Great Romanesque churches in our part of the world

If I had to write a ‘good church guide’ to the churches in the comune of Bagni di Lucca I’d definitely choose the first four on the list below. The remaining three are in nearby comuni and a little planning will be able to include them. For example, starting from Bagni di Lucca it’s possible to do a circular tour across from Benabbio to Villa Basilica and return via Collodi and Marlia with a little detour to the Brancoleria and its superb Pieve of San Giorgio.

Do I have any particular favourite? That’s rather like asking me what pasta shape I prefer! They are all superb and anyone who misses out on them in our part of the world is missing out a great deal. If I had to choose one, however, it would be Villa Basilica’s transcendent Pieve – so fine!

Accessibility to these architectural and spiritual treasures depends on two factors:

  1. Times of church Masses. Easily checked up on Lucca’s diocesan web-site at http://www.diocesilucca.it/orari.php?cod_ana=390
  2. Knowing the right person.

Here’s my list then:

NAME AND LOCATION DEDICATION STYLE AND AGE ACCESSIBILITY MY POST ON IT
Santo Stefano di Bargi San Stefano Largely Romanesque with 18th century vaulting Good https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/from-pieve-di-controni-to-eltham-palace/

 

Pieve di San Cassiano San Cassiano Largely Romanesque Good https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/07/28/symbols-of-eternity/

 

Pieve di Vico Pancellorum San Paolo Romanesque Good https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/yes-of-course-it-must-have-been-at-vico-pancellorum/

 

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/05/21/vico-pancellorums-secret-language/

 

Pieve di Sala Santi Quirico e Giulitta Romanesque Poor https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/a-castle-and-a-pieve/

 

Pieve di Popiglio Santa Maria Assunta Largely Romanesque with fine renaissance features Good https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/17/proud-popiglio/

 

Pieve di Villa Basilica Santa Maria Assunta

 

Romanesque Good https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/05/30/noble-villa-basilica/

 

Pieve di Brancoli  San Giorgio Romanesque Good https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/12/lions-and-dragons-of-the-brancoleria/

 

Recently I took two friends to visit San Cassiano and Vico Pancellorum.

We were shown around both pievi by well-informed locals who play a very active part in their communities: Pietro for San Cassiano (contactable through Santina’s trattoria) and Claudio for Vico Pancellorum,  president of the ‘Risveglio’ village association.

San Cassiano church is built on the site of a temple dedicated to the goddess Diana and is full of carved symbolism which dates back beyond even the Templar knights to times lost in the mists of occult pagan customs.

At Vico Pancellorum Claudio pointed out all the fine details of the pieve which still conserves its original Romanesque apse, (unlike San Cassiano).

Unfortunately, the apse’s windows are blocked by much later outbuildings used for storage. How wonderful it would be if those excrescences were demolished and light shone onto the altar.

The same argument might be said for the organ which blocks the light from the western windows. However, it is a fine seventeenth century organ supported by a fine loft from which, sadly, thirty years ago four angel heads were stolen. Could they not be re-carved from old photographs?

Vico is a wonderfully mysterious borgo and a great walk can be had by going from the Pieve up to the top of the steep town.

and returning through fragrant woods.

As the Italians say: ‘c’è l’imbarazzo della scelta’ – ‘there’s the embarassment of choice’ in this richly beautiful little corner of our awesome planet.

 

Little Churches with Great Interiors

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

San Martino a Greppo near Valdottavo

Santa Lucia near Gallicano

San Romano near Poggio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We decided to stop and take a peep.

What we saw in the interior took our breath away!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florence’s Cloister of Vows


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

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

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

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

No. Image before restoration

(Click on icon to see image)

Image after or during restoration

(Click on image to see larger view)

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

 

La Spezia’s Our Lady of the Snow

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

La Spezia has many other interesting sights including several churches:

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

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

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

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

Museums: La Spezia is well endowed with these including:

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

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

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

Diocesan Museum. Fine religious art.

Ethnographic Civic Museum. Fascinating insight into disappeared local crafts.

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

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

Notable buildings.

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

Other things to see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The Madonna’s miraculous image)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Venus Rose from the Waves

The name itself evokes beauty – Portovenere, the port of Venus – and indeed it is a goddess-like place. Embracing an arm of the immense golf dei Poeti, the gulf of poets with views on one side towards the fantasiose rocky coastline of the Cinque Terre and on the other looking across to the highest of the Apuan Alps, Porto Venere is a place to return to again and again and never be disappointed.

Porto Venere takes its name from an ancient temple dedicated to the Goddess Venus This temple has since been built over by the little church of Saint Peter which stands at the end of the promontory leading to the harbour as if to wish every departing sailor a safe journey and to welcome home all those who have risked the often perilous Tyrhennian sea.

There is yet another connection with Venus in Botticelli’s exquisite picture of the goddess’s birth, now in Florence’s Uffizi gallery. At the right side of the painting you can see part of Porto Venere bay with the islands of Palmaria, Tina and Tinetta which form a little archipelago facing it.  The lovely Venus is none other than Simonetta Vespucci, the girl who lived next door to Botticelli when he stayed there and with whom he fell inexorably in love. Considered the loveliest woman of the time, Simonetta tragically died of typhus in 1476 aged just 23. Botticelli immortalised Simonetta in one of the world’s most iconic and gorgeous paintings.

Here is that painting and my thoughts on it:

THE BIRTH OF VENUS

 

The zephyrs blow: she rises from her shell

while flowered maidens wait with cloaks unfurled.

Within her eyes a thousand heavens dwell,

between her thighs the heart of all the world.

 

It is a gentle sea and winds drop sprays

of leaves on little lapping wavelet crests

and buds and reeds bend to love-circling days

as slender fingers cover perfect breasts.

 

Her gold-spun locks enfold like breeze-tinged foam

until long hair entwines her pubic mount;

those lovely arms entice lost lovers home

to arcane planet’s mantle-hidden fount.

 

Meanwhile, the bay and olive grove awaits

to squeeze sweet juice that always satiates.

 

On this visit to Portovenere we climbed to the top of the Doria castle, surely one of the most formidable defences built by the Venetians. We had the place practically to ourselves, far from the increasing crowds of tourists visiting this heavenly part of the Italian coastline. The views were magnificent and the sea so blue!

We visited the church of San Lorenzo, the patron saint of Portovenere and saw the miraculous log which was cast on the shore filled with sacred treasures and reliquaries.

Byron was just one of the poets who fell in love with this area. One could add Shelley, Montale, D. H. Lawrence, George Sand, the painters J. M. W. Turner and Arnold Boklin, Baroness Orczy, she of the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’, and Dante himself who describes the coastline in his Divine Comedy (Purgatorio Canto V)..

Our hungry stomachs beckoned us to a charming little osteria on one of the caruggi or narrow streets which characterise Porto Venere where we enjoyed an appropriately fish-based meal. It was, indeed fish Friday, my wife is born in the sign of Pisces and the waters around us are fishermen’s paradise.

Another type of beauty beckoned us as we returned to our starting point – a rally of vintage cars ranging from Bugatti to Bentley to Bristol. Their sinuous curves showed me the entrance towards yet another beautiful chamber in the paradise that is Portovenere.

 

You can see more of Portovenere in my post at

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/01/28/venus-harbour/

 

 

 

 

Venus’ Harbour

The ‘Cinque Terre’, that dramatic piece of Ligurian coastline which incorporates the little towns of Riomaggiore, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola, almost desperately clinging onto the rugged coastline to avoid being swallowed by the sea, are easily accessible from Bagni di Lucca and are rightly very popular (sometimes I think too popular) with walkers traversing the footpath connecting the five places.

Porto Venere is actually a sixth town on the list, so the ‘Cinque Terre’ should more correctly be called the ‘Sei Terre’. However, since Porto Venere doesn’t have a railway station and is reachable by bus from La Spezia it’s often left out. This is a great pity for Porto Venere is one of the most beautiful places on earth and it was only this week that I first visited it after ten years of making Italy my principal residence. How strange!

01272017-046

I arrived at Porto Venere after taking a train from Bagni di Lucca and changing at Aulla for La Spezia, which is worth a day to itself: see my posts on La Spezia at

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/la-spezia-again/

and

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/a-top-secret-establishment/

I then took the 11P bus to Porto Venere from Viale Garibaldi which is just ten minutes from the station. Parking must be a headache in Porto Venere and the road to it is twisty and often narrow. The greatest hazard, however, is not the road itself but what you can see from it: the views are so spectacular that you could be easily distracted and plunge to your doom over the often steep sides!

The whole public transport journey from Bagni di Lucca to Porto Venere takes a little over two hours if you study your connections well. My return journey took me via Viareggio and Lucca involving a couple of changes but I was glad I didn’t use my own transport.

From ancient Ligurian beginnings Porto Venere became part of the great Genoese maritime republic and shares many of the republic’s characteristics:

Massive fortifications crowned by the Doria fortress:

Narrow alleys called ‘caruggi’:

Beautiful Romanesque zebra-striped church architecture:

San Pietro

San Lorenzo with its miraculous image of the Madonna:

And the most delectable seascapes including the island of Palmaria, separated by the stretch of water known as ‘le bocche’:

Not leaving aside Byron’s favourite haunt, the cove where he would forget his club foot which made him limp embarassingly and swim his disability away in the lovely waters of the bay of poets:

There is something quite magical about visiting normally tourist-infested haunts in mid-winter when there only a few hardy souls about. There may not be many bars, restaurants and souvenir shops open but the freedom from crowds is surely something to be enjoyed.

It’s great that we have these wonderful places, so different from our mountain haunts in their seascapes, at such a close distance from the Val di Lima. What other country, I wonder, has so much variety packed in so small area of territory?

01272017-107

PS Fellow blogger Debra Kolkka has written extensively on Porto Venere. For example, see her post at https://bagnidilucca.wordpress.com/2010/11/09/portovenere/

There’s also a pretty good web site for Porto Venere at https://portovenere.a-turist.com/index

 

 

 

 

 

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

‘Who knows where the time goes?’ asked folk-rock singer Sandy Denny in her beautiful song dating from 1967 and which accompanied her throughout her short life.

Where does it go indeed? It’s now ten years since my friend and builder, Fabio Lucchesi, died on a cold but sunny January 7th in 2007. If there was a perfect gentleman in these parts it was him. Sandra and I shall never forget those last days Fabio spent in Barga hospital where, on oxygen, he said to us. ‘I’m fine breathing real Himalayan air.’ The very last time we saw him he was in such pain that he could not utter a single word to us. These moments will stay with us but, more than ever will we remember the happy times he passed with us getting our new central heating system installed and working and helping us out on a thousand and one other jobs on the house we’d bought in Longoio in 2005.

Fabio originated in these parts but emigrated to America where he brought up his family in a farmstead in West Virginia. Deciding to return to Italy with his relative Paolino (better known as ‘Uncle Paul’) he accepted the fact that his wife did not decide to follow him. Fabio had already suffered the heart-rending loss of his teenage daughter Giovanna, of Leukaemia in 1993. In 2006 his son came to visit him in the Controneria and Fabio was glad that I took his, initially somewhat withdrawn, son on my scooter for various outings, as a result of which he opened out.

Fabio had many, many friends and was known for never having a bad word to say about anyone – something which many people would do well to remember today in these ever more difficult times, Fabio’s home was open to all and I recollect some highly convivial evenings at dinner with him.

Fabio was never afraid of getting his hands dirty in any job given to him but surely he deserved better in his life for he was a highly intelligent and well-read person.

Fabio found a close friendship with an American woman, similarly of Italian origin, but confessed to me he wondered whether there would be anything serious in their relationship. I think he had premonitions that he would soon go to another world.

When Fabio’s final Calvary approached we were devastated but relieved to know that it was short and that his suffering had come to an end.

Fabio’s funeral at the Pieve di Controni was held in a packed church with several of the people he’d helped getting their house in order flying in from countries such as the USA and Britain specially for it. At the funeral I read something I’d written for Fabio. It was one of the first occasions when members of the congregation would be able to personally contribute some homage. This has now become customary on most funerary services in our area today.

 

FABIO LUCCHESI

 

7 Gennaio 2007

 

Se ritrovi la luce nel fosco della notte

Ricorda le tracce mie nella tua casa

 

Se nell’’inverno non soffri più freddo

Ricorda la mia mano sul piccone

 

Se ammiri l’arco che amplia la stanza

Ricorda chi ha tolto le pietre

 

Se adocchi la tua legna messa a modo

Ricorda come ti aiutai a disporla

 

Se pensi alle cenate conviviali d’estate

Ricorda le nostre belle serate

 

Se rimpiangi di perdonare

Ricorda quelle mie ultime parole a te.

 

Mi ritrovo più alto dei monti dell’Imalaia

– il mio ossigeno è Dio Lui stesso.

 

I lavori miei vivranno di là da me:

Nel tuo focolare, nel tuo cuore, ti sarò sempre vicino.

 

FABIO LUCCHESI
†

January 7, 2007

If you find yourself in night’s dusky light
remember my traces in your home.

If you don’t suffer winter’s cold
remember my hand on the pickaxe.

If you admire the arch enlarging your living-room
remember who took away the stones.

If you pile up your firewood correctly
remember how I helped you place it.

If you think about convivial summer dinners
remember our beautiful evenings.

If you fail to forgive
remember those last words to you.

I find myself higher than the Himalayan mountains
– my oxygen is God Himself.

My works will live apart from me:
in your home, in your heart, I’ll always be near.

 

The following year two friends, Brian and Mary, arranged for a bench in memory of Fabio to be placed near Gombereto.

This prompted the following from me – little did I know that the next year Brian would be gone from us too.

 

FABIO LUCCHESI – HIS BENCH – (IN MEMORIAM)

 

Let none dare sit upon this wooden bench

who in their hearts show any bitterness

but only those who in their souls can clench

the good that pardons all who will transgress.

 

As the man whose name lives for evermore

among these hills, among these living woods;

whose honest work spells out one word “amor”,

whose simple life embraced all brotherhoods.

 

And as you gaze upon the dying sun,

and as the twilight falls upon the flock

may you feel that you and the world are one

and that you are as steadfast as a rock.

 

For such is he that was and still will be:

just sit yourself down here and you will see.

 

 

FABIO LUCCHESI – LA SUA PANCA – (IN MEMORIAM) I

 

Su questa panca di legno non sieda nessuno

che nel suo cuore conserva qualche rancore,

ma solo chi, nell’anima sua, nutre bontà

ed il perdono per quanti commettono errore.

 

Come l’uomo il cui nome sempre sarà

ricordo vivo fra queste colline e verdi boschi

e al cui lavoro fu eco la parola” amore”,

la cui vita semplice ha abbracciato ogni fratellanza.

 

E quando guardi fisso là  dov’è il tramonto,

ed il crepuscolo cala sopra le greggi

che tu possa sentire l’unione tua col mondo

e che come roccia saldo il  tuo cuore regga.

 

Così è colui che era ed ancor sarà:

qui siedi, solo, e vedrai, per sempre.

 

 

Who really knows where the time goes, I wonder…….

 

 

 


 

 

 

Thinking of you, dear Fabio. Ten years have gone since you left us for a better place. Why it is that the best people are always the first to go?