Little Churches with Great Interiors

Italy not only possesses some of the world’s most resplendent ecclesiastical buildings (like the cathedrals of Pisa, Florence, Milan and – my favourite – Siena. Italy also has hundreds of little churches (chiesine or chiesette – as they are called). These little churches may date back to Romanesque times and, therefore, could be at least a thousand years old. Most are built on a very simple plan: rectangular with usually a semi-circular apse. Here are just three examples near us in the Serchio valley.

San Martino a Greppo near Valdottavo

Santa Lucia near Gallicano

San Romano near Poggio

If you want to explore further there’s a fine facebook page on Romanesque churches in Tuscany and beyond at

https://www.facebook.com/PieviRomanicheDellaToscanaEOltre/

This facebook page doesn’t just concentrate in the little chiesine, which were either built for parishioners to avoid longer journeys to the main parish church (pieve) or which were, in many cases, superseded by larger churches. The page also includes the more imposing examples from this wonderful architectural era, including monastic buildings.

The interiors of the ‘chiesine’ are usually very simple and bare. Our own little chiesina at Longoio had its once-a-year great day when Mass was celebrated there last Saturday. This is a tradition which always takes place in May, the month dedicated to the Virgin Mary by the Roman Catholic Church. Other little chiesine in our area will also have their annual Mass celebrated during this month. It’s a great occasion to be actually able to enter and visit the interior of these otherwise sadly locked-up churches.

Here is our chiesina of la Vergine dei Dolori, which I have often described in other posts, decorated with flowers last Saturday.

In another area of Italy (the north-east to be more precise, which we recently visited) there’s another very unassuming church which we thought would be locked as usual.

Imagine our surprise when we found it specially opened for the afternoon.

We decided to stop and take a peep.

What we saw in the interior took our breath away!

These most wonderful frescoes were only recently rediscovered as a result of an earthquake which shook off the eighteenth-century plaster covering them. It’s proof that even the destructive powers of earthquakes can reveal unexpected blessings.

The frescoes date all the way from Longobard times to early renaissance. I shall not attempt to say anything about them but just illustrate their beauty starting with the thousand-year-old depiction of the Last Supper.

These other frescoes clearly date from a later time (fifteenth century).

As the proof of the pudding is in its eating so the proof of so many unassuming chiesine is in their interior. The only sadness is that so many of them are usually locked up for, clearly security reasons.

We just happened to be lucky as we were at the right place and at the right time.

Our dear little Cinquina was there to wait for us and hopefully carry us all the way back home. Sadly, she didn’t make it (For the reason why see https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/05/08/about-guardian-angels/ ). Fortunately, we did, and that’s the important thing.

PS Why didn’t we tell you exactly where you could find the wonderful chiesina we were privileged to visit? It’s because we want you to discover your own chiesina when you’re in Italy and make it your own special space …. just like we did with our splendid example.

Where Venice’s last Doge died, where Napoleon stayed and where Sting played

The Veneto region of Italy is famous for its beautiful Palladian villas which did so much to influence the typical eighteenth century English country house. We have visited a handful of these villas on previous trips to this region and knew what splendours to expect. However, we were quite unprepared for the glories of the Villa Manin which is near Passariano on a secondary route from Udine to Trieste.

The villa owes its sixteenth century origin to a Friulian Antonio Manin who, having lost territories in Dalmatia as the Venetian republic’s power diminished, decided to concentrate on land and expanding his agricultural domains.

In succeeding centuries the villa was added to with barcòn (Venetian for service wings), a classical portico and, most astonishingly, a monumental exedra consisting of two semi-circular arms, almost horse-shoe shaped, which embrace the front area of the villa.

The Villa Manin has been the scene of the most disparate events. In 1796 Napoleon stayed with his first wife, Josephine Beauharnais, whose amorous entreaties in such gorgeous surroundings he could not possibly have refused. (Or did he?)

Here too Napoleon signed the treaty of Campoformido (or Campoformio) which brought the Serenissima republic of Venice to a tragic end after almost a thousand years of independence. Indeed, the last Doge died here in this bed:

In subsequent years the villa went through highs and lows until, in the second half of the last century, it had fallen into a sorry state of decay and was sold by the last of its noble owners to the region of Venice in 1962 for the equivalent of £ 70,000, on condition that it be restored to its original glory.

After years of restoration the villa has reached something of its former splendour despite the fact that most of the original furnishings have gone.

The exterior is dazzling and owes its present appearance largely due to the architect Domenico Rossi who brought in some French influence in the neo-classical design. Next time we’re in the area we must visit Udine where the cathedral’s façade is also by Rossi.

The interior has some very fine features. The chapel is in a typically ornate baroque style and houses the ancestors of the Manin family.

The villa’s ‘garage’ houses some fine examples of old carriages and landaus.

The Villa’s park, designed by Ziborghi in an English landscape style influenced surely in part by Capability Brown, is huge and one could spend a whole day just walking around it.

This sweet little sign says ‘please don’t tread on the grass here, the narcissi are just about to be born’.

The villa’s piano Nobile has rooms painted by Dorigny, Amigoni and Oretti with some youthful contributions by Tiepolo before he became the greatest of eighteenth century decorative artists.

Today the villa has new life as a centre of restoration of works of art particularly those damaged by the terrible Friuli earthquake of 1976 in which almost a thousand people died. It also holds art exhibitions ranging from Sebastiano Ricci to Kandinsky, The one we saw during our visit had as its theme World War one which in 1917 raged only a few miles away from this seemingly idyllic arcadia.

The Villa is also a sort of Italian ‘Woburn Abbey’ with pop concerts given by such groups as Kiss, Iron Maiden, Radiohead and Sting. Pity the Stones didn’t choose this place instead of Lucca -there would have been much more room and I might have even been able to get a ticket!

There’s also a very atmospheric bar and restaurant, an adventure trail for children in the park and very helpful staff.

Indeed, I was not only impressed by the prodigious villa itself but also by the almost National Trustian way it was managed. I do hope that more of Italy’s magnificent country houses will emulate Villa Manin in bringing new energy into properties which could so easily have crumbled into dust.

Star Wars in North-East Italy

Of all Italian fortified towns Palmanova is, literally the country’s star attraction. Not only is it one of the world’s most perfect examples of a city’s defence system, it is actually built as a nine-pointed star as this aerial plan reveals.

Lucca has some fine walls but they were built to enclose an already existing city. In the case of Palmanova, however, which is in the north-east Italian region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, the city was built as a new fortified location at the end of the sixteenth century on plans by the great architect Scamozzi who was inspired by neo-humanist ideas of the ideal city and sketches by Leonardo da Vinci himself. The actual construction was supervised by Giulio Savorgnan who also built the walls still standing in Nicosia in Cyprus. (Anyone who has read Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ will know of the battles that island had to withstand against the Turk).

Palmanova itself was not only another defensive post against the Turk but also against the Hapsburgs who had captured the Venetian outpost of Gradisca some years earlier. ‘La Serenissima’, Venetian republic had to safeguard its unsafe eastern frontier against two enemies and Palmanova was never actually attacked by either Ottomans or Austrians. Indeed, the city was like a renaissance equivalent of the H-bomb: it served as a deterrent and was only captured through internal treachery by Napoleon’s troops in 1798 –an action which led to the infamous treaty of Campoformio and the death of one of the world’s most illustrious republics – something which still grieves every true Venetian to this day.

Palmanova is built on mathematical principles and, in particular, on the number three. There are three concentric walls and within these walls there are three radial streets. There are three entrance gates:  (Porta Udine, Porta Cividale, and Porta Aquileia).

Each of the three roads leads to a central monumental six-sided square which has to be one of Italy’s most spectacular piazzas ever. Just to stand in the centre of this stupefying square was one of the greatest sensations I’ve ever had in any of Italy’s extraordinary cities.

Each of the three outer walls contains nine bulwarks and various state-of-the art fortifications which are ample proof of the increasing efficacy of fire-power throughout the seventeenth century. For example, there are ravelins – triangular free standing platforms – standing against the walls, a system of ditches and hidden forts and, above all, a high-standing steep-sided brick and earth rampart which actually hides the city from public view. Indeed, even the main square’s cathedral campanile is specially shortened so that it doesn’t stand out to view by any potential enemy. If you don’t look out for the signs leading into Palmanova chances are you’re likely to miss it!

I’d pored over maps of Palmanova years before I actually reached it last month during our peregrinations in Friuli and was quite stunned by this mixture of a starred fortified town combined with the ideals of a symmetrical renaissance Albertian city.

The cathedral is the most notable building in the main hexagonal ‘square’. Designed by Scamozzi it contains the body of Santa Giustinia, a beautiful maiden who is the town’s patron saint.

It seems so ironical that this astounding city of Palmanova was built in the spirit of military enterprise. How could such a beautiful place be combined with all the engines of war in those ages? One has just to look at the present examples of nuclear missile bunkers and radar installations to realise that Palmanova, despite all its beauty, is on the same trail that has led to the terrible lottery of defensive mechanisms that the world now has. But, at least Palmanova is lovely whereas a nuclear bunker is not!

As we exited the triple arches of the porta Aquileja I could not help being reminded of those lines recited by the Moor of Venice:

O farewell,
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife;
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
Th’ immortal Jove’s dread clamors counterfeit,
Farewell!

Florence’s Cloister of Vows


Three sides of the Piazza della Santissima Annnunziata in Florence are arcaded. The original Brunelleschi scheme for the Ospedale degli Innocenti (described in my previous post) was continued on the opposite side by Sangallo the elder and completed in front of the façade of Florence’s holiest shrine, the basilica della Santissima Annnunziata, by Caccini at the end of the sixteenth century.

It’s what’s directly behind this façade that is the subject of an ongoing restoration of the frescoes that line the chiostro dei voti  –  the cloister of votive offerings given by the faithful for thanks to the Divine for graces, blessings and miracles received. This cloister, designed by Michelozzo and begun in 1497, was so long in a state of increasingly gloomy dilapidation that it was hardly looked at by visitors before they plunged into the ornate glories of the basilica itself with the shrine to the miraculous image of the Annunciation of the Virgin.

Yet it’s this cloister – an atrium really – that represents the greatest examples of late renaissance and mannerist fresco painting in Florence.

Here is a scheme of the paintings and their artists going from left to right in this cloister. On our recent visit I took pictures after or during the on-going restoration of this magnificent cycle of frescoes which should soon rank again as one of the glories of Firenze, restored as far as possible to their pristine condition.

No. Image before restoration

(Click on icon to see image)

Image after or during restoration

(Click on image to see larger view)

Painter Theme Subject Year
01                Cosimo Rosselli Life of Filippo Benizi Vocation of St Flippo’s life 1476
02     Andrea del Sarto Life of Filippo Benizi St Flippo heals a leper 1509-1510
03   Andrea del Sarto Life of Filippo Benizi Punishment of the blasphemers 1510
04     Andrea del Sarto Life of Filippo Benizi Liberation of a person from the devil 1509-1510
05     Andrea del Sarto Life of Filippo Benizi Death of Saint Filippi Benizi and resurrection of a child 1510
06     Andrea del Sarto Life of Filippo Benizi Devotion of Florentines to San Filippo’s relics 1510
07     Andrea del Sarto Life of Virgin Mary Birth of the Virgin 1513-1514
08     Alesso Baldovinetti Life of Virgin Mary Worship of the shepherds 1463
09   Andrea del Sarto Life of Virgin Mary Journey of the Magi 1511
10     Franciabigio Life of Virgin Mary The Virgin’s Wedding 1513
11     Pontormo Life of Virgin Mary The visitation 1514-1516
12     Rosso Fiorentino Life of Virgin Mary Assumption of the Virgin 1517

 

An Innocent Place in Florence

The piazza della Santissima Annunziata in Florence is not only the city’s most beautiful square. It’s also its most humane. The Spedale degli Innocenti, with its superb Brunelleschi designed loggia, is not only the city’s first truly renaissance building, with its pioneer use of pietra serena stone, classically proportioned arches with between them, those delightful Della Robbia terracottas of babes in swaddling clothes and its characteristic stucco facade. It’s also Europe’s first children welfare institute. Founded by Florence’s silk guild in 1400 the Innocenti’s aim, which continues today with its nurseries, family consultation clinics, child adoption and protection agencies, is to carry out Jesus’ aim to ‘suffer little children to come unto me.’

The Innocenti is what is known in italian as ‘brofotrofio’ which means a place which cares for children whose parents may be still alive and known but whose circumstances do not permit them to look after their offspring properly. This is to be distinguished from an ‘orfanotrofio’, or orphanage, where children may have lost one or both parents.

Attittudes and solutions have, of course, changed over the ages. Finding suitable adoptive families is one answer today for children who have difficulties with their biological parents. Today the situation is even more difficult, as a recent news item revealed when a girl from a strict Islamic family in Florence refused to wear the veil and be forced into a loveless arranged marriage. In other words, she wanted to live the life of just  another normal italian girl in the country where she was born and educated in.

The Innocenti museum, which is not even a year old, is a wonderful example of how a museum can be recreated so that it truly reaches everyone in both mind and heart. It’s a model of how a museum can be truly made live. There is access for all and the modernism of a spectacular lift and staircase merge well with the old:

There are three sections to the museum. The first is historical and, with the help of interactive displays including archive photographs and recordings, traces the changing attitude towards what in England used to be called foundlings and which prompted Thomas Coram to found the UK equivalent of Florence’s innocenti and, again with generous munificence this time from people like Handel and Hogarth, helped improve life for children without proper families.

The drawers with the names of individual foundlings and the objects left with them, such as a coin split into two (so that if ever the day came when the child could find his/her family the other half kept by the family might prove that the child was indeed theirs) and the little biographies taken from the old records are truly touching testimonies of hard times.

In the case of Florence the benefactors included such artists as Ghirlandaio and Botticelli who donated some wonderful works to the foundation. These gorgeous paintings form part of the artistic itinerary of the museum and are one of Florence’s finest and most uncrowded picture galleries. Not surprisingly, the main subjects are the Virgin and Child, the Nativity and references to the massacre of the innocents

The third itinerary is the architectural one. With such placidly exquisite cloisters as the two for boys and girls there can be few more wonderful examples of the trancendental change renaissance architecture wrought upon Italian, indeed European, cities.

To crown the museum there’s what must be the most spectacularly placed bar in the city, equalling and perhaps surpassing the cafe at the top of London’s National Portrait gallery for its views:

While we visited this lovely place there were dads and mums taking their toddlers to the various departments the institute still manages today after almost seven hundred years continuous service to children and the community.

In the evening we were even treated to a fine concert of voci bianche (childrens voices) of the maggio Musicale fiorentino. The programme included everything from renaissance songs of springtime to Benjamin Britten. If anyone thinks there is nothing to beat an anglican children’s church choir they should have been at our concert.

It was so wonderful to feel the fluidity of Florentine history through the Renaissance as expressed through its humanity in treating innocent children, in creating new space through its architecture and in envisaging a museum, not yet a year old,  that truly gives honour to the city of the lily. Indeed, the Innocenti is a place for all ages in every sense of the word.

The Cat’s Eye?

One of my favourite shapes of windows is that which in French is called ‘oeil-de-boeuf’ but which is anglicised into ‘bull’s eye’ and Italianised in ‘occhio di bue’.

It’s a small circular, or oval-shaped, window which is usually placed between the roof and the last floor of the house and is generally either grated in or glassed in. Its purpose is to lighten the attic storey of a house or, if there’s no glass in it, to provided added ventilation to the ‘soffitta’.

‘L’occhio di bue’ is a classic feature of Italian renaissance architecture. Indeed it’s also a major feature in its gothic architecture where the ‘rosone’ (or rose -window) can be gorgeously elaborate traceried. We saw a beautiful example of a rosone at the front of San Giusto cathedral on our recent visit to Trieste.

Amazingly, one of the largest bull’s eye windows is not to be found on the facade of any gothic or renaissance building but in the centre of the roof of that greatest of classical Roman buildings, the Pantheon, where, termed ‘oculus (the eye), it’s used glass-less to lighten the whole of this extraordinary building. I’ve been there when it was raining and it was a fantastic sensation to hear the drops descending from the oculus on to the marble floor of this two thousand year old building just as it would have done in Imperial Roman times.

There are variants of the ‘occhio di bue’ window – so many of which may be seen in the country villas around Lucca and in Luccan palazzi themselves. (Indeed, in Bagni di Lucca itself). These windows can also be hexagon or cusped. The oval shape, too, can be either vertically or horizontally inclined.

In the UK this high attractive window shape realized its most widespread use in the Georgian architecture of the eighteenth century.

We noticed on a house front in the Tuscan landscape this cat who was happily adapting the ‘bull’ eye’ window for its own special purpose: that of gazing on the world as it passed by. In that case should not this window also be termed ‘l’occhio del gatto?’ – the cat’s eye? What a lucky cat I thought!

 

 

La Spezia’s Our Lady of the Snow

La Spezia, the starting-off point for a visit to that stunning stretch of Italian coastline known as the Cinque terre and to Porto Venere, is an interesting city in its own right. From a small fishing village La Spezia developed into one of Italy’s major naval dockyards, which I was able to visit on a special open day in 2014. (See my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/a-top-secret-establishment/ ).

La Spezia has many other interesting sights including several churches:

Cristo Re dei Secoli (“Christ the King of Centuries”, cathedral), consecrated in 1975. The project was by Adalberto Libera. Unless you’re into seventies architecture give it a miss. I found it rather hideous and akin to a second-rate airport terminal although the view from it is rather fine.

Abbey church of Santa Maria Assunta (“Our Lady of the Assumption”, thirteenth century). It houses a considerable series of artworks, some of them coming from other suppressed religious institutes. They include an Incoronation of the Virgin by Andrea della Robbia, the Multiplication of Bread by Giovanni Battista Casoni and St. Bartholomew’s Martyrdom by Luca Cambiaso. Definitely worth a visit.

Santi Giovanni e Agostino (“Saints John and Augustine”, sixteenth century). It has a single nave with eighteenth and nineteenth century decorations.

Nostra Signora Della Scorza. Built in 1900 in the heart of the working-class neighbourhood Quartiere Umberto (Piazza Brin).

Museums: La Spezia is well endowed with these including:

Amedeo Lia Museum. Super collection of paintings from all ages put together by a private connoisseur.

Palazzina delle Arti and Museum of Seals (not the sea mammals but the ones you use sealing wax for). Interesting if you like this sort of thing.

Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (CAMeC). Not seen yet. Changing exhibitions.

Diocesan Museum. Fine religious art.

Ethnographic Civic Museum. Fascinating insight into disappeared local crafts.

Technical Naval Museum. Great viewing for anyone who loves messing about in boats and naval history. If you enjoyed London’s Greenwich Maritime museum the collection is a must and is located in a building within the military arsenal.

National Transportation Museum. This I haven’t seen yet. It’s evidently filled with old steam locomotives and other modes of transport like trams.

Notable buildings.

The castle of San Giorgio. I still haven’t managed to see this castle, perched on top of the city, when it is open. It houses the Ubaldo Formentini Civic Museum. A must-do on my next visit.

Other things to see.

Actually, the nicest sights of La Spezia are to be had just walking around this largely late nineteenth century city. There are superb examples of art nouveau buildings, a lively market (on Fridays), an elegant seaside esplanade and much else to look at and enjoy.

One of the places I liked most on our most recent to La Spezia was the not-even-mentioned Parish church of Our Lady of the Snows which is placed right in the centre of the city’s main shopping street, Via Garibaldi. I’d passed this zebra-striped church several times before but decided finally to have a look at its interior this time.

I was quite overwhelmed by the church’s beauty. Its architect, Ferrari d’Orsara, drew his inspiration from local Romanesque, Ravennan byzantine (especially San Vitale) and the plan of Rome’s Santa Prassede. Built to house a miraculous image of the Madonna, the church has three aisles which are covered by neo-byzantine paintings and finished with Verona red marble giving the whole ambience a beautiful sunset-like tinge.

The sanctuary is awesome and the dome’s mosaics are stupendous, transporting one back to Ravenna itself.

Amazingly this church was started in 1898 and finished just three years later. It’s remarkable that such a fine and complex piece of architecture could have taken so little time to complete whereas so much of Italy’s other architecture, whether religious or secular, has seemed to drag on for such a long time to be completed. Moreover, one doesn’t have to concentrate on mediaeval and renaissance ecclesiastical buildings all the time in Italy. There are wonders to be found that have been been built just a century ago. (For example, see my post onn the church of San Camillo, Milan at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/09/04/milans-san-camillo/ )

Although not on the list of major tourist sights to a Spezia I would rate the church of Nostra Signora della Neve as one of the most unusual monuments of fin-de-siècle church architecture. It’s a wonder – perhaps due to the miraculous image if the Madonna – that,whereas practically the whole of via Garibaldi was levelled by intensive bombing during World War II, the church remained undamaged. There may be some truth in divine intervention after all!

(The Madonna’s miraculous image)