Special Sarzana

Sarzana is, of course, a lot more than its fortresses. The town has some very picturesque streets:

and for restaurants and bars one is spoilt for choice: it has truly a culinary prodigiousness..

Italy is famous for its historic cafes but one doesn’t have to go to Padua’s caffé Pedrocchi or Lucca’s Caffé Simo (one can’t enter that one, anyway as it’s been shamefully closed for several years now), Sarzana has one of its own and it’s placed on the corner of an almost fantailed shaped piazza which I would rate as one of the most charming I have come across in Italy.

The Piazza Matteotti is especially important as it’s one of the very few documented places where Dante is known to have been during his exile and where he received a safe conduct from the Duke of Malaspina. As the inscription in the square states “Ombra di Dante non si cancella”. (One cannot cancel Dante’s shadow).

The Caffé Costituzionale (like so many other historic cafes in Italy) was a centre of intellectual and political discussion and a hotbed of ideas leading towards the Italian Risorgimento. Founded in 1833 by Signor Manena it was the meeting place of patriots including Berghini who was a member of the Giovane Italia (young Italy) movement. It still preserves something of the atmosphere of those heady times. Certainly, political discussions were still going strong.

Historic cafes are normally overpriced but this one certainly wasn’t’! Two euros provided me with a caffé macchiato and a brioche with crema pasticciera brought to my outside table for just two euros.

I could have stayed more but now needed to be on my way to discover some of Sarzana’s churches.

On the way I passed this nineteenth century former launderette.

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A recent plaque recorded the unsung labours of women and their continued suffering under tyrannical males (Italy has one of the highest feminicide rates in the western world.)

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The Pieve di Sant’Andrea is Sarzana’s oldest church and dates back to the tenth century.

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Like so many other churches in Italy, it had a baroque make-over but more recently the side walls have been laid bare to reveal a far more ancient Romanesque building.

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In the wall niches there are some very beautiful statues dating from this earlier period.

I didn’t know what to expect from the Duomo or cathedral. The entrance portico was elegantly gothic with some beautifully fluted columns:

Inside I was bowled over by the width of the gigantic spans separating the nave from the aisles.

The gorgeously decorated apse was outstanding-

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There were two impressive gothic side altars loaded with statuary:

and some pretty della Robbias:

However, the greatest treasure of Sarzana cathedral and certainly one of Italy’s greatest artistic riches is the painted crucifix by Mastro Guglielmo which dates back to the eleventh century. It’s the oldest painted crucifix in Italy pre-dating those masterpieces by Berlinghieri and Cimabue by over a hundred years.

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Interestingly, Christ is shown triumphantly on the cross and not passively suffering as became the fashion later on (and remains to this day). The “ecclesia triumphans” had to be the motto at the end of the dark ages when power and glory battled against the sinister forces which destroyed Rome and almost demolished Western civilization.

Returning to catch my train I passed some elegant art nouveau houses. Here too, Sarzana showed itself as one of Italy’s most delightful towns.

But perhaps I shouldn’t say this as one of the pleasures in perambulating its streets and alleys was to encounter a minimal number of tourists.

Be There at the Bagni di Lucca Arts Festival!

The countdown for the Bagni di Lucca Art Festival is now down to five days!


As you’ll know I am curator of the space dedicated to poetry, the written and spoken word.

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This space will be open on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays from 5.00 PM to 9.00 PM.

If you are interested in contributing in any way in poetry or prose please contact me now as soon as possible.


If you are living abroad and cannot be present during these dates, which are July, 25, 26, 27, 30, 31 and August 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, then you can send what you’d like us to read and speak of your work to me at fpettitt@gmail.com

Please remember, the Bagni di Lucca Art Festival depends more on you than it depends on us. Your presence is essential and if you want to contribute through the written word it’s even more so.

We all look forwards to hearing from you.

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Don’t forget, you don’t have to write an epic to contribute. Just a three-line, seventeen syllable haiku is in order (see my post at for that at

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/painting-in-words-at-bagni-di-luccas-arts-festival-2015/   )

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You could contribute a short story, a reminiscence, take part in an interview, tell us about your latest work in progress whether it be a thriller or history of the world or valued memoirs, contribute to a debate, dicusss what’ on show at the art festival, talk about your favourite things, discuss the state of the world, tell us what you’re doing with your life here, your aspirations, your dejections, your hopes, your dreams……. anything, in fact involving the word (and if you can’t speak Italian I’ll simultaneously translate).


The important thing is to avoid me having to start droning on and reading my one thousand-plus poems which, although they may be of interest, will surely not add to a great variety of contributors!

Please help us prove that our valley is not just full of painters but of writers, speakers, thinkers!

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We shall be for ever grateful to you (as Dante, Montaigne, Shelley, Byron and Pascoli – just to name a handful – were when they stayed here.)

PS If you live abroad, just pay for your fare. Accomodation for you is free where I live.

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Another Enigma Variation

To find one’s way to a lecture by 9.30 AM on a beautiful Sunday morning may not be everyone’s idea of how to start the day of rest but on this Sunday there happened to be the last session of a fascinating three-day conference on Ian Greenlees (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/r-i-p-ian/ if you still don’t know who this guy was).

The lectures on the last day were less directly related to Ian. The first one, given by Laura Giovannelli, was a harrowing, psychologically based, account of Oscar Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland titled “Oscar e il signor V. H. Ridefinizioni in Son of Oscar Wilde. In an age when adopted children are often encouraged to find out who their real parents are it is awful to find how, in a sexually repressed age, Vyvyan not only had to change his name but was supposed to wipe out any memory of his great father and, even if others knew about the “sins” Oscar committed, pretend not to know that they, in fact, knew. Again, as in Greenlees’ relationship with Norman Douglas, Oscar Wilde came across not just as a languishing aesthete but as a muscular person who loved children in a straightforward manner and was able to relate to them in a way discouraged by the boarding-school-governess mentality of his Victorian age.

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Gigliola Mariani’s lecture on Churchill’s use of language, which Greenlees greatly admired and annotated in one of the statesman’s books, had to be cancelled because of absence and we went directly to Roberta Ferrari’s paper on Walter Savage Landor and his Pentameron “tra storia e finzione”. It would be an understatement to state that Landor is not much read these days yet Greenlees often turned to him as one of his favourite authors and possessed the complete works (ten volumes) of the poet caricatured in Dickens’ Bleak House as the litigious Boythorn. The Pentameron is a re-take of Landor’s own favourite Boccaccio in the form of a kind of pastiche where, indeed, Landor’s own opinions are disguised behind the various characters in the stories. It emerges, for example, that most of Dante’s “Divine comedy” is to be considered rubbish (!) though how seriously to take this comment is very much up to the reader. I must begin to read Landor’s “Imaginary conversations” now….

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Elio di Piazza’s “William Lithgow e la nuova ars Apodemica” (which valuable book was found in Greenlees’ bequest) was a fascinating account of the swashbuckling adventures of the Scottish traveller who spent nineteen years of his life on three separate voyages to the east, eventually dying in the heart of the Moghul Empire. In an age where the traveller’s cares are mainly concentrated on flight cancellations and excess baggage charges it’s interesting to know how one once had to travel in convoys of up to a thousand persons and literally fight for one’s supplies or else be left to die in some desert corner. Piazza also made the very important point that travellers’ tales fed into the re-awakening of empirical science: all that returned with these intrepid voyagers was subject to examination and classification. I thought immediately of Hakluyt and the great voyages of Cook and Darwin which clearly fed into an increasingly sophisticated scientific technique.

(PS In case you didn’t know what “apodemic” literature means it refers to travel books and derives from Greek “apodemia” = leaving one’s own people. This word isn’t even in the OED…).

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The last speaker was…myself. Bringing back the subject fairly and squarely to the person of Ian Greenlees I concluded with the following, delivered, as the majority of the other papers were, in Italian but taken from something I’d previously written about in English, regarding this comment by Sam Stych and endorsed by Ian’s biographer, David Platzer:

“I came to the conclusion that although I spent years with Ian as a close neighbour…. I never really knew him and nor did anyone else. He was a very cultured and courteous person but you felt you never really got to the heart of the matter and the man in most ways remains a mystery.

The Time obituary writes about Greenlees:

“He was an unambitious man but he mastered the art of being happy and knew how to impart this gift to others. He hated war, the army, nationalism and public schools.”

And yet Ian Greenlees was heavily involved with all those things he hated… an enigma indeed!

The word “Enigma” was taken up as a cue by Mayor Betti in his concluding remarks. For all those who knew him (and there would have been a living archive of oral reports to be gathered at the conference) Greenlees was, ultimately, an enigma.

But then aren’t we all individual enigmas in our own, perhaps less spectacular, ways?

Finally, special thanks were given by Marcello Cherubini to Laura Chanter, not only for her gracious presence at the conference but also for her donation of valuable items to Greenlees’s archive at bagni di Lucca.

I conclude with an assorted picture gallery showing various aspects of the conference’s three days:


Malaspina – A Bad Thorn?

Our first view of Fosdinovo and its castle was through a mist and the scene seemed reminiscent of the castle of the Holy Grail as perhaps Parsifal might have seen it. It was a truly mystical vision.

Fosdinovo castle is one of the biggest, most important and best preserved in the Lunigiana, indeed in Italy. It dates from around 1340 and was built by Spinetta Malaspina the Great who expanded a previous fortification. The castle is still privately owned and it’s even possible to stay there. Outside it is imposingly forbidding.

Inside, the castle is a compendium of halls, tunnels, prisons and trapdoor, corkscrew staircases and dark corridors. The rooms are well arranged with precious furniture.

There is a delightful servants’ room in one of the turrets where women would come and weave and sew.

Several of the castle’s rooms are haunted. This bedroom is particularly affected by ghostly phenomena as a princess’s lover was apparently murdered here. The room charges are dropped if anyone manages to survive a night in this. To date no-one has managed to last the night out without fleeing. Many of those who tried to sleep in this bed are still received psychiatric help to overcome their trauma. Challenges, however, are still being accepted. Do you want to have a try?

The family crest is the flowering thorn (Spino Fiorito). The Malaspina, who are of longobard origin, have many branches, several of which are still flourishing today.


There is a high walkway between the castle’s merlons which, on a clear day, would allow one an aerial view stretching seawards from the island of Palmaria and beyond to the craggiest peaks of the Apuan mountains on the landward side. On this day, however, everything was shrouded in those mysterious mists – a good reason to return to the place.

There is an elegant inner courtyard with a renaissance arcade:

and a large banqueting hall with frescoes, illustrating episodes from Dante’s stay here as an exile, painted by Gaetano Bianchi in 1882 in fifteenth century style.

Dante’s bedroom remains and in it is the only surviving mediaeval fresco depicting Christ as “ecce Homo” (“Behold the man”

There is also a pleasant garden with a substantial number of chicken, useful also in a situation where the castle is under siege, and this amazing wooden peacock used in eighteenth century theatricals:

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It is to the credit of the descendants of the Malaspina family that they have preserved the castle to this day for the delectation of visitors. During WWII Fosdinovo was badly knocked about as it was used as a German army HQ and suffered some bombing but in the 1960’s the castle was completely restored.

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The guide who showed us round Fosdinovo castle was virtually born in it and was very well informed, giving us explanations both in Italian and English. (He also knows French). Guided tours are on the hour and more details can be had at http://www.castellodifosdinovo.it/ita/,

As we were early for the tour we decided we’d visit the town of Fosdinovo which is directly below the castle and attached to it.

The town consists of a single main street and has some fine buildings including the Duomo or cathedral.

Inside the cathedral is the gorgeous tomb of Lodovico Malaspina in elegant gothic style.

There are also two oratories: one called the red oratory and the other the white oratory. It’s easy to see why it’s so called.

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We are very glad we visited the magnificent castle of Fosdinovo and notched up yet another fortification on our list.


I’ve Seen This Place Before

In the heart of the Senese countryside stands one of Italy’s greatest ruins: the abbey of San Galgano. Founded by the Cistercians in 1218, it had its moment of highest glory in the fifteenth century and, thereafter, began a slow decline until finally abandoned in the seventeenth.

I’d first visited the abbey in 1997 and was keen to return to see if the initial impact of this extraordinary building would still affect me.

It certainly was. Now roofless, the abbey’s vaults are the bluest of skies and its once stained glass windows reveal beautiful views of the surrounding forests and hills. Like Tintern, its parallel in the Wye Valley of the Welsh border, it is sublimely impressive in its present despoiled state, amply evoking that wonderful line in Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet: “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” Presumably the “sweet birds” referred to the singers in the apse, for surely sweet birds still sing in those empty spaces today. I wonder if, like Wordsworth with Tintern, some Italian poet has written lines on this abbey.

Unlike Tintern, however, which fell a victim to Henry VIII’s monastic dissolutions, San Galgano was merely abandoned and its ruinous state is due to its being used as a quarry for building materials. Most of the cloisters and many of the monastic buildings have disappeared because of this but the main abbey Church still rises majestically.

Who was San Galgano around whose cult such a magnificent building was raised? He was a twelfth century nobleman whose life as a knight had already been planned by his family. Galgano then had a vision in which he met the twelve apostles, on a hill near the present abbey, as a result of which he threw away his sword into a rock which opened out embracing it up to the hilt which remained exposed in the form of a cross. Galgano’s rich cloak was also transformed into a threadbare hermit’s habit.

After the visit to the abbey we took a steep path up to the top of the hill where san Galgano had his vision. This is now crowned by an evocative round building known as the Eremo di Montesiepi.

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The interior is austere, evoking both Etruscan and Celtic motifs, and its ceiling a wonderful alternation of concentric bands.

Right in the centre is the sword San Galgano threw away and which entered the rock.  A King Arthur Excalibur story in reverse!

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As a result of an unfortunate incident, in which someone tried to steal the magic sword but was then attacked by a wolf who pulled off his arms, the sword has been protected by a plexi-glass cover. In case you didn’t believe in the wolf story here is the skeleton of the arms:

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Our day was by no means finished for we wanted to make a brief stop in Siena to visit the cathedral and see the magnificent floor which, for a very short time in the year, is exposed to the public. (It’s normally protected by wooden boards).

The floor is made of intarsioed marble and illustrates biblical and historical subjects. Around it are placed the sibyls – one of several classical elements incorporated by the church into its own theology.

It’s incredibly difficult to photograph the floor (the best way would be to climb up on the ceiling – clearly not possible) but easy to appreciate at close quarters. We were so lucky to be able to see this wonder of the world on one of the few occasions it’s visible to the public.

More wonders were to follow in Siena cathedral, not the least of which was the Piccolomini library decorated by the animated and colourful frescoes of Pinturricchio, one of my favourite painters and one which, together with Ghirlandaio, gives a valuable insight into the manners and fashions of the Tuscan renaissance.

A pit stop at the impressive fortified village of Monteriggioni with its battlements and towers (mentioned by Dante in his inferno: “in su la cerchia tonda Monteriggion di torri si corona”) was followed by our entry into the city of the lily – Florence.

PS If you liked the films “Nostalgia” and “The English Patient” then you’ve seen the abbey of San Galgano before too!


Inferno at Fornoli

Last night, before the little square fronting Fornoli church,  thanks to a kind invitation by journalist-presenter Marco Nicoli of the Mammalucco association , we were treated to epic poetry recited (as it used to be from pre-Homeric ages by heart – and with the heart!) by Sergio Frati.

To hear five cantos from the Inferno by Italy’s greatest gift to our planet’s culture, Dante, recited, not in a standard dramatic national theatre type of way, but in a manner in which a story teller might stop one in the street, like the ancient mariner who must tell his tale, was spell-binding.

More than that, it was truly comprehensible. I’ve often had difficulty reading Dante in the original but Sergio (who is also a poet) was able to make every word pregnant with meaning even if one might never have come across its often archaic form.

Poetry is meant to be spoken and Dante’s vision of Hell came out so vividly last night that I almost breathed the turbid gales surrounding Francesca and Paolo, felt the freezing wind beating out from the giant pipistrelle wings under each of Lucifer’s three heads, felt within my stomach the atrocious hunger pangs of Conte Ugolino.

Dante’s verse is, indeed, more visual than any film I’ve seen.

It was such a wonderful relief when at the end of canto thirty-four (the last one of the Inferno) after a fearsome journey, we “again beheld the stars” –  indeed, above our heads, in the now darkened sky, stars shone to remind us that we were back on earth after our extreme expedition and the campanile clock struck the eleventh hour..

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It is so sad that gifted epic reciters are becoming rarer and rarer today. In many villages in this, and other parts of Italy, stories from Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso” and Tasso’s “Gerusalemme Liberata” used to be told by the fireplace during the long winter nights. Until quite recently, it was customary for children to learn poems at school and proudly recite them before their teachers and parents. Sadly this is all going out of fashion due to “progressive” education. I am glad that in places like India and Bali I can still come across story-tellers that are able to recite by memory large chunks of the Ramayana.

I asked how Frati managed to commit the world’s greatest literature to memory. He said he aimed at learning a couple of cantos by heart a year, dividing each canto into sections and setting himself precise objectives. (I think he’s got most of the Inferno under his belt now and he’s just 76 years of age.)

(Dante Inferno: Paola and Francesco Episode)

How wonderful it would be not to have to rely on I-pads and such-like to while away boring hours waiting at airports for delayed flights or to have to switch on the television to amuse the family when all one needs to do is to dig deep into one’s memory cells and find a story to ponder on or to recite and enliven an audience.

(Dante Inferno: last canto)

If ever we should have another book-burning rampage such as occurred during the fall of the Roman Empire or the Reformation or even, more recently in the thirties of the last century we may need to be reminded of that film/book Fahrenheit 451 and adapt ourselves accordingly.

What would you commit to memory so that it is never lost should such calamities again ensue?