Paths of Glory

Over half the funerary monuments in Bagni di Lucca’s English cemetery (also embracing non-English and non-Catholics) have now been restored thanks to the energy of Dr. Marcello Cherubini, chair of the Fondazione Michel de Montaigne. To celebrate this event, with the renovation of the four most recent tombs, a presentation and a concert were held last Saturday.

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(Members of the Vicariato della Val di Lima at the entrance of the English cemetery)

Of the restored monuments surely the most impressive is the chapel of Gentilizia Pisani which is attributed to the Lucchese sculptor Giuseppe Baccelli (1883-1932). The chapel, built with allusions to art-deco style, is impressively coated with stripes of white and grey marble, most of which still remain with only a couple of small sections requiring restoration (done in white cement so that it’s clearly visible what is original and what is not.) Inside the chapel there’s a bas relief of Elizabeth Hana Pisani together with her remains. Also restored is the tomb of Edward Newberry, one of the founders of the Anglican cemetery in 1842 and, indeed, the first person to be inhumed there.

It may be argued that in the present Italian situation money should be spent on restoring houses of the living rather than on those of the dead but I believe that anyone visiting the cemetery now will find not only thoughts for reflection but a historical monument of which Bagni di Lucca can truly be proud.

One is invited to adopt any of the remaining tombs for restoration. Each repaired burial monument bears the names(s) of those  who gave funds so, in a paradoxical way, you can admire your own tombstone while you still have your feet firmly planted on the earth.

The concert given by the Florence Cello Ensemble, a sextet of violoncelli all of whom graduated from Florence’s Cherubini conservatoire, was a  ravishing pleasure combining items of elegiac character such as the third movement of Elgar’s ‘cello concerto and Puccini’s Crisantemi with livelier pieces like Debussy’s Cakewalk and Verdi’s overture to I Masnadieri.

Both characters were combined in Paganini’s variations of the prayer from his opera Mosè.

The cemetery in my option, has achieved new life, (if that isn’t an oxymoron), not only in the Christian belief of an existence after death but in the beautiful appearance it now presents.

Landscaped with that quintessential tree of the dead since Etruscan times, the cypress, all that the cemetery requires is that the adjoining factory’s abominable rear extension could somehow be disguised, or since it appears disused, be demolished, for it sorely impinges on the serenity of the whole area of God’s field

One of the sadly surprising features is how many of those buried here were young. Like so many others, those who lie in this tranquil corner of Bagni di Lucca came here with health problems and held a final faith in the curative qualities of the town’s thermal waters.   However, their final faith came from their Redeemer.

As one of our great poets wrote:

…All that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

 

Farewell To Max

Dear Max, we’ve only met through your wonderful music and yet we’ve been so close to you on several occasions. We were walking on Orkney’s Hoy, lost in an island mist and returning ever back through the disorientating whiteness to the same trig point when we spotted the ‘Old Man’ and knew that your cottage was near. We saw the little place where you lived and yet were too shy to come closer and knock on your front door. I so wish we’d done so for we were told you were such a welcoming person.

At least we came near to you and the enchanted islands where you lived through our all too short stay when we were a little younger than we are now.

We did, at least, musically join in your wedding and sunrise!

And we spotted you at Saint Magnus cathedral during the festival you so enthusiastically helped to set up among the people you loved so much.

We could have met again through the Italian connection. For from the Celtic north of Ultima Thule to the luxuriant fertility of the Mediterranean there is a great connection. Indeed, two.

First, is the Italian chapel transformed by Italian prisoners of war from a gloomy nissen hut to a veritable chiesina (little church). ‘Churchill’s prisoners’, as they were called, created a little piece of Italy in the lonely wilds of a country so far and so different from their own. And when the war ended the prisoners couldn’t let go and would return to it and complete those gorgeous frescoes.

(Sandra at the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm Orkney 1989)

Yes, we were there with you in spirit in that little jewel set by a sea which could transform from a threatening grey to a Grecian azure.

The second Italian connection where we were so close to you was the time spent in Rome and your (and my) fascination with Borromini who began to mean so much to you and was the inspiration behind your Tenth symphony titled ‘Alla ricerca di Borromini’ premiered in 2014. Borromini, the great baroque architect, who suffered from depression because he felt he wasn’t as good as Bernini his rival. Borromini who tried to commit suicide by falling on his sword and died two days later, just in time to write a testament which forms the last section of your symphony. Your tenth symphony, written in defiance of the leukaemia which would take you away, like another good friend of mine. At least you defied the ‘curse of nine’ which hit such composers as Schubert, Beethoven Mahler and Bruckner!

(Borromini and our visit to his masterpiece, the church Sant’Ivo della Sapienza in Rome, 2011)

You were always interested in architecture. ‘Frozen music’ has been a very apt description of architecture and the way the space it encloses can be immensely enlarged by a detail here, a volute here, a recess there, fascinated you with Borromini. Your music could be described as fluid architecture by analogy. It increases our sonorous universe by creating vast resonances in small spaces.

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(The ceiling of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, another Borromini treasure in Rome and particularly loved by Max)

Maybe we never physically met but spiritually I have been close to you and love the sound world you have created which will live as long as there is life on our planet.

Thank you Max!. Farewell dear Max!

(In Stromness 1989)

 

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Peter Maxwell Davies (8 September 1934 – 14 March 2016)

 

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ORKNEY

A light beyond new light that lifts,
high-feathered, with a thousand greens and greys
beyond the landscape of the eye, that drifts
in sea-mist curls on islands’ arcane maze;

a smell of mermaids’ skin, a dream of stars
upon the midnight circle of lanced stones,
lament of blood and touch of battle-scars
prophetic mind’s abandoned, wind-scoured bones;

and still the wave-renewing shores of life,
and lengthening shadows on lintel wings,
the Earl’s castle in weather’s endless strife
while high above an unseen skylark sings.

Heart cries in rings of captive memory
of islands born on winds and spells and sea.

FLP

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From Bagni di Lucca to Auschwitz

Today, as you’ll most probably know, is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Bagni di Lucca was not exempted from the worst horrors of the last war. Although it narrowly avoided being bombed to smithereens, a fate that Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, further up the Serchio valley, had to suffer (see my post on that at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/vecchio-castel-nuovo-and-the-fury-of-war/ ), it became one of two ‘collecting centres’ (the other being at Socciglia where a memorial stone marks the place) for undesirable members of the human race which 99% of the time meant those of Jewish descent.

(The memorial at Socciglia yesterday)

(Trans: “This place knew the inhuman suffering of patriots and the incarceration of civilians waiting to be deported to Germany and a more tragic fate. We entrust the memory to future generations so that they may travel more decisively on the paths of peace”).

Under the abomination of the racial laws promulgated by Mussolini in 1938, largely a propaganda gambit to please his new ‘pact of steel’ ally Herr Hitler, Jews were marginalised by Italian society into what became ghettos. The irony is that the word ‘ghetto’ originates from a district in Venice, Italy largely inhabited by Jewish people.

The ‘Regio Decreto 17 Novembre 1938 Nr. 1728’  minimized civil rights for Jews, excluded them from schools, forbade them to hold any public office, greatly limited their travel, stripped them of their property and assets. Eventually, at the height of the Italian civil war of 1943-45 (when the partisans and allied forces fought against the puppet ‘social republic’ of Salò set up by Hitler under the pretended governorship of Mussolini, ‘rescued’ from imprisonment at the Gran Sasso rifugio), people of Jewish origin were rounded up and incarcerated in local concentration camps to await their transportation to the death factories of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Mauthausen and Belzec.

To the honour of the vast majority of  the Italian people the laws were unpopular and even prominent fascists like hero Italo Balbo opposed them. Italy’s Jewish population had lived in the country for centuries and were fully integrated in the life of the community. Merely thinking at random of some great Jewish Italians one recalls the names of Rita Levi-Montalcini, Italo Svevo, Lorenzo da Ponte, Natalia Ginzburg, Anna Magnani, Vittorio Gassman and Castelnuovo-Tedesco to be fully aware of the incredibly high contribution this community has made to the enrichment of Italian life and culture.

By 1943, however, Italy was in the grip of teutonic brutality and effectively in the hands of field marshal Kesselring. Having had to abandon the Gustav line between Rome and Naples Kesselring set all his hopes on the Gothic line stretching from Viareggio to Rimini and crossing the spine of the Apennines among which Bagni di Lucca is situated. (For more on the Gothic line see some of my posts on it at:

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/secret-mission-across-the-gothic-line-a-success/ ,

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/olive-oil-persian-cats-and-the-gothic-line/ ,

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/war-and-peace/ ,

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/il-castellaccio/.

)

The concentration camp for Bagni di Lucca was situated in the now derelict and crumbling walls of the old Hotel delle Terme behind the church of San Martino, above the present Hotel delle Terme. Three children, Luciana, Paolo and Liliana, with an added-up age of less than three years were the first to be killed with another thirty children and teenagers when they arrived at Auschwitz. They died in front of their parents, their grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. In all, the total number at Bagni di Lucca taken to the extermination factories was one hundred and twelve. Only five managed to return to Italy alive. The Bagni di Lucca Konzentrationslager contained not just people from Bagni di Lucca but also from many other parts of Italy. The prisoners stayed there for six months without proper food, no heating and few clothes and passed what was one of the hardest winters the area has ever suffered.

I took these photographs of the derelict hotel yesterday and had to be very careful to avoid things falling on top of me. If you ever go there do wear a hard hat (I really should have worn my crash helmet).and watch out for the trapdoors leading to the cellars and hidden under the foliage. They are rotten through and you might have a long way down to fall. I wonder with a history like that would anyone want to buy it up and restore it? Perhaps it should be left as it is as a memorial to some very dark years at Bagni di Lucca:

 

Throughout my hour there tangible feelings of a terrible evil and of a great sadness almost overpowered me.

The prisoners from the ex-albergo were transported by train to Lucca and thence to Florence. From Florence they went to Milan where they were housed in that city’s notorious San Vittore prison near Piazza Aquileia.

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They were then taken to Milan central station where they left for the gas chambers from the infamous ‘Binario 21’ (platform 21), still there to this day and now turned into a monument to the victims of the Shoah. It was utilised for mail trains before being used for its sinister purpose between 1943 and 1945. It’s below the main station platforms and can be entered from a side door. (Binario 21 is visitable as I did some years ago. The web site is at http://www.memorialeshoah.it/italiano/adv.html ).

(Platform 21 at Milan Stazione Centrale)

There’s a word now inscribed in concrete on one wall which sums it all up:

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I don’t need to translate that…

Figures show that 7,680 Jewish people were deported to the death camps, representing over 17 per cent of the total Italian Jewish population – a relatively low (!) percentage when one considers that 85 per cent of the Jewish population in Lithuania were exterminated.

To return to Bagni di Lucca: some of those deported died on the train journey to Auschwitz. Crammed like sardines into cattle trucks, Angela Ferrari, for example died aged just 26.

Was there anyone brave enough to stop this happening to them? Yes. The number would have been much higher had it not been for Don Arturo Paoli who only died last July aged 102 and who is on that great list of ‘the just of all nations’.

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It is my eternal regret that I only found out recently about this man from Lucca who collaborated bravely with DELASEM, the Jewish resistance movement, to save over eight hundred Jews in this part of Italy from entering the extermination camps. At least, however, we know a close relative of Giorgio Nissim, the organiser of DELASEM, from Pisa.

Who were the five from Bagni di Lucca who survived? Among them was Leo Urbach, Liliana’s father who had to suffer the killing of his wife and two children Liliana, aged less than two and his son aged five before Auschwitz was liberated by Russian troops on January 27th 1945. (That’s why we have International Holocaust Remembrance Day on that day).

Liliana was born in Bagni di Lucca on 19th October 1942. She was taken from there on 23rd January 1943 to Milan.  On 30th January she left Binario 21 at Milan station, reached  Auschwitz-Birkenau on February 7th 1943 with her family and died on 19th  February 1944. There was one witness to their leaving Bagni di Lucca: a little girl who later recollected:” I just remember that it was cold and they had few clothes on, all in dark colours. But it wasn’t us who’d taken their clothes. The soldiers had taken them and they were now leading the children, dragging them by holding their little hands.”

What memorials are there to the Shoah as experienced by Bagni di Lucca? In Fornoli there’s the peace park with this memorial to little Liliana, inaugurated in 1999.

It’s next to the primary school where in all probability Liliana would have gone had she lived.

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In the park there was this graffiti scrawled over a water pump box:

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Amor Vincit Omnia (Love conquers all)

Behind it was the old Ponte delle Catene over the Lima. Built by the great Nottolini in the nineteenth century it seemed to me that both it and the graffiti had a message to say about loving each other and building bridges.

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And yet the killing, worse, the genocide, still goes on: by fanatics just across the sea from us and by the sea itself. Since last year over 3,000 people, including a shamefully large number of children, have drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean in boats handled by unscrupulous people-smugglers .

Meanwhile, the sinister and decrepit façade of the old Hotel delle Terme has nothing to show on it that this was the last sight many people would have had of their beloved families and their beautiful country.

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This, in my opinion, is a scandal that must be rectified as soon as possible. Here is a building that, more than any other in this area, witnessed man’s brutality to man and people pass by it without realizing what purpose it was used for. A memorial plaque should be placed on it now because if we don’t remember……..

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Ash pond reflects clouds

silence by the little wood

a stork takes to flight.

 

Twisted iron bars

concrete minds

rusty furnaces:

 

Resurrection’s castle

is a heap of crumbling concrete

 

 

(Written when I motorbiked to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2001)

 

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Heavenly Halloween Hell

I grew up without that US import called Halloween and am none the worst for it. In Italy the introduction of the festival came even later and it has divided the population. Fervent Catholics, and those against non-Italian traditions, oppose the event while others think it’s good fun, especially for their children. Last year, for example, a local parish priest led a vigil whose aim was to assist in the exorcism of demon cults in Val di Lima. A friend who is in the Bagni di Lucca police force has been studying satanic cults in our part of the world and even went to the USA to pick the latest on this phenomenon, which regularly makes headline news in the ‘cronaca’ section of our newspapers.

(Pumpkin fun at our local Agip service station’s bar – photos by courtesy of Sandra Pettitt)

Yet there are ancient traditions and precedents for Halloween in Italy. In many parts families used to leave a large meal out for ghosts of their deceased relatives, before they departed for church services – these customs were cited by Ghivizzano’s parish priest in one of his sermons. Furthermore, the classic prayer for the Dead ‘ grant them eternal rest O Lord’ actually stems from a still prevalent believe that unless the dead are correctly requited they will return to haunt the living and even take up residence in their former homes. Apparitions abound in our area: in one example, a seemingly departed dearly-beloved used the latest technology and made an appearance on an acquaintance’s Internet TV!

I am not particularly scared of returning as one of the Undead but rather of being prematurely buried. Every newspaper story of a corpse waking up in a morgue just as a post-mortem dissection is about to be carried out on them has me transfixed with horror.

In the Victorian age the fear of premature burial was particularly widespread. Indeed, several patents were issued for avoiding the unfortunate circumstance of being prematurely inhumed. A bell was attached to the tombstone, for example, and a rope tied to the apparently dead victim’s hand. I need not dig into the worm-ridden soil which permeates so many of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories on this subject!

The festival of Halloween is particularly attractive to the young. It’s a fact that children love being frightened (provided that the fright will be strictly contained). Little Red Riding Hood is a classic example: at the puppet show in Pisa (see https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/pumpkins-and-puppets/ ) the screams of the children were even more alarming than the wolf himself!

I remain mesmerized with fathomless fear when recalling a childhood incident in the once abandoned Nunhead cemetery south-east London but that story must be put on hold and make its appearance in another post….

Every year since 1998 Borgo a Mozzano has been the venue of one of Italy’s biggest Halloween festivals. The narrow main street with its tall ancient buildings on each side provides a dark canyon equal to any Transylvanian town and adds to the theatrically induced horror.

We first attended this festival in 2005 when the ‘Passaggio Del Terrore’ (no marks for translating it) – held in the former abattoir – with its demented knife-yielding psychopaths, lunatic asylum ECT victims and escaped blood-stained virgins from dysfunctional convents grouped together with snakes, vampire bats, flesh-eating worms, tarantulas and a multiplicity of freaks of various shapes and sizes to provide an appropriate frisson for visitors (and totally terrify a lot of us!).

We hadn’t been to the blood-curdling festa of Borgo a Mozzano since 2012 so we thought it was again time to get a fix of the horror of it.

We were not disappointed. We ourselves may have contributed to the terrors of the night:

An interesting event was that held by the local branch of the Italian equivalent of ghostbusters. A truly spooky film was shown and we felt that ‘TripAdvisor’, at the very least, should include information on the degree of spectre-infestation in Italian hotels, castles and palaces.

Real terror, however, occurred when near the town hall we were caught in a crush which made us fear for our capacity to breath. Perhaps the authorities should look into better crowd control… Otherwise, the crowds were largely well-behaved as they usually are in Italy in big social events. (In the UK, doubtlessly there would be hordes of black Marias standing in the wings with cops at the ready and drunken hoards covering the streets in vomit).

There were bands lining the street including a particularly good blues one:

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Central to Borgo a Mozzano’s Halloween is the figure of Lucida Mansi, a sort of female Faust. Entering into a pact with the Devil this renaissance courtesan obtained forty years of enticing beauty which she used to gain a large variety of lovers before being re-possessed by the devil, much to her chagrin. Together with her infernal host she leapt to her doom from the Ponte Del Diavolo (near Penny supermarket) into the river which opened apart its dark waters to reveal the jaws of Hell itself.

This ex-Eastern Counties bus made a somewhat surreal appearance. (I’d once work as a conductor on its fleet)

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Here is part of the fire-breathing procession celebrating this fact.

The evening was predictably concluded by fireworks.

It’s pointless travelling all the way by car for the Borgo evening. By far the best method is to park the car at one of the car parks where the beer festival is held and to catch a free navetta (shuttle bus to the event. Only in this way can one avoid horrendous queues at the Borgo Bridge.

It’s also a good idea to wrap up warmly. Despite the threat of the flames of hell everywhere, at this time of year it can get rather nippy as midnight approaches!

The Seventh of the Seventh

Water wars haven’t yet broken out here in Longoio. I’m using as much of the rain water collected In our new orto reservoir as possible and our veg and flowers are coping.

The best time to water is, of course, early morning when the soil has had time to cool down. This means, however, getting up at five. Late nights are definitely not a good idea.

It our wedding anniversary today. Permit me a photograph of the occasion:

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Sadly, it’s also the tenth anniversary of the London terrorist bombings in which fifty two people lost their lives and many more had life-changing injuries.

I would like everyone reading this to read out the names of the victims from the various places where this atrocity took place and remember that they came from every part of the world (including Italy), and represented every age and every religion.

Aldgate:

  • Lee Baisden (34)
  • Benedetta Ciaccia (30)
  • Richard Ellery (21)
  • Richard Gray (41)
  • Anne Moffat (48)
  • Fiona Stevenson (29)
  • Carrie Taylor (24)

Edgware Road:

  • Michael Stanley Brewster (52)
  • Jonathan Downey (34)
  • David Graham Foulkes (22)
  • Colin William Morley (52)
  • Jennifer Vanda Nicholson (24)
  • Laura Webb (29)

Russell Square:

  • James Adams (32)
  • Samantha Badham (35)
  • Phillip Beer (22)
  • Anna Brandt (41)
  • Ciaran Cassidy (22)
  • Elizabeth Daplyn (26)
  • Arthur Frederick (60)
  • Emily Jenkins (24)
  • Adrian Johnson (37)
  • Helen Jones (28)
  • Karolina Gluck (29)
  • Gamze Gunoral (24)
  • Lee Harris (30)
  • Ojara Ikeagwu (56)
  • Susan Levy (53)
  • Shelley Mather (25)
  • Michael Matsushita (37)
  • James Mayes (28)
  • Behnaz Mozakka (47)
  • Mihaela Otto (46)
  • Atique Sharifi (24)
  • Ihab Slimane (24)
  • Christian Small (28)
  • Monika Suchocka (23)
  • Mala Trivedi (51)
  • Rachell Chung For Yuen (27)

Tavistock Square:

  • Anthony Fatayi-Williams (26)
  • Jamie Gordon (30)
  • Giles Hart (55)
  • Marie Hartley (34)
  • Miriam Hyman (31)
  • Shahara Islam (20)
  • Neetu Jain (37)
  • Sam Ly (28)
  • Shayanuja Parathasangary (30)
  • Anat Rosenberg (39)
  • Philip Russell (28)
  • William Wise (54)
  • Gladys Wundowa (50)

These pictures, taken yesterday, of our own flowers which are receiving their water ration are both to thank my wife for being with me all these years and also in memory of those live which were never fulfilled.

 

 

Cast out upon a raft in darkest seas,

lips parched with crusted salt,

amid unending night I burn and freeze

before the next assault.

 

Strange creatures shine below translucent waves

but are they friend or foe?

Among the embers of Sargasso graves

I do not care or know.

 

There is no breath in this expiring air;

long past I’ve left the quay.

Yet might redemption be beyond despair,

could eyes begin to see?

 

Across the gloom a limpid torch flames out

my course upon a chart;

beyond the stars there can be now no doubt

it is your loving heart!

 

 

FP

 

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(Victims’ memorial in London’s Hyde Park)

 

Burials, Royal and Otherwise

On the day of the burial of the much maligned King Richard III, the last of the line of the Plantagenets and the last King to lead his troops into battle on that famous horse, I’ve been ruminating on animal burials. Will one now find the horse he wished to barter a kingdom for?

The subject of animal cemeteries arouses very mixed emotions, yet for many people pets have, in most respects, meant as much as (sometimes even more than) humans.

In London animal cemeteries as the one near Lancaster gate in Kensington gardens have a long tradition but, similarly, in Italy animal cemeteries are becoming ever more frequent. For example, last year a new one was opened up at Scandicci near Florence. (See http://www.lanazione.it/firenze/cronaca/2014/04/22/1055953-animali-cimitero-scandicci.shtml). It is one of the nearest animal cemeteries to us.

Our loved pets have been buried in our own gardens. I have attended an Italian funeral of a beloved cat in a nearby village. The marmalade feline was buried below a large garden pot – a good idea as foxes, pine martens and wolves have been known to dig up their remains.

The following are photographs of memorial plaques to loved pets, kept by a great Englishman who was the subject of a major conference last year organised by the de Montaigne institute, Ian Greenlees.

These plaques are clearly not on public view being in the private garden of the house in which Greenlees once lived and kept his vast library before it was largely moved to Bagni di Lucca’s biblioteca communal in the Chiesa Anglicana.

I wonder where you will bury your loved pets, (provided you outlive them – a friend’s cat lived to be twenty four years old). Will you remember them by a plaque or stone like Greenlees did with his favourite pug or Elgar with Mina, his favourite cairn terrier, the dedicatee of the great composer’s final work?

Who thinks all this stuff about funerary monuments to our four-legged friend is sentimental trash? But it’s part of our life that has gone when they are gone – our memories, our loves, above all our years.

When the moment comes, however, a pet’s death can affect one in a way one never quite expects to be so devastating. Who knows whether I will succumb in Italy to the English habit of having a plaque in memory of those animals that have been so dear to us? Sometimes I sincerely wish they will outlive me but then who will look after them,?

PS This other plaque is in memory of another famous person who stayed here in Bagni di Lucca:

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A Mosque for Florence / Una Moschea per Firenze?

With 30,000 people of the Muslim faith in the Florence area and with an overcrowded makeshift mosque in Borgo Allegri just behind Santa Croce, there clearly is a demand for a purpose-built place of worship for this ever-expanding community.

Florence has been open to different faiths and different variations of the same faith for some time since the enlightenment hit it in the eighteenth century and it became the first country (as a grand-duchy) in the world to abolish capital punishment.

For example there is this fairy-tale Russian Orthodox Church just north of the great viali that replaced the walls in the 19th century.

There is a majestic synagogue near Piazza d’Azeglio.

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The Anglican Church in Via Maggio (which is under the diocese of Gibraltar) has been here for well over a hundred years.

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Not to forget the American episcopal church:

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The centre of Roman Catholicism, Rome, has, of course had its own mosque since 1995. Financed by Saudi Arabia I feel there should have also been an agreement for a cathedral to be built in that country which has now awarded 1,000 lashes (increased from 600 on appeal), ten years’ imprisonment (increased from 7, again on appeal) and a hefty fine to one of its journalists, Raif Badawi, for writing a blog to express his views.

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So why shouldn’t Florence get its own mosque?

My heart and my tears go out to the victims of the recent outrages in France and their families. Here the Italian media are choc-full of debates and self-questioning over the whole matter. Some enquiries posed are “is multiculturalism finally at an end?”, “does Islam really have a blood-soaked edge to it” and “should we have a secularist policy regarding the Muslim veil, as in France?”

I am not here to put my own viewpoint to these questions but just to state that many Italian Muslims have posted the following message “Non nel mio nome” (not in my name) on Facebook. Those who have suffered the most from what actually is terrorism, justifying itself by a distorted take on another monotheistic religion, are those who practise that very religion.

The fact is that Islam is six hundred years younger than Christianity and if we go back six hundred years (or even rather less than that) we see not only the battles of the reformation and counter-reformation but also one of the bloodiest wars ever fought in the western world, the Thirty Years war – to say nothing about the forced “latinization” of Central and South America by the conquistadores, compared with which the threatened conversion of “Europa” into “Eurabia”, as prophesised by that great world correspondent, who hailed from Florence, Oriana Fallaci, (and who in a 2006 interview in “La Repubblica” said “”Se è vicino casa mia, prendo l’esplosivo e la faccio saltare”), seems minimal. Or does it?

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Florence’s then-mayor, Renzi, has promised that the Islamic community will get its mosque and four possible sites for it have been ear-marked. Consultations between religious leaders and the local community have gone ahead in a spirit of cooperation and without too much “voice raising”.

So will these recent tragic events jeopardize the whole Florence project or will a minaret rise up among the campanili, towers and cupolas of Florence?

Not quite. Looking at the artist’s impressions of the project I see a campanile, or rather a minaret disguised as a campanile in the new mosque, somewhat on the lines that the Victorians loved to disguise their railway stations as mock-gothic castles. Moreover, I see a lovely Alberti-like façade to the whole endeavour. True, the main features of a mosque are there: the outer courtyard, the liturgical washing facilities, the abstract, or calligraphic, nature of the decoration and, clearly, the simplicity of the prayer hall and the orientation of its mehrab, but the overall picture seems harmless enough and could even enter as one of Florence’s new tourist attractions, rather like the Regent’s Park mosque does in London.

Indeed, Bagni di Lucca has its own version of “religious disguise” in the Chiesa Anglicana which was designed to look like a mansion with gothick decorations and not called a church at all but a “palazzo degli Inglesi” so as not to offend Roman Catholic sensibilities when it was built in 1840.

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Furthermore, the classic mosque design, itself is based on a Christian byzantine model, that of Hagia Sophia in former Constantinople, now Istanbul.

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Even when it comes to an iconic Muslim mosque-tomb like India’s Taj Mahal an Italian architect, Geronimo Veroneo, from Venice (a city whose own cathedral is orientalesque in inspiration) headed the design project (as Italian architects were also involved in Iran’s great square of Isfahan.) Globalization, at least in artistic spheres, has been around for a long time!

(Photographs taken in 1967 when I hitch-hiked to Agra on the “Hippy Trail”.)

My hope is that there will not be a backlash or a rise in fanatic Christian movements to counter what is not Islamic ideology but just despicable barbarism and an incarnation of absolutist intolerance; I would find the idea of Methodist suicide-bombers risible and I am sure that, with the firm backing of all western leaders and the presence of a Pope named after St. Francis (who himself entered into a dialogue with the Mohammedan Soldan of the Caliphate of Egypt in the twelfth century), our civilization will not be saved by the skin of its teeth (as Sir Kenneth Clark so aptly described the re-emergence of European values after the barbaric invasions) but by the centuries-old tradition weaved by thoughts of great men (and women) that have illuminated even the darkest periods of our, certainly not blameless, history.

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Saint Francis dialogues with the Sultan and does a trial by fire to prove his Faith

(Predella in the Lindenau Museum, Thuringia, Germany)

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