Fishing for Pescia’s Hidden Treasures

Pescia is one of Italy’s large list of overlooked cities.  Usually what happens is that, if travelling from Lucca to Florence, there may be a stop at Pistoia at the most. (Pistoia is, indeed – together with Prato – one of the most wonderful cities in Tuscany (or indeed in Italy!).

Yet Pescia has much of interest too and, since it is so near to the Lucchesia it is certainly worth making a day of it. Furthermore, if Peter Sellers regarded Balham as the gateway to South-West London, then Pescia is the gateway to the ‘Svizzera Pesciatina’ or ‘Pescian Switzerland’, a delightful sequence of bosky valleys and castle-like villages. (But more of that later).

Pescia has a long history dating back to at least Longobard times and, was fought over by both Lucca and Florence and even Pisa before it finally passed into Florentine domination in the fifteenth century. Indeed, there is an imposing gateway arching the road to Florence called ‘Porta Fiorentina’.

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Unusually for many Italian cities built on a river Pescia has two distinct nuclei. On the right bank of the River Pescia di Pescia (the name derives from ancient Longobard pehhia meaning stream) is the commercial centre and on the left bank is the religious side.

I’ve always enjoyed my times in Pescia and on a visit yesterday I started by exploring the commercial centre which is centrered around the large Piazza Mazzini, encircled by some very fine old buildings, a few including mediaeval towers.

The first interesting sight, however, is the ‘Casa del Fascio’ a fine example of totalitarian architecture dating from 1928. I have been unable to discover who the architect was but the building has stylistic affinities with Michelucci.

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Note the lictors’ fasces on either side of the main doorway, The building now houses the comune’s archives.

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Don’t miss the delightful church of the Madonna a Piè di Piazza which, among its treasures, has a wonderfully carved ceiling.

At Christmas time there are many nativity scenes on show and, indeed, there is a civic nativity itinerary. My main aim was to re-visit the extraordinary collection of plaster casts donated in 1980 by the descendants of Libero Andreotti and now housed in the antico Palagio del comune which is well worth a visit just by itself.

Libero Andreotti (Pescia 1875 – Florence 1933) is considered to be Pescia’s most famous citizens. (I could also include the unfortunately neglected composer of over seventy operas, Giovanni Pacini who, although born in Catania in 1796, spent the last ten years of his life in Pescia where he died in 1867 and where Pescia’s theatre is named after him. I do hope the town museum will reopen since it contains valuable Pacini memorabilia.

(If you’ve never head Pacini here’s excerpts from his opera depicting the last day of Pompeii.)

At the old Palagio comunale we were met by a charming lady who combined the role of administrator, secretary and guide. It seemed to me that she was truly doing the job of at least three people. Thanks to her enthusiasm I was able to glean the following facts about Libero Andreotti who, together with Pascoli and Puccini, formed a close friendship trio.

Libero started off working in a smithy when eight years old. When he was seventeen the determining meeting of his life occurred when he met Alfredo Caselli. Caselli was perhaps one of the most significant persons in Luccan fin de siècle social life. Born in Lucca in 1865, he inherited his father’s caffé in Via Fillungo which is now called Caffé di Simo. (Shamefully closed since 2012 this historical caffé which played such an important part in Lucca’s cultural history may well reopen next year after lengthy legal problems and structural difficulties.) The caffé is one of those great Italian institutions (like Caffé san Marco in Trieste or Gran Caffé Margherita in Viareggio) which weren’t just a place to have a cup of coffee but formed a hub for artists and intellectuals to meet and exchange ideas.

Through Caselli, Andreotti met such composers as Catalani and Puccini, poet Pascoli and painter Viani. They stimulated Libero creatively and he found his true vocation which was that of a sculptor,largely self-taught. After a disappointing stint as illustrator and caricaturist for Palermo’s weekly socialist paper ‘La Battaglia’ Libero returned to Tuscany.

He also stayed in Paris for some time where he learned new techniques and became friends with Modigliani.

The museum contains works from all stages of Andreotti’s career. From an earlier phase as a follower of post-impressionist Medardo Rossi, much admired by Rodin, Libero passed over to a more neo-classical phase. Among the exhibits are sensuous ballet sculptures depicting Nijinsky dancing Debussy’s ‘Prelude à l’après midi d’un faune’

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Libero survived his soldiering in World War One and afterwards received his first truly monumental commissions which clearly and sadly were memorials to the Fallen.

Here is the memorial to the war dead in Bolzano:

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And here is the original plaster cast in Pescia. There was some criticism that it resembled too closely Piero Della Francesca’s famous resurrection in Sansepolcro. Libero, however, received eclectic influences and was well aware of his debt to renaissance art which he adored.

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The cire-perdue method was used for Andreotti’s completed bronze works. Most of these are today dispersed or lost. Some were melted down for the war effort (a completely useless exercise like those railings removed that once surrounded London’s terraced houses). Others are in private collections, and more we don’t know where they finished up. That’s why the gipsoteca at Pescia is so important for an assessment of Andreotti’s work.

I loved this sculpture personifying the Africo and Mensola streams in Florence. Anyone who has been to Florence will know that these two streams never actually meet. The story comes from Boccaccio’s ‘Il Ninfale Fiesolano’ which tells how Africo, a shepherd, fell in love with Mensola, the goddess Diana’s favourite handmaiden. When Diana discovered their liaison she turned both into streams never to meet or cast eyes on each other again.

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The persons who comissioned the statue didn’t like it because they thought Mensola’s legs were impudically too far apart.

Another tale of catastrophic male-female encounters is shown in this one commissioned by English war poet Siegfried Sassoon and displaying Actaeon discovering Diana naked. The goddess was so incensed that she turned Actaeon into a deer that was hunted down and torn apart by his dogs. Somehow, I think the Italian greyhounds depicted wouldn’t have been capable of such a barbarity. Sadly the statue never reached the UK as it was commissioned just before the carnage of WW1.

Andreotti passed his last years in Florence where he lies buried in the cemetery delle Porte Sante at San Miniato sul Monte.

A friend has pointed out to me that Libero’s son, Aldo, became a famous mathematician at Pisa University concentrating largely on algebraic geometry. Aldo clearly inherited his father’s creative genes but developed them into the abstract geometry of mathematics rather than his father’s figurative sculpture.

Here are further examples of Libero Andreotti’s’ art we were privilege to see.

The views from the palagio’s terrace over Pescia were delightful:

This is the original for a giant horse sculpture.

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I just wonder where the giant horse has bolted to.

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And this is the great Libero Andreotti himself:

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When I heard from our charming guide that there was an untapped archive of correspondence between Libero Andreotti and Giacomo Puccini I was quite excited. The first volume of Puccini’s ‘complete’ correspondence was compiled last year by Gabriella Biagi Ravenni and Dieter Schickling. It covers the years 1877-1896 and is published by Leo S. Olschki.

I just wonder whether the great Puccini scholar Schickling is aware of this treasure trove hidden in the dusty archives of Pescia’s antico Palagio comunale. Puccini was a brilliant writer of letters which are often highly witty and reveal incredible insights into his life and works. I look forwards to the next volume with eager anticipation.

Opening hours for the museum are

Tuesday to Sunday 9 to 12 and 3 to 6 (except Thurdìsday when its 9 to 12 and 4 to 7)

Further discoveries were awaiting us in Pescia so we had to move on although I would have loved to linger longer in this extraordinary museum, dedicated to a sculptor I suspect few of us have heard of. But Pescia was so full of fascinating details:

 

 

 

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