The Fall of the House of an Italian Usher?

Pian di Cerreto, at the start of the road from Castelnuovo di Garfagnana to Corfino, may appear to consist of just one sweet but undistinguished church and a couple of houses. Last Monday I decided to see if there was anything more to this hamlet.

Beyond the church which, in fact, only dates from the 1920s when the old church, much closer to the centre of Pian di Cerreto, collapsed as a result of the terrible earthquake that devastated nearby Villa Collemandina (see my post at I came across a veritable charm of  alleys lined by old stone buildings. Pretty but nothing too special.

But when I turned the corner I suddenly saw this:

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The incredibly large palazzo, one of the largest I’ve seen anywhere in the region, merited a closer look. I found that it was abandoned and actually falling apart.

At the risk of collapsing beams I entered the half-open door. Here was truly that phantasmagorical interior landscape of decrepitude through paralysis. In its own way it was just as frightening as the recapture by the jungle of so many of the temples we’d visited in Cambodia the previous month.

In the gloom I put my foot on a plastic bottle which created a bubbly creak. ‘Anyone in there?’ said a voice from outside. I exited the building to find a man feeding his chicken in a run just outside the north part of the palazzo.

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‘Be careful’, he said. ‘The whole building is pericolante (unstable).’ I took his advice and decided to halt my exploration. The thought of giant rafters suddenly collapsing on my head was too much to bear. I asked the person why nothing was being done to repair the building. ‘It costs too much money and no-one wants to buy it from us anyway,’ he explained. I enquired as to whether there were any frescoes such as the ones I’ve described in my Pontremoli post at . ‘No’, he replied. ‘There are none.’

I wanted to find out more about this ghostly apparition of a mammoth palazzo. This is what I discovered:

It’s called the Palazzo Poggi. The building is set in a location with stunning views of the Apuan Alps to the southwest and the Apennines to the northeast. Among the mountains I could see the highest of the Apuans, the Monte Pisanino (last one on right), which I’d climbed twenty years ago:

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and the Pania di Corfino which I’d tackled again just two years ago.

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The current owners of the building are descendants of the ancient family of the Counts of Bacciano and it was inhabited until the last century.  Count Poggi Poggio Castellaro, husband of Maria Anna Giovannoli, expanded the structure but because of two world wars he was unable to finish it.

In fact, one can clearly see the original structure to the right in this photograph and the unfinished extension to the left. This would have made the palazzo an almost symmetrical quadrilateral structure.

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The building is built on classical architectural lines  with portals, windows, stone stairs, carved from local quarries owned by the Count Poggi Poggio They were crafted by master stonemasons. The palazzo has three main stories, cellars and attics and is contained within a park of about 8,000 square metres.

What a pity this incredible building is left to wreck and ruin! What mysteries must be contained in it if only its collapsing walls could tell before they fall? It’s probably the same old story of the decline of family fortunes, of bad business deals, of dissipation a-la-seventh-Marquess-of-Bristol. Who knows?

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I’d passed another vast building just outside Pian di Cerreto for years before I decided to explore it too on this occasion. Again, I found an uninhabited decaying building, but this time in rather better condition. It was now used as a storehouse and all the doors were locked.

Here, too, there had been the idea of an extension but in this case it was never started. The exterior façade shows a lack of symmetry with two sets of windows on the right but only one on the left.

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The jagged set of extension stones, however, remains to give the general idea of what might have been.

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What was most delightful about this semi-ghost of a palazzo was its garden with an attractive maze of box hedges.

At least part of the garden was kept up…

Let me finish this post on an upbeat note. There is one grand palazzo in Pian di Cerreto which is beautifully maintained. Here it is:

Is this the original palazzo Giovannoli?

There are still three mysteries, lurking in my mind about Pian di Cerreto. How come this charming but unassuming little place has these grand buildings sprouting among its rather more modest houses?  And where was the old church situated? And why do some of the smaller houses have huge corbels on their facades? Were these stones taken from other buildings vanished in the earthquake? Or perhaps from a castle?

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I must return and try to investigate further. Italy is so full of seemingly unsolved mysteries that it becomes a most tantalizing country!

I did discover, however, why the hamlet is called Pian di Cerreto. It’s because of this tree:

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The plaque next to it reads:

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(Trans: Cerro (Quercus Cerris = Turkey or Austrian Oak) The plant which has given the name to Pian di Cerreto (Turkey Oak level)



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