A Great Day for Bagni di Lucca Villa

Yesterday Bagni di Lucca’s Borghesi restaurant officially reopened with a joyful and dignified ceremony. We managed for a short time to return to a place that has always meant a lot to us, especially during our first years here.

The décor has been updated in a classical and discrete colour scheme with off-whites and greys. There is nothing ostentatious about the reincarnated Borghesi: in fact, considerable effort was made to bring back the decoration to its former elegance.

The front dining area which, it will be remembered, was florally decorated with trompe-d’oeil windows and vine tendrils is not included in the refurbished Borghesi as it was always rented from an adjoining proprietor and has been a shop for some years. Perhaps one day? In compensation, the rear dining area has been enlarged by a slight structural alteration and can accommodate a maximum of forty diners.

The bar area has been cleaned up and diffuse lighting makes it a very attractive place to enjoy one’s morning cappuccino or afternoon aperitivo.

The kitchen is completely state-of-the-art and the public services are also fully updated.

Everyone present was clearly delighted and we left happy, not just by yet another sign of Bagni di Lucca Villa’s reawakening, but also by the delicious cakes (the proof is, of course, in the eating and great things are promised) and prosecco we had been invited to partake of by that magnificent couple, Fabio and Stefania, owners and historical proprietors, whose tireless initiative it was to get this iconic restaurant back onto its feet (or stomach should I say?)

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See you all there soon!

Let the People Sing!

A “Rassegna Corale” could be described as a choral jamboree. It’s a convivial occasion where local choirs meet up, each one presenting a short programme to show off their styles and repertoire. There’s no element of competition in the event but all members of audience and choir present are invited to contribute towards a good cause. In last nights’ Rassegna it was cancer research.

The 16th occasion of this particular Rassegna event took place in Fornaci di Barga’s new church, a brutalist piece of architecture with atrocious acoustics and abattoir-like lines which I have already slated in a previous post (see https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/brutal-or-beautiful/ ).

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No matter. At least the venue is large – the largest indeed in Fornaci and there are a number of art works which redeem the awfulness of the building.

The place was filled to capacity with eight choirs coming from the length of the Val di Serchio and representing all age from the very young to the very mature.

This was the programme:

There was just one change. The Corale of Barga cathedral could not attend and, instead, was replaced by the girls’ choir of Barga’s high school. Our own choir was second in terms of appearance.

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What can I say about the performances? They were surprisingly good, lacking in some accuracy what they gained enormously in enthusiasm. I remember hearing one very early 1930’ recordings of a Catalan choir some years ago and the direct rawness of the sound contrasted very pleasantly with the often anaemic quality some Anglican choirs are capable of. Do not judge Italian choirs by Anglican standards…..

All choirs that evening contributed lustily and gave worthy performances. I had my favourites. Lia Salotti’s Saint Cecilia choir of Diecimo was beautifully rehearsed, as befits a fine music teacher, and the Perosi items were close to sublime. (Perosi is a sort of Italian equivalent of Herbert Howells in a very approximate sort of way. Puccini used to joke to saying that there would come one day when he and his operatic ilk would be forgotten while Perosi would stand the test of time.).

The great polyphonic musicologist and interpreter, Don Fiorenzo Toti’s choir from Gallicano took the prize, if it ever would have been awarded, for sheer quality of sound and stylistic interpretation. His choir also performed a piece from the now highly revalued Perosi. But, for me, the revelatory piece was Francesco Bianciardi’s “Veniens a Libano”, an exquisitely sonorous piece by a Tuscan composer born at Casole d’Elsa in 1572 and who died in Siena Italy.

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Because Bianciardi isn’t that well known in England a few facts about him may be in place here.

Bianciardi composed mainly religious music in the style of Palestrina whose pupil he may have been. He became Siena cathedral’s Maestro di Capella in 1597. Bianciardi was also a virtuoso organist whose improvisations were extolled by contemporary composers such as Pitoni and Banchieri. Later in life he wrote more light-hearted, madrigals which look forwards to the Monteverdian idiom.

Bianciardi also has a connection with another post-Palestrinian Ludovico Grossi da Viadana, which the choir also performed, and introduced some of the latter’s concertato elements.

It’s true to say that one of the joys of living in Italy is that one is constantly introduced to composers and musical schools one was entirely ignorant of in the UK. Hopefully, the converse is also true when Italian music lovers visit to the UK and are introduced to that country’s amazing tradition of music from Dunstable to Tavener.

The evening was most enjoyable with everyone from mums and children to Toti’s regiment of highly disciplined polyphonic voices collaborating in the great language of choral singing. Our one choir didn’t do too badly either, I hasten to add, under Andrea Salvoni’s excellent guidance.

Let the people continue to sing, I say!

 

 

 

 

Libraries are our Best Friends

Libraries come in all shapes and sizes, particularly in Italy. They all have one thing in common, however: they are places of refuge and learning and, often, of elegance.

Libraries are places of refuge because they provide oases from the invasion of ignorance which show no signs of abating in the outside world. They are dwellings of learning because there’s always something new one can find out about oneself and the world in these most ancient centres of erudition. And they are abodes of elegance because many of them are truly beautiful buildings to visit.

All these three elements were combined when I visited Borgo a Mozzano’s library yesterday to meet up with a student for an English lesson. The library has quite recently been moved from another ancient palace in Borgo a Mozzano’s long high street which is bordered by tall buildings worthy of any Oltrarno Florentine street. The library is situated in a beautiful square bounded on one side by the stunning baroque church of San Rocco with it great apse frescoes by neo-classical artist Luigi Ademollo.

The first room that struck me in the library was this one with the sweetest tartanesque wall decorations.

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That, however, was just the beginning. Further rooms had very beautiful ceilings which date back to neo-classical times. They were decorated with attractive medallions and whimsical grotesques. True, some of the ceilings were a little obscured by the necessities of modern library fittings and lighting but these were done with certain discretion and one was still able to admire the elegant proportions of each room.

Of course, a library is not just a collection of pleasing ceilings and creative wall decorations. Its pulsing heart is it books and I was very happy to see such a wide collection not just of volumes but also an extensive archive collection. Indeed, there was a young researcher there going through ancient dog-eared manuscripts and rebuilding family connections in a long established family of figurinai (the makers of local traditional makers of plaster of Paris statues which travelled the world in the lucchesi portmanteaux – so widespread that wags would brag that they even reached America before Columbus landed there himself and so were able to sell him the first New World souvenirs).

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In the midst of this beautiful library with an enclosed upper portico (in which we have also attended intimate chamber music concerts, some given by Borgo a Mozzano’s distinguished Marco Salotti music school under the presidency of renowned guitarist Antonio Rondina)  it was absolutely no surprise that the lesson went well and learning was achieved.

A web site for the library with opening hours is at http://www.comune.borgoamozzano.lucca.it/content.php?p=5.3

(PS “Libreria” is “bookshop” in Italian –not library which is “Biblioteca”!)

We are fortunate in Italy in having some of the most magnificent libraries in the world. Clearly, some of them like the Piccolomini in Siena or the Vatican in Rome are the ne-plus-ultra of cosmic librarianship but in so many smaller places there are fine libraries well curated by devoted and often overworked and underpaid librarians.

I mention our own Bagni di Lucca library in the old Anglican Church, greatly enriched by Ian Greenlees’ legacy (see https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/r-i-p-ian/) which provides a safe haven for all aspects of learning under Dr Angela Amadei. Further afield, the modern state-of-the art and quite spectacular Mario Luzi library in Florence, dedicated to one of the greatest modern Italian poet has recently be refurbished and provides every form of access, whether electronic or paper-based for research. (See my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/09/01/why-fie/ on that library)

When I consider the poor state of many libraries in my former borough of Greenwich, London – several of which have closed down, some of which have sold entire collections of classic books because they were considered irrelevant (!!!) and one of which some years ago introduced break-dancing (!) in one of its room to encourage younger users – then I become even more grateful for the quiet, studious and devoted ambience of Italy’s carriers of civilization’s torch throughout the peninsula and beyond.

And libraries don’t have to be huge things. One of the most charming ones I know is the little one in Bagni di Lucca’s public garden, mercifully spared by the ill wind at the beginning of last March. (See my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/bring-and-buy-or-exchange/ for more on that one.

As Walter Cronkite, the famous American journalist, said: “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”

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LuccaMusica is now On-Line!

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There a new web site for” LuccaMusica”, the music magazine for Lucca and its province, which has just been inaugurated yesterday thanks to the efforts of Chief Editor Francesco Cipriano and his collaborators (including me…)

This means that you will have absolutely no excuse for missing any of the great musical events Lucca and its province provides since the site will be constantly updated. Furthermore, you will also not have to wait in vain for your copy of “Lucca Musica” to reach you.

This is truly a great opportunity to keep in touch and enjoy the fine world of music that Lucca provides – a place which is truly the Salzburg of the south (or is Salzburg the Lucca of the north?).

The web site is at www.luccamusica.it

ENJOY!

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PS Here’s already an addendum to it:

MOZART REQUIEM AT THE CHIESA DEI SERVI

The Sagra Musicale Lucchese, the longest running festival in the city of Lucca, and one of the most prestigious regional musical events, organized by the City, Province, and the Archdiocese of Lucca with the support of the Foundation and CRL sponsorship of Oleificio Rocchi, is presenting four concerts in June. On Thursday, 4th June at 9.15 PM in the Chiesa dei Servi is a performance of Mozart’s Requiem and Fritz Kreisler’s Prelude and Allegro for violin and orchestra. Taking part is the Choir of Pisa University and the Tuscan Chamber Orchestra. Soloists are Alida Berti, soprano; Maria Vittoria Paba, contralto; Claudio Sassetti, tenor; Antonio Marani, bass; Antonio Aiello, violin. Tickets 10 euro; 5 euro for over 65 years. Students free admission.

ORGAN RECITAL BY GIULIA BIAGETTI

Sunday, June 7th at 6 pm at San Martino Cathedral, organ recital by Giulia Biagetti with a program including Cesar Franck: Prelude, fugue and variation op. 18, Grande pièce symphonique, Op. 17, Liszt: Consolation in D, and Fugue on the name Bach.

Giulia Biagetti is a brilliant Lucchese organist of European fame. She graduated in piano and organ composition. She is titular organist of Lucca Cathedral and has performed over five hundred concert throughout Italy and Europe.
LISTENING GUIDE TO MARIANNA BOTTINI’S REQUIEM MASS

Saturday, June 13th AT 6 pm, at the Oratorio della Madonnina (via Carrara, zona porta San Pietro) listening Guide by Paolo Razzuoli to Marianna Bottini’s Symphony and Requiem Mass, performed live in San Giovanni on the 9 June 2007 with the Santa Cecilia Chapel Choir. Luigi Boccherini Orchestra. Soloists: Maria Luigia Borsi (soprano), Anastasia Boldyreva (mezzo soprano), Samuele Simoncini (tenor), Giuseppe Altomare (baritone). Conductor: Gianfranco Cosmi.

UNPUBLISHED MUSIC BY VALERIO TESEI AT THE CHIESA DEI SERVI

On Saturday, June 20th at 9.15 pm in the Chiesa dei Servi there’s a final concert with unpublished music by Valerio Tesei discovered and revised by Luca Bacci, performed by the Cathedral’s Santa Cecilia Choir, Lucca and the “L. Boccherini” Chamber Orchestra. Soloists: Sonia Bellugi (soprano), Elisabetta Vuocolo (contralto), Carlo Morini (baritone). Conductor: Luca Bacci (entry 10 euro, reduced 5 euro for over 65’s, students free admission).

Don Valerio Tesei (Bologna 1749 – 1804) was a composer, musicologist and choirmaster of San Petronio. His music has been included in the Lucchese Music Festival not only for its worth, but also because he was Antonio Puccini’s brother-in-law. (His sister, Caterina Tesei, married Antonio Puccini in 1771). Antonio had turned to him on several occasions asking him to provide music for religious services in Lucca, which he was unable to fulfil alone.

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Three Great Eateries to Try Out

It’s official! The much loved Borghesi restaurant in Bagni di Lucca, Villa is reopening after a hiatus of over two years. With the cooperation of ex-councillor, Lions club member and president of Bagni di Lucca’s  University of the third age,  Fabio Lucchesi, who owns the premises and his wife’s family Borghesi, the original founders of the restaurant and who originate from our very own Longoio there will be an opening this Saturday.

Borghesi is not just a restaurant: it’s an institution which dates back to heady Edwardian days when the British contingent would also use it as their favourite tea rooms.

I am quite sure that the Borghesi resurrection will be wholly successful and we look forwards to sampling its excellent kitchen in the very near future.

Well done to all those who are putting all their efforts in ensuring that Bagni di Lucca does not lose its historical places of refreshment and conviviality. Already the Circolo dei Forestieri, which we sampled last week when we participated in the Unitre’s end of term lunch, is living up to its reputation for good, reasonably priced food in an elegant ambience.

While on the subject of historical eateries we bumped into an amazing restaurant dating back to the seventeenth century and situated quite near famous oak I described in my last post. It’s Toti’s cantina situated in Via del Carraia in Gragnano near Lucca, which, as every wine-lover knows, is famous for its superb vineyards.

In Italy one can always tell if the restaurant is a good one by the varied number of people of all classes and trade congregating in it: from farmers to executive to builders. Good food knows no elitist barriers in Italy unlike what often happens in other countries.

The antica cantina restaurant is, in fact, a converted wine cellar and there are still relicts of casks and their gigantic hoops.  The cellar dining area is a little dim but is particularly suitable for evening meals.

We chose the lighter room near the entrance

and plumped for the workers’ lunch which was as follows:

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We picked the rice with artichokes, penne with asparagus and garlic spaghetti.

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 For second dish we had home-made hamburgers on asparagus cream, saltimbocca alla Romana (saltimbocca, Roman-style: veal, prosciutto and sage, rolled-up and cooked in dry white wine and butter) and grilled beef with a mixture of vegetables including roast potatoes bean and agretti (the edible leaves of salsola soda, also known as goat’s beard in the United Kingdom).

Agretti is a kind of greens originating from Tuscany and I’ve never found it abroad. It’s delicious!

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This excellent repast was accompanied by water, excellent red house wine from Gragnano and finished with coffee.

All this came to ten euro each and, as is usual in Italy, tipping was completely optional.

We can assuredly say that we haven’t eaten so well in a restaurant for a very long time.

At week end and evening there is a more extensive a la carte menu which is thus:

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More details are as follows:

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 To get to Toti’ follow the road from Lucca to Pescia and turn right where it says Montecarlo.

 

 

The Oak of the Witches

Yesterday we were bewitched by one of the most wonderful trees we have ever seen. It’s called il quercione, (the big oak) and is in a location we would really like to keep secret, on the slopes of the hill of Montecarlo.

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Why our hesitation in telling everyone where it is exactly? Partly it’s because too many visitors tramping around it could damage the oak’s roots, partly because the tree has traditionally supernatural forces, is also called the tree of the witches and could inflict harm on those unwilling to believe in the power of magic.

The mighty quercione is at least six hundred years old and almost eighty feet tall. Its trunk has a circumference of around fifteen feet and it canopy spreads to one hundred and thirteen feet in circumference. What, however, is the most extraordinary feature about the tree (which must be the biggest living being in the whole of Tuscany) is that its branches expand , horizontally, parallel to the ground, a very rare feature in this species and without any convincing explanation for this phenomenon.

The Oak of the Witches, as it’s also called, now finds itself in pretty good condition, despite some nasty adventures over the years.

We are incredibly lucky to see il quercione in its current state. During the late war the Nazis wanted to cut it down for firewood (they’d have needed some saw to carry out the operation!) but the local inhabitants bravely protested. In the sixties the tree was struck by lightning but survived relatively unscathed.

Legends about il quercione proliferate. It is said that at the Sabbath moon witches congregate in their coven and discuss future tactics sitting along the huge spread branches. Their meeting to discuss their forthcoming operations on the world has encouraged the branches to become even more outspread and mammoth-like to accomodate them. Since it’s also said that anyone who comes uninvited upon the witches’ conferences becomes mad for the rest of their lives we found it difficult to locate any relatively comprehensible witnesses to the fact.

We did, however, notice a local peasant at the foot of the tree having a panino and wine lunch break. He seemed quite at ease munching his repast just like as if he were sitting below any other old forest tree. Indeed, the peasant pointed out to us several other ancient green-robed senators and the whole forest has, indeed, a magical appearance worthy of the most fantastical pages of the Lord of the Rings.

The tree has also associations with that occasionally long-nosed puppet-turned-boy who was created in the vicinity, at Collodi. One version has it that this is the tree in which Pinocchio buried his money on the advice of the lame fox and blind cat in order to multiply it – a useful story to remember in a country which is regrettably infected with Ludomania. (Of course, the money disappeared in the pockets of the wily pair).

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Even more dramatic is the episode where poor Pinocchio gets hung up on the tree. Being a puppet however, does have its advantages and he was saved from the extremes of strangulation by being made of the same material as the tree.

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Botanically, the oak tree belongs to the sub-species of “Quercus pubescens” and its mass must make it one of the largest living organisms in Italian territory.

The disadvantage of any post is that if one describes something that really enters into one’s blood and fills one with awe and wonder then the feeling comes that only the worthiest should visit it. So if you find this extraordinary beast (for surely its branches remind one of something reminicent of the strangest science-fiction creatures in “Alien”) touch it gently with love for the extraordinary power it will give you to regenerate your life-energy, admire it for its great beauty, worship it for the wisdom it has gathered, learn from it through the history it has seen since it was first planted by a little bird at the start of the fifteenth century and be glad that you have seen one of the greatest wonders wonderful Tuscany can offer, hidden in the confines of one the most charmed places I have ever had the privilege to visit and where the most amazing woodland walks can be had.

Crepuscular Thoughts

Longoio cemetery stands a little less than half-way on the mule-track between Mobbiano – Longoio’s “twin star”- and Giovanna’s shop at the entrance to San Gemignano. It can, therefore, not be avoided if one is walking to her shop to catch up on essentials like milk, sugar and cat food.

Yesterday, between one shower and the next, we decided to take another look at the cemetery which is reached by two ramps.

At the far centre of the Camposanto (or “holy field” as it’s also known in Italy) is a small chapel used to hold coffins before their interment. It’s built in a vaguely neo-Egyptian style, popular in the nineteenth century with sloping sides and doors, and serves very much the same purpose as a traditional lynch gate in an English churchyard.

Unlike English churchyards, however, each tomb is closely placed to the next rather like a compact housing estate. It’s truly a city of the dead rather than the more expansive areas of suburban-like lawns which characterise English cemeteries.

Formerly, Italian cemeteries were, like English ones, spread around the church and there are still traces of tombstones and gates adjoining churches like that of San Geminiano. However, after the frequent cholera outbreaks of nineteenth century Italy it was deemed unhygienic by the  authorities to inhume remains around a place of worship and so cemeteries have been built a little distance away from churches. Each tomb emplacement has also been lined with stone or concrete to avoid the seeping of bodily fluids which occur when corruption of the flesh inevitably starts to happen. Eventually, of course, the bones will be collected and interred into a columbarium, as at Bagni di Lucca cemetery. This explains the disappointment of grave stone inscription readers in Italy since a very small number of stones have survived the sanitary prescriptions the nineteenth century.

Columbarian emplacement has not yet happened at Longoio’s churchyard, presumably because the inhumation rate is not very high and has, indeed, greatly diminished in recent years because of a drastic decline in population mainly due to emigration.

There is still, however, a considerable number of tomb in the cemetery of varying degrees of ornamentation, statuary and even ostentation. There’s one funerary chapel belonging to a family who clearly struck it rich in local commerce (no name mentioned) and there are also modest attempts with gravestones to show both the family’s devotion to their dearly departed ones and to indicate that in this earthly life they didn’t do that badly.

It is with some regret that, after ten years as a resident of Longoio, I am recognising more and more names among those whose final resting place this has become. That’s, of course, the way of life (or death if one prefers) and the number of funerals I have attended here is now reaching double figures.

I wonder when it’ll be my turn. Actually, arrangements have been made for my cremation, now a popular and economic way of disposal, and a place, long bought ago by my foreseeing wife, arranged in a delightfully landscaped south London cemetery.

“Ashes to ashes “and “dust to dust” it may be written, but I would also like to add “country of birth to country of birth”.

I wonder if Keats, now interred near the pyramid of Caius Cestius in the English cemetery at Rome, might have thought the same. Certainly, I don’t think nearby situated Shelley might have harboured the same thought as he virulently abjured his native soil for understandable reasons.

What epitaph might be written on our tombstones?

I wrote a couple for my wife and me some years ago:

 

FOR SANDRA

 

This flower, so rare and dear,

parting from the world’s grief,

now blossoms in heaven’s sphere,

endless as life is brief.

 

 

FOR FRANCIS

 

He is the sun in our face,

the moon in our dark night,

the new life’s all-giving grace,

the everlasting Light.

 

 

In the end does it really matter?

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An Hour at Castelvecchio Pascoli

Even if one is not interested in Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli, or even in poetry in general, his house at Castelvecchio Pascoli is well worth visit as it is one of the few houses that has remained exactly the same since 1912, the year in which the poet, a heavy drinker of cognac and wine, died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of fifty six.

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Pascoli found peace and inspiration in this house and the whole of the Serchio valley  after some very dark times in his life. Giovanni never married but lived with his sister Maria who reverently kept the house as her brother had lived in it until her own death in 1954. The only changes incurred are the relatively recent ones of the installation of electricity.

Pascoli’s life was blighted not only by the murder of his father by an unknown assassin when the young lad was just twelve but also by the subsequent death of his mother, his sister and two of his brothers in quick succession and the subsequent financial decline of his family. This has given Pascoli’s poetry a clearly pessimistic tinge but to place him in the same league of decadent poets as another of his contemporaries, D’Annunzio, is to do him an injustice. There were enormous differences between the two poets:  just compare their houses – D’Annunzio’s at the Vittoriale, darkly suffocating with superfluous luxury, and Pascoli’s neat, country-cottage, practical and full of light.

The two poets, however, did know each other and occasionally agreed on political ideas. Pascoli, in his speech at Barga, for example, supported the Italian invasion of Libya in his famous Barga speech of 1911. I wonder what he would have thought of the Libyan invasion of Italy today….

Pascoli’s poetry, beautifully written with a miraculous music that can obviously only come through in the original Italian to the fullest, seems at first sight easy to understand but then reveals hidden depths and ambiguities which only repeated readings can unravel.

If you can’t read Italian then American scholar Lawrence Venuti has translated Pascoli’s poetry in a highly effective version for which he has won much praise.

To return to Pascoli’s house which we visited last week: the place is a wonderful insight into what life must have been like in those idyllic days before World War One (which today is commemorating its one hundredth anniversary) shattered not just a way of life but a whole generation. The visit is limited to ten persons at a time as there’s no fire escape. We were privileged to just being three and so had, in effect, a private visit conducted by a most knowledgeable and courteous guide.

We first visited the kitchen with its old fashioned charcoal fornelli, or oven rings, and Pascoli’s favourite saucepan in which his cook would prepare trout, his favourite dish. On the same floor we entered into the intimately elegant dining room fully laid out for supper as if the great man himself would shortly appear. In fact, I did feel his presence there uncannily so.

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The first floor opens out onto the poet’s bedroom and, adjoining it, of his sister between whom there is said to have been an ambiguous relationship. Another room contained the bed in which the poet died.

The most spectacular room, however, is the poet’s study, bathed with light, and with three tables, each one dedicated to a particular literary task: Italian poetry, Latin poetry (Pascoli was one of the greatest modern classicists and indeed obtained the money to buy his house from the various international prizes he obtained for his classical verse), and reading.

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The poet’s original library is extensive and contains books both in Italian and French. Pascoli could understand a little English – indeed, he dedicated one of his poems to the children of English friends – but he relied on translations to read the classics in that language.

No photography is allowed within the house but we were permitted to take a few spectacular landscape shots from the altana, or arcaded terrace, on the first floor which, complete with its deck chair, must have been a favourite place for a post-prandial snooze and that glass of cognac which the poet so much enjoyed.

I was particularly intrigued by an unedited photograph of Puccini at Pascoli’s house. There had been talk of Pascoli and Puccini collaborating on an opera but this project was never realised. It’s hardly surprising when one realises that each of these two greats had music enough within themselves not to need the support of the other. There are poets and librettists as there are composers and background music writers, but poets and composers can rarely mix their creations effectively together.

The last part of our visit was dedicated to the chapel which sister Pascoli had built to bury the mortal remains of her brother and, subsequently, her own. In Italy it’s considered a great honour requiring official and papal permission to be buried within one’s house. I can only think of Puccini and D’Annunzio among those who received this honour. Apart from the fact that I could never presume to ever reach this privilege I don’t think I’d like my corpse to be stuck in my house not just for this life but for the whole of the next!

It was a releasing pleasure to be able to walk in the very sunny garden and enjoy its lawns, flowers and orchards and also pay homage to Pascoli’s favourite dog, Gulì, who found his resting place in a bower graced by a column.

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A great introduction to Pascoli’s poetry is the volume “I canti di Castelvecchio” which includes the “Cavalla Storna” poem, tragically alluding to the poet’s father’s death:

“You Dapple-grey filly

Who carried the one who never returned”

and also that lovely paean to the “valle del bene e del buono” as Pascoli described our lovely Valle del Serchio and “L’ora di Barga”, part of which goes:

“It’s late, it’s the hour. Yes let’s return

To those who love me and who I love.”

Another great Italian poet, Montale, once said that Pascoli was as untranslatable as Leopardi. That’s at least one good reason to learn Italian, or any other language, just to read that country’s poetry. How marvellous must it be to read “Eugen Onegin” in the original, for example. At least, I can now have a try with Giovanni Pascoli.

More information is at the house’s web site at http://www.fondazionepascoli.it/sitepascoli/pub/Pagina.asp?IdPagina=la_casa_museo

And if you want to find out where Pascoli was born go to visit his original house in Emilia-Romagna at

http://www.casapascoli.it/servizi/notizie/notizie_homepage_museo.aspx

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Musical Bubbly in Montecarlo

When the word “crescendo” is mentioned in music two composers immediately come to mind. For a long time the Mannheim crescendo, created by Stamitz’s orchestra, famously described by musical traveller Charles Burney as an ”army of generals”, dominated the European musical scene – that is, until Gioachino Rossini came on the stage with the rapidity of a cork suddenly ejected from a bottle of the best spumante.

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There are, of course, formal differences between the two crescendo types: the Mannheim, centred on a single tonic with entering thirds and fifths and the Rossinian, based on an alternation of tonic and sub-dominant chords with an ostinato bass line. They have, however, one thing in common: they start very softly and end up very loudly!

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LuccaOpera Festival production of Gioachino (or Gioacchino as it’s often spelt) Rossini’s “l’Italiana in Algeri “ began its extended sequence of crescendi from the very start of the overture, from those soft pizzicato chords which sounded so right on gut strings.

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For this performance, the second one (and, alas, the last one to be given in Montecarlo’s – the Tuscan Montecarlo, I hasten to add – “Teatro degli Rassicurati”, a superbly miniaturised version of a classic eighteenth century theatre with an elegant intimacy and wondrous acoustics, has been probably the first one since the opera’s première in 1819 to use historically informed instruments.

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We are, of course used to hearing “authentic instruments (as if the whole thing could have been played on a synthesiser….) in Handelian and baroque operas but less so when entering the nineteenth century. The effect of using original (or copies of original instruments) by the accompanying “orchestra dell ’Eloquenza” conducted by the ever-rising star of Jonathan Brandani, now truly established as a conductor of the greatest talent in three continents (when will he invade Asia, I wonder?) was quite revelatory. The clarity of the woodwind was gorgeous and a true complement to the strings. The two valveless horn players were nothing short of miraculous and the recitativo continuo, sometime on almost viola-da- gamba sounding cellos and also on an 1800 Joseph Kirkman fortepiano from London, was delightful. The late Christopher Hogwood, to whom the performance was dedicated, and whose sister was among the audience, would have loved it. I’m sure that supernal intervention was interceded for him to listen to a performance which was truly pleasurable and absolutely inspired.

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The singers were all, without exception, top-notch with great acting and mimicry abilities, fully able to leap across, up and round the often impossibly super-virtuosistic roulades and vocal ornamentations which Rossini (and his audience) delighted in.

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The timbre of the singer’s voices was also excellently chosen. It would be churlish to single out any vocalist for extraordinary praise but Loriana Castellano’s Isabella was quite outstanding. Her dark lower register blossomed out into brightest sunshine in an exhilarating vocal range. David Ferri Durà’s Lindoro had a most seductive head voice. Mustafa was equally imposing and dim-witted. Campetti’s Taddeo revealed further aspects of his great ability to impersonate figures of fun without demeaning them unduly. Every singer put their most in their role with the greatest effect.

The fusion of great singing, convincing acting and a superb production was, in short a feast worthy of the most gargantuan event and served with the most effervescent musical bubbly one could hope to guzzle down without being over-inebriated.

As for the story: I sometimes think champagne should be served before a performance of a Rossini opera rather than afterwards, but the fizzy, manic, head-lightening mixture of intrigue, reality, fantasy, dotage, trickery, love, stealth and subterfugal intricacies of the plot more than made up for the champagne which followed afterwards for the lucky ones.

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Stefania Panighini, the producer, fully understood and realised that half-reality, half-dream state in the Rossinian world in her production where a magic mirror of desires played a prominent part.

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Looking through the list of thirty nine operas Rossini composed I remark on the number of those who chose oriental Arabian-night types of scenarios.

Apart from the “Italiana in Algeri”, there is “Ciro in Babilonia”, “Aureliano in Palmira”, Il Turco in Italia”, “Mosè in Egitto, “Maometto II” and “Semiramide”.

This list and the use of “oriental” sounding instruments in some of them (including a big tambourine in “L’Italiana in Algeri”) shows Rossini’s musical language’s direct descent from such works as Mozart’s “die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail”. It’s such a great pity that today’s Near and Middle East, which once evoked such hilarious plot encounters between east and western customs, is now clouded in our minds by the almost unbelievable savagery that is happening in those regions as I write.

For the eighteenth and nineteenth century audience, eons away from the realpolitik world of today, east and west meant side-splitting encounters between different sets of morals, between lascivious sultans lounging on plush velvets with houris and odalisques while western wives and women, caught up in the white slave trade, used their sharpest wits to disengage themselves from opium-infested decadence and assert the supreme beauty, both aesthetic and moral of the western woman, especially the Italian version (!), to declare loudly comme il faut.  Heady days indeed!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to spread into a dream cocoon and imagine Rossini’s “Aureliano in Palmira” performed among the resplendent ruins of a peaceful Palmyra? But then I’m entering that make-believe world that many of us are today forced to hide in to forget for a little while the sordidness of so much of the human world around us. But then isn’t that what Dr. Johnson’s “exotic and irrational” entertainment does best? Opera make us forget and gives respite and much needed enjoyment in these dark days for our world.

For too long I thought of Rossini as second-rate or even third rate Mozart, This production made me feel for the first time how catching that “Rossiniana” fever was which swept Europe in the first quarter of the nineteenth century and infected such diverse composers as Schubert and even Beethoven himself, who wisely told the Pesaro composer “Ah, Rossini. So you’re the composer of The Barber of Seville. I congratulate you. It will be played as long as Italian opera exists. Never try to write anything else but opera buffa; any other style would do violence to your nature.”

Not altogether right was Ludwig, however. After all, Rossini finished his operatic career with “William Tell” which set the standard for serious romantic opera to follow for the rest of the century.

What a pity Rossini didn’t write any more operas after 1829 although he lived almost another forty years and died in 1867. I still wonder why. Perhaps, as the most popular composer of that era, indeed, a Lloyd Webber of his time, he’d made enough money and thought “why bother”, although, it’s true that he did write religious pieces as an insurance policy for the next life he might lead.

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Final thanks for this memorable production have to go to Heather Jarman who contributed most generously, among the donors, to getting the Italian girl to and from Algiers (or Montecarlo as it was in reality). In a moving homage to Christopher Hogwood, Heather, whose personal assistant she was, mentioned the historically informed dinners Christopher would love to cook up. Indeed, the only disappointment I might have had about Montecarlo’s whole fizzy evening was that I could not find a restaurant in the place to serve us up with Tournedos a la Rossini”.

Anyway, here is that recipe which I must try out while listening to my ecstatic re-discovery of the great composer and bon-viveur’s music:

INGREDIENTS (SERVES 6)

  • beef fillet
  • ⅜ oz butter
  • 1 slice fois gras fresh
  • 2 slices black truffle
  • 1 slice sliced bread
  • 1 tablespoon Madera wine

PREPARATION

25 minutes preparation + 10 minutes cooking

Tie up the fillet slices with string so that they retain their round shape while cooking: Brown in butter until medium-rare, then remove the string.

Fry in oil and butter the slices of bread; arrange a tournedos on each bread slice, put the foie gras slice on top and garnish with the truffle shavings previously sautéed in butter.

Pour the Madera wine into the meat cooking juices and reduce; drizzle this reduction over the tournedos when ready to serve.

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ENJOY!

PS Music professor Paula Chesterman of Tuscan Talent was also present at the performance and her post at

http://www.music.tuscantalent.com/Music_Blogs/page41/Tuscany-Seminars-arts-food-wine-event-music.html

also contains video extracts from the production.

Palladio in Pisa

In most Italian towns and cities teachers have been protesting against the school reforms proposed by education minister Stefania Giannini under Renzi’s government. Many of these reforms seem old hat to one used to many years of teaching in the UK but I can fully understand the anger of the teachers demonstrating in Piazze throughout this country.

What are the salient points of these reforms? It would be very tedious unless one is an educationalist to go through the intricacies. However, three points stand out. First, the head teacher or “preside” is now to be known as “dirigente scolastico” i.e. school director, with powers to dismiss underachieving teachers and appoint new ones. This role is somewhat similar to the situation in many English educational establishments which are directed by managers, who may or may not have years of teaching experience under their belt but who have been appointed for their administrative skills. This reform has really made Italian teachers fume since, in the majority of cases heads of schools in Italy have traditionally worked their way up to the top by sheer hard work and good results in the classroom.

The position of “precari” (or “visiting lecturers” as they are often euphemistically called in the UK) is also another sore point. Too many teachers have been working for years without fixed contracts and with a very uncertain future. The educational minister has assured that more teachers will be lifted from the “precarious” position into stable jobs but this is hardly believed in by the majority of protesters, so used to false promises.

I have got myself involved in two further aspects of Italian educational reform, directly through my previous teaching experience. One is the increased use of IT as a learning and teaching aid. For example, Gesam, Lucca’s gas company, has sponsored tablets to the majority of the first three years of secondary school (Scuola Media). This, in theory, is a great idea, except that the children have now become teachers to their “Profs” in how to get the gadgets to work. As for help at home, this is difficult when Italian parent are said to be some of the most digitally illiterate people in the EC.

The second aspect I have got myself involved in is the increasing use of the English language to teach subjects. In many schools the standard of English teaching is highly variable and often ineffectually applied. It’s almost as if the students were learning Latin. Their writing in the language may be adequate but their spoken skills are somewhat lacking.

It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I took up an invitation by one of Pisa’s most prestigious Licei artistici the “Francesco Russoli” to deliver a lesson, last Saturday, on the influence of Palladio on English architecture. The preside  – sorry, the “dirigente scolastico” -was most happy to see me and explained that, like so much in Italian administration and policy the cart had been put before the horse, especially in education where it would be rather more difficult to find Italian teachers of English to expound their lessons effectively in something other than their mother tongue and, more importantly, get students to understand the subject.

Why Palladio anyway? To simplify matters: after three years of scuola media equivalent to the first three years of secondary education, students can choose between various Licei (high schools) including classical, artistic and scientific. The students had already learnt something about the great architect, Antonio Palladio, in their classrooms.

(Palladio’s Villa Capra)

I thought it might be a good idea to see how Palladian concepts “translated” into the architecture of the English country house built by those nobles who had done their grand tour in Italy and fallen in love with Palladio’s villas on the Brenta river and wished to create their own “little Italy” on the banks of English rivers, like the Thames (Chiswick house, Marble Hill etc.) for example.

(Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House)

As with any class there was a wide variety of interest – the keenest students being sat up the front and asking the questions while the end rows merged in the twilight of the Aula Magna (or assembly hall) to secretly dabble with their mobiles.

(Colen Campbell’s Mereworth Castle in Kent)

No matter. I think the main interest was obtained and I carefully graduated the talk into Italian and English parts. For example, a discussion of the individual architecture examples projected on the screen was carried out in English as the students could actually see what I was talking about, and the more theoretical parts were delivered in Italian.

Again, as normal, I hardly touched my notes but spoke “a braccio”, literally off the cuff, as this would make the lecture more spontaneously alive.

At the end of my hour of chat there was a sincere applause. The dirigente scolastico and her staff warmly thanked me and I got a personal message of thanks reaching shortly afterwards on my cell phone when on my way to visit some of the lesser delights of Pisa.

I don’t know how far the educational reforms will take to teaching subjects in English, a language whose fluency is sorely needed for the Italian job market. I am sure it’ll be easier to take lessons in maths or economics but artistic subjects will need to have some very linguistically proficient teachers and students on hand. Again, the cart looks splendidly multicoloured but the horse appears to be trailing rather laconically behind at present.

No matter. I did enjoy myself in Pisa and was glad to be invited to one of their best high schools and receive a warm welcome.