Travelling with One’s Mind

The greatest comics and games festival in Europe (in Lucca!) was blessed this year by wall-to-wall sunshine and the opening up of new spaces which gave this real-fun event a more spread-out and less crowded feeling.

I’ve already described how the festival started out from a negligible event in a sports hall back in 1966 to become the international fixture it’s now, in my post at

This year the theme of the festival was ‘sì, viaggiare’ – yes, travel – both with conventional transport and with one’s mind, I presume!


We arrived at just before midday to immerse ourselves in the contemporary make-believe of this mediaeval fantasy city.

Sandra came dressed as ‘Spider cat’. If you haven’t come across a spider cat don’t be surprised: it’s a new creation courtesy of Sandra’s fertile imagination. The idea came to her not only from Spiderman but also from Italian ‘Topo ragno’ which translates as ‘spider mouse’ but which in fact refers to the shrew, so belittled by Shakespeare et al. The main characteristics of a spider cat are its ability to combine the best features of cats – intelligence, ability to have more than one life, craftiness and an affectionate nature – and of spiders – ability to move quickly, fine craft in making webs, capacity to see many things at the same time and complete disregard of gravity.

Spinning silkiest webs,

enmeshed in enchanted strand

you leap into Space

I came dressed as a descendant of Genghis Khan, thanks to my trip to Outer Mongolia in 2008. Our outfits proved a not negligible draw and, if we’d asked for royalties for photographs that were taken of us we’ve be rather well-off by now!

Lucca comics and games is, of course, a brilliant people-watching event and costumes were very varied indeed ranging from children’s fables to science fiction characters and from Japanese manga to western classic tales.

The stalls selling everything from collectors’ item comics to the latest video-games were incredibly extensive and, also very well-attended!

What were our highlights? First, the weather, principally because last time we were at the festival in 2013 it was a miserably drizzling day. Second, the people and participants who were, as ever, courteous and bent on having good clean fun. Third, the special events. We selected a manga drawing class in the Japanese village in the new gardens opened behind the beautifully converted monastery of Saint Francis (see our post at when we were present at its inauguration). Our teacher, who runs courses in the Academy of Manga art, was excellent and even enabled me not only to reach the correct proportions in drawing humans but also introduced us to drawing characters in action.

There were lessons in Japanese, quiz shows and much else. I realise we’d barely scratched the surface of this event but better to select a few things well than many just superficially!

There were several exhibitions of Japanese photography and paintings.

I was particularly intreagued by the one on cafe maids:

Among other areas there was even an opportunity to enter the Tardis!

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I wouldn’t mind getting one of these for Christmas:

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The exhibition highlights, as usual, were in the imposing Palazzo Ducale facing Piazza Napoleone where three very interesting displays were on show.

The first presented the work of the French artist Bonvi and his comic strips based on a somewhat politically uncorrect Nazi soldier during the last conflict. It was a French slant on something that became the essence of that long-running British sitcom ‘Allo, ‘allo.

The second exhibition was more serious and displayed the work of Emmanuele Luzzati with the theme of Jewishness in faery tales. The depictions of Jewish festivals were particularly poignant and the 3-D cut-out drawings were most effective.

The third exhibiton concentrated on Napoleon and Waterloo:

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At this stage darkness had descended upon the fun and games at Lucca’s big annual event and, at the end of a long day, our legs were beginning to feel it. After a delicious cassata at that fabulous ice-cream shop in piazza Cittadella (the piazza in which the house where Puccini was born is situated) we wended our way to our car which, thanks to the clever intrigues of immigrant parking bay finders, we’d managed to park amazingly near one of the city gates. So ended yet another totally memorable Lucca Comics and Games for this year. See you there next year?

More Than Gushing Streams

When the works on the Refubbri stream bed began in summer we thought that this would be an example of overkill: the old stream bed seemed to be sufficient in our eyes to contain any raging torrential floods, (consult my post at to see the works being carried out.)

After two days of persistent and often heavy rain, however, we changed our minds. This was the scene at Refubbri bridge yesterday morning:

The way forwards on in Italy is to carry out more of these hydro-geological scheme else the country could literally crumble and wash away. One has to realise that living in Italy means living in a geologically much younger country – no Cambrian rocks here as in the UK. Mountains, for example, are formed by tectonic plates folding the rocks and not created by upraised ancient plateaux being dissected by watercourses.

As always, too, there are no climatic half-measures in this peninsula. After the rain comes the sunshine with true blue skies and they are here to stay for at least another week. Here’s this morning:

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Great! For today we’re off in our secret costumes to take part in the biggest Games and Comix festival in Europe (I believe there’s a bigger one in Japan). It’s at Lucca and for further information see ).

We were last here in 2013 (see my post at ) and it’s always brilliant fun, that is if you don’t mind the huge crowds!).

For our costumes then see

This year Sandra’s keeping hers yet again a secret. Will let you know photographically when the secret’s out!

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Feline Fun

Autumn colours have finally begun to splash our Val di Lima landscape. Here are some leaves (and mists) on the way to San Cassiano yesterday.

Last night we’ve also had thunderstorms and, again, parts of Tuscany, especially the coastal areas, are suffering from the notorious and ever-increasing water bombs with widespread flooding and landslides.

Mentioning colours, I took a look yesterday at the painting our highly talented artist Kety Bastiani from San Cassiano is doing of our cats, Napoleone, Carlotta and Cheekie.

Here is the finished product.

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I couldn’t take it home yet as the paint’s still drying.

I am so pleased with it. Kety has captured our cats’ colouring really well. She had free rein with the composition and the theme of our pets playing with a ribbon gives a fine sense of feline movement to the picture. It’s a truly delightful creation.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a painting is worth a thousand photographs!




The Black Dog

A local neighbour told me the very sad news. At the age of 54, Remo Menchini from our nearby village of San Cassiano committed suicide last week. He’d gone into the bathroom of his house and fired a bullet into his head. Another friend said to me ‘he could have chosen to go into the forest to do it!’ I only knew Remo slightly but he seemed to me to be a very personable and, indeed, positive person.

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It’s so  terrible – Remo leaves a wife (who was the first one to discover her dead husband) and four daughters..

Remo’s funeral was last Sunday at 3 pm  in San Cassiano’s beautiful parish church. I did not attend – I’d already promised to be a helper at Ponte a Serraglio’s chestnut festival and, besides, I’m not particularly one for funerals. All the same, it must be said that a considerable number of people who would have attended the festival were at San Cassiano.


Remo Menchini worked in the area of care and maintenance of the countryside including parks and gardens. His firm was on the Via del Brennero at Bagni di Lucca.

What immediately strikes me about the terrible act R did to himself is that I thought that suicide was something much more frequent in northern climes where the relative absence of sunshine, decent wine and greater sociability all impinge on emphasizing a sense of individual isolation. Perhaps I should re-examine the statistics.


(Suicide rates from European countries and some more. Evidently, the worst place for this sort of thing is Lithuania)

In my area I know of three other suicides, two of people I knew rather well.

I’ve already described the suicide of the desperate young woman who threw herself off the spectacular Vergai bridge in my post at

When teaching English at the Istituto Comprensivo of Gallicano, in one of my classes there was an extrovert and very amiable student, Sergio Fini, who presented me with a beautiful book of poems he’d written and with illustrations of magical trees that he’d drawn. Just two years later in Fornaci di Barga I passed by a black-bordered poster which stated that Sergio’s family thanked all those who’d sent condolences or attended his the funeral. I just couldn’t believe it! Again, there was nothing to herald the self-immolation of this incredibly talented and seemingly happy family man who left a grieving wife and two young children. I just found it so difficult to believe that someone who seemed so much at peace with himself, who worked successfully with special needs pupils and who was deeply versed in oriental philosophy and yoga, could have hung himself – at home!

For some years we would have a brilliant pizza at Libra’s in Chiffenti – that is until Libra himself was found lifessly hanging in his own restaurant. Again, totally unbelievable. San Cassiano’s (and Lucca’s) most promising young organist was then a pizzaiolo at Libra’s restaurant and earned enough money to perfect his divine art at the Vatican City’s conservatoire and our evenings there in the company of friends were truly memorable. Later, when delivering English language courses at a well-known paint factory I re-met Libra’s daughter who was receptionist there and became one of my students. She’d seemingly made the greatest effort to come to terms with the family tragedy – even mystery, for Libra had been involved in some shady dealings with eastern Europeans and, just one day before being found dangling at the end of a rope, he’d gone to the local hospital because they’d jumped him. (Nothing, however, was found to incriminate them).

One of the most lamented suicides was that of my schoolmate and university friend Ian McCormick (pen name McDonald) in 2003. He was perhaps one of the most brilliant writers on music I’ve ever read,  Ian’s range was amazing – from his seminal book on Shostakovich to his definitive survey of the Beatles songs. Yet, just after the critical success of his last book of essays on British pop icons (he’d been in a band too) Ian was found gassed in his kitchen with a sign on the front door stating ‘please call the police’.

Depression, Churchill’s black dog, is surely largely to blame for all these mournful situations – exacerbated, of course, by money and emotional problems.

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It just doesn’t matter whether you live in a beautiful earthly paradise surrounded by green hills and in close touch with miraculous nature (like where I live) or within an inner city tower block in a drug-infested housing estate, the black dog makes no distinctions. It chooses its victims with equal disregard for their loved ones and their friends.

May the ghastly animal never bite me, not even on Friday the thirteenth!

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Professionally Amateur Theatre at Bagni di Lucca

The official theatre season at Bagni di Lucca’s Teatro Accademico hasn’t yet begun yet there’s plenty happening in it. Last week-end there were two shows both by amateur companies but which showed an almost professional grasp of their craft.

On Saturday there was a homage to Eduardo de Filippo, the great playwright from Naples who restored the dialect of his city to the artistic heights it deserved. The homage consisted of collages of scenes from two of his comedies, Uomo e galantuomo and Sik-Sik l’artefice magico, interspersed with songs and poems, again by De Filippo.

Neapolitan is in many respects a separate language from Italian and not merely a dialect. However, after some initial baffling minutes it became easier to understand, certainly a lot easier than Glaswegian is to a Londoner! One of the pieces involved a somewhat unconventional company of players who upset the rules in the hotel where they are staying with hilarious results. The songs were beautifully sung too.

The Altroteatro association, which put on the production, is directed by Antonello Nave and was formed in Florence in 1999.

I was first introduced to the colourful theatre of De Filippo several years ago (in 1977 to be exact) when a production of his ‘Filomena Marturana’ was put on in at London’s Lyric theatre. I was privileged to assist at the rehearsals held in the Italian Institute. Among the actors were Joan Plowright and Colin Blakely but what was even more exceptional was that Franco Zeffirelli was there to direct. I shall never forget that memorable occasion!

On Sunday we were treated to the Compagnia Vitamina Dance’s production of “Oh Mamma! Che Musical!” directed by Fabrizio Magnani.  I had suspicions that this was an Italian version of the musical ‘Mamma Mia’ based on Abba’s songs and I was pleasurably right. Although not all the singing was of the highest calibre the togetherness of the ensemble and the sheer joy of the choreography thrilled the audience until, at the end, the company was treated to a standing ovation.

Abba is a group that has overcome any former ‘euro trash’ sneering at it. The group’s songs remain highly memorable and beautifully constructed. It’s no wonder that Abba’s music has sold more copies than any other pop group, apart from the Beatles!

It’s quite pointless for some kill-joys to declare that nothing happens in Bagni di Lucca. There’s quite a bit happening and one has only to keep oneself informed by picking up leaflets at the tourist office (when it’s open), by trawling the internet, or by looking at the posters in the bars.

The fact that our theatre was largely empty on Saturday and just over half-filled on Sunday was a reflection of the apathy of too many people here rather than a reflection on the standard of the shows offered which was exceptionally high and would have done honour even to a professional company.

Don’t miss therefore the frantically funny Feydeau farce, coming up next at your local Bagni di Lucca theatre this Sunday, November 1st, at 5.30 pm.

Mellow Fruitfulness

It’s getting to the end of October and still the countryside’s colour is predominantly green. Yesterday we went for our usual cat-walk in the environs of our village of Longoio.

There were only tinges of gold, reds and yellows appearing in the foliage.

I’m quite sure that ten years ago, when I first landed in this part of the world, colours were more autumnal at this time.

Speaking to people that have been here all their live it’s quite clear that climate change in the last decade has accelerated at an alarming rate. Our hopes don’t quite lie with the proles, as Orwell stated in his ‘1984’, but with our youth. Recycling, ecology, environment these are words that weren’t quite emphasised enough when I attended primary school. I’m certain they are now!

Anyway, two of our cats, Napoleon and Cheekie, had a good time in the forest (Carlotta stayed at home) and I’m sure there’ll be plenty more walks like this.

When Carlotta was at home she wandered onto our topmost terrazza to admire the view from there:

When the real autumnal colours spread in our forests I’ll let you know!

Chestnut Cheer

This year’s chestnut festa organized by the indomitable Morena and her Borgo degli artisti association in the gardens of Villa Fiori, Ponte a Serraglio, postponed from last week because of inclement weather, was very well attended yesterday.

All the fixtures we are used to were there.

Stalls selling a variety of crafts:

A children’s section:

The refreshment stall, naturally selling chestnut products, including necci (griddled pancakes)

The chestnut roaster, which provided a great example of how to recycle dismantled washing machine parts.

The Tre Potenze association, which aims at regenerating people’s local roots with this mountain area and organizes the Festa della Montagna outside Montefegatesi, put on a fine display of items from traditional contadino (peasant) life.

I was roped in to ‘prick’ chestnuts. This is necessary otherwise they’ll explode in the roaster because of expanding air within their hard shells.

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A good time was had by all and it was a great occasion to meet up with friends and acquaintances

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Congratulations to all those concerned in ensuring that this traditional event continues to attract people from all corners of our comune and beyond!

In case you’ve missed out on necci this year you can console yourself with this recipe for making them I picked up:


2 cups of fresh sweet chestnut flour

1 cup of water

A pinch of salt


Mix ingredients into a smooth batter. Cook in a non-stick frying pan like a pancake. Grease pan with olive oil for each Necci. It’s also possible to grease the frying pan with a potato dipped in olive oil. (It is, of course, preferable to use a cast-iron griddle over a gas fire, as was done at our event).

Fill with ricotta, honey or Nutella

You can also have savoury necci if you fill them with pancetta (or bacon).


Who Was Matilde Di Canossa?

Those who have crossed  the amazing Ponte della Maddalena (more colloquially known as the ponte del Diavolo – see my post on it at near Borgo a Mozzano will realise that the old story of the devil requiring the heart of the first living soul crossing the bridge if he completed it on time (and getting a dog’s heart instead) – a story oft repeated in many other parts of the world such as Pontarfynach (Devil’s bridge) near Aberystwyth in Wales – isn’t quite correct!

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(An old print, in the current BdL library exhibition  showing the Ponte della Maddalena )

In fact, the bridge was ordered to be built by an extraordinary woman, someone even more astonishing considering she lived at a time when women were usually still considered as chattels – the Countess Matilde di Canossa. She built the bridge as a means of helping travellers across the Serchio river along the Via Francigena pilgrim route which connects Canterbury with Rome.

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Matilde di Canossa is to be placed among that divine hierarchy of mediaeval women which includes Hildegard of Bingen, Berengaria of Navarre and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

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The fact that Matilde is closely associated with our part of the world is an added bonus and a good reason to dedicate a study afternoon to her by the industrious Fondazione Michel de Montaigne, the historical and cultural association which operates within the comune of Bagni di Lucca.


After the initial traditional hand-cannon (technical term gonne) blast-off by members of the Vicariato della Val di Lima

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the conference was opened by the chair, Bruno Micheletti vice-president of the Fondazione and director of our section of the Lucca Historical association. There were prefatory remarks by the Mayor of Bagni di Lucca, Massimo Betti. The president of the Michel de Montaigne Institute, Marcello Cherubini, then gave an introduction to the great figure that Matilde was.

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In case you didn’t know why Matilde is such an amazing mediaeval woman here’s a summary of her life.

Matilde (in English, Matilda) was born in Lucca in 1046 and died at Bondeno Romagna in 1115. In 1076 she came into the possession of a large territory that included present day Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Tuscany with its centre in the town of Canossa. In 1111 Matilde was crowned as deputy Queen of Italy by the Emperor Henry III at the castle of Bianello.

As grand countess of Tuscany, Matilde lived during turbulent times of battles, plots and ex-communications (Pope versus Holy Roman Emperor). Despite the age she lived in Matilde showed immense qualities of leadership, courage and compassion towards her subjects.

Her father, Bonifacio of Canossa, was assassinated in 1052. With the deaths of her siblings Matilda was left as the only heir of the house of Attoni. In 1054 Matilde’s mother married Godfrey Duke of Upper Lorraine who hated the Emperor Henry III, who captured Beatrice and Matilde as hostages in 1055. However, after reconciliation with Godfrey the two ladies were released.

Godfrey died in 1069 and Matilde married his son, Godfrey the Hunchback. They had one son who died in infancy. In 1076 her mother died and Matilde took the reins of the kingdom, siding with the Pope against the Emperor.

It was at Matilde’s castle at Canossa that the famous event took place in 1077 when Pope Gregory received the Emperor’s penance after making him wait three days, barefoot and bareheaded, in the castle courtyard’s snow, before giving the hypothermic Emperor the papal absolution. The phrase “going to Canossa” has since come to mean an act of submission or humiliation.

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In 1089 43-year old Matilde married 17-year old Welf, duke of Bavaria and Carinthia. Their marriage only lasted six years. Further conflicts occurred between Emperor and Pope but in the end Matilde signed a peace treaty with the Emperor gifting him her territories. Since she had previously donated these to the Papacy the way was set for the subsequent quarrels which, in Florence, became an irreconcilable battle between Guelfs and Ghibellines.

The esteem in which Matilde was held was so high that her remains were translated and reinterred in St Peter’s Rome in 1634 where I saw this monument to her when our choir sang there last year (see my post at ). ). To this day Matilde di Canossa remains the only woman buried in St Peter’s basilica,.

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The first talk was given by Ilaria Sabbatini on the subject of the routes Matilde would take over the Apennines between her two main sections of territory, Emilia Romagna and Tuscany. The variability of these routes was conditioned by the climate and also by the adjoining territories which were under Longobard domination. Ilaria Sabatini introduced the concept of ‘route areas’ stating that a definite route was not easily mapable. The presence of ‘ospedali’ and ‘ospedaletti’ did give an indication of the places travellers and pilgrims would stay for the night to received shelter and food but the way between them was not strictly defined. I thought of my experiences in Mongolia (in 2008) where road travel is rather like navigating on a terrestrial ocean. There are no defined roads in most of that country and drivers find their way by locating landmarks like mountain peaks and river crossings. Routes from A to B can thus be multifarious and cover a very wide area. There is no doubt, however, that one of the routes Matilde would take is over the Foce a Giovo pass which she would traverse on a mule as described in my post at

The second talk by Valentina Capellini concentrated on the documentary evidence relating to Matilde’s presence in Lucca’s diocesan archives. This was more of a specialised subject and, frankly, unless one was a devotee of bibliography, I felt it would be only of interest principally to specialists in the field. However, I was fascinated by Matilda’s monogram with which she would sign documents.

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The study afternoon was rounded off by an introduction by Tommaso Rossi,  a brilliant young archivist who had organised an exhibition of documents relating to Matilde in three of the library’s showcases. The mediaeval parchments were, of course, just represented by photocopies. The books relating to the Countess and her subsequent elevation to a myth were represented by original examples. In the more modern section I was glad to find out  that even I owned a part of the literature relating to the great woman as a copy of ‘ A famous corner of Tuscany’ by Evangeline Whipple (see my post mentioning her at was displayed..

The conference was incredibly well-attended with standing room only for some of the audience. This is clearly a good sign as it shows increasing interest by Bagni di Lucca’s citizens in their local history. Well done to all those who pulled together to produce this fascinating study afternoon!

Have a Swinging Time!

‘All that glisters is not gold – often you have heard that told’ as the message states in the golden casket, where the the Prince of Morocco expects to see his beloved, Portia’s picture but instead finds one of a skull.

The first of the new ‘swing’ trains entered into service on our Lucca to Aulla line on 22nd March this year. Built in Poland by the Pesa Company they are meant to replace the old FS ALn 663 class of trains which were getting a bit long in the tooth. Indeed, passengers often had to open their umbrellas on wet day as rain water would seep through the roof! Moreover, increasing mechanical problems were causing more and more late arrivals, departures and, worst of all, cancellations.


(FS ALn 663 class of diesel railcar)

The new trains promised a new era in railway travel on our line which I would, in terms of the scenery through which it passes, count as one of the great train journeys of the world. Spectacular viaducts, stratospheric bridges, two very long tunnels and much else make this line (which was started in 1892 but only completed in 1959) also one of the great engineering feats of FS (Ferrovie dello stato) Italian state railways. Surely this line deserved the best trains to run on them?

We’d hoped that the new era would descend upon us with the introduction of the ‘Menuetto trains’ some years ago. Built by an Italian form, Alstom, in their factory at San Giovanni near Milan the Menuetto gave us much hope. However, there were problems with loading gauge (some of the tunnels were not high enough), signalling and mechanical reliability.



Again we were saddled with increasingly ageing FS ALn 663’s for several more years until the arrival of the ‘Swing’ diesel railcar (the electric version of this is called ‘tango’). Unfortunately, there have been major problems with the ‘swing’ trains too.

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First there are problems relating to the line in terms of signalling which have caused delays and even cancellations.  Correct timing is essential on a single line railway and the delay in the arrival of the up train can clearly have severe effects on the down train too.

Second, there have been problems with the actual carriages themselves. Doors have failed to open or close and in one case a door actually fell off. I was involved in one problem on a train journey to Aulla the other week. I’d just moved from one seat to one nearer the door when I heard an almighty crash behind me. I looked round and saw a steel bar on the seat where I’d formerly sat, one of its points impaling the exact position where I’d been! I discovered that this bar was a curtain rail on as it has sliding hooks on it (with as yet no curtains, as there were no curtains anywhere in the train to pull and protect aganst the summer sun). The bar had fallen from just above the window frame when it had been positioned.

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(Where the curtain rail should have been)

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(Place where the curtain rail was now missing)

I’m not sure whether this was a one-off situation. I think however that one should be a little wary of where one sits in these trains and, certainly test the curtain rail beforehand!

Reading a recent copy of our local paper ‘Il Tirreno’ I note that FS, Italian State Railways, intend to have these problems ironed out by the middle of November. So let’s hope we return to a swinging time by then and not be ironed out ourselves…

Of Santuari, Basiliche, Duomi and Cattedrali in Parma

A sanctuary is a place of safety. Traditionally, one can seek sanctuary from an enemy by sheltering in the sacred precincts of a religious building. Today, unfortunately as world events have shown, such places are no guarantee of safety at all.

A sanctuary is also a place associated with a saint. Italy is a country of saints and sanctuaries proliferate. Lucca, for example, has its sanctuary dedicated to Saint Gemma (see my post at  ). Often sanctuaries are larger and more imposing buildings than cathedrals. In Padua  the extraordinary sanctuary dedicated to Saint Anthony (see my post at dominates the town in a way that the Duomo does not.

Parma’s magnificent cathedral (the Correggio frescoes in its cupola are the precursor of the ascending-heavenly-angelic 3-D effects which characterize counter-reformation churches), which we visited on a previous trip to this city, still retains its primacy among religious edifices:


but coming a close second is the beautiful sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata (literally Saint Mary of the stockade) which I had missed out on the previous visit but was now able to see last week-end.

The sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata is also a basilica. At this stage one might rightly be confused about the terms duomo, cattedrale and basilica as applied in Italy. Let’s try to explain their difference:

A basilica is, literally, ‘the house of the king’ and, thus, of the Lord. Its name derives from Greek ‘Basileus’ which signifies king and from ‘oikos’ which means house. Every church could thus be defined as a basilica but the Roman Catholic Church only gives to some the title of basilica (which could be a minor or major one) depending on their importance and artistic value. A basilica, furthermore must be able maintain the correct decorum in the practise of its religious rites.

A Duomo, from Latin ‘Domus’ meaning house, still remains the house of God and is the most important church in a town or city. It’s usually originally built in gothic style with a firm emphasis on the vertical – aspirations going heavenwards.

A cattedrale (cathedral) is a Duomo located in a town or city which is also the seat of a bishop. In fact, the name cattedrale comes from Latin ‘cathedra’ meaning a throne – for that’s where the bishop has his seat.

The Basilica of Santa Maria della Steccata, from 1718 the seat of the Constantinian Order of St. George (which is supposed to date back to its founding by the Roman Emperor Constantine) was constructed between 1521 and 1539 and in 2008 elevated to the rank of minor basilica. So it’s both a sanctuary and a basilica but not a duomo or cattedrale. I hope that explains it now!

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On the site of the present church a religious building existed since 1392 and an oratory was built to house a venerated image of St. John the Baptist painted in fresco on the outer wall of a house. The building became home to a brotherhood dedicated to the Virgin of the Annunciation and engaged in the distribution of dowries for poor girls and unmarried women who lacked paternal protection.

Towards the end of the fourteenth century a picture of the Madonna nursing the baby Jesus on the facade of the oratory was painted. This image soon became the object of special devotion on the part of the people of Parma Since the area of ​​the building was protected by a fence, erected perhaps to control the flow of pilgrims, the Virgin began to be invoked under the title of ‘Our Lady of the Steccata’ (stockade).

In order to conserve the precious image, the congregants, in 1521, decided to build a large sanctuary. On April 4, 1521 the Bishop of Lodi, Nicola Urbani, laid the foundation stone of the present building. The work was entrusted to the architects Bernardino and Giovan Francesco Zaccagni from Torrechiara, who had already directed the construction of the town’s abbey church of St. John.  From 1525 work continued under Gian Francesco d’Agrate. The dome was raised, however, between 1526 and 1527 by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, who was sent to Parma from Pope Clement VII where he had been involved in the construction of the new Saint Peter’s basilica…

The church was consecrated on February 24, 1539 by Cardinal Ciocchi Gian Maria del Monte, papal legate of the duchies of Parma and Piacenza.

The building’s plan is a Greek cross, with transepts placed on the cardinal axes. Between the cross’s arms there are four quadrangular chapels. The church is, indeed, very similar to the original plan for Saint Peter’s in Rome before Maderna changed that building’s Michaelangeloesque plan into the more generally accepted Latin cross, with a long nave better suited to liturgical purposes.

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The interior is decorated with seventeenth century frescoes of the Parma school.  The entire pictorial decoration was initially entrusted to Parmigianino, but only he managed to paint a few frescoes depicting the three wise


and the three foolish virgins.


The decoration was continued by Michelangelo Anselmi, who painted the frescoes of the Coronation of the Virgin in the eastern apse (designed by Giulio Romano),

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and Bernardino Gatti, who painted the Assumption of Mary in the dome.

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The interior is permeated with a rich and mystic atmosphere intensified by the arrival of many pilgrims while I was there. It’s pure frozen music and would, in fact, make a wonderful ambience for such works as Palestrina’s polyphonic masses.

I was also able to visit the sacristy which I would rate as one of the most beautiful of any visited in Italy. The wood carving of the cupboards containing the priest’s vestments is supreme and their contents, richly embroidered by an enclosed order of nuns, is quite heavenly. Photography is not encouraged so you’ll have to imagine much of it. However, here are some shots I took of this opulent room:

Equally interesting is the crypt. In 1823, at the behest of Marie Luigia of Austria, a crypt was built to preserve the tombs of the dukes and princes of the houses of Farnese and Bourbon-Parma (the ashes were transferred from the church of Santa Maria Del Tempio). Here there’s a connection with the crypt of the Hapsburgs we saw in Vienna quite a few years back,


for Maria Luigia was herself a member of this great Austrian dynasty of the Hapsburgs.

The basilica has two magnificent organs.

The Antegnati organ dates back to 1574. The Antegnati were a Brescian family of organ builders who were active between the end of the fifteenth and the start of the eighteenth century.  The organ was restored in 1778 by Antonio Negri Poncini and again by the now defunct Tamburini firm of organ builders in 1970.

The second organ was built by Carlo Vegezzi-Bossi in 1892 and restored in 1940, again by Tamburini.

It would be fantastic to hear these organs. Next visit perhaps?