Passionate Events in Tuscany

Palm Sunday marks, of course, the start of Holy Week with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. We are regularly reminded of this much mocked creature because there’s a donkey quite near us who sometimes indulges in melodious braying, almost reminiscent of the famous bars representing Bottom in Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream overture.

This is a poem I’ve written about Palm Sunday:



I was standing by the east gate

when I first saw him pass.

Could this man create so much hate

and yet unite all class?


Through the thick crowds I caught his face

and for one fleet instance

it seemed as if he could replace

death itself with his glance.


People had cut down palm boughs,

waving them before him

with hosannas and solemn vows

in one rapt festive whim.


Sat astride the colt of an ass,


he rode through the acclaiming mass

like a king returning.


How would this local triumph end?

No blood had yet been spilled.

Would it forevermore transcend

the man, the god they killed?


All we knew was that we seemed free –

our happy feast had come.

Yet wine and bread would never be

the same again for some.


And as the palm leaves’ cross-shaped folds

are given in this nave

will he say that our future holds

no terror in the grave?


(Icon of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem which is recorded in all the four gospels. The adults are greeting Jesus with green branches and the children are spreading garments on the ground.)

Last Sunday at the parish church of San Cassiano there was the traditional blessing of the palms (in this case including olive branches from the local fields) by Don Vitali and the procession into the church, which happily took place through the main entrance, until recently threatened by the collapse of a cross on the façade because of that terrible storm.

Don Vitali is a highly intelligent preacher who manages to get across quite complex messages to people who may not have had extensive education. I would like to write a good preacher’s guide to Lucca trip-advisor style (as indeed to London) for standards of delivery differ widely in quality. One doesn’t have to be particularly religious to appreciate a good preacher anyway, for the main message behind being a good Christian is also an important indication on how to conduct one’s life efficiently and with love.

I remain an agnostic in this respect and if there’s a book entitled “The God Delusion” by Dawkins, then there well may be another book called “The Dawkins Delusion” by God.

Here is a photograph of the great organist we are privileged to have home-grown in the parish, Maestro Enrico Barsanti, a truly fine exponent of a vast repertoire ranging from the renaissance to contemporary organ music (apart from being a sought-after organ restorer, especially in the Pistoia region so well described by organist and composer Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini as “a magical deposit of the rarest instruments in Italy and maybe in Europe”). Also in the photograph is my wife and her youthfully spirited mother who will be 94 years old this year.

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Truly, it was a memorable start to Holy Week which will also be full of the Passion re-enactments, the major ones of which are at Vagli di Sotto, which returns after an absence of almost ten years (see )

and Castiglione di Garfagnana (see my posts at

and at

for descriptions and photos of that highly involving event.

Whether you are a Christian or not, these are compelling occasions to attend and if you happen to be in Florence there is an equally gripping one which takes place on that city’s outskirts at Grassina. (See

) which we’ve also attended.

I remembered the words of Don Vitali in which he stated that Christians have never been so persecuted as now. We only need to hear the news to realise that terrible fact re-iterated in places whose names have now become notorious. It seems to me, therefore, that these passion re-enactments have even more relevance today, whether one is a believer or not, for they emphasise the appalling intolerance that is breeding at an ever-increasing rate in the world today and indicate a way through it, as exemplified in the figure and example of Jesus.

La Traviata’s Favourite Flower

The camellias of the Pieve di Compito valley in the Pisan Mountain, which separates Lucca from Pisa like a natural “peace wall” between two formerly warring states, are by now of international status and people come to admire them from all parts of Europe.

Among visitors I did notice a large number of Germans which was explained by an important section of the beautiful exhibition dedicated to PilInitz palace where camellias first arrived in 1801.

PilInitz palace is near Dresden which I visited in 2001. There was a very moving variety called Frauenkirche named after that resurrected treasure of a church which had been part of the photographs of the devastating exhibition at Tate Modern recently.

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The varieties of this wonderful tree with flowers that always fall as a whole, without shedding individual petals, (as I know every morning to my cost when have to sweep the garden of those camellias from our own tree) are eternal and exquisite.

There was a very good section on Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, which has several schools and grand masters. I was particularly intrigued by the framing apparatus of this transcendental art.

Pieve di Compito is a lovely place for a visit with its gentle hills and mild micro climate. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (e.g. at ) camellias arrived here in the early nineteenth century, largely thanks to English ex-pats who chose to stay among these hills during the torrid Tuscan summer in the plains.. The camellietum can be visited any time (see my post at ) but it’s when the festival takes place during the March week-ends that it’s possible to visit the gardens of the historic villas and truly take in the wonderful ambience of this extraordinary plant without which no-one would have been able to drink their favourite cuppa in this world.

We visited four villas, including the most gracious of them, the villa Orsi and the Villa Giovanetti. These noble, if somewhat dilapidated, mansions can only be visited at this time since they are all in private hands.

The weather was wonderfully sunny and I was so glad that I was able to take my three distinguished guests to this lovely exhibition after an absence of two years.


PS If you didn’t get the reason for the title it’s because Verdi’s “La Traviata” is based on Dumas senior’s (a visitor to Bagni di Lucca) romantic novel “La Dame aux Camellias”.





Green Fingers on Green Walls

Verdemura is one Lucca’s two main garden festivals. As its name implies (trans” greenwalls”) it takes place on the walls by Porta Santa Maria and also occupies two bulwarks. If you’re into gardening (and who isn’t) then it’s a must on your Lucca calendar and will run until tomorrow, Sunday 29th March.

We went there yesterday on a day which seemed to forecast yet more light rain but which soon turned into some very sweet sunshine. The refreshing start to the morning played wonders on the flowers on show.

There’s a lot more, than flowers of course. There’s the usual host of garden machinery., for example. We picked up some delicious chestnut honey at a very reasonable price considering that because of last year’s bad season and the disease which has been attacking chestnut trees the product is getting a little rare. There were also some picturesque crafts. For example, the metal sculptures made by African self-help consortiums.

Madagascar spices were well-represented.

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This fellow not only does “rompicapo” wooden puzzle games (“brainteasers”) but also wooden flowers creating whole new species!

Cacti abounded in droves.

There were some natural medicines with amazing properties. (No- there wasn’t one to turn you into a donkey”)

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Wonderful herb based soaps from Provence:

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Beautiful alpine gentians in the sharpest blue. May they flower in profusion on those slopes where such a tragedy recently happened.

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Harry Potter fans would have enjoyed these high-speed jobs which apparently have “drone” capacities (or is it “drudge”?).

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These pretty animals were all painted on gourds. How imaginative to find animals in the shapes of gourds!

But, of course, the best things about Lucca’s Verdemura garden festival is its unique setting on its wonderful walls with view both into the old town and towards the marble peaks of the Apuans still with some snow on them.

Chelsea flower show may, of course, be tops in scale and variety (if you can manage to manoeuvre through those over-dense crowds) but nothing can beat Lucca’s two delightful garden show. Don’t miss Murabilia which will take place in the first week of September!


A Different Way to Enjoy Pisa

Pisa’s greatest attraction is also its greatest misfortune. The leaning tower attracts busloads of tourists, many from Mediterranean cruises landing at Livorno (who instead of seeing that city as a highly interesting example of a Medicean port dating back to the sixteenth century, avoid it) who are whisked to the piazza dei Miracoli to take the statutory shot of the illusion of holding up the tower and then (if lucky) move on to Florence or else equally quickly to be whisked back to their cruise liner.

The fact is that, although the famous piazza is without doubt one of the world’s great sights, there are many smaller miracoli to be seen in Pisa, not least of which is the lively street scene and the greater openness of its people when compared with the more enclosed Luccan character.

Yesterday we had occasion to go to Pisa to meet relatives at the airport and decided to make a day of it. First stop was the Royal Palace, a national museum which again is exceedingly neglected in favour of the better known Museo san Matteo.

Dating back to 1583 when Tuscan grand duke Francis I decided to build a lovely new palace overlooking the Arno it was designed by Buontalenti who also had a big hand in designing the Pitti palace gardens in Florence.

For the two hours we were there admiring its rooms, fine arms collection, paintings (including a Bronzino, a Breughel and even a Raphael), fabulous tapestries from the Geubels factory in Brussels, furniture, exquisite dresses dating back to renaissance times, intimate miniatures and sculpture we actually had the place to ourselves and were left quite alone to enjoy its wonders.

I was particularly impressed by a collection of Japanese ceramics which I am sure fellow blogger at will have something to say about.

There were also some fine modern paintings:

We had a great meal at a restaurant recommended to us by a young member of the museum staff: Stelio’s in nearby piazza Dante where we ate beautifully and simply cooked food complete with wine, cover and the addition of a local troubadour for around ten euros a head.

Stelio’s has been here for fifty years and is a veritable Pisan institution. Stelio himself is now eighty and his two sons show every wish to carry on with the business. The restaurant was filled with every conceivable type of client. Apart from us brits, there were students, workers, retired, office workers, and university profs (the university is what gives Pisa its zesty life). Eating there seemed like something out of Bohemian life as it genuinely was.

After the meal the sun came out and our intention to visit the museum of calculating machines didn’t quite work out as we were waylaid by the lovely botanical gardens which, happily, were not badly damaged by the recent great storm.

Pisa’s botanical gardens were created by Cosimo I de’ Medici and developed by the great botanist, Luca Ghini. Founded in 1543 they are the oldest botanical gardens in the world and the first to be connected to a university.

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The magical gardens revealed some wonderful plants including a 200-year old magnolia, that living fossil of a tree the Gingko Biloba

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and much else, including a huge yew tree (or tree of death as they call it here in Italy where it is very rare) an astonishing Australian araucaria, native of Queensland with a huge trunk and very prickly leaves,

a lovely pond and much, much else.

The view of Pisa’s leaning tower from “i giardini botannici” was transcendental, growing out of the gardens like the most exotic plant and, again, we had the whole place to ourselves!

Then it was time to head to the airport to collect our guests. We were so glad we made a day of it in Pisa instead doing the usual shuttle service tour to the airport from home and back. We would have otherwise missed so much of this truly life-enhancing city.


Burials, Royal and Otherwise

On the day of the burial of the much maligned King Richard III, the last of the line of the Plantagenets and the last King to lead his troops into battle on that famous horse, I’ve been ruminating on animal burials. Will one now find the horse he wished to barter a kingdom for?

The subject of animal cemeteries arouses very mixed emotions, yet for many people pets have, in most respects, meant as much as (sometimes even more than) humans.

In London animal cemeteries as the one near Lancaster gate in Kensington gardens have a long tradition but, similarly, in Italy animal cemeteries are becoming ever more frequent. For example, last year a new one was opened up at Scandicci near Florence. (See It is one of the nearest animal cemeteries to us.

Our loved pets have been buried in our own gardens. I have attended an Italian funeral of a beloved cat in a nearby village. The marmalade feline was buried below a large garden pot – a good idea as foxes, pine martens and wolves have been known to dig up their remains.

The following are photographs of memorial plaques to loved pets, kept by a great Englishman who was the subject of a major conference last year organised by the de Montaigne institute, Ian Greenlees.

These plaques are clearly not on public view being in the private garden of the house in which Greenlees once lived and kept his vast library before it was largely moved to Bagni di Lucca’s biblioteca communal in the Chiesa Anglicana.

I wonder where you will bury your loved pets, (provided you outlive them – a friend’s cat lived to be twenty four years old). Will you remember them by a plaque or stone like Greenlees did with his favourite pug or Elgar with Mina, his favourite cairn terrier, the dedicatee of the great composer’s final work?

Who thinks all this stuff about funerary monuments to our four-legged friend is sentimental trash? But it’s part of our life that has gone when they are gone – our memories, our loves, above all our years.

When the moment comes, however, a pet’s death can affect one in a way one never quite expects to be so devastating. Who knows whether I will succumb in Italy to the English habit of having a plaque in memory of those animals that have been so dear to us? Sometimes I sincerely wish they will outlive me but then who will look after them,?

PS This other plaque is in memory of another famous person who stayed here in Bagni di Lucca:


Rebuilding One’s Life

The whole of San Gemignano, three weeks after the cataclysmic “atmospheric event” (as the insurance companies like to call it), actually a “twister”, remains looking like one big building site. Scaffolding surrounds most of the buildings and bright new red tiles are replacing the old broken and fallen ones. Certainly, if one is a scaffolder or a roofer there’s plenty of work here. For woodcutters too there’s no lack of activities and if you are short of firewood, it’s there for the taking.

The church of San Gemignano is receiving due care and attention which is remarkable as its repairs are for a beautiful church which is actually a redundant ecclesiastical building,

This house is still covered by a plastic sheet. The owners apparrently live in Spain. I wonder when they will turn up.

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This house is divided between two owners. Clearly they couldn’t agree to use the same roofer.

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There are still piles of debris on the road, but far less than before.

A lot of the damage to people’s roofs and windows was caused by tiles from one person’s roof falling onto the adjoining houses’ roof. Houses are usually quite close to each other in these villages but the force of the wind was such that even well-detached houses suffered too. Insurance companies are having to sort out whether damage is covered by one’s own policy or the adjoining property owners’ third party clauses.

What is certain, however, is that everyone wants to get back to some sense of normalcy as soon as possible. In the case of those having to go to work outside the village relatives and friends have been called in to keep an eye on their property while they are away, especially as the number of building workers from the outside is making the local dogs and other pets feel somewhat disturbed.

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Although there is solidarity there have been complaints that not enough has been shown. Offers of carting away the remaining debris, giving free transport but asking for volunteers to lend a hand to fill the wagons, have not received much response.

There will be big problems for people with properties with skylights as most of these have been smashed by rubble and badly damaged what lies within the house. Also those with large swimming pools will have to completely reseal them again – a problem if these properties are being let out to holidaymakers.

Actually, I am now thinking of another kind of disaster. That mysteriously tragic airplane crash in a remote part of the French Alps has obviously shaken all of us.

For me, as a music lover, I am always particularly shocked when musicians are killed in such horrible events. I’m thinking of Guido Cantelli, Otis Redding, Buddy Holly, Ginette Neveu, the list could go on and on and it does. Last night it was the turn of the exquisite voice of Maria Rader, who died with her baby, to be silenced in that terrible alpine night.

I defy anyone to remain without moist eyes when listening to this exquisite Richard Strauss song Maria sang in London:

German Lyrics:

Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen
und auf dem Wege, den ich gehen werde,
wird uns, die Glücklichen sie wieder einen
inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde…
und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen,
werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen,
stumm werden wir uns in die Augen schauen,
und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen…

English Translation


And tomorrow the sun will shine again

And on the way which I shall follow

She will again unite us lucky ones

As all around us the earth breathes in the sun

Slowly, silently, we will climb down

To the wide beach and the blue waves

In silence, we will look in each other’s eyes

And the mute stillness of happiness will sink upon us

R. I. P.

Morris Here, There and Everywhere.

No it’s not our little moggy which has travelled to many places all the way from Greenwich, London to the Anatolian plateau I’m referring to in the title. It’s a human.


There’s still one famous person’s house I haven’t mentioned we visited London last month. In many respects it’s a house belonging to one of the most remarkable and multi-faceted persons who ever lived. The descriptions of artist, designer, typographer, writer, poet, translator, revolutionary, visionary do not exhaust his activities. Furthermore, he is the one person who, more than ever, links up places where I was born, where I was educated, where I lived, where I worked, where I am now – indeed all those places and more: all those places dearest to me today.

Walthamstow, notorious for its part in the 2011 London riots when large parts of that city were in flames, does not immediately suggest a pilgrimage on the Victoria tube line to visit it. Its multi ethnic high street is lively but has unremarkable shops and modest architecture. Nobody there seemed to know the place we wanted to visit. Had we come to the wrong place?

Of course not. Finally, we were pointed in the right direction. At the entrance of a park stands a fine Georgian mansion where the man whose achievements we had come to hallow was born and brought up: William Morris, Britain’s greatest designer, whose work we have already touched on in a previous post when we visited an exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery with a section on him. (See

There’s a fine web site at dedicated to William who was also (naturally) involved with the Pre-Raphaelites, one of whom snatched his wife off him (I’ll leave you to find out who if you didn’t already know).


The museum is beautifully laid out and much better organised than when we last visited it  Here are some photographs of that museum thirty years ago (and us thirty years younger!)

But how does Morris link up with all the places I’ve lived and worked in? For a start there’s the Red House in Bexleyheath designed by Morris and Webb, where William spent the earlier part of his married life – a house called  “the beautifullest house in England” which is just round the corner from where I lived in the same borough. We were privileged to have known the couple who saved the Red House  from demolition when such architecture was unfashionable (what a philistine age I was brought up – the number of gorgeous buildings demolished in the Britain of the 50’s to the 70’s is too heart-breaking for me to go through.) We were also among the first visitors when the National Trust realised the uniqueness of that Red House and was able to add it to its list of very precious London properties. Again these photographs date from our distant past:

Red Lion square in Holborn, London, where William Morris had his design company headquarters, was also the square where I worked as a civil servant in the now defunct Wages Inspectorate. (Incidentally, it’s the same square where Sir John Harrington, Queen Elizabeth I’s “saucy godson” invented the first flush toilet in 1596. Hence the use of the word “John” to describe the same useful invention in the states. But I digress…)

The Kelmscott press on the Thames at Hammersmith, which Morris founded and from which he published some of the most stunningly set books in the English language and his masterpiece of printing, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, also has an intimate and living association with me and the great river itself – a river about which Conrad in that book which I am constantly re-reading “Heart of Darkness” writes “what greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.”

Even Bagni di Lucca enters into my associations as among William Morris’s best friends was Robert Browning whose holiday residence in Bagni di Lucca is being so lovingly restored (see my post at

William Morris is fortunate in having several houses in which he lived or is associated with. There’s Wightwick Manor, of course, near Birmingham and Standen in Sussex, both of which we have also visited and both which belong to the National Trust.

If you’re an American you can see this gorgeous stained glass window designed by William Morris in Trinity Church Boston (there’s also an archive of William Morris material in San Marino California,

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and if you’re an Australian and a fan of William Morris designs you must be the luckiest person in the world for Adelaide’s art gallery has the most comprehensive collection of Morris & Co. furnishings outside Britain).

If you’re in London and don’t want to go that far to see some William Morris you can always have a cup of tea at the V and A  – the dining area  was designed by William Morris and is now appropriately called “The William Morris” room.


I don’t have to go too far either in Bagni di Lucca to see that Browning house with its associations with William Morris. After all, not only were they good friends but Morris can justly be counted as the main inspirer of the art nouveau (“stile liberty” as they call it here in Italy movement so gloriously seen in much of Italy, particularly around Lucca and Viareggio, and now revealed like an awakened sleeping beauty in BdL itself.

Few people read much of William Morris’s literary work today but two of his phrases have certainly echoed in the minds of many of us:

There’s this one which some of us try to aspire to:

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

And there’s this one too, a little more difficult in this day and age to practice.”

“No work which cannot be done with pleasure in the doing is worth doing”.

To conclude, here are some photographs we took last February of a few of the items designed by Morris in the house that makes a visit to the end of the Victoria line at Walthamstow worth every minute of the journey: