Rembrandt’s light

One of the best reasons for being in London now is that there is one of the most moving and wonderful exhibitions to be seen there. It’s the national gallery’s late Rembrandt display of this greatest of painter’s works which he completed towards the end of his life when not only was he living in straightened circumstances but also had to witness the death of his beloved Saskia and even his son, Titus. There are few paintings in this world which can convey so much psychology about the sitters and do so with a miraculous technique which looks forwards to our own times, especially with the use of the palette knife.

The drawings and etchings should not be forgotten, interspersed among the canvases. It’s truly possible to get close to them and admire their fine details and techniques.

I could not have missed this show for all the gold in Peru and booked it on line from where I live in Italy. It’s the only way one can be sure of meeting some of the subtlest examples of portraiture, of humanity in all its aspirations and rejections one is ever likely to see anywhere in the world during one’s own lifetime.

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And the light and texture of Rembrandt’s palette … it’s simply godlike!


I recently received a message from the Secretary of Bagni Di Lucca’s unitre university of the third age asking me to propose a subject for this year’s session. I literally drew one out of a hat: Thomas Linley an English composer in the duchy of Tuscany . Amazingly yesterday I found myself staring at this prodigy’s portrait in the Dulwich gallery in south London , a place I knew well since I’d been schooled at the nearby college and indeed knew the delightful Linley family portraits painted by Gainsborough very well.

The weather was wet outside and as I gazed at the hopeful Thomas I was saddened at the thought that this English Mozart was stupidly drowned in a boating accident at the age of only 22. what a tragedy for English music I mused!


Whiskey and Soda

Sam Stych, the world’s leading authority on Boccaccio bibliography, at ninety eight is still hale and hearty and living in Bagni di Lucca, despite the usual hazards of anyone approaching their centenary i.e. poor eyesight, lack of mobility and increasing deafness.

I was delighted to get a phone call from Sam yesterday to tell me that he’d received a quite unexpected visit from the daughter of his old school friend! That should take one back…

How did this happen? Through the daughter reading my blog, it seems. She’d made the connection via my post on Ian Greenlees and was so amazed to find that Sam was still alive that she immediately journeyed to see him, even though the last time she’d met him was as a little girl over forty years ago.

That for me is enough reason to write a blog – quite apart from having something “sensational” to read (or at best nostalgic) when I, too, reach my dotage. If a blog gets people together of like minds and resuscitates friendships then that is the best reason I  know to carry on writing it.

Whiskey, Sam’s replacement kitten which we found as a rescue item, is growing up to be quite a character and fully deserves his second appellation “soda”.

Here are some pictures of Sam and whiskey the day. I’m sure that Carol would have been delighted to know that Sam still has a feline companion ready to amuse him during his lonely moments.


Don’t Be Nosy!

It’s strange how two of the greatest children’s’ books ever written, Carlo Collodi’s “Pinocchio “and Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”  met less than favourable reviews when they were first published in each other’s respective countries. “Alice nel paese delle meraviglie” only became popular as a result of Walt Disney’s cartoon film in Italy, and a similar fate awaited Pinocchio with his Walt Disney version in the UK. This is a little sad as, no matter how virtuosistic and imaginative the Walt Disney takes are, they are quite different in atmosphere from the original books on which they are based.

Both books however scored a hit among younger readers because of their unemphatic moral message. Most Victorian-age children’s books had hard-pressed ethical themes emphasising the importance of obedience to parents, of obligation to go to school, of their need to pray devoutedly, of not to telling fibs, of accepting their lot in life and avoiding being duped and led astray.

Of course, all these themes are subtly present in both Alice and Pinocchio but the message is surely more emphasised in Collodi’s book. This is because it was written shortly after Italy had become a unified country and when the government was adamant about imposing an Italian national character among its new citizens. Furthermore, in a country where well over half the inhabitants were illiterate it was particularly important to emphasise the benefits of knowing one’s ABC.

The production at Bagni di Lucca’s teatro academico last Sunday added a subtle twist to the story in that Pinocchio, although “born” a wooden puppet, became a flesh-and-blood boy well before the end of the story. However, when he did lose the straight and narrow – for example, when he was robbed by the lame fox and blind, cat or when he realised he’d grown ass’s ears Pinocchio returned to being a puppet.

Isn’t this the fate not just of children but of us all? Don’t we become puppets in the hands of malleable people just to please them, perhaps even in a futile attempt to advance ourselves and then don’t we realise that we have lost our own identity and understand that we are indeed individuals. Alice’s questionings with the Queen of hearts and the other dreamlike creatures in her story debate the same thing – how true can we be to our real selves?

We live in an age of stereotypes. Children’s fashions, especially, while supposedly affirming their  “individuality” succeed in making them, if not actually looking the same, yearn for the same brand names; the same “look,” as if exterior appearances are enough to help one to achieve that desperate aim to be accepted into one’s peer group.

Alice’s and Pinocchio’s adventures need to be read anew in the context of our even more gullible age. Like all great literature, whether written for children or adults (the greatest can be read by both, of course) they will enable us all to re-establish our own uniqueness, increase our self-esteem and bring us closer to a social universe where tolerance, mutual assistance and self-help are re-affirmed for their full worth.

For once Bagni di Lucca’s theatre was packed last Sunday. How could it not have been with such an immortal story on stage? All the actors in the Ribalta Company pulled their weight and twelve-year old Jacopo Lucchesi as Pinocchio, both as puppet and as real boy, was just right. The script with the title E un pezzo di legno parlò (Pinocchio) by Luigi Comencini was faithful to the original and the lengthy applause at the end of the performance was truly deserved.

In short, it was a great little season and one in which I was so glad to have gone to every performance and learnt so much from each show.


A Supernatural Mountain?

As we’re going to Jordan next month I thought I’d better get my walking legs into ship-shape and Bristol fashion, especially after various seasonal ailments which have been afflicting me.

The great thing about living here is that one doesn’t have to go to a fitness centre – the whole area is one huge gym! For my walk yesterday I decided I’d tackle a very pleasant mountain but one I hadn’t done for yonks: Monte Paladino which, at 1171 metres, (3841 feet – Snowdon’s 3560 feet high) rises above the valle del Turrite and whose base is easily reached by taking the road up though Vallico di Sotto and Vallico di Sopra (both villages well worth exploring) until one reaches the beautiful alpeggio (alpine pasture) of San Luigi (which I’ve described at

The first part of the walk takes one through chestnut forests of unutterable beauty. There were a couple of dodgy bits especially when, because of the excessive rainfall we’ve had this year, some parts of the paths were turned into torrents but, otherwise, it’s pretty easy going.

The path is beautifully marked with its familiar CAI red and white signs and the footpath number (131) all of which seemed freshly re-painted.

The path eases out into a beech forest clear of undergrowth and quite magnificent. The birches then take over and start shining silver against a true blue sky of deepest clarity. Rocks begin to appear through the turf and then the views expand. The final stretch is truly like walking on the Elysian Fields and the lovely mountain top is crowned by a recently replaced cross.

The views are to die for. Indeed, one of the amazing features of this mountain is that it is placed so far forwards in the Apuan range that a 360 view can be had not only of the Serchio’s valley, not only of the villages and towns gracing the Apennines slopes on its other side, but also of the villages dotting the Apuan part of the valley. Here is Trassilico (spot its castle turret?) and Vergemoli, for example.

What I didn’t see, however, was any of the X-file phenomena for which Monte Palodina is famous. For example, in the 90s, while mushroom hunting, a lady saw a creature with a crocodile-like snout and a body covered with scales.  Fortunately, she managed to get away in time to tell the story. Others have seen strange ectoplasmic beings around a metre high making wierd noises. UFO’s have been spotted quite regularly on this mountain and strange lights observed.


At the top I lay flat on the purest perfumed turf imaginable and soaked in the glorious afternoon sun. The best things in life are free (given a little muscular effort) and yesterday was a supreme example of this fact. How immensely lucky to be alive here!


PS Not wishing to be abducted by possibly intergalactic aliens I decided I’d get off the mountain well before dusk fell. However, I’ll want to be back on 25 February or 15th October next year to view the amazing phenomenon of the double sunset of Monte Forato which is meant to be quite something when see from Monte Palodina.



Keeping the Wolf from the Door

I have always loved wolves ever since as an eight-year old wolf cub I and my mates gathered round Akela, our pack leader’s totem.


I once spent a night at a friend’s flat which was located near Regent’s park, London. It was full moon and thought I was hallucinating when hearing wolfish howls coming from the park. I need not have feared I was going mad. The atmospheric howling was emanating from the wolves’ enclosure in the park’s zoo – now, alas, no more as far as these supernal animals are concerned…

Last Friday, 24th October, at Bagni di Lucca’s Circolo Dei forestieri at 5pm there was an interesting conference on the Wolf. This was no David Attenborough type natural history lecture on an exotic species but on something which touches us all deeply who live here. For example, I’ve had three rabbits and three Muscovy ducks killed in winter by what most probably were wolves coming down from the Apennine ridges above me in search of food.


Wolves used to be restricted to the wilder areas of the Abruzzi national park in southern Italy but have in the last thirty years gradually moved up, following the upper ridges of the Apennines, until they’ve finally reached Tuscany.

As an endangered species wolves are protected and it is a criminal offence to kill one whether by shooting or poisoning. At the same time, there is still a lot of debate of how man can live peaceably with this most noble of canidae. The problem is that fewer and fewer people live in the remoter reaches of the country and the areas in which wolves feel safe in are ever increasing, Paradoxically, however, younger people are taking up abandoned pastoral areas since jobs in cities are now particularly rare to find and they, too, need to re-establish a pact with wolves.

The most famous pact established between man and wolf was that between Saint Francis and the wolf from Gubbio but this, today, would require a rather particular kind of person (and wolf!) and is clearly not very feasible. A better system would be to section off land use so that wolves are encouraged to hunt wild boar and deer rather than prey off goats and sheep. This would require a higher number of forest rangers which, with the present economic cuts, is not very likely.

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Although wolves may opportunistically attack domestic animals they can also be subject to illegal hunting techniques which include that horrible method of strewing poisoned carcasses around the landscape. This not only kills them off but also decimates domestic pets like dogs and cats. There are many examples of this barbaric practice  reported in the local newspapers.

Another problem the wolf has is that his image, largely projected through those films which exploit myths associated with lycanthropy, or the power of certain humans to transform themselves into werewolves, has had a bad press, Like cats, wolves have had a mixed, and often bad, reception through the ages. From their apogee of respect and worship in ancient Egypt, cats descended into an abyss of misunderstanding and fear. In mediaeval times felines, especially black one, were even considered witches’ familiars and drowned or hung for their association with the evil ones.

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The same fate overtook the noble wolf. In early Indo-European cultures the world was worshipped as a strong deity. Among the Dacians (the present day Romanians) , for example, whose name derives from the ancient root daoi meaning wolf, the animal was considered the king of all beasts and the only one who could help humans defeat the enemy. The tribesmen would wear the pelts of these animals as protection in battles (ever seen the film “Gladiator?”). For ancient Greeks the wolf was associated with Apollo, the sun god. The Germans have had a particular love for the wolf and even the Nazis could perhaps be praised for being the first government to give the wolf status as a protected species in Europe.

Best of all, of course, is Italy whose great Roman empire could not have been founded had Romulus and Remus not been milked and kept alive by the she-wolf.

Today, the wolf is making a come-back from extinction (as happened in the UK where the last wolf was killed in Scotland in the seventeenth century) or near extinction.  This is ultimately a good thing for the presence of the world, as is the presence of healthy lichen on a tree, is yet another sign that those parts of the world it inhabits are healthy places, or else it would not have chosen to live there!

So, don’t keep the wolf from your door if you don’t want the world to degenerate even further into ecological ruin and decay!

That, essentially, was the message delivered in this most interesting conference in which Forestry rangers, our local mayor, shepherds and farmers and researchers (all girls) were able to have their say in the proceedings, and the documentation of their findings was both extensive and interesting.

We are truly in for the day of the wolves and I look fowards to the time when wolves will be re-introduced to many parts of the UK (the four-legged variety, of course. There are too many of the two-legged ones already for my liking!)


Can You Stomach It?

I was thrilled when a mobile catering stand which had pulled up in a layby between Borgo a Mozzano and Diecimo advertised that, among other food items, it sold lampredotto. Yesterday I decided to give it a try and was absolutely delighted with my lampredotto sandwich.

Lampredotto is not normally sold in Lucca province but is as endemic in Florence as jellied eels and pie and mash shops are (or were?) in London’s east end. What is it? For long I’d thought it was something to do with those eel-like creatures called lampreys but I was only half-right. The product does look like the lamprey which used to be common in the Arno. But it’s not a fish. It’s the fourth stomach of the cow. If you start squeaming here then I’d advise you to skip the rest including the pictures but you’re really missing out!

The scientific term for the fourth stomach is the abomasum and the product is usually served in a sandwich together with piquant green sauce in several kiosques in Florence called lampredottai. It is essentially a poor man’s food but none the less tasty because of it. (After all, oysters used to be only eaten by the poor in London).My favourite lampredotto kiosque in Florence is that near Porta Romana in the Oltrarno, Here everyone, from suited and booted executives to labourers in their togs, congregate without distinction of class. The product is simply delicious.

Lampredotto is formed by a lean part called the gala and a fatty part called the spannocchia. Both should be included in your panino to deserve the appellation of lampredotto. It’s cooked for a long time in water with tomatoes, onions, parsley and celery and usually served with green sauce, either separately or in a panino, as I prefer it.

Lampredotto has a long history dating back to the fifteenth century. Leonardo and even Michelangelo must have satisfied their hunger pangs by biting into it. In the nineteenth century lampredotto was sold from hand-painted wooden carts and later by bicycles.

Today it’s generally sold in the kiosques, of which there are several as I mentioned A very popular one is that near the boar’s statue in the old market in the centre of Florence (see Debra Kolkka’s post at but there are several in the Santo Spirito area.

Strangely I’ve never got into tripe which assembles parts from all the four stomach of the cow. These are (with the Italian names for it in brackets) the following:

The ruminant (Ciapa, Croce, Larga, Panzone): the thickest and fattest stomach which comprises 80% of all the cow’s stomachs.

The reticulus (Beretta, Cuffia, Nido d’ape): this has a spongy texture.

The omasus (Centupezzi, Foiolo, Libretto, Millefogli, Centopelli)- the thinnest stomach with a white texture and a foliate appearance.

The abomasus  (Caglio, Francese, Frezza, Lampredotto, Quaglietto, and Ricciolotta): this is the only cavity which is the true equivalent of what we understand as the stomach.

Tripe is a mixture, in differing proportions, of these parts of all four stomachs.

But give me (and Sandra) a lampredotto panino any day!

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Incidentally, if you want to cook the stuff yourself you’ll need a recipe for salsa Verde (green sauce). Here’s one I picked up:



Extra virgin olive oil

Uncrusted bread

One boiled egg

I salted anchovy

One clove of garlic

Salt and pepper



Mix together all the ingredients using a mixer. You can, of course, add or remove ingredients as suits your taste. I like a sprinkle of Cheyenne pepper in mine and a touch of lemon.

Enjoy it with your lampredotto. Certainly all the truck drivers that congregate round this stall (except for Mondays when it’s closed) enjoyed theirs! There’s lot’s of other things to choose, of course, like porchetta (suckling pig) sandwiches or just a plain hamburger and chips.

PS After your lampredotto, only a hundred yards further on the same stretch of  road, is the Guidi bar and newstand which also incorporates a pasticciera (bakery).

It sells a very mean Rum Baba filled with crema pasticciera.(Italian equivalent of custard but so much more delicious) which I had for my dessert for a total lunchtime meal which set me back just five euros.

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Chestnuts and Wuthering Heights

Last Sunday in the gardens of the Villa Fiori at Ponte a Serraglio a “castagnata”, or chestnut Festa, was held. The weather was perfect for once and there was a discrete presence.

Once upon a time (and a recent time too) chestnuts were considered the poor man’s bread and sustained the majority of the population in these parts. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for the chestnuts there would have been far more widespread famines during the Second World War in the region.

After the war, with the increasing personal well-being in Italy and with some unfortunate tree infections, chestnut flour was considered just a bad memory and discarded in favour of processed white flour and pasta. However, like polenta (maize flour) in the north of Italy, chestnut based producers have made a huge come-back and are truly a fashionable and ever-growing agricultural activity. If someone hasn’t tasted chestnut puree or cake then their taste buds are really missing out!

In a corner of the Villa Fiori gardens mondine (a variety of chestnut) were being peeled before being put into the roasting wheel. On the stand nearby necci (chestnut flour pancakes) were being toasted using the old-style irons. One could have them filled either with Ricotta cheese or Nutella. I opted for the ricotta and was well pleased. A bar further along served some good local red wine. There was a children’s activity stall among other stands which comprised items for charity sale and local agricultural products, including those delicious potatoes from the Prato Fiorito agriturismo which, growing at a height of well above three thousand feet, are approaching the same ecological zone as Ireland.

It’s truly castagnata season again. Already many feste have already taken place but here is a list of those that are coming soon to our part of the world.


Italy is not a country especially well-known for its wind but yesterday was an exception. Strong gusts blew over our mountains and hills clearing the atmosphere and allowing an extraordinary visibility. I decided to take to the road and headed for the villages which crown the hills above Ponte a Serraglio: Granaiola, Pieve di Monti di Villa and Monti di Villa, I didn’t descend into Riolo but kept up on the ridge passing the chapel of Sant’Anna and espying Montefegatesi through the trees. The autumn colours had barely started to tinge the forest leaves. Last year they would have been much more in evidence at this time.

I then took the road down into the Controneria which starts with that magnificent “balcony” road overlooking the main massifs of the Apuan Alps: the Panie, Monte Sumbra and Monte Pisanino.

The road then passes by the amazing synclines of the Monte Incoronata and the Prato Fiorito:

Thence I entered my own domain, the orto which was slightly disappointing this year due to the overweening rains. However, it looked idyllic yesterday afternoon and, after a bit of weeding, I stretched out on my hammock with a cold beer and took in the last warm rays of the sun.


Drama at Bagni di Lucca

Going to the theatre in Italy can be a great way not only to improve one’s grasp of this most beautiful language, which is now the fourth most popular tongue to learn in the world today, but also to see what makes Italians laugh or cry in a drama setting and get further insights into their social and cultural background.

First, a word of warning: “commedia” in Italy doesn’t mean comedy, it means a serious play. A comedy is a “commedia brillante”. There is also a subtle difference between a piece labelled “commedia” and one labelled “drammatico” which can, as its title implies, involve more extreme emotions.

Next Sunday, the 26th of October, is the last of four plays put on by amateur dramatic societies. As befits the literary association Bagni di Lucca has with Collodi, it’s about Pinocchio the puppet and starts at 5.45 PM.

I’ve seen the season’s previous three productions.

Dracula, the musical, I’ve already described at

On the 12th of October the commedia brillante called “L’Amico del cuore” was staged with the Compagnia Gruppo la Torre from Viareggio and last Sunday was the turn of another commedia brillante, “la Cena dei Cretini” with the Associazione culturale del molo.

“L’Amico Del cuore” was written by Vincenzo Salemmi, born in Naples in 1957, and was made into a popular film in 1998. It describes three friends, a priest, a doctor and a journalist who meet to discuss the doctor’s last wish before going to America for a life-saving (or threatening) operation. The last wish happens to be that the doctor wishes to go to bed with the journalist’s beautiful wife. At this stage I’ll leave you to watch the film but must warn that, although not too thick, the Neapolitan accent is sometimes difficult to follow.

“La Cena dei Cretini”, by the Frenchman Francis Veber, born near Paris in 1937, is another play which was made into a film in 2008. It is a satirical twist on the standard dinner party scenario where, this time, instead of pleasing raconteurs, fools are chosen by each of the invitees who bring them along to the party where they will be mercilessly ragged. This cruel kind of entertainment backfires in a hilarious manner when a marital dispute ensues.

(Some scenes from “La Cena dei Cretini” with Lorenzo Biagini, Andrea de Nisco, Bobo Pasquinucci and Sara Bertoni. Direction by Veronica Moriani and Marino Mariani).

Again, both plays dance around the husband-wife relationship which, especially in Italy, truly attracts laughs in “commedie brillanti “as they entice tears, and sometimes homicide, in plain “commedie”.

It’s a real pity the audience wasn’t more extensive in the theatre at Bagni di Lucca, which was less than half full – all the amateur theatrical companies represented are truly semi-professional and gave spirited performances which had us really gripped.

If you’ve missed these plays then the good news is that the first regional festival of amateur dramatics will be on from 25th October to the 12th December at the Ildefonso Nieri theatre at Ponte a Moriano, Lucca. Full programme is at


Walled Up in Lucca

I just go for walled cities. In England I love places like York and, especially, Chester. In Northern Ireland Derry is stupendous. In Italy one is truly spoilt for choice in its literally hundreds of walled villages and towns, and it’s wonderful to have Lucca so close at hand!

There are two types of civic walls. First are the mediaeval walls which came before the invention of firepower. These walls are tall and thin just like those in Pisa and one has to walk along a gangway to see them. Second are the renaissance walls built when cannon balls and muskets were in full swing. These are low-slung and broad. Lucca’s walls fit into this category. Built between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they have always been a favourite promenade for the city’s citizens when the city was not being assaulted (in fact Lucca’s walls were never seriously challenged). Under Napoleon’s sister Eliza Baiocchi, the walls were officially opened to the public’s delectation: this has increased by leaps and bounds ever since cars were banned sometime in the 1970’s from using them as a ring road (!).

Instead of curtain walls and towers Lucca has ramparts and bulwarks. The ramparts are built of a mixture of bricks and earth and this allows them to have extensive underground passages for troop movements and ammunition storage and also enables them to have beautiful avenues of trees, French-boulevard-style. The bulwarks are particularly pleasant. If one wants to have a picnic and rest away from the cyclists, joggers, dog-walkers and baby-buggy pushers then it’s easy – just go into one of the bulwarks of which there are eleven.

Last year was the five hundredth anniversary of Lucca’s walls’ construction and much has been done to keep them in good nick. The casermette (or barracks) on each of the bulwarks (baluardi) are being restored. For example, the so-called Casa Del Boia (executioner’s house – although capital punishment here was abolished as far back as the eighteenth century) has been opened as a museum and hostel for the Via Francigena pilgrimage route and other casermette are the headquarters of such diverse bodies as the Lucchesi nel Mondo (Luccans worldwide) and the Puccini research centre.

Here are some the sights I saw from Lucca’s walls yesterday.

The walls are also a great place to meet one’s friends and are the ultimate “passeggiata” – Italian-style. There are no generation gaps to be filled here (as sadly happens in the UK) – everyone can be together. There are also two fine cafés along its route if refreshment is needed during the forty or so minutes it takes to circumnavigate the walls.

Lucca, as befits this most adorable city, has been the centre of a world conference on walled cities as this plaque shows. Indeed, there is now an association of the world’s walled cities.

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It’s a far cry when walls were thrown down in the mania for “modernization” that took over so many European cities in the nineteenth centuries. If that had been stopped then we might still have had walls around Florence and Milan, for example. Of course, city walls have a different function today. They are still defensive but for a different kind of enemy – the rampart foe of conservation: demolition and re-development of historic centres. The walls of Lucca are defending and will for ever defend the wonderful historic heart of this city. No giant supermarkets will take over the labyrinth of ancient streets and houses, no ring roads will plough through its historic palaces and no flyovers will soar above its towers. The walls of Lucca will protect this city from the whims of town-planners and civic “improvers”. And with the coming autumn colours they will be even more spectacular.

I am reminded of these lovely lines from Gabriele D’Annnunzio’s “Elettra”:

« Tu vedi lunge gli uliveti grigi
che vaporano il viso ai poggi, o Serchio,
e la città dall’arborato cerchio,
ove dorme la donna del Guinigi […] »

(The operative line is no,.3 which roughly translates as ” the city of the tree-lined circle”. Sums up Lucca to a T).

Thank goodness for Lucca’s walls then and double thanks for all the other hundreds of Italian walled towns defending their loved places from the encroachments of fashion and trends. Would London had kept its walls!