I Giorni Della Merla

Yesterday’s afternoon cleared up briskly to reveal not only blue skies but the first substantial snowfall on the Prato Fiorito which is 4625 feet high and just behind us.

The Refubbri waterfall on the way down to Bagni was cascading with rapidly melting snow:

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Crossing the bridge at Borgo a Mozzano revealed the main Apennine ridge, which is around 6000 feet high, covered with snow. The effect at sunset when the snow turned into a rosy hue was so beautiful.

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As happened with perhaps the coldest winter in living memory in the UK, that of 1946-7 when temperatures dropped below minus 20 degree centigrade, things only really started to get cold at the end of January.

We are in the thick of “i giorni della merla”, the days of the blackbird, when the coldest part of winter hits us between the last week of January and the first week of February. Strictly speaking, the days of the blackbird are the last three days in January. So the weather has been true to traditional prediction.

There is a local legend about this which was told to me in Italian. As a fun thing to do I’ve turned the Italian prose into English verse!

 

BLACKBIRD DAYS

 White Common Blackbird - Turdus merula

Snow upon snow fell on the whitebirds’ nest –

the winter had never been so cold.

Beneath the eaves the bitter chill compressed

their little lives exposed, unconsoled.

 

“If it carries on like this,” daddy bird moaned,

“we’ll nevermore see the spring again”.

“Our little ones will soon die,” the mother groaned,

 “so very soon, but who will know when?”

 

The parents tried to pick a few crumbs of bread

before they too were hidden by snow.

Their feathered hearts were filled with iced-up dread.

while a hard north wind began to blow.

 

“We must decide now or die” the parents said.

“Let’s move our nest near that chimney pot;

while I go and hunt for food you stay in bed

and keep warm next to that cosy spot”.

 

So all that day mummy bird and her three chicks

kept by the stack which blew warmth and smoke.

What clever birds they’d been to think of these tricks:

free all-day heating for avian folk!

 

But when the father returned, beak-full of food,

he didn’t recognize his wife and kids;

the smoke had made all their feathers quite, quite dark-hued

from their tails right up to their eye-lids.

 

“No matter,” he said, “we’ll rename ourselves.

From now humans will call us ‘black bird’

and goblins and nymphs, sprites and wood elves

throughout the land will spread this new word.”

 

And so it was that the birds survived the freeze

and that now the whitebird is black;

and I’m sure it’s all, as everyone agrees,

thanks to that useful chimney-stack!

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We’re Going Where The Sea is Blue

Today is such a tempestuous day: thunder is following on immediately after lightning so the flashes are hitting very closely indeed. It’s a risk even to type these words on the computer as several friends’ techy stuff has been damaged by these phenomena – how awful to loose one’s data and, especially, one’s photographs!

Freezing rain is now turning into sleet and perhaps snow – definitely not a day to wander out!

It is, however, a day to reminisce about past summers and happy times spent at the seaside.  One of my favourite places is Tellaro which I first visited in the August of 2006. It’s wonderful to find such a relatively unspoilt fishing village in an otherwise touristy area.

The arcades by Tellaro’s rocky beach are still used by fishermen

The village’s little church is delightful and is so near the sea that it almost seems to float on the waves.

Anyone who has followed the lives of those two great literary brits, Lawrence and Shelley will recognize the place as the one they stayed at. Tellaro’s street signs remind one of these facts.

But it’s, of course, not just these two that fell in love with Tellaro and nearby Fiascherino: one of Italy’s greatest modern writers, Mario Soldati, stayed here and painters were and remain legion.

Tellaro is also listed as one of the “borghi più belli d’Italia” (the loveliest villages in Italy). Our own Mediavalle-Garfagnana area contains three of these “borghi più belli”. They are Coreglia Antelminelli, Barga and Castiglione di Garfagnana.

This is the complete list for Tuscany. The ones with asterisks are the ones we visited (Montemerano, Suvereto, Porto Ercole just last year).

For a full list of these specially appointed places there is a web site at http://www.borghitalia.it/

Of course, such lists are a trifle subjective but if one is pressed for time there’s absolutely no reason to doubt that these are some of the prettiest places in Tuscany, if not in Italy.

Looking at photographs of the past is both delightful and painful. Sometimes more painful, clearly, when loved persons and animals are no longer with us.

However, on this meteorologically utterly miserable day there can be no greater delight than to gaze on pictures showing blue seas and sunny days and realise that new joys can still arrive if we have the patience to wait for them. Perhaps this summer we’ll add a few more “borghi più belli d’Italia” on our list!

 

 

Ice, Sheep and Bells

Ice sculptures are becoming increasingly popular forms of art, especially in the colder parts of the world. Harbin, in Manchuria, for example has a very well-known international annual ice and snow sculpture festival. I’ve never actually been there but, gazing at pictures of some of the exhibits, it looks spectacular!

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(Trans-Siberian express Harbin-style)

Ice festivals have spread in many other parts of the world and, since 2009 there’s even been an ice sculpture festival held at London’s Canary wharf. In Italy, Christmas cribs provide some nicely traditional forms of the art. There’s a particularly good festival at Abano terme near Padova in the Veneto which I must make a date to visit next Christmas.

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Of course, like sand sculpture, ice carving is a “temporary” art and, as such, indicates an almost Zen-like reflection on the transience of life and artistic creation. Tibetan mandalas, and Navaho sand paintings which must be destroyed immediately after completion, come to mind in this respect.  If one believed in the permanence of great works of art then one shouldn’t become an ice sculptor!

Great skill is needed to become an effective ice sculptor since the material used changes constantly according to temperature and water purity. Ice sculpture can be of two main types: in the first, one works on the ice itself with special chisels and saws, in the second, one controls water coming from a hose in intricate patterns to form amazing textures.

Naturally, the greatest ice sculptures are made by nature herself! Iced waterfalls are a particular manifestation of nature’s miracle:

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(Iced waterfall near us in Mediavalle)

Every winter at Longoio, when sub-zero temperatures persist at night there is a spectacular sight created by a marriage between nature and man. A local hose pipe weaves its way down from a precipitous waterfall near my house and, at one very leaky stage, creates remarkable effects. I passed by the holey part of the hose yesterday during an utterly clear and beautiful day when I went for a walk with two of my cats.

Only nature’s art could create such wonderful interlacing and delicate effects. It was quite stunning especially when its background was made up by the snowy peaks of the Apuan Alps.

Our cats thoroughly enjoyed their walk, as usual, and refreshed themselves amply at the fountain on the outside wall of our house.

***

Cowbells for the great Austrian composer and lover of nature, Gustav Mahler, evoked a feeling of pastoral innocence and nostalgia for the passing away of child-like feelings of immortality. Mahler said that cowbells were the last sound to be heard from the earth by the lonely in the highest of heights and that they were a symbol of total loneliness. Certainly this is the feeling evoked in his greatest slow movement from the Sixth symphony where cowbells sound particularly poignantly. (the Seventh too…).

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For me there is a big difference between being alone and being lonely. I think Mahler believed in aloneness (rather than loneliness) in typical Garboesque spirit. He even sometimes complained when there were too many birds singing around his isolated composition hut in the Austrian Alps.

One is truly summoned by bells where I live. From the church chimes ringing across the valley from the Pieve di Controni to the sound of sheep bells they are a particular feature. When I and my cats returned from our walk yesterday some bells seemed very close to home. I looked out and saw a herd of fine sheep coming up our little road escorted by two dogs and a rosy-cheeked shepherd girl. Soon I was surrounded by the finely horned animals, some of whom started trying to chew at my sweater!

The girl, who keeps a hut further along the hill from where I live, has been a  goat-herdess for the past two years and truly enjoys what she is doing – alone-ness rather than loneliness, I suspect. I wonder how many girls imprisoned in call-centres or shackled behind receptionist desks in the world’s urban jungles have a secret dream to become a shepherdess…

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Snowy Mountains

Recently I received an email from down under hoping that when the sender arrived here there would still be some snow left. Actually, little snow has arrived so far this winter but things are due for a big change this Thursday when considerable falls are predicted. Some of the white stuff seems already to have arrived, anyway. Yesterday I went on another familiar circular journey which takes one up to the village of Granaiola, through Monti di Villa to the little chapel of Santa Anna and thence down to Vetteglia and back to Longoio.

Granaiola, so called because it’s been a major wheat (grano) basket for our area, was last Christmas’s living crib site. It’s also the birthplace of Nicolao Dorati, an important renaissance composer who lived from 1513 to 1593. Although renowned as a trombone player, Dorati’s output consists entirely of madrigals and no instrumental music at all.

Nicolao published six sets of madrigals: for five voices in 1549, 1561 and 1567; for five to eight voices in 1551 and for four voices in 1570 and for six voices in 1579.

In 2012, in conjunction with Bagni di Lucca’s Michel de Montaigne foundation which organises cultural events, a concert was held in Granaiola’s church where star local organist Enrico Barsanti played arrangements of Dorati’s vocal work.

There’s a plaque commemorating Dorati at the start of the main village street on his birthhouse (not open to the public and somewhat unstylisticaly rendered in cement)..

Translated, the plaque says:

Here in 1513 was born

Nicolao Dorati

Great Cultivator of the Art of Music

First Director of Lucca’s Palatine Chapel

Composer of exquisite Madrigals

His works were the first sparks 

from which a great fire would spread

His birthplace commemorates him 

in the 365th anniversary of his death

1960

To this day I’ve not been able to hear any of Dorati’s madrigals live. Perhaps there’s a chance there for Lucca cathedral’s Capella Cecilia to have a try and, maybe issue a recording of this not –very-well-known composer.

Granaiola is always a pleasant place to walk about it and it has some very well-fed cats too:

The route towards Santa Anna chapel provides extensive panoramas of both the Apuan Mountains with its “Queen” peak, Pania Della Croce, and the Apennines with its triangular Monte Rondinaio, both amply clothed with the white stuff.

Approaching Montegegatesi a new bench has been installed which must have one of the most magnificent views of any bench in the area.:

Descending into San Cassiano, settled snuggly into the slopes of the Prato Fiorito, I stopped at one of this spread out village’s “frazioni” (literally fractions or parts) Cembroni where I was happily informed that the following oven is still in use.

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Reaching home I checked out to see that wood and food supplies were ample enough to see me through the delayed winter arrival. Certainly one of our cats seemed to think it was.

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Yet Another Colognora

Colognora Valleriana in the comune of Villa Basilica (not to be confused with Colognora di Pescaglia, famous for its chestnut museum, Catalani’s birthplace and the setting of Spike Lee’s film “Miracle at St Anna” or even Colognora di Compito near the Pisan Mount), is the next village after Boveglio on the way down from the Passo del Trebbio to Collodi. I’ve already said something about Boveglio at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/visiting-in-the-rain/ so now let’s talk about  this lesser known Colognora.

The name clearly derives from Latin “colonia” and it’s one of the many villages in our area founded by Roman legionaries returning from their spell of duty and being given land to retire on by the Empire.

The first thing that strikes one about Colognora is its sign which adds “Isola linguistica” – linguistic isle – to its name. Does this mean the people here speak a different language? They certainly understood my Italian and when I asked them about the linguistic isle no-one seemed to know about it. There is another other linguistic island in our area at Gombitelli near Pescaglia. Both these places are supposed to speak a language derived from Provencal but I need to do further investigation on this rather controversial subject. (There’s more information for readers of Italian at https://sites.google.com/site/emanuelesaiu/colognora-google-e-i-longobardi)

.Spread out on a narrow and steep mountain spur Colognora is yet another one of these fortified villages like Boveglio and is built around a castle which now is no longer clearly distinguishable except for some massive entrance arches..

The parish church is dedicated to Saint Michael the archangel and contains some interesting pictures and has a fine campanile:

Colognora is definitely worth a stop and a stroll around its streets reveals some fine domestic architecture and some delightful corners.

When I first visited Colognora I heard some lovely piano music and was told that a young person in Colognora was practising hard to become a concert pianist. I wonder if their dream came true.

There is a very good web site for Colognora Valleriana at http://www.colognora.com/. I note that since I was there last time a museum of rural life has opened up. The pictures of it at http://www.colognora.com/foto%202010/museo/index.htm show that it’s well worth a visit. Perhaps next time…

 

 

Burns à la Longoio

On January 25th 1759 Robert “Rabbie” Burns”, recently re-voted by his own people as the greatest Scot of them all, was born.  Every year since his death there has been a special Burns evening to commemorate this extraordinary poet who not only was a precursor of the Romantic Movement but was also a figurehead for Scottish nationalism and a pioneer socialist to boot.

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Late yesterday afternoon it dawned upon me that this was indeed Burns’ birthday. Although neither of us are Scots (although my dad’s mum came from Wales so there is a good quarter of Celtic blood in me somewhere) we love things Scottish, delight in its country, walked its moors, climbed its mountains, navigated its lochs and  have celebrated its Burns night in our own little way.

I looked in the fridge to see if there was anything I could dig up to make a Burns supper. There wasn’t very much there at all and it was getting too dark to even go hunting for a haggis. What misery!

However, there was still a chance that something might be rustled up. On Sunday evening the only shop that’s open for miles around here in Bagni di Lucca is the Penny Market at Borgo a Mozzano. What would I be able to find there?

After my supermarket shop I did find two products that were genuinely from Scotland: salmon and whisky. Other items I bought because I thought I could make up an ersatz equivalent.

In true Italian style I started off with an antipasto. This was Scottish salmon served with a sprig of thyme and a squeeze of lemon which wonderfully turned out to be one from our very own lemon tree which, despite being under wraps to protect it from winter frosts, still manages to produce the most delicious fruits.

This was my Burns supper menu:

Antipasto

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Ingredients

  • Scottish Salmon
  • Lemon
  • Thyme

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Method

  1. Put salmon on plate at room temperature
  2. Squeeze lemon on top
  3. Eat with a rusk (failing oatmeal biscuits)

The cock- a-leekie soup became a quail-a leekie soup as I had a couple of quails remaining in the deep-freeze. The leeks were gigantic and very odorous and I had some prunes as well, which are an additional ingredient a volontà. With an original recipe dating back to 1598 this was my variation on Cock-a-Leekie:

Quail-a-leekie soup

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Ingredients:

  • 2 quails
  • 2,5 litres water
  • 1 sliced onion
  • 50 gms of pearl barley
  • 275 ml chicken stock cubes
  • 3 very large leeks sliced
  • 2 celery stalks, cut
  • A little thyme
  • 1 handful of parsley
  • Half teaspoonful of salt
  • Teaspoon of ground black pepper 

Method

  1. Defrost the quails and fry them gently until lightly brown.
  2. In a large saucepan put in the quails, water, onion and pearl barley. Cook until boiling. Then lower the flame and simmer for one hour.
  3. Remove the quails from the soup and debone them. Cut the quail meat into little pieces and replace in the saucepan.
  4. Add the leeks, celery, thyme, parsley, salt and pepper. Boil and simmer for another half-an-hour until the leeks are nicely tender.

PS The addition of prunes is also advised by some cooks.

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The haggis presented a real challenge. As the fish and chips festival in Barga ingredients have to be flown in so why not the haggis? It’s not something one normally finds on Italian supermarket shelves! I wonder why not? All sorts of other sausages can be found here from German to French and Spanish. Bad marketing? Having said this, if one wanted to taste the real stuff one could have gone to a Burns’ night dinner at Da Riccardo’s at Barga’s Fosso last Wednesday. But then it wasn’t the official date…

I couldn’t even find the sheep’s unmentionable bits that go with the haggis. So this is how I concocted my ersatz version:

Haggis à la Longoio

Ingredients

  • Mincemeat
  • 50 gms spelt (local grain) (instead of oatmeal which I didn’t have.
  • Teaspoon ground black pepper.
  • Two slice onions
  • Rosemary
  • Pinch of salt
  • Meat stock

Method

  1. Defrost the mincemeat and then fry gently in a frying pan until grey.
  2. In a saucepan place the mincemeat with the spelt, onions, rosemary, meat stock and salt and bring to the boil. Then simmer for around an hour.
  3. In the event of not finding sausage tubes drain off the saucepan and compact the remaining mixture into a pudding-like shape.

(I also served Sharwood’s mango chutney as it goes very well with the “haggis”)

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The classic Burns night sweet is, of course, the cranachan which is made up of oats, cream, whiskey, honey and raspberries. I opted for my own creation which owes a little to the clootie pudding.

Longoio Burns Pudding

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Ingredients

  • Steam pudding
  • Mascarpone cheese
  • Whisky
  • Biscuits

Method

  1. Steam the pudding.
  2. Serve on plate with dollop of mascarpone cheese on top and surround with four canestrelli biscuits.
  3. Drizzle with whisky

No pipers were available so the haggis was flageollated to the table using one of my tin whistles (or flageolet).

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I didn’t include tatties (potatoes) and neeps (Swedish turnips or swedes) with the haggis as after all that soup and the haggis my stomach was getting a little bloated. But these, traditionally, should be included.

Of course, the whisky has to be chosen with care. Instead of the usual 5 euro bottle of the water of life I upgraded to the 7 euro one which was guaranteed to have been aged for not less than five years. It really was very good and had a nice smoke-peaty taste in which I detected parts of the landscape of Islay (or was I slightly inebriated at this stage?).

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I didn’t add soda to the whisky but, instead, found that a bottle of fizzy gassosa went very well with it.

Naturally, Burn’s famous address to Haggis was also read. In case you forgot it or your Scottish was a little rusty here is the first verse together with an explanation of some of the words.

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon
 them a’ yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel
 are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm. 

 

Fa’=fall

Sonsie=pleasant

Aboon=above

Weel=well

Wordy=worthy

 

Ah well, at least it was a try in this remote Apennine village. Next year I’m promised an invite to a real Burns night supper prepared by a genuine Scottish lady. Looking forwards to that!

Green Mills

Fabbriche di Casabasciana, outside Bagni di Lucca and on the road to Abetone, is a place one tends to go through without really noticing it. Yet there are things there well worth stopping for. There is a nice restaurant called il Topo Gigio (after the well-known Italian children’s mouse character) owned by the same person who has Dante’s Divine Comedy very much under his belt by heart. (For a recitation I attended by this extraordinary man see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/inferno-at-fornoli/)

The grocery shop selling local products is also well worth a visit.

Until not so long ago it was possible to obtain fresh trout at Ennio Stefani’s trout farm, which was a converted paper mill or cartiera.( See Anna Blundy’s article on him at http://journalisted.com/article/7ily – I once gave Ennio a CD of that Schubert quintet…)

Another thing to do at Fabbriche di Casabasciana (“Fabbro”= smith, so “Fabbriche” means “place of smithies”, a name which is now extended to all manufacturing centres and factories in general) is to take a walk down by the river Lima. In summer there’s some fine bathing here and even some natural hydrotherapy where one can lie down on a rock and have the fresh stream waters swirl around one.

There is a German who has rescued a former mill here. It’s called the Mulino Verde and is located near Cevoli. Look out for the signs and one can cross on a bridge reminiscent of WWII baileys. Formerly used for grinding both chestnut and wheat flour the mill also comprised a smithy where iron farm equipment was manufactured or repaired using an anvil. Dating back to the late eighteenth century the Mulino Verde is available for holiday rental at http://www.linnig.net/ if one can read the German or Italian instructions there!

Here are some pictures I took of the Mill on my first visit there in summer 2006.

Fabbriche di Casabasciana really comes to life on the last Sunday of May when the feast of the Immaculate Virgin is celebrated in the little oratorio there with a procession and both sides of the road going through the village are lit up by candles.

For me the underside of the bridge which carries the Brennero road across the Brandeglio stream, with its ellipitical arches is one of the most beautiful examples of brickwork in our area:

So don’t always pass by Fabbriche as you by-pass it…..

 

What Me Worry?

Yesterday morning our area experienced an earthquake. Not that I felt it, fast asleep in my bed, nor did the cats piled on it to keep warm in these freezing nights. The first I heard of the event was when I read the following message posted on one of my near neighbour’s facebook page:

“Have just been woken up with the wardrobe shaking, our first earthquake tremor, has anyone else felt it? Or am I going mad?”

My neighbour doesn’t seem to be the type to go mad so I checked up on the web and found that there had indeed been an earthquake – in fact, several shocks.

This is what our regional paper “Il Tirreno” said about it:

On the same day that marked the thirtieth anniversary of our last major earthquake warning the people of Garfagnana and Mediavalle (where we are) experienced an unwelcomed wake-up call.

From 3.20 am with an epicentre in the Emilian- Tuscan Apennines there have been over 25 seismic shocks. At 5.27 the first shock to be higher than magnitude 2.5 (at 3.2) was registered. At 7.51 am the biggest shock was felt with magnitude 4.1 and with a lesser one at 8.03 am at magnitude 3.2. The epicentre was localized at a depth of 9 kilometres in the Pistoia region near Castiglione dei Pepoli, Camugnano and Vermio. The Mediavalle area felt the earthquake only because of the seismic waves reaching it.

It’s weird because I was talking about earthquakes with a friend only a few days previously and mentioned that for the past two years we’ve had an earthquake in January and speculated whether we’d be hit again this year. (See my post on the 2013 earthquake at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/guzzano-church-resurrection/)

Of course, the fact that damage was minimal, except to the nerves of those who felt it, is welcome but are seismic shocks becoming more frequent in Italy? Evidently they are, according to this table published by Italy’s earthquake monitoring department:

Year                        Tremors registered        Tremors above magnitude 3

2014 324 33
2013 217 20
2012 245 25
2011 156 19
2010 115 14
2009 135 15
2008 127 19
2007 138 25
2006 106 21
2005 46 10

So there we are: earthquakes are getting more frequent over here. Why? It’s because the African tectonic plate is squeezing ever more against the tectonic plate on which Italy is placed. So not only is this country being invaded by refugees crossing the seas from Africa but also by geological phenomena from the same place.

mt-vesuvius-plate-tectonics

What about the anniversary the newspaper mentioned? In 1985 there was a major earthquake alert after a number of smaller tremors. The Lucca authorities organized the evacuation of 100,000 persons from their houses in the Garfagnana region. Fortunately, the big one did not happen and everyone returned to their homes after a couple of days.

We are, however, expecting the “big one” at any time since, according to records, it tends occur every hundred years and the last one was in 1920 (See my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/09/30/the-big-one/ on that one).

In case you weren’t quite sure about the Richter scale for measuring earthquake intensity here is a table:

Descriptor Richter Magnitude number Damage caused by the earthquake Frequency of occurrence (in the world – not here!)
Micro Less than 2.0 Micro (very small) earthquakes, people cannot feel these. About 8,000 each day
Very minor 2.0-2.9 People do not feel these, but seismographs are able to detect them. About 1,000 per day
Minor 3.0-3.9 People often feel these, but they rarely cause damage. About 49,000 each year
Light 4.0-4.9 Objects inside houses are disturbed, causing noise. Nothing is damaged. About 6,200 each year
Moderate 5.0-5.9 Buildings that are not built well may be damaged. Light objects inside a house may be moved. About 800 per year
Strong 6.0-6.9 Moderately powerful. May cause a lot of damage in a larger area. About 120 per year
Major 7.0-7.9 Can damage things seriously over larger areas. About 18 per year
Great 8.0-9.9 Massive damage is caused. Heavy objects are thrown into the air and cracks appear on the ground, as well as visible shockwaves. Overhead highways may be destroyed, and buildings are toppled. About 1 per 20 years
Meteoric 10.0+ There are no records of anything of this size. The vibration is about the same as that of a 15 mi meteor. Unknown

What should be added is that, depending on where you live and related factors, a Richter rating does not necessarily tell you what damage can be done. The additional factors in my opinion are these:

  1. Type of seismic waves hitting one: lateral – vertical – undulating – all these waves of the same intensity will produce different effects.
  2. Type of building construction. Very modern anti-seismic buildings or (interestingly) older buildings (because of their flexibility – especially if there is a lot of wood or old stone) will withstand earthquakes with less damage. Buildings most at risk are those standard reinforced concrete or breeze block ones built in the sixties and seventies.
  3. Physical state of person. Many victims of earthquakes are caused through heart attacks and the like. It’s clear that physically and mentally fitter people will be able to survive better.
  4. Emergency training. People who know their emergence drill will obviously be better prepared for what happens. As I’ve had to go through fire drills in UK public buildings I’ve worked in so I’ve had to go through earthquake drills in schools here. In case you’re didn’t know what the drill is here it is:

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Finally, as President F. D. Roosevelt famously said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.

So “what me worry?” There are plenty of things that can finish one off sooner than a major earthquake and I won’t’ even start to name them here!

 

Lucca’s Very Own Snakepit

A recent email from the Mario Tobino Foundation inviting me to the opening of an exhibition of medical and scientific instruments from Lucca’s ex-mental hospital of Maggiano prompted me to memories of our first visit to this eerie place. We entered the unguarded confines of the former lunatic asylum without any problems and suddenly heard strange voices murmuring from one corner of a vast courtyard dominated by a hemi-circular building. Were there any inmates still lodged in this edifice? Not really. We walked on further and discovered that the voices came from a group of pensioners playing cards in an old folks’ recreational club which was still active within the hospital’s grounds…

Later we managed to see the interior of the psychiatric institution as part of a guided trip. Maggiano was one of the spookiest but most worthwhile sights we’ve seen in and around Lucca.

The idea of segregating lunatics from the “normal” population first took hold in 1772 a little before Lucca’s Napoleonic occupation at the start of the nineteenth century when an ex-monastery was commandeered for this purpose. One set of cloisters was dedicated to the immurement of males and the other to females. Here are aerial shots showing clearly the two cloisters:

These cloisters are still there today and form some of the largest and most gracious courtyards in the province. There is also a fine chapel where the insane would gather regularly to get priestly solace.  The original monastery was enlarged with the addition of the hemi-circular building we saw from the outside and which housed the kitchens with its large ovens and washing tanks still extant.

Lucca’s mental hospital began to be shut down, in line with all others of Italy’s mental institutions (except for those housing criminally insane or dangerous inmates) in 1975 according to the still much-discussed Basaglia law which favoured the integration of mental patients into the wider society instead of segregating them, apartheid like. Lucca’s “Manicomio” finally shut its doors in 1999.

Maggiano is also a place of pilgrimage for admirers of doctor and writer Mario Tobino (after whom the foundation is named) who worked there for over forty years. His best book “Le Libere Donne di Magliano (location name changed for privacy reasons), was translated into English as “The Mad Women of Magliano” by Archibald Colquhoun and vividly describes the alternative world created by psychosis with its own strange but apparently totally logical rules which transform the world into an arcane surrealist actuality, rather like some of our own worse dreams.

Here is a photo of part of Tobino’s living quarters showing the desk where he wrote his prize-winning books on an Olivetti Lettera 22, and also two pictures of him in the hospital grounds.

Mario Tobino has been criticized by some as being a better writer than a psychiatrist but it must be remembered that he appeared on the hospital scene when psycho-drugs like largactyl had not yet been developed, where the usual form of restraint was the straight-jacket, where the response to severe disturbance was a sequence of electroshock treatment and where the answer to extreme mental confusion was a lobotomy operation.

Tobino left the hospital in a much more humane condition. Lobotomies were cut out and the use of the new generation of tranquillisers reduced the need for electro-shock treatment. Most of all, Tobino encouraged patients to express themselves through painting, singing and writing as forms of curative therapies.

I thought of “the Snakepit”, that terrifying film-noir from 1948 starring Joan Fontaine and based on Mary Jane Ward’s semi autobiographical novel, which echoes the history of Maggiano before and after the arrival of more compassionate doctors and more effective care.

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(Still from the film, with Joan Fontaine in a straightjacket)

During our visit to the haunted, empty and dilapidated wards of the institution and to its former arts studio we saw evidence of strange graffiti on the walls and other creative expressions of the hospital’s former inmates. It was difficult to take photographs of the interiors since these were severely discouraged. Indeed, one of the group we were with complained about this quite strongly and I thought for a moment he might be detained within the walls because of his outburst, but fortunately he calmed down after a little while and this was not deemed necessary by our escort.

At its height Lucca’s asylum for the insane was a veritable town with one thousand two hundred patients who, together with doctors, nurses, cooks and cleaners, made up a total population of two thousand.

Unless one is particularly squeamish or has had bad experiences of  such places I strongly recommend a visit to one of Lucca’s less well-known attractions and Italy’s oldest mental institution. Situated a few miles to the north west of the city at Maggiano visits to it can be booked at http://www.fondazionemariotobino.it/content.php?p=vis.

Certainly, the exhibition at Lucca’s newly restored San Francesco campus will be worth seeing.

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