Tuscany’s Own Switzerland

As it was close to lunchtime in Pescia we were feeling somewhat peckish so our visit to the left, religious side of Pescia was cursory. It did not matter to me as I’d seen the wonderful sights on this side of the city several times before. For instance, there’s a brilliant mediaeval festa which you can read all about at my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/strawberries-at-montecarlo-and-mediaeval-times-in-pescia/

You cannot afford to miss Pescia Festa Medievale – it’s quite delightful.

The two big sights in Pescia’s religious area are, of course, the cathedral and the church and convent of Saint Francis. The cathedral was closed for restoration while we were there this time but is a superb building when you can get inside it. Dating back to the 5th century it’s been restructured various times. The oldest parts go back to the 11th century and include sections of the exterior wall and the campanile.

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Thoroughly baroquized in the 18th century the cupola dates from that time. The façade was only completed in 1933 (such is the case with so many Tuscan churches, some of which, like Florence’s San Lorenzo were never completed at all.

Many of the side altars are superb and particular notice should be taken of the altar of the most Holy Sacrament since its painting of the Virgin by Bandini is an exact copy of the original Raphael sold to Ferdinand I of the Medici family who coveted it and made it part of his collection in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti.

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The high altar is of particular interest as it was commissioned by one of the greatest castrato singers of all time, Giovanni Francesco Grossi, otherwise known as Siface, one of Francesco Cavalli’s favourite singers and protagonist of several of Alessandro Scarlatti’s operas.

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Siface had a huge success in the UK and even sang in Samuel Pepys’ house before the awful UK climate started affecting his voice and he returned to Italy’s warmer climes. It appears too that Siface had a passionate love affair with a Bolognese countess who, regrettably, was whisked away by her family to a convent when they found out. All ended happily, however, and Siface and his beautiful widow eloped and were re-united.

In case you were wondering whether castrati could have amorous desires for females then remember that this was the time before the pill and if you were a famous singer and a castrato too you could have the most alluring women at your feet. The gentler sex had then no fear of becoming pregnant again for the umpteenth time and they knew that they had someone with some of the largest pay-packets of the age. (Medical tests have shown that castrati can have erections and delight in orgasm, although their ejaculation is, obviously, minimal).

Don’t forget too that the last great castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died less than a hundred years ago in 1922 and there are extant recordings made by him. Just think what we are missing by not having real castrati today in the revival of baroque opera (although vocal technique has developed to such an extent that a castrato-like voice may be imitated. My own favourite modern castrato is Philippe Jaroussky). Music sometimes requires great sacrifices but the rewards can be truly great. Any volunteers?

The other great church in Pescia is that of San Francesco which has the privilege of having the earliest portrait of Saint Francis:

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The portrait was painted by someone who actually knew Francis – Bonaventura Berlinghieri – a painter familiar to anyone who has visited our local Tereglio Parish church with its magnificent crucifix.

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We did manage to see a delightful little chapel with a remarkable twelfth century wooden deposition and some beautiful mediaeval frescoes by Bicci di Lorenzo.

Anyway, we were getting ever hungrier: the day was fine so we decided to take a look at La Pesciatina Svizzera.

The reason why this beautiful area to the north of Pescia (and just across from our Val di lima if you decide to walk from Zato above Lucchio to its first town Pontito – see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/11/23/lazzaro-papi-colonel-of-the-bengal-lancers/ for something about Pontito and its most famous inhabitant who served under the British Bengal lancers) is called Swiss Pescia is due to a Genevan, Jean Charles Leonarde Simonde de Simonde, who visiting (and buying a property) in the area reminded him of his own gentle Genevan landscape rather than the wilder Swiss alps.

This lovely area should be more correctly known as the Val di Nievole after its main river. In fact it, divides into two parts: the Val di Forfora and the Val di Sorana. Both rivers unite at Sorana, famous for its amazingly tasteful D. O. P. beans pined for from all over the world, to become the river Pescia di Pescia.

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Another feature of the Valdinievole is its ten Castelli or castles, which are villages of incredibly steep streets built around an ancient nucleus of a castle. Their names are:

Pontito

Stiappa

Castelvecchio

San Quirico

Vellano

Sorana

Aramo

Fibbialla

Medicina

Pietrabuona

The chief village is Vellano which was wisely chosen as a feeding and watering place. The restaurant selected was the Trattoria Manero which, in addition to a very gustoso menu (including those famed beans)

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also sports a stupendous view over the whole Svizzera Pesciatina in a conservatory-like extension which became really warm even at this time of year.

The meal was excellent and most reasonably priced.

Afterwards we took a walk around Vellano which must surely have some of the steepest streets anywhere. Without sporting any unduly remarkable buildings it was a truly picturesque town – a worthy Castello di Valdinievole.

It was lovely to see the parish church of Santi Martino e Sisto set against the quasi-winter sunset. Then we were homeward bound, regretfully but necessarily.

I find it remarkable that not that many inhabitants from Val di Lima know much about Val di Nievole. Perhaps it’s because, unless you are adventurous enough to walk across from Zato to Pontito, it requires quite a long way round to get to it.

Every Castello in Valdinievole is worth lingering in. My own favourite is Castelvecchio with its extraordinary pieve encrusted with mythological beasts and recently excellently restored.

Has anyone else fallen in love with ‘La Svizzera Pesciatina’?

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2 thoughts on “Tuscany’s Own Switzerland

  1. Yes Francis, we fell in love with this area around 1988, and the people, and the cats and well everything! We eventually proceeded to purchase a small barn in 1990, of the name ‘Mezzana’ below the village of Castelvecchio.
    We were never able to complete our project, for many various reasons, financial, care of elderly parents, and then changes to planning restrictions in the area.
    But there is a new story to tell of a cat in Italy that I named Pietro, – and maybe a new beginning!
    Jane and her cat Alfeo.

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