….imperialism is somewhat out of fashion now!)

(Battle of Dogali – Italy’s late bid for an Empire…)

The square has, beyond the seemingly interminable bus stands, the ruins of the greatest Roman baths of the city, Diocletian’s, which date back to 300 AD.


(From Bannister Fletcher’s plan of the baths)

These baths, besides comprising the Michelangelo-designed Santa Maria degli Angeli, contain the main part of Rome’s (and perhaps the world’s) finest museum of classical antiquities.

The National Roman Museum was founded in 1889 with the intention of being one of the main “Centres of historical and artistic culture of re-united Italy”.

The museum has been reorganized into four separate divisions, each in a different location:

These are:

  • The National Museum of Rome in Diocletian’s baths (visited in 2011).
  • The Palazzo Altemps (which I visited in 2017)
  • The Palazzo Massimo (visited in 2011 and again this year)
  • The Crypta Balbi (not yet visited).

The palazzo Massimo is conveniently placed near the Stazione Termini and on the morning of my departure from Rome I was able to visit it in the company of my two friends, John and Carol.

The palazzo itself is a massive nineteenth-century neo-Renaissance style building with great views over the ‘cinquecento’ square,



It is most suitable for housing one of the most important ancient art collections in the world: sculptures, frescoes, mosaics, coins and goldsmiths’ works document the evolution of Roman artistic culture.

Here is the plan of the Museo di Palazzo Massimo:




We wisely started on the second floor where frescoes, stuccoes and mosaics document the decoration of prestigious Roman residences. Here I was particularly struck by the evocative frescoes of the pomegranate gardens of the Emperor Augustus’s wife, Livia Drusilla’s villa, here recomposed from its original location at Prima Porta, and the Farnesina villa.



Isn’t it easy for any ornithologist or botanist to recognize the life in these pictures, even after two thousand years? Spot the hoopoe (Upupa in Italian).



The mosaics and intarsia are equally astounding.



Suddenly I felt a déjà vue. Of course, I have been here before! It was in 2011, with my wife Sandra on a visit to meet school friends John Wagstaff and Martin Cardwell at Piazza dell’Esedra.. Such is the richness of the Imperial city however, that I saw these wonders with new eyes.


(Me and old school-mates with consorts at fountain in piazza dell’Esedra, 2011)

The first floor is dedicated to the development of sculpture and portraiture. Here is the girl from Anzio and Roman copies of celebrated Greek statues: the discus thrower, the crouching Aphrodite:


Surely Bagni di Lucca’s own bather is inspired by her.


(Statue in foyer of Bagni di Lucca’s town hall)

Then there’s the discus thrower, and the gender-bending sleeping hermaphrodite.



I was particularly taken by the bronze sculptures which are all that remain of Caligula’s ceremonial ships dredged from the lake of Nemi in 1930’s after centuries of futile effort in recovering them.



Sadly, the hulks were the victims of the last war. The description in the museum states they were destroyed by arson in 1944. My HM government pamphlet on destruction of monuments in Italy in WW2 issued in 1945 states that they were set alight in a revenge attack by retreating German troops. A more recent report describes the situation thus:

At that time, Allied forces were pursuing the retreating German army northward through the Alban Hills toward Rome. On May 28, a German artillery post was established within 400 feet (120 m) of the museum … An official report filed in Rome later that year described the tragedy as a wilful act on the part of the German soldiers. A German editorial blamed the destruction on American artillery fire. The true story of what happened that night will probably never be known

What will also never be known is what happened to ‘Project Diana’ of 2004 to rebuild these ships in their original size (sufficient drawings exist for this to be achievable – the Nemi museum now only houses copies built to one fifth the original size). Anyway, let us be grateful that at least these impressive bronze pieces have survived from what must have been hugely impressive galleys. But if only they’d waited to dredge them after that war!

Also to wonder at on this floor is the Portonaccio sarcophagus: a virtuoso piece of sculpture describing battles fought by one of Marcus Aurelius’ generals.



Isn’t the lighting in this museum superb!

The ground floor houses stunning original Greek sculpture found in Rome: the Boxer, the Hellenistic Prince and the Niobe from the Sallustian gardens, and culminating in the statue of the emperor Augustus, Pontiff Maximum.



Time was now no longer on my side and, besides, there is only so much one can take in, even if it is the finest Roman collection of Roman antiquities in the world.

A surprisingly good lunch was followed by a heart-felt goodbye to my dear friends


and a hasty departure to catch my train to Pisa and thence to Bagni di Lucca, homeward bound to Longoio.



It was a journey of a little over six hours on the coast railway which always gives splendid views and is somewhat cheaper than going on the TAV to Florence (which actually doesn’t cut the journey time very much especially when one considers it takes longer to get from Bagni di Lucca to Florence than from Florence to Rome!)

Goodbye beautiful Eternal City. See you soon again!


PS As I approached Lucca I thought of the words of the magnificent ‘Inno a Roma’ composed by that city’s most famous son, Giacomo Puccini. Here it is conducted by my friend Andrea Colombini in Vienna’s Musikverein. (yes we were there!!!!!). See words below with my translation,

PPS Here are my return train tickets:


In case you didn’t work it out, it cost me £22.59 to travel 237 miles without any rubbish pre-booking – just on the spot.  Check that out with a typical UK train fare….



Inno a Roma

Roma divina, a te sul Campidoglio
dove eterno verdeggia il sacro alloro,
a te, nostra fortezza e nostro orgoglio,
ascende il coro.

 Salve, Dea Roma! Ti sfavilla in fronte
il sol che nasce sulla nuova Storia.
Fulgida in arme, all’ultimo orizzonte,
sta la Vittoria.

 Sole che sorgi libero e giocondo,
sul Colle nostro i tuoi cavalli doma:
tu non vedrai nessuna cosa al mondo
maggior di Roma.

 Per tutto il cielo è un volo di bandiere
e la pace del mondo oggi è latina.
Il tricolore canta sul cantiere,
su l’officina.

 Madre di messi e di lanosi armenti;
d’opere schiette e di pensose scuole,
tornano alle tue case i reggimenti
e sorge il sole.

 Sole che sorgi libero e giocondo…


(My translation:

Hymn to Rome

Divine Rome, our choir’s voices soar towards you

on the Capitoline hill

where the sacred laurel is eternally green;

our choir rises to you, our fortress and our pride,


Hail, Goddess Rome! the sun, born in a new chapter of history,

shines before you.

Victory strides

resplendent in arms, upon the new horizon,


The sun, rising free and jubilantly,

tames the horses on our hill:

you will not see anything in the world

greater than Rome.


Throughout the sky flags are flying

and today the world’s peace is Latinate.

The tricolour flag sings on the construction site

and on the factory.


Mother of harvests and woolly flocks,

of honest work and diligent schools,

our regiments return to your homes

and the sun rises.


A sun that rises free and joyous …)


PS The basement of Palazzo Massimo displays a large numismatic collection and the sceptres of the Imperial Insignia, in addition to the jewels coming from sumptuous funerary furnishings such as that of the girl from Grottarossa. Another reason to return and see what jewels the girl was wearing when she died so young…





Beware the Ides of March.

The friend I met up with in my recent visit to Rome described the city most accurately as a palimpsest. In case you are not sure what a palimpsest is, the word derives from Greek,  Palin ‘again’ psēstos ‘rubbed smooth’ and refers to a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on rubbed out earlier writing.

The word is now also applied to something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form; a large number of Rome’s historic buildings are built upon or modified from previous structures.

Notable examples include the Roman theatre of Marcellus which became the fortress palace of the Orsini family and still remains in private hands.

(Walking past the Teatro di Marcello on my recent visit to Rome)

Similarly, baroque churches are built upon Romanesque structures which in turn arise from early Christian buildings which often have been modified from Roman temples.

A typical example is the minor basilica of San Clemente which has no less than four layers:

  • The current mediaeval twelfth century church
  • The fourth century basilica converted from a Roman nobleman’s house
  • Those parts of the nobleman’s house which had been converted in a Mithraeum
  • The foundations of the house built upon a republican era villa destroyed in the famous fire accompanied by Nero on his fiddle (a fiddle on history if there ever was one as violins had not yet been invented).

In a similar fashion a contemporary art gallery two doors away from where I stayed in Rome in the Via Chiavàri (the street of the key cutters and locksmiths – be careful of the accent – it’s not to be confused with the seaside city of Chiàvari near where I stayed in a teacher exchange in 1995. It’s also important not to mispronounce the word as chiavàre, slang for ‘to screw’ and with the two similar meanings in English i.e. ‘to swindle’ and ‘to have sexual intercourse’).

MUSIA is a new space for contemporary art conceived by collector and entrepreneur Ovidio Jacorossi.


MUSIA was inaugurated last year and contains a thousand square metres of gallery space with multifunctional uses – everything from the visual arts to food and wine. The space was restructured by architect Carlo Iacoponi who used Rome’s palimpsest stratification of architectural elements from different periods – from the Roman age to the Renaissance – to considerable effect.

There’s one room dedicated to the Jacorossi Collection of twentieth century Roman art.

There’s another for the exhibition and sale of works of art, photography and graphics, design objects and applied arts. Among these are works by Paola Gandolfi, ceramic jewels by Rita Miranda and creations by designer Alessandra Calvani.

There’s the kitchen – with chef Ben Hirst – and with food and wine sourced from the surrounding Lazio region.

For me, however, the most extraordinary part of MUSIA and one which brilliantly displays the multi-stratification of Rome is the striking space of the Sale Pompeo, located within the ruins of the ancient Roman Theatre of Pompey. It was in this room that I experienced an engrossing installation drama themed on the murder of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March – that fateful event which took place on the 15th of March 44 BC and one which has been imprinted on my mind ever since I read Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ in the first form of my secondary school, Dulwich College…..incidentally in the same class as the school mate I’d come to meet in Rome!

Within rooms of bare brick, breathing history and an atmosphere that immediately evokes ancient Roman times, the drama of Caesar’s murder develops.



Suddenly a storm takes away the golden light, wind moves the curtains on which a cold and livid night falls. light returns, but the atmosphere has changed. Beyond the curtains, one notices the gestures of a conspiracy, and soon fear spreads everywhere. Caesar, now defenceless, falls under the blows of merciless daggers. “Et tu Brute?”

A world ends and dissolves in the flames at the end of an epoch. Only the lyre continues to sound the endless and ageless story.


Time for a meal in a characteristic Roman trattoria after all this bloody history on the spot where it happened; a little lucullan banquet with such convivial company!

(Recognize the ‘saltimbocca alla Romana and Roscioli’s bakery?’)

The MUSIA gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday from 12 am to 11 pm and on from Sundays from 10 am to 4 pm.

Zeffirelli’s ‘Inferno’ Re-Created in Florence

I’ve mentioned Franco Zeffirelli’s foundation and museum in Florence in my post at

Last October we made a return visit to Florence as we hadn’t yet seen the museum.

Where to start with Franco’s achievements? In operatic scenography (Callas in ‘Tosca’)? In theatrical productions (‘Taming of the Shrew’ with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton)? In films (‘Tea with Mussolini’ with Judi Dench)?

I have my favourites (‘Jesus of Nazareth’, whose film sets we stumbled upon during our Tunisian honeymoon forty years ago),

‘Filumena Marturano’, a West End production with Joan Plowright, Larry Olivier’s widow, and the rehearsals of which we witnessed personally at the Italian Institute with the master himself, my father-in-law’s (the institute’s secretary-general from its inception) good friend, and, particularly, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, which had me transfixed as a teenager.


There’s an excellent web site for Franco’s museum at

The immense achievement in theatre, opera and cinema of this genius, who was born in Vinci and is a direct descendant of Leonardo himself, is fully displayed in the fascinating museum which occupies the San Firenze baroque complex formerly occupied by the city’s tribunal. Here is a selection of costumes, photographs and posters showing the breadth of the master’s achievements.

The palazzo’s setting is spectacular and there is a very convivial bar and a cortile to relax in after your visit.

For me the most fascinating section was that dealing with the unfinished 1972 project  of making a film of Dante’s ‘Inferno’. Sandra was involved in typing the scripts and the maestro’s scenic directions. But why was the project abandoned? Zeffirelli needed special effects which, although, today, are common place in any US type blockbuster, were then not yet available. The digital revolution was in its infancy and the master’s imagination could then not be realised in cinematographic form.

These are the preparatory sketches for the imagined masterpiece.

There are so many artists in history whose vision is far ahead of any technology that could achieve it. Zeffirelli is one of them. And this is the astounding re-creation of these sketches in the film which climaxes this very special museum. Of course, you have to see it in its full size in the splendid room which displays it, to fully appreciate the unrealised masterpiece.




Pian di Gioviano’s Wonderful Mechanical Crib


Italian ‘presepi’, or nativity cribs, may be of three main types.

First, are the various displays of nativity scenes laid out as an exhibition or as an itinerary. In our ‘Valle dei presepi’ there are two especially beautiful examples.

There are the highly creative and inventive ones at Pieve Fosciana, in the upper Serchio valley, which I’ve described at:

There’s also the Montefegatesi crib itinerary which I visited last week and which I described at:

Second, are the ‘presepi viventi’  (living cribs) where people re-enact the nativity scene with traditional arts and crafts surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ,  and the arrival of the Three Wise Men.

I’ve described this type of presepe’ in various posts, the latest of which is at:

We have taken part in one of the best at Equi Terme several times. To see us dressed up as Roman governors, Wise men etc. do read the posts at:

Third, are those nativity scenes which particularly intrigue me: large-scale mechanical cribs where the figurines move and there are waterfalls, mill wheels turning, saws cutting and olive picking.

I first saw this kind of nativity scene as a small child at the church of san Camillo in Milan. (San Camillo is, incidentally, a fine example of fin-de-siècle eclectic gothicky architecture. I’ve described it at  )

A very fine example of a mechanical Christmas crib is near us at the start of the road that leads to Gioviano at Pian di Gioviano in the comune of Borgo a Mozzano. It is among the most beautiful in the whole province of Lucca and has its origin twenty five years ago, the brain-wave of a couple engaged to be married. Sadly, Manuela Motroni lost her life in 1999 in a traffic accident and the creation of the crib is also a way of remembering her who died so sadly young.


Manuela’s brother Manuel with Angelo Cipriani and other volunteers have continued to re-create the crib every year. As you’ll see from my video below a lot of love and time has gone into making this delightful nativity scene. It’s also interesting to note that many of the movements are propelled by water power.

Trust you’ll enjoy my video of this enchanting nativity scene!









For Our Valley’s Fallen

The 1,240,000 Italian soldiers and civilians (almost 4% of the country’s population at that time) who fell in the greatest human massacre ever perpetrated on the planet were honoured on November 4th throughout the peninsula. Our comune of Bagni di Lucca took a particularly heavy toll in the Great War. In some villages as many as a quarter of young men conscripted in the army were never to return alive…

Poignantly, some of the few to gain from this butchery were the sculptors who created war memorials. If you’ve seen the film ‘La Vie et Rien d’Autre’ (‘Life and nothing but’) by French director Bertrand Tavernier (starring the great Philippe Noiret, telling the story of Major Delaplane, whose job was to find the identities of unknown dead soldiers after the Great War and recounting the terrible psychological scars left behind by all those who survived the dreadful event) will remember the sardonic encounter between the major and a war memorial sculptor. ‘It’s going to be a field day for us’, says the sculptor. ‘A return to the renaissance; in fact a resurrection for us artists.’


I think this is taking it a little bit too far. The sculptor in the film was clearly embittered by the slaughter of so many –  the ‘lost generation’  for there are many inspired memorials to the fallen. In particular, Edwin Lutyens’ Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, so eloquently described in the book of the same name by my school friend, architectural historian Gavin Stamp who, alas, is also missing to us since December last year, has been described as the greatest piece of English architecture of the twentieth century.

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing Somme France
Thiepval Memorial to the Missing Somme France

An exhibition of photographs by Sergio Garbari of our own valley’s memorials to the fallen is currently on in the foyer of Bagni di Lucca’s town hall.  Many of you will be familiar with Sergio’s astounding photographic skills, especially when he held an exhibition titled ‘‘L’irreversilibiltà del sogno’ at our late-lamented Shelley House bookshop. (See )

Born in Bagni di Lucca in 1955, Sergio was brought up in an ambience of film and photography thanks to his father who was chief projectionist at Florence’s Ariston cinema. (A sort of ‘Cinema Paradiso’ experience in fact!) In 1976 Sergio became an architecture student at Florence University. Since 1981 he has been official photographer for the world-famous Uffizi art gallery in Florence where he supplies pictures for exhibition catalogues. In addition, Sergio has extensively photographed the Medici villas and such iconic places as the Boboli gardens, the Medici chapel and the San Marco museum. At the same time Sergio has explored more experimental aspects of his art. For example, he exhibited photographs of the ex-prison of Thessaloniki in Greece in 2008.

Sergio (who, incidentally, was also one of the first life-guards at Bagni’s swimming pool) lingers in his photographs on the details of war memorials in such places as Bagni Di Lucca (Villa and Ponte), Fornoli, Benabbio and San Cassiano. The monochrome nature of the images adds to the pathos and tragic nature of the memorials. So much loss for so little! I sometimes wonder if those idiots who started World War two ever thought enough about the vast military graveyards that dot northern France and so many other countries. Here is a small selection of Sergio’s photos:

Of sculptors engaged in the war memorials of our Valle di Lima one name stands out, that of Alberto Cheli.


Cheli was born in 1888 in Pieve Fosciana. In 1906, he enrolled in a sculpture course, in Lucca and in 1909, became a pupil of Francesco Petroni. In 1911 Cheli participated in an exhibition at Bagni di Lucca’s Casino with his bust of Percy Bysshe Shelley. (I wonder where that bust has disappeared to.). The following year Cheli made a bronze plate for the facade of Betti’s pharmacy in Bagni di Lucca (still visible today). He participated in the First World War as an ambulance driver. In 1923 he obtained the commission for the Monument to the Fallen of Ponte a Serraglio, which he completed in the same year, and for that of Pieve Fosciana (inaugurated in 1932). At the same time he made some bas-reliefs for the War Memorial of Carraia and of Pieve di Monti di Villa. In 1941 Cheli was employed as a technical designer at the Piaggio plant in Pontedera (where they now make the Vespa). He died in Lucca in 1947.

Yes, it’s true that some sculptors could have felt they were having a field day after the pointless wars mankind still inflicts upon itself. However, I do feel that the memorials in our comune do have a particular nobility and expressiveness that continues to help us remember the war dead and reminds us of those touching lines from Lawrence Binyon’ poem ‘For the Fallen’.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.


Thankyou Sergio for your contribution to the centenary commemoration of Italy’s part in WWI and for preparing us for the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

PS You can read more about our war memorials in my posts at:

I took my own remembrance walk the other day: here are some of my photos:






Vicenza’s Palladian Splendour

Such iconic London buildings as Greenwich’s Queen’s House or Whitehall’s Banqueting Hall (in front of which King Charles I was beheaded) and Saint Paul’s church at Covent Garden – London’s first true ‘piazza’ – could never have been built had it not been for Inigo Jones’ (1573 – 1652) visit to Italy and, in particular, to Vicenza where he studied the buildings of Andrea Palladio (1508 –1580). Jones truly initiated the architectural style revolution marking the vast difference between such buildings as Hatfield House and Chiswick House.


(From top left clockwise, some buildings by Inigo Jones, Banqueting house, detail of same, Queen’s House, Saint Paul’s)

Palladio exemplified the English eighteenth century architects’ ideal and his ‘Four books on Architecture’ (1570) (of which Inigo Jones annotated a copy, now at Worcester College Oxford) were incredibly influential for the Augustan movement and the development of neo-Palladianism in Britain. Palladio’s villas, especially, became models for the distinctive English country house. In short, without Palladio there would have been no Wren, Campbell, Chambers, Hawksmoor, Adam or even Soane. As Goethe stated when he saw Palladio’s works for the first time on his famous first journey to Italy ‘n 1786

There’s something divine in his designs, nothing less than the strength of a great poet, who from truth and fiction derives a third utterly fascinating reality.

I have always wanted to visit Vicenza The serendipitous invitation of a visit to this city by a friend I had not seen since university days, and who has since become a distinguished restoration architect, got me jumping on a train for a town which is a UNESCO world heritage site. I had to delay my visit by one day because of the atrocious meteorological conditions Italy has been massacred by, with landslides, floods, inundations and several dead. However, despite this, I did manage to reach Vicenza and the sun was shining there!


(Friends re-united in Vicenza)

Because of the fine weather we decided on a walking trip to see the city’s exquisite palazzi. One of the first we came across was the palazzo Porto in piazza Castello, clearly unfinished but no less gorgeous because of that. Note the wonderful entasis of the columns, tapering in slightly thinner upper form to give sheer elegance to the mansion’s appearance.


There are also many buildings dating earlier, to the Venetian gothic style, including the fabulous Ca d’Oro (golden house).


My architect friend pointed out that Palladio was as much a low-cost (in materials used) architect as he was a high-class one. Columns which seem of marble are, in fact, brick covered with stucco. Even rusticated blocks are jagged bricks spread over with rendering!

Image00153 - Copia

Palladio has been criticised for this but, after all, he saved his clients a lot of money by not having to transport expensive blocks of marble large distances from mountain quarries, (Vicenza is built on an alluvial plain).


Palladio has also raised problems for restorers of his creations. How much should be restored before the thing becomes overdone? Another problem is that so many of Palladio’s buildings were left unfinished at the time of his death and only completed, largely by his pupil Vincenzo Scamozzi (1548-1616), who may have altered his master’s plans to some degree and who has been saddled with  a sort of Mozart-Salieri type syndrome which fortunately has now been largely discredited.

It was a wonderful time visiting this noble city which has the great advantage of being free of the tiresome cruise-ship rabble which now sadly infests nearby Venice and has even caused one-way pedestrian circuits to be installed there.

Here are some of the Vicentine buildings and streetscapes we saw.


(PS Do note the original Juliet balcony for it was in this very house that Luigi Da Porto wrote the novella which Shakespeare turned in the play ‘Romeo and Juliet’)

For lunch we stopped to eat in the city’s Piazza dei Signori where I feasted on Vicenza’s dish par excellence ‘Bacalà alla Vigentina con Polenta.’ (Stockfish vicentine-style with polenta). Delicious!



My favourite building was this one: the palazzo Chiericati (1550) which houses a marvellous art collection.

I love the loggias at each end which clearly must have inspired Inigo Jones’ Queen’s house at Greenwich.

I stayed at my friend’s apartment at  . To be  highly reccommended!


The following day was dull and showery so we spent the morning in the very cleverly (perhaps too cleverly) arranged Palladio museum housed in a wonderful palace he designed.

The models of the architect’s principal buildings were brilliantly done and the explanation of Palladio’s theory of proportions (which he derived from studying ancient Roman buildings and, especially, from the treatises of Vitruvius) was clear.

I gasped at the perfection of Palladio’s ‘Teatro Olimpico’, the world’s first purpose-built theatre, with its fantastic stage perspective.

I can now say that I’ve seen the three great renaissance theatres of Italy: the other two are at Sabbioneta (which we visited in 2007)

and at Parma ,(Teatro Farnese) which we saw in 2015.

In the afternoon we climbed the Monte Berico via ‘Le scalette’.

There’s also a three-kilometre gallery by Francesco Muttoni (1780) which will get one there.

At the top is the sanctuary of the Madonna of Monte Berico, originally built to commemorate an apparition of the Virgin who also saved the city from the plague. The sanctuary’s mediaeval nucleus was expanded by Carlo Borella with a Palladio- based centralised classical church built at the end of the seventeenth century.

The best thing about this site, however, are the wonderful views one gets of the city of Vicenza and beyond to the Alps, which already have their peaks covered with snow. It’s a pity the day could not be clearer – a good reason, however, to return.

In the evening we went to the Piazza dei Signori where the city’s symbol the ‘Basilica Palladiana’ is situated. Palladio surrounded the mediaeval hall with a beautiful arcade which he had to fit around the often irregular ancient vaults. Indeed, if one looks closely one can see that the end arches are not quite the same as the rest of the porticoes.

Here we were treated to an imaginative son et lumière which also recounted the disastrous event of 1945 when allied bombing set fire to this wondrous building and almost destroyed it. We also took in some halloween celebrations – Vicenza style.

The very high and very slim bell-tower next to the basilica was fortunately unharmed and somehow adds a slightly oriental touch to the complex of buildings – a classical minaret perhaps.

We had to depart on our separate ways the following morning: I for Longoio and my friends for Bologna and Ravenna.

I cannot wait to return to Vicenza in brighter weather for there are all those beautiful Palladian country villas still to visit. At least I have already seen one of them, the Villa Emo, on a visit to the Treviso Region!


La Serenissima Fights Again

Napoleon (the emperor of France, not our dear cat who died last year on December 17th), is a figure who is regarded positively by most Lucchesi. His sister, Elisa, was appointed Princess of Lucca (indeed the first paragraph of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ directly refers to this fact) and in this role assuredly put the city back on the world map. Elisa held a magnificent court and ordered many urban and social projects for the benefit of her principality. For example, the ‘Piazza Grande’, also known as Piazza Napoleone and where the city’s summer festival is held, is due to Elisa (although two ancient churches and many houses were demolished to create the square).

Other projects include the beautifully restrained neo-classical Porta Elisa and the beginning of an arcaded street which would have connected the gate to piazza Napoleone.

The Luccan respect towards and interest in the Corsican is reflected to this day in the conferences and events held by the Fondazione Ragghianti in its attractive headquarters in the ex-Clarissan nuns’ convent near Porta Elisa. I have been to several of these and found them always full of interest. (See, for example, my post at

Napoleon is, however, held in the opposite regard by the inhabitants of ‘La Serenissima’, the honorific title given to the former Venetian Republic. Bonaparte, then not yet emperor, destroyed a nation that had a glorious history dating back to the time when a group of refugees found protection from barbarians in a group of marshy islets set in a lagoon and, from these humble beginnings, began to build a trading and cultural country that eventually extended down the Dalmatian coat to Cyprus and, beyond, to the Crimea.

Napoleon has never been forgiven for his action by the inhabitants of the Veneto region. He brought no benefits to them. He put Lucca on the map, but he removed Venice from it.

The end of La Serenissima, the most serene republic of Venice, influences today’s Italian politics. Like Catalonia in the Iberian peninsula, there is a movement for the independence of Veneto: the area has its own distinct language, which is not merely another dialect but has a great literary past. (Just mention Goldoni). As for music, Venice invented not only opera but the concerto – just consider Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’.

Indeed, the present populist government in Italy has its roots with the ‘Lega’ in these parts. There are historical reasons why a nation destroyed by the French, subsequently sold to the Austrians, only joined to Italy after two wars, 1866 and 1915-8, and then just partly, because its Dalmatian territory was given to Yugoslavia, should harbour such resentments.

Such negative feelings, however, were drowned by pride in having fought bravely against Napoleon and winning two battles against the French before the final terrible defeat led to the death knell of ‘La serenissima’ and the scandalous 1797 treaty of Campo formio which formalised the end of the Venetian Republic.

(Napoleon at the time of his Italian Campaigns)

For the fairy-tale palace where the last doge of Venice, Ludovico Manin, died see my post at

This pride was fully evidenced by the recent meeting we came across quite by chance, while on the former republic’s territory, of the re-formed regiment which had fought so valiantly against the enemy.

Counting a total of 120 soldiers, including some women, the faithfulness of this re-enactment society towards the apparel and equipment of the late eighteenth century was astounding. The details were quite marvellous!

Here are a few of my photos to show you why:

The fall of La Serenissima is surely one of the major tragedies to have hit the ‘bel paese’ of Italy. Such, however, is the inevitability of history from which few people ever learn and from which ever more nations repeat its errors.