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.

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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…..so 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:

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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 https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/wholly-santinis/

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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.’

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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.

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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

http://www.lionard.it/pressarea/2015/venduta-villa-reale

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 http://sequinsandcherryblossom.com/ 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 http://www.discovertuscany.com/the-pinocchio-park-in-collodi.html

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.