Bagni di Lucca Takes Flight!

Bagni di Lucca’s Villa Gamba has already been the theme of one of my posts where I described the meeting between Giacomo Puccini and Baron Fassini Camossi. It was here that Puccini listened with fascination to certain Chinese melodies played on a carillon (or music box) belonging to his friend the Baron. Camossi had pursued a diplomatic career in China, was a veteran of the 1900 Boxer Rebellions there and probably acquired the box and other souvenirs in China at the notorious “loot auctions” that followed the Boxers’ suppression, when they met at the Baron’s summer house: that same secretive villa Gamba at Bagni di Lucca in 1920. Evidently Adami, the opera’s librettist, was also present.

To find out more about this extraordinary encounter which led to Puccini’s final, sadly incomplete, but certainly greatest opera, ‘Turandot’, you can read my post at:

Tomorrow, Tuesday 25th April at 11 am, in the Sala Rosa of Bagni di Lucca’s Circolo dei Forestieri, Villa Gamba will feature again. This is because there will be a presentation of finalists for the Premio Corsena (prize) for 2017. It’s the first national literary competition on the theme of aeronautical history. What’s the Villa Gamba connection this time then? It’s because the full name of the villa is Gamba-Calderara and Mario Calderara (1879-1944), one of Italy’s greatest pioneer aviators, lived there.

Calderara was the first Italian to get a pilot’s license in 1909 and was the builder of Italy’s first flying boat in 1911.

He was the son of the Alpini regiment General Marco Calderara and Eleonora Tantini. Attracted to a life on the ocean wave Mario joined Livorno’s naval academy where he graduated as midshipman in 1901. He became fascinated by the problems of flight and studied avidly the pioneering efforts of Lilienthal and the Wright brothers and corresponded with them.

Calderara began his first aeronautical experiments in 1907 and, on a biplane towed by a ship, managed to reach a height of over 50 feet, almost risking his life. Calderara got to know French inventor Voisin and worked with him on aeroplane design. In 1909 he managed his first unassisted heavier-than-air fight at Buc in France.

The big breakthrough occurred when Calderara and Italy’s aero club invited Wilbur Wright to Rome. Wright gave Calderara some flying lessons and, consequently, Calderara’s flights increased in length.

In 1911 Calderara built his flying boat, the largest in the world and managed to fly three passengers on it in 1912.

In 1917 Calderara started a training school for pilots and became one of the founders of what would become the Italian equivalent of the RAF.

There’s absolutely no doubt that Mario Calderara is yet another feather in the cap of those greats that have established Bagni di Lucca as a centre of past excellence. For example, our town was the first in Italy to have electric street lighting, the first one to found a Scout troop, the first to pioneer hydro-therapy, the birthplace of Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ (as well as the place where most of the maestro’s ‘Girl of the Golden West was composed. It’s great that Bagni di Lucca will now be remembered as the home of one of Italy’s greatest aviation pioneers and founder of its air force.

The programme for tomorrow includes, besides presenting prizes to the finalists, the unveiling of a plaque to the memory of Mario Calderara at the villa Gamba with a visit to the villa itself (an occasion not to be missed!), a lunch at the Circolo dei Forestieri and a conference on the great aviation pioneer who was Mario Calderara. Don’t forget to fly there!






Camellias, Kumihimo and a Concert

Camellias originate in eastern and southern Asia and were introduced into Europe during the eighteenth century. The tea plant is a member of the camellia family and, indeed, the expansion of the tea trade enabled many new varieties to be brought into Europe. Hybridization did the rest.

Every March at Sant’Andrea di Compito, by the slopes of the Monte Pisano, south of Lucca there is a camellia festival where one can fully appreciate the variety of flower forms and colours of this perfume-less plant. A shuttle bus takes you to the camellias – the only way to get there as the narrow roads would soon be clogged up with cars. The camellarium is spectacular at this time, the mill-stream walk is delightful.

The exhibitions are most informative, there are many stalls selling local products and there are also musical events.

The camellia festival of Sant’Andrea is something we always try to attend. You can read my account of our visit there in 2013 at

and in 2015 at when Sandra’s mum, then 93 years old, accompanied us.

And in 2016 at

Why choose this area for camellias? The fact is that the climate is ideal for them. It was the English ex-pats of the nineteenth century, escaping from the torrid summer of the Tuscan plains, who discovered this and introduced the camellia to these hills. Indeed, dotted around the Compitese are many aristocratic villas complete with their luscious camellias

and there is even a society dedicated to old varieties of camellias in Lucca province.

Could I add anything new about the visit to the camellias this year? Not much except that as things of beauty these flowering shrubs remain a joy for ever.

The day started off very sunny but storm cloud started to gather in the late afternoon. However, the rain held off until the last stretch of my homeward journey.

The setting of the camellia festa is so very beautiful. Sant’Andrea is nestled in a valley of the Pisan hills and the town is quiet charming. Near the entrance is an exhibition centre with some prize camellias.

There was a section on the Japanese art of braiding known as Kumihimo and using a special loom. These braids are used to fasten the button-less Kimono.

An open-air exhibition brought photographs, whimsical sculptures  and sly cartoons together.

There was also a tea ceremony in which we were allowed to participate.

At the top of the Sant’Andrea is the magnificent parish church.

I arrived in time for a concert given by an unusual ensemble consisting of two double bases, accordion and flute. The fine performance included pieces by Piazzolla, Bartok, Domenico Scarlatti and Bottesini, who was the Paganini of the double bass.

Today is the final day of the Camellia show in the Compitese. So if you are in the area and haven’t been there do so now! It would be truly sad to miss one of Lucchesia’s most colourful and evocative events.



PS If you fancy your cup of tea not only can you buy delicious camellia tea but you can have the ultimate Italian invention: camellia-tea flavoured ice-cream!












Flaming June

She lies there curled up asleep like a comfortable feline, radiant in the golden light of a late summer afternoon. Luscious drapery enfolds her perfect body, so delicate that the sinews of her curves can almost be touched. Behind her an incandescent Mediterranean Sea glistens under the torrid sun’s rays. To the right an oleander flower teases with both beauty and death for in its blossom is a deadly poison.


A strange immortality indeed. But where are we? Not in a forgotten Hesperidean garden or by a secret cove on a distant Hellenic coast. Instead, we are at 12 Holland Park Road in Frederick, Lord Leighton’s house and studio and where ‘Flaming June’ was created.


(The artist’s studio with ‘Flaming June’ on the right, as displayed during Princess Alexandra’s visit in 1895. All except one of the paintings have been collected together for the present exhibition)

As artists such as Van Gogh were ignored during their lifetime so for so long after his death in 1895 one of the Victorian era’s most notable painters was neglected – such is the price of fame during one’s lifetime.


(Frederick, Lord Leighton)

Indeed, ‘Flaming June’ – for such is the title of this ravishing picture – was forgotten, even lost, for much of the last century. It was found by accident, boxed up in a fireplace, by some workmen renovating a house in 1962. Placed into auction it failed to achieve the reserve price of £100. A young Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of the first to realise the immense charm and importance of Victorian painting after its disregard, spotted June but could not persuade his granma to lend him fifty quid to buy her. ‘I don’t want any Victorian junk in my house’, she retorted. Finally, someone from a poor Caribbean island bought it for the newly-founded national gallery. It was Louis Ferre who was enraptured by the picture and bought it for £2,000. It now rests as pride of place in Puerto Rico’s gallery at Ponce.

We were stop-over passengers in Puerto Rico in 2004 on our way to Antigua but unfortunately did not have time to go and see the picture. It was, therefore, a fantastic opportunity to pay our first-time respects to June at Leighton House where she will reside until April 2nd 2017.

‘Flaming June’, for which one of the most beautiful girl in Britain, Dorothy Dene, served as model, Leighton’s favourite (perhaps there was more to this professional relationship but, alas we’ll never know since the artist was quite reticent about his life and never kept a diary) is probably the artist’s masterpiece and was his last completed painting. Indeed, when the funeral procession of the only painter ever elected to the peerage  (ironically just one day before he died) passed in front of the Graphic’s office there, in its front window, was flaming June, her immortal image shining on the painter who had given her artistic breath.

Many years previously we had actually seen Flaming June in the flesh. In a highly memorable scenic re-evocation of social life in this gorgeous mansion and focussing particularly on the relationship between Frederick Leighton and Richard Burton the explorer, (played by my friend David Reid) a latter-day Dorothy Ede posed in precisely the same way with similar aureate drapery, auburn hair and semi-sleeping eyes. (To this day, David regards this as perhaps his most enjoyable acting experience).

As we stepped outside into the overcast Kensington streetscape I wondered how someone who had studied at Florence’s Accademia di Belle Arti (founded by Cosimo I de Medici in 1563 and frequented by such greats as Michelangelo and Bronzino) could have been so passed over just fifty years ago…

Anyone who cares about Victorian, indeed, great art, and finds themselves in London must make a beeline to Leighton House for, in addition to the artist’s wonderful apotheosis of Dorothy Dene, it has one of the most extraordinary rooms anywhere: the Arab Hall with its dazzling tiles. So, two journeys can be saved by going to 12 Holland Park Road now – one to Puerto Rico and the other to a palace in the Arabian Peninsula!


(The Arab Hall at Leighton House)

Finally, there is an important connection between Frederick, Lord Leighton and Bagni di Lucca. Elisabeth Barrett Browning, whose holiday residence has been so meticulously restored in Bagni by Laura Poggi and her husband, had her tomb in Florence’s English cemetery designed by Leighton.


(Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s tomb, designed by Lord Leighton, in Florence’s English cemetery)


A Pawsome Show with Cattitude

Lucca has a newish trade fair and exhibition complex and it’s easily reached from near the city’s autostrada exit. Housed in a refurbished ex-factory building it hosted a cat exhibition organised by ANFI (Italian National Cat Association) last weekend. I could not resist and headed to Lucca’s ‘polo fieristico’.

I was not disappointed. Every species of cat was there: from ragdolls to Persians, from Siamese to leopard-spotted, from blues to that giant of cats, the Maine coon which can reach up to ten kilos in weight. There were also the strange hairless cats called Canadian sphinx. (Actually they are not hairless but their hair is very short and fine). Cats were arranged in spacious cages which formed squares with their owners in the inside. It’s not exactly easy to photograph a cat, especially if it’s in a cage, but here is a selection of the species I saw on show:

There was a competition for the best cats in various categories.


There were talks about how to look after one’s cat and even train them how to use the loo and avoid having to clean cat litters! There were stands selling cat requisites from food to shampoo to cat-hammocks. I was particularly impressed by the recycling of vegetable market containers to produce cat baskets. Every cat-lover must have been surely well-pleased to attend the show.

There was an art corner where one could pick up a Rembrandt or Van Gogh for under a a thousand euros. (copies, very well-done, of course.)

As I arrived around mid-day I started to feel hungry. Fortunately there was a lunch stand specialising in truffle products. I could not resist!

There were also truffle and porcini mushroom flavour crisps. They certainly made a change from salt ‘n vinegar and cheese ‘n onion…

I got there in time. After 2 pm the queues started and they became rather long.

Competitors and breeders came from all parts of Italy and, indeed, the EU. I was amazed at the devotion so many people give to cats. Well, not so amazed: cats are ever fascinating – and mysterious too.

As I returned to the parking I met up with two magnificent Spanish greyhounds.


In the parking this car showed just how much cats are part of a family in Italy:


I came home back to my common or garden cats and realised that they are the most special cats in the world – at least to me…

How People Work in the Lucchesia

A fine photographic exhibition curated by Luca Lorenzetti opened last Sunday at Borgo a Mozzano’s library in the elegant Palazzo Santini.


The exhibition focuses on manual occupations and at first sight the photos could be mistaken for belonging to another age. This perception is heightened by the fact that most of the photographs are in black-and-white.


However, the pictures are of the present times and it is wonderful to see how many traditional crafts are still being carried out in our area.

It’s the hands of people, whether they are harvesting barley, threading baskets, pounding pasta or arranging flowers, that grabs one’s attention.

The exhibition, which is titled “Vi presento il Mestiere Lucchese” (“I’m showing you how people in the Lucchesia work”), is accompanied by a book which describes six crafts in the area. These are the following:

Corbellaio Basket-maker
Fabbro Blacksmith
Mammaluccaio (figurinaio) Plaster figurine maker
Mietitore Harvester
Norcino Pork butcher
Pasticciere Pastry maker

In a post-industrial society Italy is beginning to realise how important it is to preserve traditional crafts and to interest younger people in them before the knowledge vanishes. Already Italy’s youth, in desperation at the lack of jobs and the amount of land going uncultivated, have re-considered agriculture as a worth-while occupation. Moreover, smothered by imitative mass-produced products from other parts of the world, this country has refound what it’s best at: making some of the finest and most beautiful objects found anywhere in the world and, of course, producing some of the tastiest food and wine one is likely to ever come across.

This very worth-while exhibition is another in the sequence of interesting photographic shows at Borgo’s library. It’s open until 5th March at the following times:

Mon-Thur 14.30 -18.30; Fri 9,30 -12,30, 14,30 -18,30; Sat 9.30 -12,30.

From Carpet-Eaters to Carpet-Baggers

The carpet-eater of Braunau am Inn started off by admiring someone who was once Churchill’s favourite Italian. (In  January 1927, he wrote to Mussolini: “If I had been an Italian I am sure I would have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.”)


(Berlin 1937)

Sadly by 1938 it was the other way round. The Italian racial laws implemented that year forbade all those of Jewish descent and other minority groups to hold property, marry white Italians etc. etc. M was truly sucking up to H. This poster dating from that year sums it all up:leggi1

(Jews can’t …….)

It’s interesting to note that the terms ‘racialist’ or ‘racist’ at the time meant those who believed in the implementation of the theory of a superior race: quite the opposite of what the term means today, as these posters from post-1938 Italy demonstrate:

To the credit of Italians the majority of that nation was shocked by such grossly xenophobic rules. For years Jews had been integrated into Italian society in a way often unimaginable in other European countries. They had contributed profoundly to the peninsula in terms of culture politics and science and fought with distinction in the First World War. Jews and those of African descent were also fully integrated in Mussolini’s ‘balilla’ fascist youth movement’:


Just to name a few Italian composers of Jewish descent the following come to mind: Giacomo Orefice, Leone Sinigaglia, Felice Boghen, Fernando Liuzzi, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Aldo Finzi (a relative of the English Gerald Finzi, also a composer), Renzo Massarani and Vittorio Rieti.

The contribution of Jewish-origin people to Tuscany was particularly significant and the ‘Ebrei/Jews in Toscana/Tuscany’ exhibition in the Galleria delle Carrozze (next to the Medici-Riccardi palace on its right)  brought out this contribution in an excellently designed and documented display which, opening last December, continues until 26th February from 10 to 6 daily..

From the relaxation of mediaeval persecutions to the establishment of thriving communities, particularly in Livorno and Florence, the exhibition documents, with flair, the essentiality of Jewish culture in Italian society and culture .

It’s unfortunate that the Jewish ghetto, together with the old market, in Florence’s mediaeval centre was torn down by misguided town-planners in the late nineteenth century,  One has to go to such places as Pitigliano (see my post at to savour the atmosphere of these ancient centres and, of course, visit Venice where the original ‘ghetto’ was founded back in mediaeval times in an area of that city with the same name.

As compensation one can visit Florence’s beautiful synagogue where the exhibition continues:


When faced with the draconian racial laws several Italian ‘Schindler equivalents’ saved many Jews from being entirely ostracized. However, after the establishment of the Repubblica di Salò puppet state in 1943, when Italy was divided between Nazi fascists and Allied-army supporters, anti-Semitic persecution got really bad. Underground movements and the Catholic Church provided shelter and escape for Italian Jews;  the numbers finishing up in the gas chambers were far less than those in other parts of the Third Reich. Around 7,500 Italian Jews were victims of the Shoah as distinct (for example) from 500,000 Hungarian Jews,(and Hungary had a total population of just nine million  as compared to forty-five million Italians in 1940….)

I have already written posts about particular people of Jewish extraction (see my post on the great Piero Nissim at and also his ancestor, Giorgio Nissim.

01142017-330Giorgio Nissim, an Italian Schindler)

On my mother’s side of the family (my mother originated from northern Italy) there was at least one marriage between Gentile and Jew. Eliezer Turri (whose son now lives in Denmark with his Danish wife, and where he directs a media company) was a distinguished artist and writer. I remember him, particularly from childhood days, when a visit to his house was a supreme treat, for Eliezer was fascinated by model railways and had built an incredible Rivarossi set complete with local and international express trains. The display even incorporated a tram system. It was thanks to the absence of racialist sentiments among his friends that Eliezer was able to avoid a real-life train journey to Silesia’s extermination camps.

It’s important to realize this and reflect on danger signs that are returning to impinge on our society today. There is no need to remind intelligent and tolerant citizens of what these signs are. We got one yesterday…

Indeed, this Monday in Fornoli, at 10 am, there will be a ceremony in the peace park in memory of little Liliana Urbach from Bagni di Lucca who wasn’t so lucky and was the youngest Italian to die in a death camp. (For more information on her do look at my post at


It’s so important to remember what happened in Italy to a seemingly well-integrated community. It doesn’t take a demagogue to change opinions – all it requires is indifference.


 (Platform 21 at Milan Stazione Centrale – final destination Auschwitz)


All Art is Quite Useless?

Today is a dull day, weather-wise of course. There is rarely a truly dull day here in terms of thoughts, reflections, activities and projects. But the tentacles of winter are approaching; Christmas is still a little way off and November is filled with sad times of remembrance. The days are becoming ever shorter, the nights colder and summer outdoor joys ever more distant.The harvest is reaped and autumn leaves are rapidly falling.

Why not (that is, if you are living in Bagni di Lucca area) consider that something which you have been pondering about for too long but never done before? The first paragraph of a novel that could make your soul fly into unknown mind-regions, the riff that will turn into music that for you has never been so live, the beginning of a pencil line that may turn into a painting replete with colour and inner life? As Churchill said: “Happy are the painters for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day.”

There are so many alternative to switching on the telly, draining that last drop from the gin bottle or going to sleep early with the cat.

Yesterday evening at Borgo a Mozzano library a veritable plethora of courses were offered for all ages, for all tastes and in all media.

I’m already part of the amateur dramatics group which will put on a show to remember (for the right reasons I’m sure) on December 21st this year at Bagni di Lucca’s Teatro Accademico.


(Last night, from left to right Simonetta Cassai artist, Michela Innocenti, actor and dramatist and on the right Patrizio Andreucetti, Borgo a Mozzano Mayor)

Being the son of a (sadly deceased) very artistically inclined father and a wife whose ancestor could clearly include that genius of decorative art (and painter of both the Queen’s Coronation coach and the Lord Mayor’s one too), Giovanni Battista Cipriani, (about whom I’ll give a talk next Easter) I’m thinking seriously of dabbling in painting.

My (and your) teacher could be the brilliant, highly talented Simonetta Cassai.

Her paintings show an eclectic approach to technique.

From mediaeval Gothicising with gold leaf and a touch of the Senese school


To full-blooded ‘plein air’

To her own brand of the Italian metaphysical school.

Underlying this virtuosity of techniques – learnt also because Simonetta is a dazzling restorer of ancient works of art in the area – is a clear statement of her own style and genius.

There’s no pandering to conceptual or post-conceptualism here, no flattery to fashionable cliques. Instead, there’s sincerity, individuality and a clear mastery of her ‘concetto’.  Behind her painting I find a mixture of wistfulness and playfulness, an amalgam of nostalgia and hope and, above all, a true dedication to the highest ideals of art, especially Italian art.

As the children who took part in yesterday’s delightful and recited their definition of art and for the mellifluous amalgam of the flute and harp players, the finest art expresses the highest emotion into mute speech.

I trust Simonetta’s exhibition will continue for a few more days and also that people will join her art course which begins next Wednesday. More details are at

See you there?




The Colours of Joy

Jill Casty has, during the last ten years, become a supreme master in the art of fused glass and her exhibition at the ‘Bollicine d’autore’ Enoteca, Lucca, has to be a compulsory stop for anyone inside (or even outside) the city walls.


Jill’s style ranges from semi-figurative to Miro-like playfulness and the supports for her work are almost Calder-like in their geometry.

I profess I’m no expert on glass-making and so got a little confused between the great stained glass tradition one can admire, especially in the northern French gothic cathedral and also in Italy (where the apsidal windows in Milan cathedral are unmissable and where one has only to go to Arezzo cathedral to see the magnificent stained glass windows of Guillaume de Marcillat).

Jill Casty creates fused glass. This is a technique where glass is fired in a kiln at various ranges of high temperatures up to over 800 degrees centigrade. I’m not quite sure which techniques of fused glass Jill uses. There are three main ones. Fused, where two pieces of glass are put inside a kiln and heated until they fuse into one piece, slumped where glass is placed over a mould and heated until it drapes over the mould or cast where the glass is melted and flows into a mould.


Since all of these techniques can be used in the creation of one glass work Jill may use all three. The best way to learn and find out would be of course to visit the artist’s studio while she’s at work.

Initially inspired by Mexican folk art with cloth weavings of animals and flowers Jill’s art has developed into an astounding colour-range and three-dimensionality fully exploiting the subtle tonalities and reflections of glass.

It’s particularly appropriate to have Jill’s exhibition in one of Lucca’s most distinguished enoteche. Surrounded by wine of the highest quality why not have a glass yourself while you’re admiring Jill’s art, which is glass sculpture at its best and most exhilarating.

The exhibition is at the Bollicine D’ autore Enoteca at via Calderia N 12 which is the street to the left of San Michele in Foro church and is titled:

Jill Casty, I Colori Della gioia (the colours of joy), Sculture in Vetro (glass sculptures)

The exhibition closes on the 18th of this month. Most items are for sale.

You can find out more about Jill’s art at her web site at





Roberto Bellucci’s Fantasy World

The three ingredients in his art, according to Roberto Bellucci are sand, stone and fantasy. Bellucci’s exhibition in the foyer of the Bagni di Lucca’s town hall displays these elements to perfection. Inaugurated on 13th August, today is the last day to view his work.

08252016 054

I thought immediately that Bellucci must have had something to do with the opificio delle pietre dure in Florence – the restoration laboratory which specialises in artistic creation using semi-precious stones. But I was wrong. Roberto seeks his own inspiration and is not tied to any academic institution.

If you are able to make it for today’s last day please do so. Bellucci’s work is a delight which is both complex, quirky and full of fantasy. His compositions grow organically out of the materials he uses whether they are semiprecious stones or pebbles from the river.

If you can’t make it then here is a selection of what you will miss:

Alvaro Bei’s Return to the Brush

Of all the artists currently exhibiting at the Sala Rosa at Bagni di Lucca’s Circolo dei Forestieri, Alvaro Bei is the most inscrutable yet most instantaneous. Born in 1948 in Lucca where he still lives, Bei had evidently been a very promising art student but, due to family financial pressures, had to up any idea of earning his bread as a painter and followed a career in the voluntary sector and politics instead. Only when retiring at age 62 did Alvaro return to the paintbrush – a thankful decision because his canvases are full of immediate impact – indeed several of them contain the surtitle ‘flash’ and have a very cosmopolitan range of views.

Take this series of cities of towers which clearly range from New York to Lucca.

Bei has a strong affinity with both cities but does not neglect the beautiful Tuscan landscape surrounding Lucca.

Diamond-edged skies, a true feeling for raw urban streetscapes and a clever combination of collage and perspective are further distinguishing features of his technique.

Alvaro Bei has also been involved in the production of two important books about our area: ‘ Lucca Val di Serchio e Versilia’ , of 1991 and ‘Luoghi sacri-Luoghi d’arte (Pacini-Fazzi) of 2003 and the artist’s incisive and immaculately observed paintings owe much to his experiences both in travel and as a book publishing collaborator.