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.’

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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 https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/08/10/infra-red-at-bagnis-shelley-house/ )

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:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/a-restored-soldier/

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

 

 

 

 

 

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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!

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(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!

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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!

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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 https://www.bed-and-breakfast.it/it/veneto/bob-and-jennys-bed-and-breakfast-vicenza/6761  . 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

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/10/10/200-years-after-waterloo-napoleon-return/).

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

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/05/16/where-venices-last-doge-died-and-where-sting-played/

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.

The Cleaner: Abramovic in Florence

During a recent trip to Florence I visited the current exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi. It’s a retrospective titled  ‘The Cleaner’, is dedicated to the revolutionary performance artiste Marina Abramovic and runs from 21st September 2018 to the 20th January 2019.

The exhibition itself is revolutionary too since it’s the first time that a woman is the protagonist at the Strozzi and that protagonist is literally strong meat to take. In other words, the exhibition is not for the faint-hearted.

What is a performance artiste anyway? Marina uses her body ‘without limits and boundaries’ to express her artistic concepts. There are over one hundred works illustrating her pioneering career which now spans over fifty years and there are over thirty performers contributing to the exhibition.

One enters the retrospective, or rather squeezes, between two nude performers who act as a sort of caryatid-like door frame. They re-enact (for each of Marina’s performance acts has been carefully choreographed and documented) ‘Imponderabilia’ dating from 1977 and which was closed down by the police when it was inaugurated in Bologna in 1977. How times have changed!

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The Strozzi’s renaissance rooms each hold a different aspect of this incredibly versatile artiste who graduated from Belgrade Art College. Luminosity, for example, has a nude (or naked?) performer on a cycle saddle suspended on a wall for thirty minutes under a gradually more intense light. Is this a metaphor for our life’s loneliness and its inability to react truthfully towards other humans?

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(Performer removed for this shot)

It’s also a metaphor for Marina’s life when, after an intensely artistic and physical relationship with German artist Ulay, separation takes place. This phase leads to perhaps Marina’s masterpiece. From opposite directions of the Great Wall of China, Ulay from the Gobi desert, Marina from the Yellow Sea each one walks a distance of 2,500 kilometres to meet in the centre for a brief greeting and quickly depart. The film illustrating this experience moved me greatly.

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The cramped Citroen van which Marina and Ulay made their home is also part of the exhibition in the courtyard of the Strozzi palace:

As a Serbian the horrific wars tearing the former Yugoslavia apart affected Abramovic passionately. Her performance reflection on this tragic period of human history was to clean a huge pile of bones of their blood and viscera to form a new blanched ossuary.

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Death is physically embraced as a filthy human skeleton in ‘Cleaning the Mirror’. Marina tries to clean it with a brush but merely transfers its dirt to her own body which becomes increasingly grimy.

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One also becomes a performer together with others. In one room there’s a task of separating rice from lentils and counting them. I confess I gave up after an hour.

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Do not miss the part of the exhibition in the basement of the Strozzi (Strozzina). It illustrates the early life and times of Abramovic and her studies in Belgrade where she rebelled against the academic concept of art as being the pursuit of beauty and where she first envisaged self-mutilation as an artistic expression.

It comes as no surprise that at the end of the exhibition one is somewhat exhausted – drained, in fact. This is why it’s useful to make one’s way to a bar for a stiff (no pun intended) drink afterwards.

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The power of the exhibition was unfolded in the weird dreams I had that night; nightmares, in fact which evolved as a huge canvas illustrating the enigmatic battle between life and death, self and the other, body and spirit, the unreality of everyday reality.

PS ‘Strozzi’, besides being the surname of the Florentine family who built the palace in the fifteenth century, also means ‘strangle’. Be warned. This is an exhibition which can strangle your hold on what you think is reality;  it truly cleans out your mind.

 

 

Of Italian Bars and their Collectors

Thankfully Italy is still largely a land of small businesses and nowhere is this more apparent than in restaurants and, particularly, bars.

This beautiful country is still essentially free of monstrosities like star-a-buckets and costalots (although one of them has recently opened in Milan and, in concession to Italian class and quality, has had to serve drinkable coffee in a surrounding which is probably the finest this chain has ever possessed):

Most bars retain their own individuality. I am particularly drawn to those bar-owners who are collectors. For example, at Aulla station this bar (since regretfully closed) had a scenic model railway running round its interior perimeter:

(See my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/on-or-off-the-rails-to-pontremoli/ for more).

If you’re a biker, or even just a mopedier, rather than a rail anorak then there’s the extraordinary bar-pizzeria described in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/the-wild-one/ :

While traipsing around Florence the other week I chanced upon a bar whose owner was an avid collector of the hippie bus.

In case you don’t know what a hippie bus is it’s the Volkswagen Type 2, introduced in 1950 (sadly discontinued now) and officially known as the Kombi but better known to us travellers to eastern promises during the idyllic sixties as the hippie bus.

The owner told me his cabinet display was just a small part of his collection. His passion for the type 2 was ingrained in him for years and many exquisite examples of the ‘Kombi’ were donated to the bar owner from friends.

I admit I didn’t travel to Kathmandu on a type 2 but in a superior class (as Janis Joplin might have sung) Mercedes Benz. L 319 which transported me as far as Teheran.

Here it is in Beirut before that ghastly civil war and even greater post-war building vandalism destroyed the exquisite charm of this Paris of the Levant.

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Anyway, sipping a caffè macchiato con un pezzo dolce con crema in that Florentine bar, surrounded by seductive models of the classic L319 really started my day in a big way for me; Florence was no longer just a place where

in the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

(From T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in case you’re one of those ‘rational’ people who don’t read poetry).

 

 

 

Antella: a Picturesque town in the Florentine Hinterland

The little town of Antella has already cropped up in some of my posts. In particular, its fabulous chapel, almost entirely frescoed by Spinello Aretino, is mentioned at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/11/09/do-you-know-granacci-or-larciani/

Antella is also the last resting place of Claire Clairmont, who needs no introduction to Shelley lovers. For more information on this essential nuisance in the poet’s life do read my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/claire-claremont-the-epilogue/

A few days ago we stopped in Antella’s main square for an ice-cream.

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It was a welcomed stop during an afternoon visiting the delightful countryside surrounding Florence festooned with matured vines, glittering with silvery olive groves and cooled by mysterious pine forests.

It’s a real pity that visitors to the cradle of the renaissance fail to visit the beautiful landscape surrounding the city except, at the most, to reach Fiesole, over-crowded during the season and with by no means the best views over the City of the Lily.

Antella’s main square epitomizes all that’s most liveable about Italy. Just a few miles away from the tourist-crowded streets of Firenze, Antella is another world. In the square different generations mix, play, relax and rarely collide. Old boys play briscola by the local bar. Women meet up for the local gossip. Children play hide-and-seek using the the massive parish church doors, opened out for the evening prayers, as a useful place of concealment.

In the centre stands the statue of a worthy from the town. (Italy’s first prime minister, in fact.)

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The church itself contains a mixture of exquisite pre-renaissance pictures, skeletons of unremembered saints, massive oak beams spanning walls that have endured centuries of wars, floods and earthquakes.

A majestic crucifix of ancient date overlooks the nave.

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Beyond the apse an even older chapel opens out with a handful of the devout reciting the joyous mysteries of the Rosary.

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What I love in particular is the absence of the social divides that plague the provincial English town at this hour. In that ever more fractured land of Brexitania children separate themselves from parents at an ever-earlier age; the old are moved out-of-sight into geriatric institutions or, if lucky and still in their own homes, suffer loneliness and the fear of being mugged if they step outside after 8 pm.

Meanwhile, the young ready themselves to get hyped up for a night of artificial highs of binge drinking and vomiting on pavements while police sirens uselessly try to wake them up, and hospitals become arenas for the victims of fighting and knife attacks. 

However, in places like Antella, such ghastly thoughts and memories of a country, soon to be torn apart from the mainstream of Europe by a ‘will of the people’ fed by lies, ignorance and small-mindedness, seem, thankfully, far away.

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Cerreto’s ‘Place of the Heart’

The nearest Italian equivalent of the United Kingdom’s National Trust is F. A. I., which stands for ‘Fondo Ambiente Italiano’ (Foundation for the Italian Environment). Founded in 1975 and, like the National Trust, looking after and campaigning for the conservation of beautiful buildings and landscapes, FAI has a web site at https://www.fondoambiente.it/.

(See also my post about FAI at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/03/19/its-fai-week-end-again/ )

Every year a ‘luogo del cuore’ campaign is launched in which people vote for a building or place worthy of protection from the ravages of time. I remember when that exquisite baroque jewel of a church, Santa Caterina, was restored and re-opened to the public in 2014 after years of neglect. (To see what wonder could have been lost for ever see my post and pictures of her at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/09/luccas-baroque-flower-blossoms-anew/)

Friend Rita Gualtieri has been campaigning hard to save Bagni di Lucca’s magnificent Villa Ada in the old part of the town on the hill. As Rita writes “Fino al 30 novembre 2018 si può ancora votare. . Ma al 30 settembre il FAI “I Luoghi del Cuore” farà il primo vero resoconto fra i voti via internet e le firme sul cartaceo. . Vogliamo darci da fare questa settimana ed arrivare almeno a 500 su Facebook e Google . .. Adesso siamo a 370 voti. Forza ..” (“Until November 30, 2018 one can still vote. . But on 30 September the FAI “I Luoghi del cuore” will issue the voting results. . We want to get at least 500 on Facebook and Google. .. Now we are at 370 votes. Come on..”)

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(The Villa Ada at Bagni di Lucca)

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. To date, however, the villa is abandoned, with obvious structural problems due to poor maintenance.

See also the page at https://www.fondoambiente.it/luoghi/villa-ada-villa-fiori?ldc

It’s quite unacceptable that Bagni di Lucca can’t muster up at least 500 votes (needed for a building or place to qualify for consideration) with its population of 6,000 plus. Even if you are not a resident of BDL you can still vote. Do it now!

My own ‘place of the heart’ would be the Pieve di San Giovanni Battista, Cerreto’s former parish church. One wonders at first why the old church was built so far from Cerreto which lines the hill above Borgo a Mozzano. The fact is, however, that originally Cerreto occupied this site and only moved to its present position in late mediaeval times.

Built by order of that great Lady, the Countess Matilde di Canossa, in the eleventh century, San Giovanni Battista has a dazzling apse and some geometrically intricate stone walls.

The campanile is joined to the church by a picturesque arch.

Unfortunately, San Giovanni Battista is also at risk, as seen in my photos taken a few days ago. Some of the rifts in the stonework are quite frightening.

We never had the chance to visit the interior but evidently the church still has its hexagonal font. San Giovanni Battista di Cerreto antica has truly a place in my heart!

A Reassuring Concert at Borgo a Mozzano

Some events are unmissable but, unfortunately, they still can be missed. Fortunately Lia of the Borgo a Mozzano School of music let me know just in time of a not very well publicised concert.

On the 15th of September, in the beautiful parish church of San Jacopo al Borgo, a concert with three young Lucchesi (and Australians) who now illuminate the international musical world from Germany to the United States to Ireland to Korea took place.

Do you perhaps remember their operatic debuts at the Teatro dei Rassicurati in Montecarlo in 2013 when the Mozart Da Ponte operas were performed in extremely original productions?

(To learn more see my reviews at

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/05/28/phenomenal-figaro/

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/26/its-more-fun-in-hell-says-don/

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/tutti-non-fan-cosi-con-cosi-fan-tutte/)

It was really a pleasure to hear and meet them after all these years, particularly in the sonoral environment of the magnificent Ravani organ of 1631, with music by Guami, Handel, Mozart, Merula, Zipoli, Bohm, Tomeoni, Puccini and Monteverdi.

Indeed, it was Brandani’s enthusiasm to play the recently restored ravishing Ravani which prompted the concert.

Mattia told me after the concert that he had an idea to return to the Rassicurati with at least one further production for, as he said (and we the audience utterly agreed) it was absolute fun to perform there.

Sometimes it’s important not just to trawl the web or discover some poster in a bar to find out about special musical events in our area. It does help to have musical friends. Thanks Lia!

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(From left to right, Mattia Campetti (baritone), Don Francesco Maccari, Michelle Buscemi (soprano), Jonathan Brandani (organist))

 

(PS Future concerts are planned at San Jacopo now that the Ravani organ has been restored, I’ll see if and when I can get further information about them.)

 

The Best Sin of My Old Age

How on earth do they do it in Italy? Get together a cracking professional choir with four supreme soloists, hire two grands and a harmonium, have a truly on-the-ball conductor, find an idyllic setting in a Franciscan monastery, and play Giacomo Rossini’s eloquent, eclectic masterpiece, his ‘Petite Messe Solennelle’, on the occasion of the Pesaro composer’s 150th death anniversary.  Then, after a superlative musical banquet, provide another foody one in the Arcadian grounds of the monastery gardens with pasta, a multitude of finger dishes and a mouth-melting selection of sweets. And all for a voluntary donation to the local Misericordia or emergency and ambulance service…

This wouldn’t happen in London except if one pays for three-digit priced tickets (and then the drinks would be extra, unlike the free-flowing prosecco of Sunday evening).

The simple fact is that in Italy it’s often too much of a bureaucratic bother to set up ticket sales, what with all the government taxes and so forth. Furthermore, Italians are generous towards such organisations as the Misericordia and, of course, the Banks of Lucca are not mean-minded machines like they are in Europe’s former (after March 29th next year, that is) financial capital, but are true Maecenases of the arts.

Rossini packed everything into this greatest of his ‘sins of my old age’ as he termed his post-theatre productions. Giacomo had given up opera over thirty years previously, realising full well that his style was going out of favour (he’d anyway earned his dosh out of writing such masterpieces as the ‘Barber of Seville’ and ‘William Tell’).

It’s a ‘Petite’, (lasting well over an hour…), ‘Messe’ (perhaps that’s right as it’s a hotchpotch with everything from the strictest double fugue counterpoint in the ‘Quoniam’ and the ‘Vitam Venturi’ to heroic arias worthy of the finest operatic stage) ‘Solennelle’ (strictly speaking a Mass is solemn but there are plenty of witticisms in Rossini’s version which can bring a smile to the most dour-faced listener.

The gorgeous evening was also the concluding event in the greatest music festival this side of Lucca. Maestro Roni’s inspiration for the ‘Serchio delle Muse’ (translation unnecessary) was to bring music to the smallest village, to the highest mountain side to the most distant valley. This year was as varied as ever with a concert on the heights of the majestic Pania della Croce mountain, with three wonderful operettas (yes Italy has a great operettic tradition equal to anything that G n S, Offenbach and Lehar can conjure up) and lots more.

If you know nothing of the Serchio delle Muse festival then inscribe it in your brain ASAP. It’s the best thing going around here and more than makes up for the sad demise (temporary, I hope) of Barga Opera.

I should add that the evening was also a nice social event and I met up with truly valuable friends, some of whom had come from Pisa just on my Facebook announcements.

Don’t miss out for next year and the great maestro Roni’s festival if you’re in our lovely part of the world.

 

 

Santa Celestina: a load of hot air?

It was over ten years since I last witnessed the launch of Santa Celestina’s balloon. I wasn’t going to miss her this year!

The Balloon of Santa Celestina is made of paper and powered only by hot air. It’s launched every year around September 8 at San Marcello Pistoiese on the occasion of Santa Celestina, patron saint of the Pistoia Mountains.

Celestina was a third century martyr decapitated by the emperor Valerian, notorious for having dispatched more women than any other Roman emperor. Celestina’s remains found their last resting place in Gavinana and in the church of San Marcello Pistoiese, the busy little market town and holiday resort on the ‘high route’ between our Val di Lima and Pistoia.

 

In 1832 Tommaso and Bartolomeo Cini, during a trip to France and Switzerland, met Elias, son of Joseph Montgolfier, the inventor of the hot air balloon. Returning the visit in 1835, Elias Montgolfier gave Cini, owner of a paper mill of La Lima, a formula for the production of hot air balloon paper and a plan for their construction.

The launch date of the first balloon goes back to 1838 on the occasion of the solemn religious procession in honour of Santa Celestina. The colours chosen for the balloon were those of the Civic Guard flag of which Bartolomeo Cini was commander: green, white and red arranged horizontally (incidentally, the same colours of the Italian flag). These colours are used to this day.

Tradition says that if the balloon goes higher than the church’s bell tower it will be a lucky year for the whole mountain area, otherwise it certainly won’t….

And if the balloon catches fire through the brazier flames then it will be really doom and gloom!

We held our breath in the packed central square. The day was absolutely glorious. The balloon gradually inflated to its full, grand size.

 

I was allowed to take a peek inside the monster. It was terrifyingly hot in there!

 

Then the team held onto the balloon’s rim, crouched down, slowly lifted themselves up, held their hands high and…let go.

 

The moment the balloon left the earth to wend its way up into the bluest of skies felt quite emotional.

 

Luckily for us, the launch was very successful. The old-timers said it was the best they’d seen for years.

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We are, therefore, ensured a prosperous year ahead…at least in our mountaineous part of the world!

 

Some facts about the balloon for the technically minded:

It’s made of 24 strips of paper glued together. It is 15 metres high with a circumference of 30 metres, a total volume of 450 cubic metres and a weight of about 100 kg.