Christmas Count-Down in Mediavalle

As another prime minister, this time leader of Europe’s third largest economy, has shot himself in the foot over yet another referendum I wonder whether the traditional method of Parliamentary voting through one’s representatives is going out of fashion if one wants to change the government…..

Something that is not going out of fashion or be decided by a referendum, however, is Christmas despite the past efforts of certain English councils, to appease practising atheists and those of other faiths, to have it renamed ‘winterval’. I remember the occasion  when my own former place of work decided not to have a Christmas tree in its foyer. The first person to complain about this new ‘regulation’ was our receptionist who came from India. She was quite livid about it and the Christmas tree was put back in its proper place.

Christmas is not just for Christians. It has become a world-wide celebration of hope in the coming year, a gathering together of families and communities, a celebration of faith in the Earth. The only humbug thing about Christmas are those nice zebra-striped boiled sweets.


Christmas in Italy, especially in the mountain villages, is something not to be missed. The ‘presepe vivente’ or ‘living crib’, where the village streets provide a perfect scenario for presenting old traditions and crafts and the birth of the baby Jesus himself, is particularly special. We have been privileged to have been role-players in one particularly spectacular one at Equi Terme. There are many more, however, closer to home.

Every year in the comune of Bagni di Lucca there’s a circulating one which each year chooses a village out of Granaiola, Monti di Villa and Pieve di Monti di Villa. This year it was Pieve di Monti di Villa’s turn but on the same day I could have gone to at least five others within an hour’s drive from our house. Moreover, there was a great Christmas market at Borgo a Mozzano with a re-enactment of Saint Nicholas (the original Santa Claus) throwing the devil off the Ponte Della Maddalena. To top it all there was a magnificent guitar recital by a great virtuoso at the convent of Saint Francis. Doubtless there was more happening but how on earth could I fit it all these activities?

I started with the Christmas market at Borgo. This was the beginning of the afternoon so the crowds hadn’t arrived yet. There were stalls to please all tastes for Christmas gifts.

My next stop was the Presepe Vivente at Pieve di Monti di Villa. I found this beautifully organized and very well-attended. It was good to meet many friends too. I couldn’t stay on for the actual nativity scene for I’d promised to be at a concert.

See how many old village crafts you can count. Needless to say some of them are still being carried out to this very day. Have you prepared your garden for spring planting? How well stocked is the winter feed for your goat? And who hasn’t got a friend who can cheer you up with some folk music. (There were no less than four bands that afternoon). And as for the food on offer… tasty and home-grown, especially the cheese!

Our living crib villages have got it absolutely right. The crib should be just for one day and it should start from mid-day and finish in time for dinner before it gets too dark and cold. Full marks and more for the presepe vivente di Pieve di Monti di Villa. It was absolutely brilliant.

It was then back to Borgo a Mozzano for the market and the concert. The high street was now very well attended. I had to miss the Saint Nicholas procession, however. (He chases the devil and throws him from the stupendous mediaeval ponte Del diavolo). A concert of John Dowland and J S Bach played by Nuccio D’Angelo, one of the world’s great guitar virtuosi (he’s even played in Darwin Australia and all over the USA, of course) could not be overlooked!

This was the programme:


Within the beautiful setting of the convent of San Francesco the church grew colder and colder but Nuccio’s expressive playing more than warmed up the capacity audience. I particularly enjoyed his use of baroque ornamentation.

His transcription of Bach’s Lute suites for guitar (which involved quite a bit of re-tuning) was close to miraculous.

An encore was requested but although Nuccio jokingly said ‘you’ll have to wait for it next June when it’s warmer in this church’ he provided us with another Bach meltingly beautiful sarabande.

There are still twenty days to Christmas. Will I have the energy to make it to that day when there is so much happening just in our little valley? And I haven’t even mentioned the light shows and street parties and the best fun and games to warm up a month which is getting even ccccccccolder!

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

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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.

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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…….

A Royal Villa

The Villa Reale in the comune of Marlia is one of the grandest of aristocratic villas built by the Luccan nobility for their use both as a summer residence and also as a place to grow crops, especially vines.

Its origins go back a long way. In the longobard era there was a fort here built by the duke of Tuscia. It then passed to the Buonvisi family (the same that owned the Villa Webb in the old part of Bagni di Lucca) who held the property until 1651 when they got into financial difficulties

The Olivieri and Orsetti family then came into possession of the villa and refashioned it, adding a splendid baroque garden, parts of which still remain to this day. They also built the Palazzina dell’Orologio to house the villa’s servicing department.

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Big changes occurred when Napoleon’s sister, Elisa bought the villa from the Orsetti who were, in fact, rather unwilling to sell the place. Elisa paid the princely sum of 700,000 French francs which today (roughly) would equate to around 7 million pounds.

It was Elisa who gave the name “Reale” (royal) to the villa. She enlarged the villa at a cost of another few million euros, ordering the architects Lazzarini and Bienaimè to transform it into the neo-classical building one sees today, and completely re-drew the grounds into an English garden layout with large lawns à la Capability Brown. In the course of this re-structuring many features of the previous baroque garden were swept away to be replaced by trees and bushes transplanted from the royal palace of Caserta (Naples) where one of the first English landscape gardens was laid out.


It’s a pity one can’t visit the interiors as they contain fine plasterwork, frescoes and decorations by among other artists, Tofanelli (1750 – 1812),  a lucchese who also painted fine religious pictures for the cathedral and San Frediano in Lucca. These photographs are taken from public sources:

It must have been fantastic to be present at the grand soirées held by Elisa in the villa’s new ballroom. Among artistes invited was the great violin virtuoso Paganini who became the princess’s music teacher and, perhaps, a little more. Elisa had quite a few lovers including the chief of her armed forces, Bartolomeo Cenami.

When Napoleon was (regrettably, in my opinion) defeated at Waterloo, just two hundred years ago, British forces under the command of Lord Bentick chased poor Elisa out of her former domain  although she was pregnant for the ninth time. Sadly forgotten and in somewhat straightened circumstances Elisa died in Trieste in 1820, one year before her brother, aged just 42.

(It’s significant that, for a short time, Lucca was part of the British Empire since it was occupied by Bentinck’s troops).

The villa passed to the Bourbons and Maria Luisa. The great architect Nottolini (he of the chain bridge at Fornoli near Bagni di Lucca) added a Viennese-style coffee house and an astronomical observatory.

In 1928 the villa was bought by the Pecci-Blunt family in whose hands it remained until 2015.

Who owns it now? When the Villa Reale was put up for sale there was speculation of the usual sort. Would the Russian magnate buy it or the Arab sheik? Neither, in fact. It was sold to a swiss couple who intend to convert it into one of Italy’s first super-luxury hotels.

No doubt we’ll now see the likes of the Beckhams and Clooneys parading through the villa’s grounds. But will we be able to visit it?

I’m quite sure we will continue to admire the Villa’s magnificent gardens, some of the best in the Lucca and indeed, Tuscan area. The villa itself was never on the visiting list although, no doubt, it may be open for wedding receptions and the like.

The gardens are full of scenic features including fishponds, a Verzura (green hedge) theatre, grottoes, statues and are a joy to visit at most seasons. Rather than describe their features I’ll just show a few photographs from the time we first visited their magic ambience in September 2005.

Can it really be that long ago that we first visited the Villa Reale?

PS If you are super-rich and looking for luxury villas in Italy do consult the site at

You might even be able to find out how much the villa Reale was sold for!

A Different Way to Enjoy Pisa

Pisa’s greatest attraction is also its greatest misfortune. The leaning tower attracts busloads of tourists, many from Mediterranean cruises landing at Livorno (who instead of seeing that city as a highly interesting example of a Medicean port dating back to the sixteenth century, avoid it) who are whisked to the piazza dei Miracoli to take the statutory shot of the illusion of holding up the tower and then (if lucky) move on to Florence or else equally quickly to be whisked back to their cruise liner.

The fact is that, although the famous piazza is without doubt one of the world’s great sights, there are many smaller miracoli to be seen in Pisa, not least of which is the lively street scene and the greater openness of its people when compared with the more enclosed Luccan character.

Yesterday we had occasion to go to Pisa to meet relatives at the airport and decided to make a day of it. First stop was the Royal Palace, a national museum which again is exceedingly neglected in favour of the better known Museo san Matteo.

Dating back to 1583 when Tuscan grand duke Francis I decided to build a lovely new palace overlooking the Arno it was designed by Buontalenti who also had a big hand in designing the Pitti palace gardens in Florence.

For the two hours we were there admiring its rooms, fine arms collection, paintings (including a Bronzino, a Breughel and even a Raphael), fabulous tapestries from the Geubels factory in Brussels, furniture, exquisite dresses dating back to renaissance times, intimate miniatures and sculpture we actually had the place to ourselves and were left quite alone to enjoy its wonders.

I was particularly impressed by a collection of Japanese ceramics which I am sure fellow blogger at will have something to say about.

There were also some fine modern paintings:

We had a great meal at a restaurant recommended to us by a young member of the museum staff: Stelio’s in nearby piazza Dante where we ate beautifully and simply cooked food complete with wine, cover and the addition of a local troubadour for around ten euros a head.

Stelio’s has been here for fifty years and is a veritable Pisan institution. Stelio himself is now eighty and his two sons show every wish to carry on with the business. The restaurant was filled with every conceivable type of client. Apart from us brits, there were students, workers, retired, office workers, and university profs (the university is what gives Pisa its zesty life). Eating there seemed like something out of Bohemian life as it genuinely was.

After the meal the sun came out and our intention to visit the museum of calculating machines didn’t quite work out as we were waylaid by the lovely botanical gardens which, happily, were not badly damaged by the recent great storm.

Pisa’s botanical gardens were created by Cosimo I de’ Medici and developed by the great botanist, Luca Ghini. Founded in 1543 they are the oldest botanical gardens in the world and the first to be connected to a university.

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The magical gardens revealed some wonderful plants including a 200-year old magnolia, that living fossil of a tree the Gingko Biloba

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and much else, including a huge yew tree (or tree of death as they call it here in Italy where it is very rare) an astonishing Australian araucaria, native of Queensland with a huge trunk and very prickly leaves,

a lovely pond and much, much else.

The view of Pisa’s leaning tower from “i giardini botannici” was transcendental, growing out of the gardens like the most exotic plant and, again, we had the whole place to ourselves!

Then it was time to head to the airport to collect our guests. We were so glad we made a day of it in Pisa instead doing the usual shuttle service tour to the airport from home and back. We would have otherwise missed so much of this truly life-enhancing city.


From Acton to Sitwell in Tuscany

The second day of the Michel de Montaigne foundation’s conference on Ian Greenlees kicked off with Tony Bareham’s talk on Harold Acton entitled “No farther than the Buddha’s Hand”. This title was based on an old Buddhist parable where someone, who believes he has travelled the world and come to its end in the form of five columns, discovers that, in fact, these columns are only the fingers of Buddha’s hand, and also alludes to the fact that Acton spent the 1930’s in his beloved China. Bareham relished the sensuous almost poetical prose of Acton as best exemplified in the aesthete’s “The last of the Medici” of 1930. For Bareham, Acton, another member of Greenlees’ coterie of friends, turned out to be a great and highly delectable discovery.

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Cristiano Giometti’s “Ian Greenlees e la sua raccolta di quadri” relied largely on Greenlees’ picture inventory of 1982 to reconstruct his once extensive collection. Two points emerged. First, that the majority of pictures were purchased in the 1930’s at knock down prices because Greenlees loved the baroque which at that time was not particularly popular among collectors. Second, that his Anacapri villa housed modern art, including Morandi and Guttuso, and casa Mansi at Bagni di Lucca housed the older schools of painting. The collection was largely sold off at Greenlees’ death by his heir Robin Chanter and the prices then fetched in the auction houses reflected the changed taste in favour of the Italian sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The interesting point is that several of these paintings have now been attributed to different hands. For example a Bernini is now reckoned to be by Vouet. This in no way affects Greenlees’ original purchasing intention which was to surround himself with pictures he liked rather than pictures by particular painters.

Mark Roberts then delivered an interesting lecture on the relationships between Ian Greenlees and Norman Douglas. Despite the fact that Greenlees led an ever more sedentary life, particularly at Bagni where he eschewed physical exercise, Roberts’ description showed just how much Greenlees walked with Douglas and how close he was to him, particularly in the bohemian travel writer’s last years. There was a poignant description of the two returning to see a Calabrian Festa which Douglas had seen many years previously as a young person and Douglas, despite the almost forty year age gap, opened up Ian’s mind to many new cultural sensations.

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The amazing variety of friendships Greenlees cultivated was exemplified in Elisabetta D’Erme’s talk on “L’Amico Osbert. I Sitwell e Ian Greenlees”. Ian was fascinated by the Sitwells while still at Oxford University and founded a Sitwell society there. He established a long lasting relationship with this eccentric and highly gifted family who pioneered modernism in the traditional art milieu of the UK. This connection lasted well into the days when Ian was director of Florence’s British Institute when, in 1959, he invited Edith to recite her poems to a fascinated public who were entranced by her in spite of the fact that she was now feeble and an alcoholic. I pondered over the fact that Sir William Walton had composed the music to Edith Sitwell’s group of poems called “Façade” and that, having a house in Ischia, could have easily dropped over to Capri where Ian had a winter villa.

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Mario Curreli concluded the day’s session with a discussion of the correspondence between Mario Praz and Greenlees. This was particularly gripping as all the letters now appeared for the first time. Both philosophical and practical questions were mentioned and a part of the correspondence referred to Praz’ move from his apartment in Rome’s Via Giulia to the Palazzo Primoli where the Praz museum is now situated on the third floor (the ground floor  is occupied by the Napoleonic museum)..

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There was not a moment where I felt mental indigestion; the speakers were all of the most prepared quality and entertaining into the bargain.

In the afternoon we visited the local Corsena cemetery and flowers were placed before Ian’s tomb. Then it was off to Vico Pancellorum where a brilliant organ recital was given by Enrico Barsanti. I am sure Ian enjoyed the choice of repertoire ranging from Bach to Luccan composers from his Elysian heights.

Swanning it in Collodi

When I first visited the Garzoni gardens at Collodi in 2001 they were a somewhat underwhelming sight. Unkempt flower beds, dishevelled lawns and unsafe paths did little to convince me that this was one of the world’s great gardens to be compared favourably with those of Hampton Court, Versailles and Schonbrunn.

Happily all has changed today in the magnificent gardens, dating back to the seventeenth century, thanks to new ownership and continuous restoration (and maintenance). We were enthralled by their baroque wonders so wonderfully sited on the steep slopes of the Pizzorne and cascading down in spectacular terraces with secret arbours, a maze, bamboo grove and mythological creatures.

There are plenty of birds in the gardens including this graceful Australian black swan.

On the right hand side of the gardens is the butterfly house and the standard ticket gives one access to both this and the gardens (there is also a comprehensive ticket which allows access to the Pinocchio garden nearby.)

I found the butterfly house delightful although I am certainly not a lepidopterist and find the idea of pinning down specimens of this wonderful insect distasteful.

The palace itself remains closed although much restoration has been done on it. Judging from photographs of its state rooms it looks very impressive. I hope on our next visit that it will finally be open to the public.

We couldn’t leave Collodi without seeing the old village itself. It must have one of the steepest high streets in Tuscany!

The parish church at the top is charming and the oratory nearby had a photographic exhibition.

It’s good to know that there is a lot more to Collodi than the long-nosed puppet that has become famous throughout the world although without Collodi Pinocchio probably  would never have been born.

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Further details at

The Sagra and the Rinfresco

We are now fully into the season of sagre in Italy. What is a sagra? It’s basically a feast which, if held in the evening, will have extra things added on like dancing with live bands. Each town vies with the other in producing its own particular speciality sagra. For example, Cascio has its sagra delle crisciolette (a kind of focaccia) and Mutigliano has its sagra dei rigatoni (a kind of pasta). There are cinghiali (wild boar) sagre and even a ranocchio one (frogs). Of course, one is not obliged to eat the main theme of a sagra – there are alternatives, especially for vegetarians.

Being a vegetarian in Italy is far easier than supposed, as one of my vegetarian students explained. Meat eating was rare in Italy until the middle of the last century. Then it became a sort of status symbol showing how much better off the Italians had become. Before that time the staple diet was rice and polenta (maize flour) in the north, chestnut flour in our area and pasta in the south of the peninsula. So it’s still possible to have a wide variety of choice as a vegetarian in Italy. The most obvious example of this is in choosing one’s pizza garnishment.

One of the nicest sagre I’d been to was at Sant’Anna, which is a chapel placed between Monti di Villa and Montefegatesi. The chapel itself is quite large with an entrance portico and dates back to at least the fifteenth century.

On its left is a large tree-scattered open space where the sagra takes place. These photographs date from July 2006.

Rinfreschi, or refreshments, are distinct from sagre and are usually mounted to celebrate the re-opening of a building (as in the case of the church on the hill at Guzzano) or at the end of a (usually choral) concert. The following photographs, which date from the same period, show the inauguration of the restored organ at the beautiful hermitage of San Graziano which is at the top of the pass separating Valdottavo and Val Freddana. The organist is Eliseo Sandretti, a brilliant player who fully exploited the characteristics of this beautiful instrument by playing a mainly baroque repertoire.


Lucca Province’s Musical Events for August


Marco and Andrea Rizzi Lucchesini will open the second month of Versilia’s Festival of Chamber Music in the church of St. Pantaleone, Pieve a Elici. On Sunday 3rd, the duo will perform music by Castelnuovo Tedesco, Brahms and Richard Strauss. On Sunday 10th, Kirill Troussov (violin) will play Dvořák, Fauré, Poulenc, Tchaikovsky and Zimbalist, with his sister Alessandra Troussova (piano). On Sunday 17th, Leonora Armellini (see photo) returns. The young Italian pianist (born in 1992) plays music by Schumann and Chopin. The talented violinist, Natasha Korsakova, will play Beethoven, Mozart and Prokofiev on Sunday 24th with Simone Soldati (piano). The festival closes on Sunday 31st with a concert by Enrico Dindo (cello) and Pietro De Maria (piano), who play music by Rachmaninov and Chopin. All concerts start at 9.15 pm. Tickets are € 12 (reduced € 9) while for AML members they are € 6. Info: Associazione Musicale Lucchese (+390583 469960), Municipality of Camaiore, Citizens’ Office (+390584 979 229).


The Francigena Festival concludes in August with a series of events planned both in the province of Lucca, and the Beethoven castle of Monteriggioni (Siena). Closing on August 30th, at 7 pm, on the city walls’ 500th anniversary, there will be a unique event with the world premiere of pieces for six pianos written by members of the “Cluster” Association. The six pianos will be located in various bastions and will be amplified and monitored, allowing the listener to follow the players’ performance on the spot and, at the same time, hear all six pianos. These are the festival appointments: August 5th, 9.15 pm, Altopascio, Sala Granai: Mikhail Zemtsov and Julia Dinerstein (viola), Timora Rosler (cello), Frank Peters (piano). 7th, at 9.15 pm, Monteriggioni (Siena) Beethoven Castle: “Classical Rome” String Orchestra with Fabrizio Datteri and Nadia Lencioni (piano). 10th, at 9.15 pm, Monteriggioni (Siena), Mozart’s Così fan tutte, with soloists from the Guido d’Arezzo Francigena Festival Orchestra with Janos Acs (conductor). 23th at 9.15 pm Lucca, Ademollo Hall of the Palazzo Ducale: Paolo Carlini (bassoon), Fabrizio Datteri (piano). 30th, at 7 pm, Lucca city walls: concerto for six pianos.


On Wednesday, 27th August, at 5.30 pm in the loggia of the magnificent Villa Oliva (San Pancrazio), there will be a performance centred on Hamlet to celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. The program will include music from the first ever opera based on Hamlet, composed by Francesco Gasparini from Camaiore, Lucca, who was born in 1661. Characters and performers: Hamlet, Barbara Di Castri; King, Roberto Lorenzi; Queen, Silvia Tocchini; Veremonda (Ophelia), Maria Chiara Pizzoli; Generale Valdemaro, Marco Mustaro. Marco Brinzi will create the atmosphere of the Danish tragedy. Gabriele Micheli conducts the Chamber Orchestra of the Italian vocal academy. Bookings and information from the AML at +390583 / 469960.


The “Organ of Peace” festival at Sant’Anna di Camaiore, now in its eighth year, culminates in August with a series of concerts every Sunday at 6 pm with the following program: 3rd, world premiere of “Three Songs of the Camaiore Stones” for saxophone and organ, with Stefania Mettadelli and Isabella Stabio (see photo), 10th, organist Emanuele Cardi from Battipaglia performs. There will be a conference on the theme of justice before the concert at 4 pm in the Historical Museum of the Resistance. On the 17th, Italian organist Lorenzo Ghielmi gives a recital. On the 24th there’s a concert by Czech virtuoso Pavel Kohout. The season ends on 31st August with a concert by Friuli organist Lorenzo Marzona. Free admission.

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Raphael Wallfisch, one of the most famous cellists in the world (see photo), will kick off the Boccherini Open Gold Master class with a very appealing program. With him will be Paolo Taballione for flute, Demetrio Camuzzi for viola and chamber music, Luciana D’Intino for singing, Herbert Handt for vocal chamber music and Pietro De Maria for the piano. The master class begins on September 5th and ends on October 1st.

Registrations close on Friday, August 22nd. All information is available at the institute’s website at


The Puccini Festival, which opened on July 25th with Madama Butterfly (produced by Renzo Giaccheri and conducted by Daniel Oren), will be repeated on 1, 8, 16 and 24 August. Micaela Carosi, Amaryllis Nizza and Silvana Froli alternate in the title role; Rame Lahaj is Pinkerton, Renata Lamanda is Suzuki and Giovanni Meoni is Sharpless.

La Bohème will be directed by one of the greatest Italian cinema directors, Ettore Scola. There will be four performances in August (2, 10, 15 and 22). Scenery by Luciano Ricceri; costumes by Cristina Da Rold. Valerio Galli conducts. This is the main cast: Daniela Dessi as Mimi (Silvana Froli for the last two performances), Fabio Armiliato is Rodolfo (Leonardo Caimi 15th to 22nd August), Alessandro Luongo sings Marcello, and Musetta is Alida Berti.

Il Trittico opens on Sunday the 3rd. Stage settings are by Monica Bernardi. In the four performances (3, 7, 21, 30 August) singers of the ”Advanced Festival Academy”, alongside Amarilli Nizza, will alternate in the three female roles. Alberto Mastromarino sings Michele and the great Rolando Panerai sings Gianni Schicchi. Conductor is Bruno Nicoli.

Turandot will be presented on 9, 14, 17, 23 and 29 August in Angelo Bertini’s new production with musical direction by Mark Balderi. Starring are Giovanna Casolla and Lise Lindstrom, Walter Fraccaro, Lorenzo De Caro, Serena Farnocchia. Orchestra and Chorus of the Puccini Festival. Chorus masters Stefano Visconti and Francesca Tosi with Sara Matteucci for the Children’s Choir.

On the 13th, Shigeaki Saegusa’s Junior Butterfly will be staged with libretto translated into Italian. On August 28th, there will be a Korean Grand Opera Gala featuring the best soloists from South Korean opera with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Puccini Festival and Chorus of the National Opera of Korea. Monday, 18th, the Gran Teatro will host Massimo Ranieri with Sogno e son Desto, while in the Gran Teatro the art exhibition, “Stories of the Sea” by Franco Sumberaz, continues until August 14th, followed, on Friday 15th, by  “In the shadows” with paintings by Daniela Caciagli.


In August, the Corsanico Festival continues. It’s the thirty-third year for the international review of classical music in the Parish of St. Michael the Archangel. Saturday 2nd, a “Beethoven evening” with the String Chamber Orchestra of “Roma Classica” and the Fabrizio Datteri and Nadia Lencioni piano duo. Saturday 9th, the period instrumental and vocal group “Baschenis Ensemble” will present sacred and profane music from the early seventeenth century. Tuesday, 12th, American organist Gail Archer will perform works by Buxtehude, Bach, Mendelssohn and Liszt. Saturday 16th, “Serata Lirica” ​​with Silvana Froli (soprano), Nicola Mugnaini (tenor) and Laura Pasqualetti (piano), will perform arias by Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni and Leoncavallo. Friday 22nd, French organist Jean Guillou will play music by Scarlatti, Gesualdo, Bach, and improvisations on themes presented to him by the public. Tuesday 26th, an evening, entitled “Musical Exchange between Italy and the Netherlands”, by the Dutch duo of Cécile Prakken (flute) and Aart Berguerff (organ). Saturday 30th, Lithuanian violinist Lina Uinskyte and organist Marco Ruggeri perform Vitali’s Chaconne, Biber’s Passacaglia, the Bach Chaconne in D, and Corelli’s Variations on “La Follia”. Entry tickets: 2, 9, 16 December (€ 10); 12, 22, 26 and 30 August (€ 5). Info:


The nineteenth “Città di Camaiore” continues in August with organ concerts in the church of the Badia di Camaiore at 9.15 pm. (tickets € 5 each). On the 2nd, the German organist Axel Flierl performs works by Pachelbel, Liszt, Bach and Schumann, while on Thursday 7th; Spanish organist Arnau Reynes plays music by Ximénez, Brunette, Mendelssohn and Guilmant. Three further concerts follow. On Thursday 7th, well-known Belgian Pierre Thimus will present a varied program of works by Scheidemann, Correa de Arauxo, Boehm, Babou, Bach, Zipoli, Kellner and Buxtehude. On Tuesday, August 12th, there will be an organ recital by Pierre Thimus, while, on Monday 18th, Edward De Geest plays music by Muffat, Du Mage, Lübeck, Bach, Gigout, Bossi and Reger. On Monday, 25th August, Spanish organist Loreto Aramendi performs music by Bach, Correa de Arauxo, Larrañaga, Cabezon, Buxtehude, Frescobaldi, Corrette, Grigny and Alain. Finally, Burkhard Ascherl from Germany plays the last concert on August 28th, with a program of Buxtehude, Bach, Mozart, Bonnet, Faure and Widor. The event is made ​​possible thanks to the Municipality of Camaiore, the CRL and BML Bank Foundations and the “Marco Santucci” association.


Every Friday, at 9.30 pm, there will be a concert in Lucca’s Botanical Gardens sponsored by the city of Lucca in collaboration with associations and musical institutions of the region.

On the first of August there is an evening, “From Mama Africa Meeting”, with music from the International Festival of African expressive arts. “Operetta and the most beautiful songs of the past”, organized by Belle Epoque (see photo), will be held on Friday 8th, while “Poets of Latin America” – a journey through song and poem with the PAM trio will be held on the evening of Friday, August 8th. On the 22nd, “Very Young Performers” (with FLAM) with Giacomo Banella on double bass and pianist Gilberto Rossetti perform music by Schubert. Finally, on August 29th, there’s “Latin Jazz” with the Marco Cattani Quartet. The entrance to the Botanical Garden will be € 3 and includes, in addition to the opportunity to attend the concert, a guided tour of the beautiful gardens located in the heart of the city.

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There are numerous events promoted in August by the “Alfredo Catalani” circle. Wednesday 6th at 9.15 pm, in the San Micheletto cloister, there will be a selection of Catalani’s opera La Wally in concert form, in a version for voice and piano. The performers are: Maria Simona Cianchi (Wally), Alessandra Rossi Trusendi (Walter), Fulvio Oberto (Hagenbach), Marzio Giossi), Pietro Mariani (piano) and Daniele Rubboli (narrator). On Thursday, August 7th at 11 am, in the Church of Santa Maria Nera, there will be a Mass sung in memory of Alfredo Catalani: the music of Handel, Mozart, Franck, Mascagni and Verdi will be performed by Maria Simona Cianchi and Fulvio Oberto accompanied on the organ by Pietro Mariani. Sunday 17th at 5.30 pm, at the Museo Del Castagno in Colognora of Pescaglia, the Museum room dedicated to Alfredo Catalani will be inaugurated. The day ends at 9.15 pm in Colognora’s Parish Church with a vocal concert: “La ci darem la mano.” Performers are Valentina Piovano (soprano), Gabriele Viviani (baritone), Laura Pasqualetti (piano) and Daniele Rubboli (narrator).

Finally, on Saturday 30th, at 6 pm, at Fabbriche di Vallico there’s a  concert “Opera in the green” starring mezzo-soprano Margherita Tani, baritone Andrea Borghini, and pianist Laura Pasqualetti. Presenter is Loredana Bruno. Free admission. Info and bookings call: 347 9951581.


On Sunday, August 3rd, at 6 pm, in the Parish Church of St. Michael the Archangel in Gombitelli, there will be a Mass to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the death of Emilio Maggini, celebrated by Don Rodolfo Rossi. During the church service the “Schola Cantorum” ensemble from Marina di Pietrasanta, directed by Stefania Gori (organist Mario Castellari, will sing pieces by Maggini.

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San Graziano Trains a Wolf to do the Donkey Work

San Graziano is a delightful chapel on the forest route between Tempagnano and Loppeglia. It’s on a road which has a few untarred bits but which, in dry weather, is easily doable by standard vehicles.

The story about why the chapel was built here is as follows:

The hermit San Graziano decided to live in the woods to devote him fully to prayer and contemplation. One day an angel appeared and told him to build a church. Work started but one day the little donkey the saint had obtained as a helper, was eaten by a wolf. Luckily, San Graziano was able to finish building the chapel having now trained the wolf to do the job of the donkey! If anyone knows how to train a wolf to do the work of a donkey today a lot of local shepherds would be very happy!

The church became a hermitage and a place visited by those who dedicated themselves to meditation and the contemplative life. I wonder if there are any vacancies for hermits there today, however, as we found the place quite locked up.


We know San Graziano well and one year even sang there when the newly restored organ was inaugurated by Eliseo Sandretti, one of the best organists in the Lucchese.

The chapel is preceded by a long portico which must certainly be useful if one is walking there and the weather turns rainy.

We noticed, on our most recent visit last week that this portico was hung with little wooden plaques inscribed with some charming thoughts. Practise your Italian here:

The interior of the chapel is sweetly baroquified with several stucco angels but, in fact, covers an ancient Romanesque structure.

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Nearby is a restaurant which I would class as one of the better ones in the whole area (see.

Altogether, San Graziano is a very enchanting area and on a road which avoids having to go down to the busy main provincial route if one wants to get from the interior of Val Pedogna to Val Freddana.


Sempre con Noi, Caro John

If there is a split personality in me (and who hasn’t at least the signs of one) then it is the pull between the Celtic North and the Mediterranean South. Yet the differences may be not as great as sometimes imagined. In our visits to Orkney and Shetland there have been days when the bluest of skies shone on a sea transformed into Hellenic splendour and today, those Apennine mountains are misted over with all the mystery of such mountains as Blaven and An Teallach and it’s raining so hard!.

The great painter John Bellany, who has entered the heavens of his ancestors just under a year ago, was one who convincingly united the two worlds fertilising each other with the most magical and visually stupendous results. The faces of hard-pressed Scottish fishermen’s’ wives merged with those of the peasant farmers’ consorts in the valley which Bellany adopted, not just as his second home but as his alternative and, in many ways, his healing place. Further to the vivid, almost fauvist, colour of his paintings there is a creation of a new symbolism which merges both fish and fowl, men and women, sea and land, thoughts and feelings, dreams and myths until a syncretic universality of expression arises and a human bond is created between Celt and Tusco-ligurian – both people of the mountain and the sea.

Born in 1942, in Port Seton, East Lothian (hence one of Barga’s twinnings)  John Bellany, (CBERA) studied at Edinburgh College of Art and then at the Royal College of Art in London.

I remember as a very young lad breathing the tangy smell of Port Seton on a family holiday with my dad’s new Ford Consul. It was a prosperous fishing town and the harbour was crowded with trawlers, fishermen speaking in (to me a strange language) and baskets and baskets of fresh fish. As a Londoner I’d never come across anything like it! John drew much inspiration from such coastal villages – boats and their owners come together in an almost totemic way.

Apart from the liver transplants which helped prolong his life somewhat, Bellany drew a second and more important transplant when he discovered Pascoli’s “Valle del bene e del buono” at the start of the new millennium. Again, he made connections between people and their work crafts. Colours, however, became more vivid, juxtapositions more symbolic, almost surrealistic and many new links were made – indeed the depiction of the famous procession of saint Cristopher, patron saint of Barga ( a totemic statue of almost Easter Island power) re-connects with such primeval processions in Scotland drawing much farther back than their supposedly Calvinistic leanings and revealing an ancient world of earth gods and goddesses which become transmuted into the faces of the people he painted.

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It is true, too, that Bellany must have also seen Italy as a Scotland before the predestinarian gloom of the Knoxian reformation – an age when to be happy and expressive was not a sin and a time when conviviality was more colourfully depicted. It is the sad fate of such Celtic countries as Scotland and Wales that they were the ones to suffer most through fundamentalist religious belief which attempted so much to squeeze out the natural optimism of these true founders of modern European peoples.

It is only the greatest of artists who are capable of creating their own mythology which is immediately understandable to those whose hearts are opened to humanity in all its forms, from rawness of everyday life to sophistication of thought. It is also the greatest artists who are able to transform their physical suffering and mental angst into something transcendent which gives joy and hope to all who look upon their work.

There was poignancy in seeing pencil-written documents manifesting the bodily pain Bellany had to endure.

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There was poignancy in those faces almost turned into primeval idols by their set expressions of resignation and hopelessness. There was comedy also in the screeching expression of some birds (I could almost hear the incessant whirrings of gannets on the cliffs of Noss or the candy-floss like flights of fulmars descending into the sea from their nesting places on the cliffs of St Kilda).

The celebrative evening – for John Bellany deserves celebration – not commemoration, such is the wonder of his work which has touched more emotions in more people, not only in Barga, but throughout the world started with the usual dignitaries speeches all well-expressed and all tinged with emotion. But the greatest statement of why we have all been so lucky to have had John living among us and being able to experience his work came from his wife, Helen, who expressed herself wonderfully in the clearest Italian possible. I was visibly moved.

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John was essentially a man of nature and nature intervened this evening with the most spectacular and cataclysmic downpour Barga has heard and felt for some time. The heavens opened in Indian rain-god majesty. The skies cried and rain fell down the walls of the supposedly covered courtyard glistening the walls and turning the whole city of Barga into a hebridean-like outpost on a lonely island in the midst of the fury of Atlantic gales. How John would have loved this effect of two climates converging – I’m sure where he is now he must have heard and enjoyed everything!

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With our trusty umbrellas we managed to leave the first part of the exhibition to make our way to the Ricci foundation where another selection of John’s work was on show. In future we will also visit the old folks’ home to which he donated several of his paintings in order to brighten up their lives, as he put it.

Without generosity an artist is nothing. Art isn’t measured in how much one gets paid for covering a square metre of canvas (as some baroque geniuses would have liked). It’s measured in the response of the artist to the amazing world about him or her, and the enfolding experiences. It’s measured in the reaction of those who have eyes to see and hearts to feel and the intelligence to understand what it is that has been transformed from the deepest sensitivity into live colour and form.

It’s said that old sea-dogs never die. Neither do great artists. John Bellany is with us and will always be with us and with all those who have the kindness of true humanity within themselves to see, appreciate and, ultimately, love life in all its multicoloured forms.