Fly Past in Bagni di Lucca

The solemn procession consisting of dignitaries, including the mayor of Bagni di Lucca, family members of Italy’s first licensed pilot and ace aviators from the past wended its way down Bagni di Lucca’s high street to line up before the Villa Gamba. The occasion? The unveiling of a memorial plaque to Mario Calderara, Italy’s first pilot, on the façade of the house he lived in in BDL, together with the blessing of our local parish priest on the proceedings.

A private invitation from Pietro, the highly personable descendant of the Gamba-Calderara family, enabled us to visit the gardens and the piano Nobile of the villa, which is otherwise strictly closed to the general public. Pietro showed us some valuable blueprints of his ancestor’s airplane designs.

It was a marvellous event to take place on Italy’s liberation day, a national holiday commemorating the freedom from Nazi-fascism and liberation also in terms of the Italian pioneer and mankind’s ability to fly free from the constraints of gravity into the air and the blue sky such as the day blessed us with.

This was a day to remember for a very long time. The villa, with its immortal connections with Byron and especially Puccini (see my post at is now graced by a plaque that  commemorates Calderara, Italy’s first aviator and inventor of its first flying boat. (For more on this do look up my post at ).

My sincere thanks to the Gamba-Calderara family and their generous kindness towards us, enabling us to enjoy a very special day of Italian Liberation.



PS It is only so sad that Italy’s flag airline company, ‘Alitalia’, is in such dire trouble at present. (Their ‘Etihad partnership, which I used to fly to Vietnam a couple of years ago, broke down).  I’ve flown with Alitalia on several occasion in the past (indeed it was the first ever airplane flight I took at the age of seven and alone….) and never have I been served better by the stewards and been offered such eatable, indeed delicious, food on board – a rare occurrence, unfortunately, on most airlines today.



Camporgiano Castle and its Unexpected Treasures

This time I was lucky. Signor Sarti on tel 338 28 79741 was the right person to contact in order to visit the ceramics museum of Camporgiano.  I returned to the little town in the upper Serchio valley dominated by its massive Estensi fortress and met him. We entered into one of the four great turrets forming a quadrilateral and at last got to see  these long-for ceramics.

Where did these ceramics come from? There was no pottery industry in the area so how did these pieces come to be here in such quantities. Signor Sarti explained it all to me. The original fortress was built in the 1300’s by the condottiere Castruccio Castracani before the advent of firepower and had high thinnish walls to deflect arrows. When cannonballs and muskets came into the fray and the town was conquered by the Estensi dynasty something defending against the new weapons of war had to be thought out. So a new fortress was built in 1446 encircling the old and displaying the inclined, thicker and lower walls which are known so well by those who visit Lucca. There was, thus, a hollow space created between the old and new fortress walls and the inhabitants used this as a dump, over the years for their old, broken or unwanted plates and pottery items. Most of these items had come from that capital of the best Italian pottery Faenza – from which, of course, we get the word faience.

The main buildings of the Estensi fortress were irreparably damaged in the 1920 earthquake but the massive walls withstood the seismic shock and a private residence was built on top of the walls.

During the last war the fortress was used as an air-raid shelter by the local inhabitants before the allies advance further north towards the decisive battle of Aulla

Quite by chance after the last war, during an archaeological dig, these pottery waste dumps were rediscovered and found to contain some truly precious pieces of renaissance works dating from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. These included everything from plates to pitchers, bowls and tiles.

A museum was eventually opened in 1976; restored in 1999 and again closed this century for several years until it was recently reopened.

In fact, when we entered the museum was covered with a layer of dust which the custodian was desperately trying to sweep away since the whole interior of the bastion had been closed for some four years.

Here is the area where the majority of the ceramics was found – between the walls of the old and the new fortress.


The collection was well lay out and there were some quite magnificent examples.

I was also able to visit the beautiful private gardens and met a charming couple from the USA who were also ‘castling’ in the area. They’d been to Italy at least twenty times and had enjoyed most of the fortresses and castles that dot the Garfagnanan and Aulla regions.

I pointed out to them the fortress of Verrucole (described in my post at which stands opposite Camporgiano near San Romano and truly the Scythian gates of the upper Serchio.


I now headed towards another great new discovery for me – the recently constructed Tibetan bridge over the Lake of Vagli. But that area deserves a whole new post!



An Etruscan Bay

There’s nothing more tedious than having to return to one’s home in one fell swoop after days spent in a glorious part of the world.

Crossing a bridge on our return we noticed some paddlers and swimmers in the river below and so decided to join in the fun. Unlike our own bracing Lima the waters were warmish, probably because they had been fed by nearby volcanic springs (which we were told had been assaulted by hordes of holidaymakers).

Here, instead, all was peaceful and quiet and we enjoyed time with natural hydrotherapy and tiny fish biting our dead skin off us while the glorious Maremman countryside encircled us.

That was not the only water we dipped into on our return to the Val di Lima. The bay of Baratti (I prefer to call it a cove) is a beautiful corner of the Tuscan coastline and so unspoilt. It also has the added bonus of an important Etruscan necropolis behind it. We didn’t make it to the acropolis but were able to admire a tumulus that somehow reminded me of New Grange in Ireland. Indeed, I was confirmed in my supposition by the excellent guide who’d visited it.

It was in this tomb that the well-preserved Etruscan chariot, now on display at Florence’s archaeological museum, was found:


Among the other tombs there was a perfectly preserved temple tomb, only discovered quite recently.

The beach was very near and after negotiating a strand of seaweed we found with water warm and clean and surrounded by some lovely umbrella pines.

We played with the idea of spending the night on the beach but the thought of our cats missing us enticed back onto the road homeward bound. So we decided to tuck into a delicious italian-style take-away fish supper at San Vincenzo before setting off for Longoio:

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An Italian Petra?

The Parco Del tufo, opened as recently as 1998, is on the way to Sovana and contains some of the most spectacular examples of the mysterious Etruscan civilization’s cities of the dead. The Ildebrando tomb is the largest and, although considerably eroded, strangely reminded us of the Essenes tombs we’d visited a couple of years ago at Jordan’s Petra. We also saw the tomb of the coiled serpent and the typhoon, among others.

What was most intriguing to me, however, were the sacred ways carved into the tufa and with tombs excavated into their almost vertical sides. These routes would have led to a ritual Acropolis, the remains of which have still to be discovered.

We walked a couple of these carved sacred ways and felt the presence of the spirits of the departed Etruscans all around us. It was all so wonderful to have the place to ourselves! Arriving at the top of the sacred ways the landscape opened out into a profusion of vines and blackberries. I would not have at all been surprised to have met Etruscan shepherds with their double flutes and damsels in flowing robes!

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter…


We returned home via Sovana. Sovana must surely be one of the most attractive small towns in Tuscany. As yet largely unspoilt by tourism it has the remains of the Aldobrandini castle, a lovely duomo with an elaborately carved portal and as peaceful an atmosphere one could possible get. It’s truly a dream settlement built out of tufo blocks which lend it a very homogeneous character. Perhaps I shouldn’t give it away so easily and just let the crowds carry on visiting such places as San Gimignano….

We met a Tufa carver in town too. His beautiful objects could quite easily be trasported as tufa is remarkably light as a stone:

Sunset was spectacular as we found our way back to our place near Manciano. We’d also intended to see Sorano but that other ‘tufo’ town will have to wait for another visit to this special part of a very special region of Italy – a place that has found a very distinct place in our hearts.

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Imposing Pitigliano with its ‘Little Jerusalem’

Pitigliano keeps its first vision a secret until the very last bend of the road from Manciano and it is a truly spectacular one: a cliff top rather than a hilltop town of considerable length built on a crest of that particular volcanic rock called tufo which characterises so much of southern Tuscany.


For long a lonely and largely unknown place Pitigliano has become increasingly popular with visitors now that (together with such places as Barga) it is designated  as one of the most beautiful towns in Italy  but it still retains its identity as one of the oldest settlements of La Maremma. Part of the town is actually excavated into the tufo and if you don’t want to go all the way down south to Lucania to see that doyen of cave cities, Matera, then Pitigliano is where you should be.

We parked our car near one of the garages excavated in the volcanic tufa which once may have been used as wine cellars and entered the imposing gateway into the city.


We enjoyed the local life in the main square dominated by the Orsini palace and truly felt the inhabitants still owned their town rather than being swamped (like regrettably so many others) by hordes of tourists.

The Orsini palace, dating back to the 11th century but restructured by Sangallo the younger in the 16th century, has nothing of exceptional interest except a wooden statue sculpted by someone who is very familiar in the Lucchesia and San Cassiano: Iacopo della Quercia:


It’s very pleasant to walk around the twenty-odd rooms and delight in the interior decorations and secret galleries and enjoy the views from them onto this truly golden city.

At the far end of town are the monolithic remains of the Etruscan walls, for this settlement dates at least that far back.


We returned and took a look at the baroque cathedral before descending into one of the most interesting aspects of Pitigliano – its Jewish heritage. From the Medici onwards and until the horrific deportations of World War Two there was a sizeable Jewish population. Now of the old guard only three remain.

We were issued with a skull-cap for respect (normal hats can be worn if one has one at the time) and visited an interesting museum of Jewish religious reliquaries, the ritual bath excavated in the tuft, other underground chambers and then ascended into the beautifully kept synagogue itself. In the ghetto there was also a shop selling kosher food (including wine), matzo unleavened bread and the characteristic Pitigliano sweet called sfratto. The only sad note were the couple of Mauser machine-gun wielding soldiers in their protective bullet-proof shelters outside – a reminder of the constant threat of terrorist attacks even in such a seemingly out-of-the-way and safe-sounding place as Pitigliano.


We had lunch in a characteristic trattoria where we feasted on a typical Maremman poor person’s dish, ‘acqua cotta’, literally cooked water, a delicious  soup made out of traditionally stale bread, various vegetables and an egg. With our ‘pici’ the previous day we felt we had touched the heart of the cuisine of this area.


This was one of the most delicious soups we have ever tasted and fully justifies those famous lines from ‘Alice in Wonderland’:

Beautiful soup, so rich and green,

Waiting in a hot tureen!

Here’s a recipe for the soup if you have tasted it and are languishing for it in some place far from Italy:


  • 1 large red onion or 1 leek, roughly chopped
  • 1 1/2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 pound Swiss chard, cleaned and torn in half, or 1/2 oz. porcini mushrooms, soaked and drained
  • Half of a pepperoncino or any hot red pepper, fresh or dried
  • 1/2 cup tomato pulp (seeded, juiced, and chopped if fresh or drained and diced if canned)
  • 3 cups simmering water
  • sea salt
  • 2 eggs (preferably organic)
  • 2 slices rustic, country-style bread, lightly toasted
  • 1 teaspoon chopped parsley
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Tuscan pecorino cheese


    1. Place the toasted bread in two soup bowls.
    2. Place the onion and celery in a 3-quart, heavy-bottomed, pot. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and stir to coat. Cook over a medium-low heat, or until the onion is translucent but not brown. Add Swiss chard (or porcini mushrooms) and stir briefly. Add hot pepper, tomatoes, and simmering water. Season lightly with salt and simmer over a low heat (for 20 minutes, until vegetables are very soft.
    3. As vegetables are cooking, bring about an inch of water and a half teaspoon of salt to a boil in a deep skillet. At the end of the vegetables’ cooking time, turn the skillet heat down to a gentle simmer. Add the parsley to the soup.
    4. Break the eggs into a small bowl, one at a time, and slide them into the simmering water. Cook for about 3 minutes, until the whites are set, but the yellow is still runny. When done, use a large slotted spoon to place one egg on each toast slice in bowls. Ladle broth and vegetables over each egg and top with a generous sprinkling of the cheese.

Pitigliano deserves a full day and more to fully savour its delights. The surrounding country is also great for walking and is filled with mysterious Etruscan sites. We decided we should head for one of the more spectacular ones.



The Southern Limits of Tuscany

Tuscany may not look very big on a world map but its size is deceptive. Mountain roads lengthen journeys and the only real way to visit many parts of perhaps Italy’s most beautiful, and certainly most varied, region is to locate a base and stay there for some days.

We found Manciano fitted the bill perfectly. Equidistant from the mysterious ‘tufo’ towns of Pitigliano, Sovana and Sorano, the natural beauties of the lagoon of Burano and the wild beaches beyond it is located among the rolling hills of southern Tuscany – a region perhaps as neglected by the impatient tourist as our part of northern Tuscany once was.

We chose an agriturismo a little distance outside Manciano with a very good price and a friendly ambience. This morning, for example, we had breakfast in the garden which overlooks a deer park, part of the animals kept here which also include chicken and goats. It was lovely to see the deer, with some prized horned specimens having their breakfast too.

Our room was well-appointed and it was amazingly booked just a few days before the mad rush of Ferragosto, the Italian Bank holiday, when it’s impossible to find anything decent, especially if it’s near the sea.

After a standard drive down the Via Aurelia we branched inland at Albinia and reached our base after a journey of around four hours. Traffic was light and the countryside of La Maremma quite glorious with irs rolling hills, vast panoramas, umbrella pines and golden fields. It was difficult to believe that this area was once considered ‘maledetta’, cursed, because of the lack of proper drainage and the high incidence of malaria.

Yesterday we started off with an excellent continental breakfast of home-made ricotta, peach jam, cake, yogurt and caffé-latte served in the delighful early morning sunshine of the farmhouse’s garden.

We then set off to Manciano’s centro storico. The steep narrow streets led us to the main church and, near the top, to an excellent museum which gave us an insight into the history of the area. There has been a settlement here since the Old Stone Age and Manciano became an important centre under the Etruscans and Romans.

The castle keep (cassero) at the top is the home of the town council and it was very windy on the terrace surrounding it, giving us splendidly clear views of the surrounding country.

There was an interesting art exhibition nearby.

We proceeded to Capalbio, an even more spectacular southern Tuscan hill town with its ultra-steep streets and charming corners.

The Romanesque parish church has some beautiful old frescoes and the views from the town extended towards a truly blue Mediterranean.

There was a great walk around the town walls. I wonder if Capalbio was ever captured with such strong defences which included an outer wall as well?

The climax of the day, however, was yet to come!

A Sua Immagine

How many of you like the name you were given by your parents? How many of you would like to change it? I know at least one person, now no longer resident here, whose name was identical to that of a famous violet-eyed actress until she changed it to an American Indian one.

I am quite happy with my name except when it’s spelt incorrectly. Francis is me; Frances is my hypothetical sister. It’s so much easier in Italian with ‘Francesco’ and ‘Francesca’. Having said this, I was known at work as ‘Frank’ – a useful distinction separating my private social life from my public work persona.

I’m also happy with the person who first bore my name. He started off as a dissolute happy-go-lucky ladies’ man with an ample store of sometimes naughty troubadour songs which he sang in perfect southern French romance tongue. Everything seemed to go well for him: wine, women, song and plenty of money –if he joined his dad’s merchant business.

Unfortunately, however, for his family (and certainly for his women) he had a lightning revelation which contrasted the pampered life he was leading with the life he felt truly called to follow. Literally stripping himself naked before his father, he finished up poorer than anyone could remember. Emaciated by mortification and suffering, filthy with sores and embracing those with leprotic pustules, considered ripe for the madhouse by one half, yet considered ripe for sainthood by the other half, unwilling or unable to take control of the new movement he had inspired and still today the subject of debate both scholarly and street-wise. A family acquaintance, Zeffirelli himself, confessed to us that he felt near to complete disgust at his hero’s total lack of self-regard when making that iconic film on him: ‘Frate Sole, Sorella Luna.’

I do not need to tell you the name of the Poverello except to state that his name etymologically means ‘from France’ – in particular, southern France, that ’Provence’ redolent of post-classical romance and spirituality. Indeed, Francis used chivalric images of courtly love to woo his Lady Poverty and his Sister Chastity. He spoke of God’s mysterious ways with a language taken from such sources as Guillaume de Lorris’ so-very influential Roman de la Rose. Francis was truly spirituality’s greatest troubadour.

At the same time Francis overturned the conventions of courtly love – turned perfumed roses into gardens of thorns, kissed puss-filled cheeks rather than white-powdered ones, found joy (Letizia – what a wonderful chapter that is in his fioretti) in howling storm-ridden wastelands rather than cossetted inns, sang the delights of plain water to that of rich wines (something more of us should do) and, above all (and not at all self-consciously), modelled his life on that of Christ itself.

Italy is filled with the great Franciscan churches with their very particular architecture. No aisles for these monumental buildings but, rather, huge barn-like structures like that of San Francesco so excellently restored in Lucca (see my post at on the reopening of this extraordinary building): barnlike because the emphasis was on congregation, togetherness, simplicity and, above all, preaching.

Borgo a Mozzano has its own gem-like example of a Franciscan convent complete with aisleless church and cloisters (from claustrum, meaning an enclosed space apart from the turmoil of the world) connecting the spiritual centre to its practical subsidiaries such as the refectory, the chapter house, the dormitory and the workshops and cellars.


The Borgo convent was built in 1523 by a member of the order of Frati Minori (friars minor), the new order founded by Saint Francis, on a hill overlooking Borgo a Mozzano. The original Observants sold it to the Reformed friars of the same order around 1597. (Sadly even petty schism are prevalent in these orders – witness Friar Leo…).The monastery has a beautiful view of the town below, a large vegetable garden with a pergola bedecked with kiwi fruits and is surrounded by a deep forest of oaks. Entering the sweet loggia, which has a chapel on its right, one finds an old cloister, with spacious arches, and twenty nine lunettes painted by Domenico Manfredi of Camaiore illustrating scenes of Saint Francis’ life in chronological, clockwise order. The centre of the cloisters has a well built by Raphael of Controni in 1551.  The cloister area is particularly picturesque at Christmas time when a life-size crib is set up.

The history of the lunettes was that of gradual deterioration due to the elements. When the friars sold the convent in 1983 to the voluntary Misericordia association, which caters for the sick and dying by offering medical assistance and ambulance services (in addition to running a very well appointed rest-home) the priority was to adapt the buildings for their new use as a place for the old and sick. Artistic niceties were relegated to second place. That is, until 2011 when generous assistance from such corporations as the Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca sponsored the restoration of the lunettes, all of which apart from five are now restored to their full splendour.

Here is an example of a lunette before restoration.

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And here is another, reinstated as close to its original colours as possible according to the now prevalent rules of conservative restoration.

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The twenty nine lunettes have occupied the mind of eminent classicist and hagiographist Christopher Stace for some time ever since he showed them to a Franciscan friar friend of his. Eventually, this interest resulted in a book which Stace modestly calls a guide book but which, in its details and profound research, become rather more than that. In a sense Christopher has invented a new literary genre which could be termed ‘the educated guidebook’.

The presentation of the book, ‘A Sua Immagine’, ‘In His Image’ (yes it’s written in both English and Italian and alludes indirectly to that fine RAI religious programme in addition, of course, to underlining the fact that Saint Francis’ life became increasingly interpreted as a mirror image of that of Christ himself) was the occasion of an extremely pleasant and learned (yes, the two can go together in the right hands!) afternoon at the Convent of Saint Francis. Published by the prestigious Lucchese publishing house of Maria Pacini Fazzi Editore, it is a snip at just twenty euros for over two hundred pages of fine writing and beautiful illustrations. The good thing, too, is that proceeds will go to the Fraternità di Misericordia of Borgo a Mozzano. (I still have with delight the book on the Misericordia by Leonilda Marchesini Rondina, mother of the noted architect and of the musician, with her sweet dedication to me and Sandra.)

The presentation was well organised with interventions by Fr William Short, ofm (order of the friars minor) and professor of Spirituality at the Franciscan college of San Luis Rey in California, who inspired the author to write the book, Fr Fortunato Lozzelli ofm, the energetic new mayor of Borgo a Mozzano, Patrizio Andreuccetti, the ‘Governatore della Misericordia’ Gabriele Brunini and, of course, the author himself. I wish more time had been given to the restoration techniques used in the lunettes under the direction of Lorenzo Lanciani but the book will amply describe that essential aspect of the revaluation of the lunettes.

The main corpus of the guidebook deals with a description and explanation of each of the lunettes. What is particularly significant here is the part that the book De Conformitate Vitae Beati Francesci et Vitam Domini Jesu (how the life of Saint Francis conforms to the life of Christ) by as yet untranslated author Bartolomeo da Pisa (although we are promised a translation by the prof.) influenced the depictions of the frescoes which, it must be remembered, served an especially important purpose at a time when even many potentates were illiterate. (Charlemagne for example, confessed that he couldn’t ‘get the hang of’ reading and writing!)

At the same time, the lunettes are not a cartoon exposition of the life of the ‘little poor one’. If we are looking for assured news facts this is not the place to find them. Indeed, for several of the incidents the sources are dubious to say the least. The point is that the scenes depicted in the lunettes have a symbolic, moral and eschatological significance which overrides any merely factual event. I like to compare this technique with that used by, for example, painters like David particularly in flamboyantly showing Napoleon’s crossing of the Alps.  The Italians are particularly good at this melodramatic, metaphorical way of displaying events. Indeed, when anything came to resemble real life too closely the painter would be chastised. The example of Caravaggio comes to mind when he had to paint two versions of the crucifixion of St Peter because in the first version Peter looked too much like a peasant (which, as a fisherman he clearly had an affinity with).

Nevertheless, there are charming domestic features of the lunettes as in number thirteen depicting Francis’s version of the multiplying of the loaves.  The four Gospels here refer to five loaves and two fish. I can’t see any fish here – perhaps the rather well-fed cat, suckling in turn its own young, in the centre of the refectory has already eaten them! I would suggest that was a good reward for an animal without whose help rather less bread would have been able to be baked due to the scourge of mice so common in mediaeval granaries. Incidentally, although Francis loved animals (and famously preached to the birds) I don’t think he had a particular penchant for cats. One of ours has just brought me the present of a gold-finch which I had to save from its ferocious claws and allow it to fly once more into the blue ethereal sky.

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There was no shortage of comestibles after the book’s presentation. The Arcadian gardens of the monastery were completed by tables replete with both savoury and honeyed goodies with plenty of liquids to wash them down. No event in Italy is complete without a rinfresco. Indeed, the rinfresco is a sort of bribe for all good adult children to pay attention to the speeches in order to obtain their foody rewards! I’m sure the attention of the audience was high enough to guarantee them a well-deserved reward. But then the subject was so interesting and the company I was with so worthwhile to be with.

I was truly in my element with my brilliant artist, restorer and archaeologist friends and with the subject so eloquently and, at the same time, so entertainingly written about by prof. Stace.

PS I seem to have written rather a lot on the convent of San Francesco a Borgo a Mozzano, especially on its music, its altars and its restorations. Here are a few of my posts if you still want to know more:

Etc. etc.