Something About Cascina

From 2009 to 2010 I had a contract for teaching English classes at the then recently inaugurated Istituto Comprensivo at Gallicano. It was a fun time, the students were great and I was very glad to be teaching in a building which incorporated all the latest anti-seismic wave safety features.

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The only snag was that because of the Institute’s wide spread of teaching locations staff meetings had to be held at Cascina which is a good hour’s drive away from Bagni di Lucca.

Cascina also comes to mind because in 2010 I collaborated in a film on Cascina which is a town a little to the east of Pisa.

I still have my English version of that film script. It starts:

Càscina is situated in the centre of an abundant, thriving and populous region, amid fertile fields and vineyards in a splendid plain, on the ducal road from Pisa to Florence, between the river Arno and the Rinònico drainage canal, two miles east of the village of Fornacétte, eight miles east of Pisa and fourteen miles north-west of Leghorn.”


So begins the reverend Francesco Conti’s book “Càscina and its environs” published in 1912


The origin of the name “Càscina” is still uncertain. Some historians believe it derives from the ancient Etruscan settlement of Càsne, others consider it comes from the river of the same name. That river is first referred to in 935, while the earliest mention of the name “Càscina” goes back to a parchment dated 26 June 750 AD, which cites the donation of a house to the church of Saint Mary of Càssina.


Four centuries later, in a parchment dated 27 October 1142, (now preserved in the archbishop’s archives in Pisa), Balduìno, archbishop of Pisa, gave some inhabitants in the Càscina territory the assignment of building the castle and town.

In medieval times Càscina was already a fortified town, with a rectangular-shaped castle, encircled by twelve towers, connected by low walls surrounded by a wide moat.

Documents from 1270, mention a bell tower and a fortified moat, excavated south of the Arno, to defend Pisan territory and allow for the outflow of water from the Arno in case of need.

In the following century the walls were again heightened, the towers strengthened and two town gates built, one towards Florence and one towards Pisa.

During the Pisan Republic the city of Càscina was a loyal supporter of the Emperor against the Luccans and Florentines.

It remained an ally of the Pisan Republic until July 29th 1364, when the Florentines succeeded in defeating Pisa in the bloody and brutal battle of Càscina, celebrated by Michelangelo Buonarroti (from whose hand just a few preparatory sketches have been preserved) and now viewable only through Vasari’s fresco of the battle, in the Hall of the Five Hundred in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.

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I won’t carry on any further except to suggest that Cascina is yet another of those Italian towns one by-passes on the way to a location one thinks is more important.

Cascina, in fact, is a delightful town with an abundance of historic sites including some of the best romanesque churches in Tuscany, a thriving market, a very interesting furniture museum. (In the sixties it became the apex of Italian furniture manufacturing), and some very lovely surrounding countryside not least of which are the Pisan hills.

The script concluded with the following:

Toward the end of the 20th century, the National Institute of Nuclear Physics chose the ideal site for a study it was involved in for some time with the similar French Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique in the Càscina area. “Virgo” was born from this study on July 23rd 2003. Not far from the hamlets of Latignano and Santo Stefano di Macerata, in open country to the south of the heavily congested road traffic-police call the “Arnàccio”, a high-tech achievement is located. “Virgo” is an interferomètric antenna dedicated to the study (and the verification of the existence) of gravitational waves. It looks like an L-shaped structure with two perpendicular arms, each one two miles long. (These dimensions put it in first place in Europe and second in the world). Inside these two arms is a vacuum-sealed tube, within which a laser beam runs. The measurement of the movement (even though infinitesimal) of the mirrors reflecting this beam is able to confirm the presence (or absence) of gravitational waves. Scientists, from Einstein onward, have always believed in the existence of the waves and in the fact that they could contribute to an explanation of the universe’s evolution. It is for this reason that one of the most fascinating questions that man has asked himself “What is the origin of our world?” could receive an answer from Càscina and its territory.

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Yesterday, in conjunction with the USA, scientists are claiming a stunning discovery in their quest to fully understand gravity by observed the warping of space-time generated by the collision of two black holes more than a billion light-years from Earth and thus opening a new era for astronomy. Perhaps we are now able to answer that question “What is the origin of our world?”.

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I thought of the contribution of Cascina in Pisa in solving this conundrum and felt that two great geniuses of the past would have been over the moon with this discovery. The first breakthrough for astronomy was, of course, carried out by Galileo Galilei with his famous gravitational experiment carried out from the leaning tower of Pisa and his use of the telescope to discover the Medicean planets and, of course, to establish that the sun is the centre of our solar system and not the previous ego-centric earthling presumption. ‘E pur si muove.’ (And yet it – the earth – moves)

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The second genius who would have been truly excited over the confirmed discovery of gravitational waves is Albert Einstein who predicted them as part of his now hundred-year-old theory of general (as distinct from specific) relativity. It’s again a theory which, like Galileo’s (and let’s add Newton’s apple for good measure), rotates around the field of gravitation.

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The team confirming this immense discovery is international and one of the centres is precisely the one in Cascina. It’s part of the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) collaboration and will ultimately lead to the discovery of the origin of the universe through the Big Bang without which occurrence I would not be at this moment be scribbling this in a remote village on a particularly misty part of a planet called Earth.

As Prof David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO project stated “We have detected gravitational waves. It’s the first time the Universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves. Up until now, we’ve been deaf.”

To rephrase the great poet Alexander Pope’s epitaph on Newton:

Nature and nature’s Laws lay hid in Night.
God said, “Let LIGO be!” and all was light.

Except, of course that we are talking about the darkest of matter, black holes themselves.

No wonder I couldn’t feel gravitational waves at the Istituto Comprensivo at Gallicano. It was too seismically protected! Let us hope, however, that gravitational seismic waves will in the future help not only to understand the universe in greater depth but ourselves too. For that’s where the true origin of all our species lies: in the deepest mystery of the cosmos.

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