A Living Crib is Reborn at Equi Terme

Equi Terme’s living Christmas crib is one in which we have taken part several times as characters in this, one of the most spectacular of such events in Tuscany. Sometimes we have been the Roman governor of Caesarea, sometimes one of the three Magi and Sandra has been a cialdonaia (waffle-maker).

You can see some photographs of our appearances in this crib through the years in our posts at:

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/04/christmas-crib/

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/of-dragons-irises-and-knights/

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/no-room-at-the-inn-in-equi-terme/

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/09/25/of-cribs-and-choirs/

In 2013 a strong earthquake shook Equi Terme and the surrounding area and for the next two years it was unable to hold the crib or ‘presepe’.

In 2015 the presepe was happily back in Equi Terme after temporary sites at Sarzana and Vezzano Ligure. The crib’s site is truly spectacular with the highest part of the Apuan Mountains behind it and with its giant cave where the actual nativity is held. Here are some scenes from it during our visit there a couple of days ago:

The costumes, unlike several other living cribs, are modelled on a biblical Palestine and there are few concessions to renaissance or mediaeval times.

The presepe takes place every evening between 6 and 9 pm from 24th to 27th December. Be prepared to queue. It’s becoming ever more popular! Although we weren’t characters this year we helped out and were able to avoid the queues and the modest entrance charge. There’s more information at tel 346-3619103, or e-mail: atsl@atsl.it. Maybe you’d like to become a part of this wonderful Christmas celebration?

Our visit on ‘il giorno di Santo Stefano’ (Boxing Day) was truly a journey down memory lane. We love this living crib more than any other, both for its extraordinary setting in which the old village of Equi Terme is transformed into a little Bethlehem and for the memories it holds for us of happy times staying in the house and company of La Signora Vinicia, the Lady of Equi Terme, now sadly no longer with us.

Happily our dear friend Giovanni Fascetti is still, as Mastro Cialdonaio (master waffle maker), able to play an essential part of the crib with his exquisite antique ferri (irons) used to make the delicious waffles.

The essential thing about Christmastide is its continuity through the years. Having friends that we know will be there adds to this continuity and gives security in these uncertain times.

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Does Christmas Really Come from China?

It’s a well-known fact that Christmas comes from China – at least as far as many of one’s decorations are concerned. This is somewhat unfortunate, especially for our part of the world, since it’s been famous for hundreds of years for its figurinai – plaster-of-Paris statue makers – which include, of course, all those lovely characters in a traditional Italian presepe.

Fortunately, if one is willing to be either creative and make one’s own or is well-funded enough to purchase the immaculate home-grown figures in such centres as Naples and Sicily or even our own Bagni di Lucca area where there’s a factory, Euromarchi, which is supplying the figures for Bagni di Lucca’s traditional presepe in front of the Circolo dei forestieri (they also have a special seasonal shop npw open on the main road to Lucca at Diecimo) , then a presepe does not have to come from the Orient. At the most perhaps the Three Kings may come from there, however!

(Bagni di Lucca’s own Presepe in front of the Circolo)

As for Christmas decorations themselves, one can quite easily go into the forest and gather pine cones, holly and ivy and even mistletoe and make a traditional garland. For the Christmas tree itself (a relatively recent, post war introduction to Italy, brought back by emigrants from the USA when they joined their families for Christmas) then just get one with roots that can be planted afterwards in your garden or watered and fed for next year’s Christmas.

This year, we’ve had to banish our Christmas tree to the orto (allotment) where, no doubt, it will grow into a fine fir and have replaced it with a smaller version. I wonder what will outgrow what – us or the new Christmas tree?

Anyway, I suppose it’s OK to get Christmas decorations from the Chinese shop (Dolif) in Gallicano.

Quite apart from the standard decorations there are some beautiful examples of Christmas fretwork scenes which can be had for under thirty euro.

I just wonder what the craftsmen in the People’s Republic will be making out about all this. But Christmas is becoming more and more an international festival. We were amused at seeing people getting ready for in it in Cambodia last year and spraying artificial snow on their windows.

Here, after weeks of dry, sunny coldness, we’ve had some rain and snow which will no doubt please all piste-yearners. We’ll always remember our first Christmas in this part of the world when the torch bearing skiers came down from the passo Della Croce Arcana to Cutigliano. So atmospheric!

Anyway here’s our own little humble ‘mantlepiece’ shelf offering to the Italian Christmas Crib tradition. I wonder how much of it comes from ‘La Cina’?

Of Cribs and Choirs

I realise it’s over three months to go before Christmas but the news I heard yesterday, from a friend that had picked it up from the bar in Equi Terme, is really great: the living crib in that town in the Lunigiana is returning this year after two years’ absence (because of earthquake damage to Equi terme in 2013).

We’d always taken part in this spectacular event since we landed in this part of the world and were beginning to really miss participating in it. Here are some photos from 2007, the first year we participated in the event:

I’ll be back in Equi Terme before that since on October 3rd our choir is going to sing in this delightful thermal town’s patron saint festa of St. Francis in the parish church of Saint Francis. We’ve hired a coach to take our thirty-strong choir for the event.

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Last night at Ghivizzano church we were busy rehearsing for the concert.

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Here’s the programme of what we’ll be singing:

Concerto Equi Terme, 3 ottobre, ore 20.30

1) Sollevate o porte – Frisina
2) Celebra il Signore – Frisina
3) O Salutaris hostia – Perosi
4) Pane di vita nuova – Frisina
5) Ascolta creatore pietoso – Frisina
6) Gloria – Haydn
7) Cantate Domino – Hassler
8) Sanctus – Zardini
9) Stabat Mater – Kodály
10) Tollite hostias – Saint-Saens
11) Trisaghion – Frisina

It’s good to know that so much of Italy can pick herself up and dust herself down even in the face of calamity. I’m sure the Equi terme festival will be a great success and mark another stage on the way to a complete revitalization of the town and its surrounding area.

In the meanwhile, tonight at Bagni di Lucca the butterfly flies again. Yes, the show at the Teatro Accademico celebrating the life of Stefano Girolami, a promising theatrical artist from Bagni, returns.

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If you’re in the area do come along for an event which is always entertaining and serves a very good cause indeed as all the freewill offering from the audience will go to supporting medical research into the disease which cruelly stopped Stefano Girolami. from fulfilling himself.

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(For last year’s Volo della Farfalla event see my post at

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/the-butterfly-flies-again/

and for the same event in 2013 see

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/a-butterflys-flight/

)

Ice, Sheep and Bells

Ice sculptures are becoming increasingly popular forms of art, especially in the colder parts of the world. Harbin, in Manchuria, for example has a very well-known international annual ice and snow sculpture festival. I’ve never actually been there but, gazing at pictures of some of the exhibits, it looks spectacular!

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(Trans-Siberian express Harbin-style)

Ice festivals have spread in many other parts of the world and, since 2009 there’s even been an ice sculpture festival held at London’s Canary wharf. In Italy, Christmas cribs provide some nicely traditional forms of the art. There’s a particularly good festival at Abano terme near Padova in the Veneto which I must make a date to visit next Christmas.

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Of course, like sand sculpture, ice carving is a “temporary” art and, as such, indicates an almost Zen-like reflection on the transience of life and artistic creation. Tibetan mandalas, and Navaho sand paintings which must be destroyed immediately after completion, come to mind in this respect.  If one believed in the permanence of great works of art then one shouldn’t become an ice sculptor!

Great skill is needed to become an effective ice sculptor since the material used changes constantly according to temperature and water purity. Ice sculpture can be of two main types: in the first, one works on the ice itself with special chisels and saws, in the second, one controls water coming from a hose in intricate patterns to form amazing textures.

Naturally, the greatest ice sculptures are made by nature herself! Iced waterfalls are a particular manifestation of nature’s miracle:

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(Iced waterfall near us in Mediavalle)

Every winter at Longoio, when sub-zero temperatures persist at night there is a spectacular sight created by a marriage between nature and man. A local hose pipe weaves its way down from a precipitous waterfall near my house and, at one very leaky stage, creates remarkable effects. I passed by the holey part of the hose yesterday during an utterly clear and beautiful day when I went for a walk with two of my cats.

Only nature’s art could create such wonderful interlacing and delicate effects. It was quite stunning especially when its background was made up by the snowy peaks of the Apuan Alps.

Our cats thoroughly enjoyed their walk, as usual, and refreshed themselves amply at the fountain on the outside wall of our house.

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Cowbells for the great Austrian composer and lover of nature, Gustav Mahler, evoked a feeling of pastoral innocence and nostalgia for the passing away of child-like feelings of immortality. Mahler said that cowbells were the last sound to be heard from the earth by the lonely in the highest of heights and that they were a symbol of total loneliness. Certainly this is the feeling evoked in his greatest slow movement from the Sixth symphony where cowbells sound particularly poignantly. (the Seventh too…).

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For me there is a big difference between being alone and being lonely. I think Mahler believed in aloneness (rather than loneliness) in typical Garboesque spirit. He even sometimes complained when there were too many birds singing around his isolated composition hut in the Austrian Alps.

One is truly summoned by bells where I live. From the church chimes ringing across the valley from the Pieve di Controni to the sound of sheep bells they are a particular feature. When I and my cats returned from our walk yesterday some bells seemed very close to home. I looked out and saw a herd of fine sheep coming up our little road escorted by two dogs and a rosy-cheeked shepherd girl. Soon I was surrounded by the finely horned animals, some of whom started trying to chew at my sweater!

The girl, who keeps a hut further along the hill from where I live, has been a  goat-herdess for the past two years and truly enjoys what she is doing – alone-ness rather than loneliness, I suspect. I wonder how many girls imprisoned in call-centres or shackled behind receptionist desks in the world’s urban jungles have a secret dream to become a shepherdess…

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L’Epifania Tutte le Feste Porta Via

Today, January 6th, is a national holiday in Italy. Coming so soon after Sunday the majority of Italians will have constructed a “ponte”, or bridge, so that yesterday too was a sort of holiday for this country as well. As any Christian will know January 6th is Epiphany, the day when the wise men arrive from the east to present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. The whole event is incomparably summed up in the poem by T. S. Eliot when one of the Magi looks back on the difficult journey they had undertaken. I can do nothing more here than quote in full this sublime poem:

 

The Journey Of The Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

 

In Italy it’s also the time of” La Befana” when a very old, ugly white-witch comes on the eve of January 6th to fill up the stockings of good children with sweets and those of bad children with coal (at least that’ll be useful for heating up our houses on these extremely cold evenings.) La Befana is, of course, a corruption of the word “epiphany” but how did this beneficent old crone come onto the scene in Italian households in the first place?

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As with the majority of Christian rites, ”la Befana” has a pagan origin. In Roman times the goddess of fertility would sweep the skies at the winter solstice to augur the return of growth in the fields. The broom was a symbol of the cleansing of the earth for the new forthcoming growing season. (Harry Potter eat your heart out…).

The early Christians condemned such practises as heretical and this beautiful goddess was thus turned into a horrible witch. However, the locals would have none of this and, in her uglified version, the Befana returned to reign supreme in children’s minds in this custom.

Indeed, a further story was added to retain la Befana’s credibility. In this version the Three Wise Men meet an aged crone and aske her the way. Only afterwards does la Befana realise the importance of this encounter and tries to find the Magi. She asks everywhere and, where indications are had, gives sweets and presents to the children of the households hoping that one of the houses will, indeed, shelter the baby Jesus. Originally children would place shoes and stockings to help the Befana on her quest. Later, shoes were discarded but the stockings remained, to be filled with goodies.

Epiphany is also the time when, by popular consent, the Christmas season ends. As the couplet says.

 

L’epifania

Tutte le feste porta via

 

(“Epiphany ends all festivities”).

 

Liturgically, this is quite incorrect, however since it’s the presentation of Christ in the temple that officially ends the Christmas season, on February 2nd, at the festival called the Candelora where candles are presented and blessed to symbolise the advent of Christ’s light upon the world.

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 La Befana is celebrated everywhere in Italy with many local variants. In our area the best celebrations are to be found at Barga but there will also be children-oriented events in Bagni di di Lucca. Since the winter holidays are so short in Italy it also means that the children will return soon afterwards to school, hopefully in a positive mood after their days of being spoilt rotten.

There is a Tuscan variant of the little rhyme about the Befana which goes as follows:

La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
attraversa tutti i tetti
porta bambole e confetti .

 

(The Befana comes by night

With shoes in disrepair

She crosses all the roofs

Bringing dolls and lots of sweets).

 

How do we adults fit into all this? In 2007 I was one of the wise men (Melchior, I think) at one of the most beautiful presepi viventi (living cribs) in our part of the world: the presepe of Equi Terme just across the “border” in Lunigiana.

Alas, this presepe is no more since the 2013 earthquake put end to the celebrations as the whole village was declared unsafe and little has been done to bring it back. Moreover, the grand lady of Equi Terme, Vinicia Fogacci, the inspirer of the Presepe, Dame of the Republic of Italy,  owner of a lovely shop and the provider of exceptional hospitality towards us when we took part in the presepe, has passed away. I learnt the news the other day, by phone call from my friend Giovanni, just as we were in the tribune of one of the greatest holy sites of Italy the basilica of Santa Maria Annnunziata in Florence.

We could do nothing else but say a little prayer in memory of one of the most wonderful ladies we have ever met. Truly, it’s “the worst part of the year.”

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(The great Vinicia aged 90-plus with Giovanni in 2007)

Later I received this moving message regarding the incomparable Vinicia from Giovanni. I’ll leave it untranslated so you can practise your Italian…

Con profondo dolore nel cuore, i soci del Gruppo Culturale “Ippolito Rosellini” si uniscono al lutto dei familiari e degli abitanti di Equi Terme per la scomparsa del Cavaliere della Repubblica Vinicia Fogacci, imprenditrice. Vinicia, persona di grande umanità e semplicità, memoria storica e decana di una comunità, ha esercitato le doti dell’ospitalità e della Carità cristiana per una lunga e intensa vita. Vinicia è stata sempre lungimirante e attenta nell’amore per il suo paese in particolare e per l’Italia in generale.

Animata da grande senso civico, dedizione al lavoro, rispetto delle Leggi e dello Stato, amante della verità, madre di famiglia esemplare, ha dispensato il suo amore materno non solo ai figli ma anche a coloro i quali, venendo a contatto con la sua meravigliosa persona e ricevendo il suo aiuto, la sentivano come una madre generosa, comprensiva, illuminata. Vinicia, sempre combattiva, sempre in trincea fino oltre i novanta anni, è stata abbattuta dalle ultime disgrazie di Equi: il vedere un paese prostrato non solo dalla crisi economica ma anche devastato dal terremoto e senza aiuto per poter tornare una fiorente comunità, l’aveva colpita. Terremo sempre viva la sua memoria e speriamo che il suo spirito continui a vigilare amorevolmente su Equi e su di noi.

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(Above, our own take on the Three Wise Men)

 

A Spectacularly Living Christmas Crib

NOI (“us”) TV is our local TV station and it’s worth watching as not only does it give the local weather report and road conditions but tells us of what’s on around too.

It was through my wife’s watching NOI TV that we didn’t miss one of the most spectacular presepi viventi (living cribs) in our area. It’s at Ruota which, although nestled in the Montagna Pisana (Pisan Hill), is still in Lucca province, being in Capannori Comune.

I thought that all the presepi viventi in our area had stopped by Christmas day but the one at Ruota is always held on St Stephen’s day (better known in the UK as Boxing Day). This year it’s celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary!

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The event started around 2.30 so we left shortly after lunch. At Pieve di Compito we parked our car, paid a ticket of 4 euros each, which included the shuttle bus service (the road winding up to Ruota, which literally means “wheel”, is particularly narrow), admission to the presepe, a concert and tasters.

Ruota is a delightful village high up on the Pisan Mountain which I’d previously passed through on the way down from the mountain from the Pisan side. Dante has this to say about the mountain and the rivalry between Lucca and Pisa (in canto 23 of the Inferno):

al monte per che i Pisan veder Lucca non ponno

Which means that the mountain’s there so that the Pisans don’t have to see the Luccans. (I would also add that the Luccans don’t have to look on the Pisans too!).

I have done several walks in the Pisan Mountain and it’s great trekking country.

The concert in Ruota’s beautiful church was delightful. Organised by a local music school it included everyone from children to mature musicians. Among the pieces played was a fair spate of Christmas carols with audience participation and also some Mariah Carey and jazz. The theme tune from “Cinema Paradiso” played on guitar and harmonica was particularly touching.

I recognized the tenor sax from his appearance in Kuhn’s Christmas Eve concert. Have sax will travel…

Something about Ruota’s church: dating back to the eleventh century its exterior still retains Romanesque features. The single apse interior and apse, however, have been altered over the centuries.

I was stunned by the magnificent painting of the Madonna enthroned with Saints Bartholomew, John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene and Apollonia, by Vincenzo Frediani and dating from 1488. I found it as good as anything that quattrocento Florentines like Ghirlandaio had produced. It’s incredible how little churches in remote mountain locations can harbour such beautiful works of art. But then this is Italy…

The wooden sculpture depicting the Madonna and Child from the mid fourteenth century was also quite wonderful.

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After the concert we joined the nativity procession as Joseph and Mary unsuccessfully called upon various traders to seek shelter.

The young couple tried various places:

Finally they found a stable and the baby Jesus was born.

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The narrow streets and stone houses of Ruota proved absolutely right for a traditional presepe setting and for all of those present it provided a great Boxing Day treat. We are so privileged to be able to assist at these charming events which help to bring back the true significance of Christmas into our hearts.

Here are further highlights from this enchanting presepe showing also some of the traditional crafts represented from an age which, for Italy, isn’t that far back at all:

 

 

 

 

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When is a Crib not a Crib?

England has its nativity plays; Italy has its presepi or cribs. Making cribs is a characteristically Italian activity and dates back to at least the time of Saint Francis. Not only is it highly developed but it also presents an act of religious devotion like all tasks requiring a lot of patience! Our valley, because of its long-standing tradition of making figurines in plaster-of-Paris, is still central to this tradition.

At the circolo dei forestieri exhibition and conference space on the first floor there is always a display of presepi at Christmas time. A couple of years back the display was supplied by the Sicilian town of Caltagirone which also has a great tradition of making presepi. This year the exhibition was presented by a town much closer home – Pieve Fosciana, Castelnuovo di Garfagnana.

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All the cribs presented showed creativity and supreme artisanship. I was intreagued by this crib built into a light bulb.

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The depth of focus in this one was startling, and the opening out onto the sea quite original.

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This one struck me the most, however, as it showed a heavily-pregnant and paining Virgin just before the birth of her son:

I wonder if the presepe-maker here had another figure of Mary tucked up his sleeve after she’d given birth. The name of Maurizio Turriani featured often in this presentation and I was amazed at the high level of his craftsmanship.

All the presepi are entitled to enter a competition for the best one and the adjudication will take place in the New Year. I wonder which crib will win this Christmas?

If you’ve missed this exhibition then there’s still time to go to Pieve Fosciana itself where the great mechannical presepe awaits you. Here is a video of it:

Further afield, there are the presepi at the arena di Verona which I visited a few years ago and are absolutely stunning.