Time for Fish and Chips

It’s that time of year again. Fish ‘n Chips at Barga’s sagra del pesce e delle patate! It’s the one sagra (or food festa) that I’m never going to miss and it’s been going since the 1980’s.

The sagra runs from July 27th to August 17th and opens up at 7.30 pm. I reached it early on the second day.

sagra-del-pesce-e-patate-bargaIn case you didn’t know the reason why that great English culinary contribution to world cuisine is also served in Barga it’s that many of the Barghigiani emigrated to Scotland (especially Glasgow) in the last century to set up cafes and fish and chip shops catering to local tastes.

Many Barghigiani struck it rich, hence the lovely art nouveau villas one can find in Barga Nuova. Upon their return they also brought Fish and Chips.

The fish is genuine North Sea cod shipped in as fresh as can be and battered and fried on the premises next to the sports ground in New Barga by experts, many of whom have been doing the same thing in Glasgow. So you can be sure of eating the genuine article. Same with the chips which even a have a slight degree of sogginess in them!

If you are one of those rare people who don’t like to dive into fish ‘n chips then there are alternatives like grilled meat, spare ribs and sausages. In addition, from 29th July onwards, there will be a new ‘gluten-free sagra.’

All you need to do is to find a table, note its number and then go to the cash desk, tick the things you want to eat on a sheet, pay up, return to your table and wait to receive the goods. Simple. (Don’t forget the bar next door.)

There’s also a dance floor, often with live bands at the sagra.

So forget those fish suppers eaten in newspapers on park benches while the rain pours down on you in some dismal corner of Neasden. Enjoy instead, in convivial company, with free flowing beer and wine, fish and chips in the glorious Italian sunshine of a late summer afternoon while in front of you are crowned the Apuan mountains and behind you awaits the city of Barga itself with its lovely music, delicious ice-cream, beautiful women and elegant palazzi.

What more could one want?

Seven Last Words in Barga

The Seven Last Words uttered by Jesus Christ on the Cross have long been the subject for meditation, theological discussion and liturgical ceremony. It was precisely for this last occasion that Joseph Haydn was asked by Don José Sáenz de Santa María from Cadiz to write a work to be performed during the Good Friday service at his Church of the Cave in 1783.

Haydn admitted that the commission was not going to be an easy task. In his words:

Some fifteen years ago I was requested by a canon of Cádiz to compose instrumental music on the Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross. It was customary at the Cathedral of Cádiz to produce an oratorio every year during Lent, the effect of the performance being not a little enhanced by the following circumstances. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the centre of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse. My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners; indeed, I found it quite impossible to confine myself to the appointed limits.

What Haydn produced has certainly never fatigued listeners since. Indeed, it became one of his most popular works and from the original instrumental version spawned an arrangement for string quartet in 1787 and even an oratorio version in 1795. Haydn also sanctioned a popular piano arrangement.

For the second evening of the Barga Festival I was privileged to hear the string quartet version played by members of Le Musiche, most appropriately in the church ‘del Santissimo Crocifisso’, a building with the most exquisitely carved woodwork by Santini which I described in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/wholly-santinis/

07292016 033

The performance was incisively dramatic – I never imagined that a succession of seven slow movements could be so intense and passionate. It was more so since we sat on the first bench directly facing the performers and were, thus, literally embraced by this music of powerful sadness.

07292016 032

Adding to the drama was the recitation between the movements (in Italian with no. 4 in Aramaic) of the Seven Last Words by the son of Barga Opera festival director, Nicholas Hunt.

Here is an excerpt from the performance:

What are Christ’s seven last words anyway? Actually they are phrases rather than words and are taken from the four Gospels. Seven is, of course, the perfect number: God rested on the seventh day and the Bible is saturated with reference to the number seven – for example, the opening of the seven seals in the Book of Revelation…

Here are the utterances, together with their traditional significance:

  1. Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. (Forgiveness).
  2. Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Salvation).
  3. John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother. (Relationship with family)
  4. Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Abandonment)
  5. John 19:28: I thirst. (Distress)
  6. John 19:30: It is finished (or accomplished).  (Triumph)
  7. Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. (Reunion)


I feel that these seven sayings could so often be applied to our lives for, after all we are said to be made in the image of God. How many times do we feel abandoned or distressed, for example? I’m quite sure that Haydn’s marvellous fusion of his intense devotion to God, (he usually began composing a new work with the words  “in nomine Domini” – “in the name of the Lord” – and finished it with “Laus Deo” – “praise be to God”) and his real devotion to raising the consciousness of his fellow men through music which gives both pleasure and reflection is the reason why these ‘Seven Last Words’ made such an impression on me and the rest of the audience. This included Maestro Frederico Sardelli whose talents, apart from divinely conducting many of Opera Barga’s productions, includes composition, flute-playing, author (his first novel based on Vivaldi’s lost manuscripts was published last year) graphic artists and last, but not least, cartoonist for that Italian equivalent of ‘Private Eye’ and ‘Monty Python’: ‘Il Vernacoliere.’


If you’re interested in the other arrangements of Haydn’s very affecting work here they are:

There’s a wonderfully atmospheric recording by Jordi Savall of the original orchestral version  recorded in the very chapel for which it was composed at:

For the oratorio version see:

I find this version particularly effective as the actual sayings are sung a Capella before the choir and soloists come in accompanied by the orchestra.

For the piano version approved by Haydn see:

It’s also worthy of note that, like other religious texts such as the ‘Stabat Mater’ and the Mass itself, many other composers have set the Seven Last Words to music: from Lassus in the 16th century to Pergolesi in the 18th to César Franck in the 19th to James Macmillan in the 20th century.

I just wonder what our own seven last words will be…….

Felicitious Beginning to Barga’s Fabulous Festival 2016

Festival Opera Barga this year may be like being at a banquet without the main course but yesterday evening the hors’ d’oevre, the contorno and, especially the dessert, were absolutely delicious at the inauguration of this doyen of the city’s events which this year celebrates its half-century.

img901 (2)

Opera Barga was founded in 1967 by Peter Hunt and Gillian Armitage with Peter Gellhorn as the musical director. For many of us it has been the prime magnet for staying and appreciating the area and, indeed, in 2005, my first night out in Barga was to attend Vivaldi’s Motezuma (in a pasticcio version –  see my posts at   https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/08/12/fishy-evenings-at-barga/ and https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/barga-opera-nights/ for more on that intrigue worthy of the most devious of operatic plots.)

Nicholas Hunt, the founder’s son, with Giancarlo Morganti, and Massimo Fino’s musical direction, have carried on the fine work of bringing little-known baroque opera (especially Vivaldi) to the stage so it was truly a disappointment when this year financial constraints prevented an opera from being staged.

No matter: the festival got off to a really good start in the courtyard of the ex-convent of Santa Elisabetta.

This was the programme.


Unlike the official announcement of a performance of two Mozart violin concerti, and unlike the actual programme itself, the items were in fact performed in this order.

First, the Mendelssohn string quintet no 1, composed when the composer was sixteen and at the height of his prodigal powers with his miraculous octet created just the previous year. Truly, Mendelssohn’s chamber music is among the best stuff he ever committed to manuscript paper.

Second, was the encore, the delicious first movement of Brahms’ sextet no 1.

The encore was eccentrically placed (‘nuova regolazione’ uttered Nick Hunt in jest), before the final piece, which was Mozart’s third violin concerto with three of the string group imitating the horn, flute and oboe parts with highly satisfactory results. Simone Bernardini showed himself to be fully sensitive to the varying moods of this attractive concerto which range from the jocose to the intensely cantabile to the French contredans embedded in its last rondo (although Bernardini’s playing of Mozart wasn’t completely able to subdue the complaints about the heat from one of the elderly inhabitants on the floor above the cloister – Sant’Elisabetta is both a conservatoire and a home ‘per gli anziani’).

‘Le Musiche’ is a group of young musicians, several meeting for the first time but who perform almost as if they had been together for some time. The empathy of communication between them was both sensed and seen and I felt that that start of the Barga (opera) festival could not have started more promisingly with such exquisite chamber music played by so talented group as ‘Le Musiche.’

After a well-needed rinfresco (it was humid and hot) in the garden of the Barga cathedral bell-ringers association we ascended into the cathedral where further musical delights awaited us.

If not a Vivaldi opera why not a Vivaldi religious work? What the red priest wrote for the church has all the vigour of his operatic works plus the added bonus of some really fine choruses.

The Magnificat was the original of three further versions Vivaldi wrote based on it.  The fine ensemble consisting of the Coro Ricercare and the Orchestra Academia degli Invaghiti (= infatuated, with music of course, although, no doubt, there may have been infatuations of a more personal nature between some of the performers…) did us proud while Barga’s photographer and reporter, who brings the world to this most exquisite place, took up a position on the elaborate pulpit.


The centrepiece of this magnificent ‘Magnificat’ is undoubtedly the “et misericordia ejus” but all the movements have something special to offer, particuaròy the ‘Deposuit potentes’ where the cellos and the double bass were growling menacingly as if to express sentiments that are even more relevant today when the cultivated middle class is suffering ever more under crass potentates.

I remember playing violin in Vivaldi’s Gloria RV 589 in my school orchestra for a Christmas concert. Until that time Vivaldi meant little more than the Four Seasons and I loved the new insight this work (only rediscovered in 1939 by Casella) gave to the composer’s output.

The opening chorus accompaniment was played at a cracking pace. Too fast, I thought at first, but when the chorus came in I knew that Sardelli (yes he’d come back to Barga, the scene of many of his Vivaldi opera triumphs) had got it just right.  His vigorous conducting continued through the following movements: from the elegiac ‘Et in terra pax’ (how much we need that now!) to the sprightly ‘Laudamus te, all the way to the final ‘Cum Sancti Spirito’ conventionally cast as a giant fugue, largely readapted from his predecessor’s Giovanni Maria Ruggeri’s own ‘Gloria’.  Homage rather than plagiarism, I feel in this case.

What a great start to the Barga festival! We almost forgot about the non-opera since so much of the music was indeed operatically dramatic and so gloriously sung. Of soloists I particularly enjoyed contralto Anna Bessi’s singing, although all soloists (drawn from the choir) sang their parts wonderfully, defeating the often cavernous acoustics of Barga’s Romanesque cathedral.

There’s lots more great music to follow at the festival.

Here’s the programme:

How about meeting up tonight, for example, for Haydn’s poignant setting of the Seven Last Words of Christ composed for Cadiz’ Holy Cave Oratory with Barga Festival director Nicholas Hunt reciting those last words.

Whatever may be there will be no last words to describe Barga’s superb festival. I’m quite sure that Opera will return with a vengeance to it next year!

Inner Landscapes at Barga

If you were lucky enough to see David Manetti’s exhibition in the refectory of the old Clarissan convent of Santa Elisabetta, now the conservatory of music, near Barga’s Duomo then you would have entered into the mind of an artist who firmly follows a post-impressionist idiom with a wonderful clarity of vision, an appreciative respect for the techniques of past landscape artists and a real sense of the variety of environments which comprise our part of the world – the Lucchesia and the Serchio valley

If you weren’t so lucky then you’ll just have to feast on this selection of photographs of Manetti’s picture I took during my recent visit to Barga.

David Manetti was born in Lucca in 1968 and graduated from its Liceo artistico in 1986. In 1990 Manetti graduated from Florence’s Accademia delle belle Arti.

David started his career as a graphics designer and professional illustrator. He then entered into the field of painting developing there principally as a landscape artist.  His pictures are particularly evocative, conjuring up an interior scenery of the mind. They are essentially a visual counterpart of that famous wordsworthian phrase about poetry being ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity.’

I particularly like those pictures in which the painter concentrates on water and clouds. Clearly he has studied the great northern European tradition of landscape painting, in particular, Turner and the Flemish school. It’s significant that, in the absence of that inordinate demand for religious paintings in Catholic Europe, landscapes in protestant countries achieve an interior spirituality quite different from that of the Italian ‘vedutisti’.

Again, the wordsworthian ‘let nature be thy guide’ leads one to consider a meditation on nature as a truly religious experience, even when dealing with animals like cats.

06252016 067

I shall follow David Manetti’s further excursions into the Lucchesia countryside with much interest. Through his paintings he has already enabled me to see some familiar places in a very different light – the Torre dei Guinigi, for example, with those trees growing from its top as if transposed from the forests of the mountains surrounding the city

or those secretive, neglected canals which once were major arteries of communication for the Lucchesia,

06252016 072

or that Viareggian sea with a phantom of a three-master in the background: could that indistinct vessel be the ‘Don Juan’ caught up in the storm which drowned Shelley?

06252016 065

These and other mysteries permeate Manetti’s sceneries. And even the linchetti and other phantasmagorical elfin creatures of the Garfagnana have a look-in:

Incidentally, the Nuns’ refectory itself is worth a look at for its simple but noble architecture and its collection of old paintings – to say nothing of the Della Robbia’s in the church itself.

A Choral Feast At Barga

The choral concert at Barga’s Duomo di San Cristoforo last Friday at 9.00 pm was organised by the Istituto Superiore d’Istruzione di Barga to raise funds for Amnesty International and was, thankfully, very well attended.

Four local choirs participated – each one very different in style and repertoire.

This was the programme.

Roberta Popolani directed the choir of Barga cathedral in six pieces of both a liturgical and folkloric character. The highlight of their performance was, in my opinion the contribution of the teenage clarinet player, Giorgio dell’Immagine who, true to his surname, produced an imaginative arrangement of Madre io vorrei which included, apart from his limpid playing, three flutes (one of which was a bass flute) and the charmingly effective contribution of two girls who might have just come out of their nursery class. (But then bedtime for Italian children are rather more flexible than those in anglo-saxon parts).

06252016 035A personal friend, Andrea Salvoni, still in his twenties and already a formidable choirmaster (he conducts our own choir at Ghivizzano,) has achieved a miracle of choral ensemble with the pupils of the Barga’s ISI (Institute of higher education) where he teaches.

The ISI choir rendering of John Rutter’s ‘The Lord bless you and keep you’ (blessing of Saint Francis) had the words enunciated very clearly (there must be a good English language coach at ISI) and the blending of the voices was perfect.

The same qualities permeated the other items but the choir’s biggest hit was the Gloria from the Misa Criolla which truly exploded with all its slightly melancholic brilliance into the farthest recesses of the somewhat cavernous Barga Cathedral acoustics. Nicola Soldani on percussion, Gioele Tomei on guitar with Niccolò Giambastiani and Andrea Salvoni on keyboards fully integrated themselves into the choral sound. For me the star was an extraordinary ISI student soloist, Caterina Pieretti whose voice was filled with both emotional strength and an extraordinary sound range.

Here is an excerpt from the Misa:

Argentinian Ariel Ramirez’ Misa was probably the first alternative mass to hit the Roman Catholic  liturgical scene after the Vatican council II reforms and its first performance in 1964 must have had an amazing impact which it has never lost to this day. Based on native folk rhythms and melodies, such as the chacarera and the carnavalito, the Misa established Ramirez’ reputation although it must be remembered that he wrote over three hundred other highly regarded compositions. It’s a pity that Ramirez died only in 2010 for he would surely have relished this Italian take on his fabulous Misa.


(Ariel Ramirez)

We entered into the realms of high renaissance polyphony with Gallicano’s own maestro-priest Don Fiorenzo Toti, an acknowledged authority on that great period of choral music which produced such geniuses as Victoria, Lassus and Palestrina.

I love Don Toti’s conducting style which is precise but authoritatively relaxed.His choir, culled from the mountains around Gallicano, must surely have some of the finest polyphonic singers in the Lucchesia and the final Bach chorale was simply gloriously sung

.06252016 040

The Joyful Angels Lucca Gospel choir needs no introduction to anyone who lives in our area. Its repertoire can be both thrilling and moving, truly infecting the audience with their appellation. Andrea was for a time an excellent pianist with the choir but pressures of work (and the foundation of his own ISI choir) forced him to give way to another accompanist, Ivan Magnelli who is clearly filled with a very natural jazz-blues soul and who accompanied magnificently with almost breathtaking virtuosity. He must have some of the fastest fingers in the whole Serchio Valley.

06252016 042

After the highly pleasurable choral concert we were invited to the nearby conservatoire – formerly nunnery of Saint Elisabetta – where under the warm night of stars and the sound of cicadas we were treated to a rinfresco with the most wonderful variety of cakes I have tasted for a long time. It was truly a culinary midnight feast to cap the musical one we had been treated to.

A million thanks are due to the organizers and especially to Don Stefano Serafini the Duomo’s Don (and an ex-English language student of mine) for providing the environment for this superb night. I’m sure a goodly amount of funds were collected for Amnesty International, too.

06252016 028

(Don Stefano Serafini, Barga’s Deputy Mayor Caterina Campani and Maestro Andrea Salvoni)

Radix Malorum

Normally, I would use this blog to publicise forthcoming events. Unfortunately, this time I have to do the opposite. There are at least two events, formerly in the established calendar, which have little chance of happening this year.

One is Barga Opera and this is a particularly sad situation since the pioneering festival, which has seen so many forgotten masterpieces re-staged, should have been celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. For some of us who have decided to spend much our lives in these parts Barga Opera was a principal reason for coming here in the first place. Even in my workplace in South East London and even before I ever attended Barga opera I would meet people who would enthuse about the festival. Those who were fortunate enough to attend can hardly forget the magnificent productions over the years, particularly the Vivaldi operas conducted by Sardelli in that jewels of an eighteenth century theatre, the Teatro dei Differenti. At least, however, concerts are promised. (See





for some of my reviews).

Another event which is not happening is the Bagni di Lucca Arts festival. Although a much more recently established event (the first festival occurred in 2013) it had already established itself as a focal centre in the Lucchesia arts scene and one in which my wife and I were proud to have made a contribution last year in the literary section.

It doesn’t require much analysis to understand why these festivals aren’t happening this year. Money, radix malorum, or the lack of it is the cause. After eight years of pitifully slow recovery from the last major Italian (and world) economic crash there simply isn’t the financial encouragement to continue with artistic ventures, which remain to a large extent subsidised. The money can be found elsewhere. The leading lights of the Bagni arts Festival are pursuing their projects in countries which have a securer economic basis – places like Germany, China and Finland. It’s unfortunate but true. The problem is that if there is a discontinuity to the festivals it’ll be all the harder to recommence when the situation improves and, furthermore, tell the public out there that the event is returning. It’s easy to see that the public will probably have made other arrangements and gone to different places.

On the positive side there will still be large scale events that will continue this year. Among them are the Serchio delle Muse – a feast of music in unfamiliar locations throughout the Serchio valley – and the Lucca Summer festival. Let us ensure that at least these occasions will continue well into the future and that the absence of Barga Opera, at least, is just a blip; for it would be truly tragic to lose it…

Your poster preview

A Major Arcana at Barga

A fascinating exhibition of paintings by ever-innovative artist, photographer and Barga News supremo Keane, celebrating his thirty-first year as an essential component of the Barga social landscape, opened last Saturday. Based on the Marseilles Tarot the paintings grace the new bistro at the Locanda restaurant in Barga Vecchia.

The opening was enhanced by a rinfresco and a jazz trio

Tarot cards may mean for most of us some form of divination, like the I-Ching or the ancient Roman manner of examining sacrificial entrails. In Italy, however, tarocchi (tarot cards) have meant a card game popular since early renaissance times. It was only at the end of the eighteenth century that tarot cards became associated with foresight.

Specifically, the Tarot is a deck of playing cards, usually consisting of seventy eight cards used for trick-like games (bridge and whist are included in this type of card game) dating back to the mid-fifteenth century and perhaps originating in Ferrara, Bologna or Milan. This type of pack spread to various parts of Europe reaching the height of popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The standard fifty-two card pack then overtook them in general use, although today Tarot-pack based games have returned with some popularity.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Tarot -pack became associated with the Kabbalah and other mystical traditions. The development of these theories was initiated by the French freemason Antoine Court de Gébelin. In the mid-nineteenth century the occultist Eliphas Levi developed the cards’ mystical aspect. By the early twentieth century the esoteric significance of tarot were pursued by the French occultist Papus (pseudonym of Gérard Encausse) and Oswald Wirth in a series of important publications. Later the French Tarot School began to be ousted by the English School born within the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

A typical tarot deck consists of a pack of cards plus an additional twenty-one, which in Italian are called ‘trionfi’ (triumphs), and a single card known as the Fool, making a total of seventy-eight cards. The traditional card deck is divided into four suits (Italian or French) of fourteen cards each from Ace to Ten plus four figure cards also known as “honour” or “court” cards. These are the King, Queen, Knight and Knave. The trumps are usually illustrated with human figures and mythological animals and numbered from 1 to 21, usually in Roman numerals. The Triumphs and the Fool are known as the Major Arcana and the other cards are called the Minor Arcana.

There are many differently designed tarot card packs. Some years ago Sandra and I started to collect them but we never got to the end! Here is some of our collection:

06052016a 001

Originally, tarot cards were hand-painted and there is an exquisite set from the Estensi court of which we have reproductions and also one from Milan’s Visconti court.

With the invention of printing, however, the cards were able to be mass-produced and their popularity spread well beyond the aristocratic courts to taverns and inns.

The most usual Tarot card design is the one from Marseilles. Here the triumphs are as follows:

. Le Bateleur (The Mountebank, The Juggler, The Magician)

II. La Papesse (The Papess, or The Female Pope)
III. L’Impératrice (The Empress)
IV. L’Empereur (The Emperor)
V. Le Pape (The Pope, or The Hierophant)
VI. L’Amoureux (The Lovers)
VII. Le Chariot (The Chariot)
VIII. La Justice (Justice)
IX. L’Hermite (The Hermit)
X. La Roue de Fortune (The Wheel of Fortune)
XI. La Force (Strength, or Fortitude)

XII. Le Pendu (The Hanged Man)
XIII. [usually left unnamed, but “called” L’Arcane sans nom, La Mort, or Death]
XIV. Tempérance (Temperance)
XV. Le Diable (The Devil)
XVI. La Maison Dieu (The House of God, or The Tower)
XVII. L’Étoile (The Star)
XVIII. La Lune (The Moon)
XIX. Le Soleil (The Sun)
XX. Le Jugement (Judgement)
XXI. Le Monde (The World)
no number. Le Mat (The Fool)

Two forces have combined in the creation of the Barga Locanda exhibition. The male force is represented by Keane who has taken the Marseilles pack, as restored by Camoin and Jodorowsky. The female power is that of Paola Marchi, already well-known for her ‘brut’ paintings.

Paola has brilliantly interpreted the pack at http://www.barganews.com/2016/01/25/paola-marchi-reads-the-keane-tarot-paintings/ and her interpretations add resonance to Keane’s paintings and truly embellish Barga’s tarot bistro. Keane has not slavishly copied the Marseilles tarot in large format but has cropped some of the cards to produce startling effects.

The narrow corridor leading to the intimacy of the bistro is already influenced by aspects of the Major Arcana and the bistro itself is permeated by the subtle power of the Tarot.

One wonders whether the divinatory power of these cards will guide further dual forces to find themselves and whether the right choices will be made by them. Only time and this marvellous recreation of the Tarot by Keane and Marchi will tell…


PS The trick card origin of the Tarot is evidenced in the Italian word ‘taroccato’ which derives from ’tarocco’. Beware of taroccati goods sold to you because they are false! Similarly, life is full of tricky situations which a reading of the Tarot cards by a qualified diviner can help avoid.

Just a Perfect Day

We’d been invited for lunch with friends at a secret location believed to be a couple of valleys along from Shangri-La. (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/a-universal-sense/ if you need to know more…)

The first part of our journey involved climbing to ever higher levels. Even our tallest mountain la Pania Della Croce seemed to be at eye-level.

Amazingly there was no snow on the road – just a few icy patches.

At one stage we abandoned our car and started walking through a bosky valley to reach the arcane hamlet.

Here we met with convivial company and indulged in what must have been one of our most spectacular meals both in terms of contents and in terms of location.

How lovely it is to enjoy genuine human company in a super-natural setting with food all graced by care and love!

Our return was through ever darkening mountains with the nostalgic glow of the setting sun upon them.

12302015 045

Our day continued into the evening with an absolutely gorgeous concert given by two great local choirs, the superb Stereotipi vocal group (who sang the Rutter pieces most idiomatically) and a gloriously sonorous philharmonic brass-woodwind band.

12302015 063

This was the programme:

With Elysian results all these components combined together in the last piece which was a Mass by Dutch-born Jacob de Haan.  The effect in the beautiful monastery church of San Francesco at Borgo a Mozzano was totally riveting.

As normally a ‘rinfresco’ ranging from prosecco to spumante to pandoro to valdostana was offered in the monastery hall.

In the monastery courtyard the crib reminded us of the principal reason of our festivities:

Who wrote about ‘just a perfect day’? Certainly, this was one of them!

Wholly Santinis

Barga’s Chiesa Del Santissimo Crocifisso (church of the most Holy Crucifix) is the second oldest church in the town after the Duomo. It was originally a chapel of prayer founded in the 13th century. In the 16th century the church became the headquarters of the Society of the Crucifix who enlarged it considerably and added some quite sumptuous ornamentation.

Today the building consists of a nave and two aisles with barrel vaults. The exterior has a sober and dignified appearance:

The interior, however, is quite another matter in its exuberant decoration.


The prize piece here is the altarpiece dating from 1646 and which has only recently been shown (after the discovery of his signature) to be the work of Francesco Santini di Cerreto.


There’s also a wooden crucifix dating from the 15th century and several paintings of the Tuscan school dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.

There are few churches in our part of the world with woodwork of such a high standard. It’s truly worth talking a look at this building which stands in the shadow of the Duomo but which in my opinion is of considerable worth.

Who was Francesco Santini?

Santini was born in Cerreto which is just above Borgo a Mozzano and there is news of him from 1640 to 1660. He came from a family of highly regarded carvers in the area. Santini’s first work is a wooden altar, dating from 1642, in the monastery church of San Francesco in Borgo a Mozzano. It’s the first altar you see on the right entering the church and was commissioned by the Society of the Immaculate Conception. I have always been taken by this altar. Its superb carving of the serpentine columns, unadorned by any overlying paint, reminds me somewhat of England’s own marvellous Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721).


In 1661 came the altar of Borgo a Mozzano’s main church, San Jacopo. Here the play of scrolls and assured architectural features shows the sculptor at his most mature.


Francesco Santini is a good example of an exceptional artist born into a thriving craft tradition. Much in the same way as other creators spring from a family tradition, (a great example is the number of musicians in the Bach family), he was just one of many other Santinis who carried on what they considered a craft but what many of us today would consider an art. A later Santini, for example, Alessandro created the altar of another of Barga’s churches, San Rocco.

At least we are able to give names to the Santinis. I wonder how many other great artistic works lie in our territory with their creator’s name remaining unknown!

There’s a very useful web site at http://sacrumluce.sns.it/mv/html/sacrumluce.html which you can investigate for more religious treasures in our area. My own photographs date from November 2006.


A Universal Sense

Spiritual therapy centres abound in in our part of the world. For example, at Bagni di Lucca Ponte, a holistic alternative medicine centre, the global village, under the aegis of Dr. Montecucco had been offering a variety of courses ranging from Yoga to Reiki for over ten years. There are religious retreats too, as at Sillico and Borgo a Mozzano. If one is trying to recover from an increasingly complex world, with its stresses and strains, the whole upper Serchio valley is an ideal place to attempt to make sense of one’s existence and move forward in one’s journey in life.

I’ve never explored this sort of thing very much, except peripherally. My guide in life has tended to be nature herself. As Wordsworth wrote, ‘Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher’.

The road to Renaio is certainly a total immersion in nature. Leaving the attractive borgo of Barga the route climbs up a spur of the Apennines and enters the most wonderful chestnut forests with some trees over five hundred years old and with circumferences in excess of sixteen feet. (One tree even has a room with windows inside its trunk. Not surprisingly it’s used as a bird hide).

In the midst of this natural wonderland there’s a very special retreat which I was invited to visit yesterday. Called Sensone, the name is actually a misspelling of ‘Sansone’ which is Italian for Sampson. In fact, Sensone isn’t a bad misspelling for it can refer to the great sense (Sensone= great sense in Italian) which encompasses our other five senses in a greater intuitive awareness of what’s around us, increasing our consciousness of the inter-related oneness of the universe.

In English, Sensone could also be an abbreviated spelling of ‘one sense’, again referring to an all-inclusive and transcendent intuitive force through which natural powers are recognized.

Renaio is a sweet little hamlet situated at a height of 3300 feet. It has a charming chapel with neo-gothic details in which a religious festival and procession was held just last week-end (which I unfortunately missed as I was at another religious festa at Gombereto).

From near the chapel a woodland goat-path descends into a verdant valley in the heart of which is Sensone’s spiritual retreat. No other place could have been chosen so appropriately: it is simply exquisite. The view from the cottage opens out onto waves of ever-distancing hills culminating in the Pisan Mountain and, beyond, to Volterra.

09232015 039 (2)

On the terrace overlooking this seventh heaven we had lunch starting with a delicious combination of spaghetti and salmon, followed by chicken salad and ending with affogato – ice-cream melted into coffee.

As Italians say ‘what’s the point of eating alone?’ and our repast was accompanied by wide-ranging conversation among our six guests which included a couple from Brisbane, now travelling in Europe, and a brilliant cook and backwoodsman from Ticino, the Italian Switzerland.

Sensone’s land comprises over one hundred acres providing an excellent cordon sanitaire sheltering one from the intrusion of unwanted development and assuring perfect peace.

The animals sharing the property include this sweet pony which provides children’s treats in the form of rides when it ambles down toward Barga.

There are some very friendly cats and dogs too.

Clearly, an idyll must be bought at some price and if you read the Sensone diaries in Barganews at http://www.barganews.com/?s=SENSONE+DIARIES&x=0&y=0 you’ll get the sense of both the creative and destructive forces of nature at their mightiest.

A variety of very interesting courses are run at Renaio and it’s possible to contact the owner of the centre to find out more details. If you care at all about the world, the energy potential within you, the ability to both reach out and reach within, the desire to be genuinely fulfilled, the wish to discover what’s truly unique about yourself and the realization of a true joy then surely this magical place should be on your agenda!