Francis and Cecilia

Lovers of early music (i.e. some of the best, most exciting music ever written) should remember for next year that the 21st Festival Toscano di Musica Antica has been in full swing in Pisa and ended this Sunday 28th August.

Thanks to a friend I was reminded of this superb festival and by 7 pm was entering the glorious cloister of the church of san Francesco in whose chapter house the first concert was to be held.

The festival’s title this year was ‘Bach forever’ and was chosen by its artistic director, Carlo Ipata, whose Auser (ancient name for Serchio river) band has become one of Italy’s premiere period music ensembles.


‘Bach forever’, for Bach never dies and if our solar system implodes then an exo-planet may well receive the sound contents of Voyager launched in 1977 and which includes the Maestro’s Brandenburg Concerto no 2.

The chapter house has some beautiful frescoes by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini, a late gothic painter from Florence illustrating scenes from the life of Christ and dating from 1392.

They made an impressive backcloth to our first concert which was a performance, on harpsichord, of Bach’s three part inventions or sinfonia written as didactic pieces for his sons and students. As his introduction states:

My pieces are an honest method, by which the amateurs of the keyboard  are shown a clear way not only 1. To learn to play cleanly in two parts, but also, after further progress, 2. to handle three obligate parts correctly and well; and along with this not only to obtain good ideas but to develop the same well; above all, however, to achieve a cantabile style in playing and at the same time acquire a strong foretaste of composition.

Never could such academically titled pieces sound more enjoyable, for Bach is the supreme combiner of erudition and entertainment and they were played with  fluency by the young Carlo Pernigotti.

As an encore Carlo played a moving piece by Froberger, a predecessor greatly admired by Bach, dedicated to the memory of a friend who’d died in a domestic accident. Pernigotti stated that he felt that, in the present tragic time that Italy finds itself, this piece, called a tombeau, would be a suitable closure to his concert. Its plangent harmonies and deep sentiments were totally appropriate. Indeed, ever more so since his friend, the lutenist Blancrocher, fell to his death down a flight of steps which collapsed, an event – depicted by an eerily descending scale – which happened to several of the victims of Amatrice and adjoining villages.

During the concert’s interval an ‘apericena’ (dinner with aperitivo) was served courtesy of the l’alba (dawn) association. We were treated to farro dishes with fish sauce and as much prosecco as we desired. L’alba is a laudable association which aims at furthering autonomy for disadvantaged people. It does this through various means, the main one being catering. It has a bathing establishment called ‘Big Fish’ at Marina di Pisa, sheltered flats for helping people towards autonomy, art-therapy courses, ceramics workshops and restaurants and cafes serving natural products prepared under the supervision of professional chefs. For more information visit their web site at

Italy works largely through voluntary associations. We can see this is the situation around Amatrice but we can also see this in our local area where volunteer ambulances and first aid services are run by unpaid, enthusiastic persons. While the politicians gobble up the people’s taxes the people who truly run Italy are its voluntary associations.

(Incidentally, there’s a similar type of restaurant in piazza San Francesco, Lucca. The food is delicious and it’s enhanced by the fact that one is helping people who’ve suffered traumas to re-establish themselves. I remember a similar place in Woolwich London SE called the citizen’s gallery. I wonder if it is still functioning).

After a taste of south Italian Amari at a corner bar we wended our way to the church of Santa Cecilia (who appropriately is the patron saint of music.).

The Saint Cecilia church is another of those disgracefully neglected but very beautiful churches which those who can tear themselves away from the Piazza dei Miracoli will be able to enjoy. Founded around 1103 Santa Cecilia is a single nave church graced by a double lancet window around which are sited those rare Islamic ceramics one can find in a few other places in our area (e.g. at San Cassiano). The campanile, like Saint Francis’ church, is propped on top of the roof and is supported internally by a columnar structure. This is an excellent solution to the scarcity of land for a separate campanile and without sacrificing the church’s internal congregational space.

The altar is crowned by a painting of the martyrdom of Saint Cecilia by Salimbeni dated 1607.

Tthe best feature of the church is its acoustical property which glorified the wonderful concert we attended with Carlo Ipata’s Auser Musici and the absolutely unmissable Roberta Invernizzi, a soprano of immense virtuosistic drive I had been introduced in last Year’s Barga Opera festival. (To see and hear more of this gorgeously passionate singer go to ). Meanwhile here are some snippets of what Roberta sang at Santa Cecilia:

The program consisted mainly of arias from Gasparini’s operas. As in the case of the harpsichord recital we had seats on the front row and almost felt that she was singing just for us. It was an ecstatic experience for me and I forgot the stifling heat which summer Pisa generates, particularly within its buildings.

Carlo Ipata explained that this concert was part of a project to issue a new CD of Gasparini’s vocal music.

In case you haven’t come across Gasparini, neither did I until my friend introduced me to him.  Briefly, Gasparini is almost a local lad, having been born in Camaiore in 1661. His teacher was no less than Corelli under whom he studied in Rome and where his first opera ‘Roderico’ was produced. In 1702 he went to Venice and worked for ’La Pieta’ before he left and gave the job to Antonio Vivaldi. Returning to Rome in 1720 Gasparini produced his last big opera ‘Tigrane’.

J.S Bach appreciated Gasparini and copied his Missa canonica for use in Leipzig. Gasparini became teacher of, among others, Marcello, Quantz and Domenico Scarlatti.

It’s quite astonishing how such an important musical figure could have become completely unknown until rediscovered by the likes of Carlo Ipata.

Barga opera has been crucial in bringing Gasparini back to the stage with his ‘Bajazet’. (See my post on that production at

The evening concluded with La Invernizzi singing a seductive cantata by another composer who is constantly rising in my estimation, Nicola Porpora.

I could tell you more about Porpora, who gave Handel some tough competition while in London, but will spare you. Just watch and listen to this production of Porpora’s ‘Semiramide riconosciuta’ if you have not yet been converted to his luscious music.

Thankyou Roberta and thankyou Carlo for bringing back to us music which for far too long has been lying under piles of  dust and now is finally able to witness a sunlit resurrection and new life under your immaculate musicianship.

Our Swimming Pool

There are some people around who are not aficionados of private swimming pools. They feel that, like television and DVDs did for cinemas, they are an infliction on former large-scale social gatherings. Perhaps on-line buying and drone delivery may eventually do the same for supermarkets and future hypermarkets may become as quaint reminiscences of the socio-commercial scene as, sadly, British Home Stores are now. I sincerely hope not, however, for shopping can be a highly sociable activity. For example, I constantly meet friends and acquaintances at our local one at Penny Market Borgo a Mozzano and exchange notes.

However, there is nothing quite like being invited to a friend’s private swimming pool especially after a long walk on a sweltering summer’s day and when the company is good. When the pool looks out over extraordinary mountain views and even has a hydrotherapy facility  it’s as close to heaven as one can get on this planet. The pool I am secretly referring to also has the added advantage that it is fed by a natural spring so let no one complain that it’s taking away life-giving liquid from anyone else!

I do also love public baths just as much as the ancient Romans loved theirs and enjoy visiting our local spread of swimming pools which includes not only the ones at Bagni di Lucca and Borgo a Mozzano but also the refurbished and reorganised one at Gallicano.

The facilities there are good, the pools (one adults, one children) are open seven days a week from 9 is to 8 pm until around the middle of September or beyond, weather permitting. The staff is helpful (PS don’t forget to bring your obligatory bathing cap, otherwise they are on sale there at five euros), the all-day admission price is free for under-fives, five euros for under twelves and six euros for the rest of us. Decently priced refreshments, including soft drinks, beer, focaccie and ice cream, are available.

What more could one want: a deckchair or sunbed, clean water, a beautiful setting, friendly users to meet up with and chat?

Gallicano’s swimming pool facebook page is at

Unofrtunately, the open-air swimming pool season in our area barely lasts for three months – just as long as the wonderful lidos that were built during the art-deco era in London.

Thinking about those great water-temples, several of which still survive at Brockwell and other corners of London, I wrote this about the miraculously rescued Lido at Charlton London SE.




In summer’s light the lido elongates

fresh turquoise-dappled water to high sun.

Liquidity of wavelets captivates

and melts a splash of swimmers into one.


Ideals of expired years, young nature’s skin

unsheathed, pretended a new age of health

while war-clouds hung and hid mad fiend within

and river maidens lost their golden wealth.


Lank flowered dresses are undraped and breasts

and seaside conversations dream away

for secret gardens, lonely sands and quests

in search of that which stays pale flesh’s decay.


Entowelled by suburban rose-flanked wall

star-glinted water clasps me in its thrall.




Italy’s National Day of Mourning

Today for Italy it is a national day of mourning for the victims of the terrible earthquake in Rieti province and beyond.

Here is a screen shot from RAI 1, the main Italian TV station, this morning. It shows a tent city erected near to a destroyed town to house some of the thousands of survivors who will not have a home to sleep in for some unknown time to come. You’ll also notice the black ribbon of bereavement at the top left which will remain there all day on our TV screens. Also, all day there will be no commercial advertisements shown.

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I cannot remember these things ever having happened before. But then I have not lived long enough in Italy to be witness to such a horrific natural disaster


No we are not in some ashram in India but just a few villages away from where we live. I’d heard of the remarkable baba from friends and was introduced to him the other day.

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Baba Cesare, who was born in Turin, has an ashram in that city of cities Vijayanagar, otherwise known as Hampi, but comes to Italy for the summer when temperatures rise immeasurably in that central part of the Deccan.

A baba, or sadhu, is a person who has renounced the world. His town is the forest, his home is a cave, his bed is the living earth and he drinks water only from rivers.

Owning nothing the Sadhu is completely liberated, standing even outside India’s caste system or our own more egalitarian, but still hierarchical, social classes. The sadhu is beyond aspirations of ambition, superiority or power.

I felt a true affinity with Baba Cesare and returned to that India I had experienced as a teenager when I hitched on the hippie trail to Kathmandu and later, too, when I returned to such places as Rishi-Kesh and the magic mountains of Gujarat. Most of all I returned to the city of Victory, Vijayanagar, one of the most incredibly beautiful places on earth – a place I visited a long time ago with a now long-lost girl-friend who declared it an earthly paradise.

Interestingly, there’s a little catholic shrine in the village which strangely reminded me of some village shrines in India in its endearing simplicity.

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I returned to Baba the following morning to participate in his puja. I was asked to accompany a hymn to Shiva on the tabla (drums). There were just four of us there: Baba’s assistant, a local friend and a lovely Tibetan dog. It was a fresh start at 8.30 to a day which would increasingly become hotter and hotter.

We did not say much but Baba’s eyes seem to speak more than any words could and the meticulous rite of the Puja was so peaceful and intimate The sound of the conch shell, the celebration of Arathi, where little candles made from wicks soaked in ghee are lit and swirled round the presence of the Deity, transported me to another world, a world I had almost forgotten.,

Baba’s life is worthy of a sequel to Hesse’s wonderful novel ‘Siddhartha’. The Italian journalist, Folco Terzani, son of the distinguished late Tiziano (one of the very few western journalists to witness the fall of Saigon to the Viet-Cong and that of Phnom Penh to the Khmer rouge), met him, shared his story and in 2012 published a book, ‘A piedi scalzi sulla terra’, also available in English as ‘Barefoot on the Earth’. I’ve just started to read it and it’s a fascinating mixture of adventure story, spiritual journey and investigation of the world revealed in Baba’s stimulating thoughts on the ultimate meaning of life (if there is one…).


The proof that one has reached the highest level of enlightenment of Nirvana as a sadhu is that one can depart either to the local village store or to the sacred lakes of the Himalayas with the same preparation and the same attitude. There’s no need to make a list of what has to bring, no lengthy cogitations on reading up things – just go and just return with the same spontaneity, with the same thoughtlessness beyond thought, because one is completely embraced and protected by the hands of the Godhead.

I think I still have a little way to go before reaching that stage – one thing is certain, however: for the greatest journey we shall all have to make at the end of our lives we will need nothing at all…..

Roberto Bellucci’s Fantasy World

The three ingredients in his art, according to Roberto Bellucci are sand, stone and fantasy. Bellucci’s exhibition in the foyer of the Bagni di Lucca’s town hall displays these elements to perfection. Inaugurated on 13th August, today is the last day to view his work.

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I thought immediately that Bellucci must have had something to do with the opificio delle pietre dure in Florence – the restoration laboratory which specialises in artistic creation using semi-precious stones. But I was wrong. Roberto seeks his own inspiration and is not tied to any academic institution.

If you are able to make it for today’s last day please do so. Bellucci’s work is a delight which is both complex, quirky and full of fantasy. His compositions grow organically out of the materials he uses whether they are semiprecious stones or pebbles from the river.

If you can’t make it then here is a selection of what you will miss:

Saint Bartholomew’s Fair

Saint Bartholomew’s fair on August 24th seems to signal the start of the close of the summer season at Bagni di Lucca. Yesterday the high street was closed to traffic and filled with stalls. The scene was enhanced by the overhead display of coloured umbrellas.

These umbrella displays have appeared in several other world cities and the idea was suggested to bring them to Bagni di Lucca by a counsellor from Iglesias, Sardinia. For me the significance of these umbrellas, apart from their brightening up a part of the town centre, is to suggest harmony in our multi-coloured and multi-cultural world and also to encourage one to look more frequently at the beautiful sky and hills above us instead of gazing down at the pavement. Some, too,  might wish that the umbrellas are a charm to bring us some rain: the land is becoming increasingly drier and forest fires are breaking out with alarming rapidity.

Incidentally, London too had its Saint Bartholomew’s fair from 1133 to 1855 when it was ordered to be closed because of raucous and riotous behaviour. That fair famously inspired Ben Jonson’s play of 1614 which vividly depicts the highs and lows of London society of the time with its gallants, cut-throats, swindlers, pick-pockets and ladies of pleasure (much the same as today, surely?) Shouldn’t the fair be reintroduced to London again now!

At BDL there was an atmosphere of vivacity, yet somehow muted by the horrifically unexpected news of the central Italian earthquake when we first thought there had been around 13 deaths. Now the figure is much higher approaching three hundred-plus like L’Aquila’s 2009 earthquake, with hundreds more injured and thousands without a shelter. We had to wait until our return home and watch the evening news to realise how much the death toll had multiplied during the day.

Today some of the quake’s survivors are being allowed to enter those houses which still stand in order to collect essential belongings.

What would you call essential belongings? For many of us in this digital age it would be a computer or a storage device with our favourite photographs, writings or music. I would also naturally think about our pets and some of our favourite clothes, special prescriptions and books. Sadly, for most of those affected in the earthquake it’s above all a matter of finding family, relatives and friends who may still be alive under the rubble.

The emergency services in Italy are highly equipped to deal with these all too familiar situations when the earth shakes. So what can one do? Tent cities (tendopoli) have been set up but many people prefer to sleep in their cars, or as near home as possible to prevent pilferers. Yes, unfortunately scavengers take advantage of other people’s miseries and misfortunes. In my case, when the terrible twister of a tornado devastated our area last winter I found not only my orto (allotment) shed flattened but also two bush cutters and my water pump stolen from it as well. Hyenas are everywhere, it seems.

What can we do to help? The best thing is to offer to give blood but this must be done in a planned way as blood will not keep beyond a certain time. Today, I’m off to the local Red Cross to see whether at least I can help in that way. The hospitals at Barga and Castelnuovo are organising blood donation.


There is a strange eerie atmosphere over our part of the world. The weather remains stunningly wonderful with true blue skies swept clear by a gentle wind. Yet we all seem to be waiting for something. Let us hope that it is the arrival of faith, love, help and courage in sufficient quantities to cope with the dreadful situation so many people in Italy now are having to face…


Spaghetti All’Amatriciana

When in Italy don’t ask for a plate of ‘spaghetti bolognaise’ (don’t even dare to say ‘spag bol’). The dish simply doesn’t exist in this country but is a concoction made abroad (and, I believe, actually sold in tins in the UK!). Ask instead for ‘tagliatelle al ragù’.  The ragù is a sauce generally made up of the following ingredients (quantities are given for serving four persons):

55 g (1 ¾ oz) butter
55 g (1 ¾ oz) minced prosciutto far or pancetta
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
100 g (3 ½ oz) minced lean veal or beef
100 g (3 ½ oz) minced lean pork
1 glass of dry red wine
A little beef or chicken stock
3 tbsp. tomato paste
Salt and pepper

A short while back at Bagni di Lucca’s super-excellent Circolo dei Forestieri restaurant I had a pasta plate which delights me more than any other. It’s called ‘bucatini all’Amatriciana’. Bucatini is that type of spaghetti which has a hollow centre and amatriciana is a delicious sauce made up of the following ingredients:

2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

4 oz. thinly sliced guanciale (cheek of pork) pancetta, or chopped unsmoked bacon

1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

3/4 cup minced onion

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 28-oz. can peeled tomatoes with juices


1/4 cup finely grated Pecorino (about 1 oz.)


Amatriciana sauce originates from Amatrice and I shall surely weep next time I order it for Amatrice is now half destroyed, so many of its inhabitants lie dead or just alive waiting to be rescued under rubble, its lovely buildings, which made the town part of Italy’s ‘più belli borghi’ (most beautiful towns), wrecked or destroyed by a devastating seismic shock which I even felt during the night where I live in a hill village near Bagni di Lucca.

Italy, we all know is earthquake country, but this is cruelty indeed! For an earthquake to happen with such a force just four kilometres below ground, at the height of the tourist season on which so many these central Italian towns survive, in the middle of the night, with ever more explosive aftershocks and so, so ironically, days before the town’s great sagra (feast) of ‘gli spaghetti all’amatriciana’ is just too horrible to even imagine.

Italy weeps and will continue to weep as more bodies of men, women and children are extracted from the perilous rubble. We know that Italy, so disorganised in some other ways, pulls itself together heroically in human tragedies such as this one. The army, volunteers, sniffer dogs, everyone is together in this great tragedy.

I’ve lived long enough in Italy to witness the horrors of the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009 which killed over 300 people, to see the aftermath of the Emilia Romagna earthquake of 2012 and to feel our own ‘little’ earthquakes. (For just a few of the earthquakes we’ve had in our area alone (seismic zone level 2) since 2005 see my posts at


Why should the most beautiful country in the world have the worst record for earthquakes? Why should the most wonderful buildings and towns one could possibly visit on this planet be destroyed by nature’s grimacing forces? Why should some of the earth’s most creative and special people have to continually suffer from the unseen clash of seismic plates by night?

God only knows!

Eating spaghetti with Amatriciana sauce will for me from now on have a deeper and so much sadder significance that even its delicious taste can barely allay….


(Amatrice yesterday)


(Amatrice today)