Of Angel Staircases and Angelic Seafood in Livorno

I recently discussed with a friend what we considered to be the most neglected towns and cities in Italy. Neglected, that is, from a point of visiting them rather than having them badly looked after.  I consider Livorno one of the most neglected cities in Italy, especially as it happens also to be Tuscany’s second largest urban centre and one of Italy’s major seafood centres. Until quite lately it was also neglected in terms of its appearance too. But things are changing.

I’ve written quite a bit about Livorno. I won’t repeat what I said here but would suggest you read my posts at:


and at:


Our day at Livorno had begun with the visit to the ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ (do see my previous post). More was to follow. In particular, there was a trip to a sumptuous villa with fabulous paintings by that greatest of Italian impressionists, Giovanni Fattori. I’ve visited this extraordinary place twice already. Depending on your taste-buds you can either call villa Mimbelli an elegant example of La Belle Epoque, or a supreme case of O.T.T. vulgarity. The villa was built by Architect Vincenzo Micheli between 1865 and 1875 for Francesco Mimbelli, a rich merchant and his wife, Enrichetta Rodocanacchi. If nothing else, the villa just shows what wealth flowed into Livorno.

(PS The Mooreish (moresco) room above is the smoking chamber for men only. I originally thought it may have been a harem.)

The grand staircase is decorated with charming ceramic putti. There were very differing views in my party about if they would allow this sort of thing in their residence:

There are some interesting, somewhat eclectic paintings on the first two floors:

The finest paintings, however, are kept on the top floor whose modest decoration and lower ceiling height show that this must have been the servants’ quarters.

Livornese Giovanni Fattori’s paintings of military manoeuvres and battles during the Italian war of independence show his supreme skill in capturing horse anatomy and the dynamics of the drills themselves. He is, indeed, the painter that dragged Italy into the new world of impressionism and French trends. The term macchiaioli (macchia=stain) is used to describe this Italian version of ‘plein-air’ and light-infected painting. Other paintings on this top floor included examples of some of the Livornese painters who followed Fattori’s technique.

Here are some fine adornments for their lords and masters:

We didn’t have much enthisiasm to explore the exotic gardens surrounding the villa (which also have specimens of palms from the Canaries) because of the deluge that was raining ‘a catinelle’ (= cats and dogs) upon us. So the brave act of one of our group to fetch the car enabled us to drive to a very particular restaurant for lunch; but not before taking a walk on the spectacular Terrazza Mascagni and gazing on an even more spectacular seafront view. What a passionate backcloth for that couple having their wedding photographs taken!

Cacciucco is Livorno’s most famous dish. It’s a fish stew/soup like no other and has featured not only in many famous recipe books but, more recently, also on TV.  In London’s Seymour Street there’s the unmissable Michelin-starred Locanda Locatelli for some of the best Italian food in town. (Giorgio Locatelli has won ‘best Italian restaurant’ award twice already too). Locatelli with art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon decided they’d track down the cacciucco in Livorno:

If you slide to 47 minutes. 46 seconds of this video of the BBC programme ‘Italy unpacked’:

you’ll find out more about where, what and how and how we ate!

After lunch the weather brightened up a little and we decided to explore a little of Livorno. Despite the almost blanket bombing of World War Two, we came across some delightful corners in this cosmopolitan city including the new fortress, ‘la nuova Venezia’, the aristocratic via Borra, the fabulous market building, the Inigo Jones-designed cathedral in the main square, the statue of the four moorish slaves, the sanctuary of Saint Caterina and much else including that inimitable Livornese drink, Ponce, (punch) a sort of caffé corretto with rum and cognac introduced by English sailors to the city they called ‘Leghorn’.

Just look at these pictures to entice you to Livorno:

I, at least, am sure that relegating Livorno to a city not worth a special journey is a big mistake!









A More Interesting Way of Getting to Pisa Airport

When you are going from the Lucchesia to Pisa airport to fly back to Brexit Britain why not make the journey a little more exciting?

An occasion arose for me to do this the other day and a detour to Marina di Pisa was well-worth it.

First, we stopped at the ancient church of San Piero a Grado which dates back to at least the eighth century. It marks the spot where Saint Peter is traditionally supposed to have first landed on Italian soil from whence he travelled to Rome and to his eventual upside-down crucifixion.

The church is unusual in having an apse at each end and of using roman capitals for its columns. It is, thus a truly basilican plan in the classical sense and exudes an extraordinary atmosphere of peace and veneration. Surrounded by large lawns San Piero is one of the earliest examples of that Pisan Romanesque which found its apotheosis in Pisa’s own cathedral.

07062016 017

One of the several unusual exterior features of San Piero a Grado, which is now classed as a minor basilica and titled ‘messenger of peace’, are the Islamic plates inserted in the upper lunettes. I always find that these decorations are a sort of metaphor that Christian and Islam can co-exist peacefully.

Ironically, the campanile was demolished by the Germans (although it was recently reconstructed to about a third of its height) on their retreat from the allied advance to the gothic line because they thought the enemy would use it as a look-out post over the flat Pisan plain. Ironically, because here it was one Christian-based culture fighting it out against another Christian-based one…

The church’s interior, which is very spacious and is crowned by a wooden truss roof, consists of a nave and two aisles.

The upper walls are almost completely covered by frescos which are more faded on one side than the other, probably because of the greater amount of sunlight they received. They were painted by Deodato Orlandi from Lucca in the early 14th century and illustrate, in addition to the life of Saint Peter, the lives of St Paul, Constantine and St Sylvester.


(To the left, St Peter being crucified head-downwards because he didn’t want to be proud enough to emulate Christ’s crucifixion)

Below these frescoes are portraits of all the popes up to that time.

07062016 008

At the west end of the basilica is a large ciborium, or canopy over an altar, in 15th gothic century style which marks the place where St Peter delivered  his first sermon upon landing on the Italian shore.

In case you were wondering what happened to the sea all this area was once a lagoon and the church was built on a higher level overlooking it. Since that time the sea has silted up and is now a good five miles away.

07062016 015

(Map showing the former lagoon)

Moving to more secular matters we travelled on to Marina di Pisa which a remarkably quiet, relaxed and family-oriented seaside resort quite unlike the worldly hub-bub of Viareggio. Once the favourite hangouts of artists and composers like Puccini and D’Annunzio, it has seen a recent revival of its fortunes thanks to the construction of a relatively inoffensive new marina with some lovely landscaped coastal-plant gardens around it.

There is an adequate public beach which I once remember as having no sand on it as persistent erosion had swept it all away. Happily today the sandy beach has been built up again and it’s really pleasant to lie on it and have a cooling swim before the hordes of summer crowds really start moving in for the High Holiday season.

07062016 038

The sea promenade is lined with a variety of restaurants of varying costs. We found a friendly one and were served well with mussels, cutlets chips, melon and ham.

07062016 027

On a more sombre note there’s a memorial park with a propeller belonging to the Hercules aircraft from the nearby military airport and which was shot down with all its Italian crew members during the Bosnian war in 1992.

Art nouveau aficionados will have a great time admiring some very elegant villas. And the the estuary of the Arno (Bocca d’Arno) just to the north of the Marina is a delighful spot with a fish market and the traditional retoni (big nets) used to lower into the water and catch a variety of fish.. (See my post on this at  https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/05/28/a-big-network-at-marina-di-pisa/ )

Unfortunately the airport timetable caught up on us and we had to leave without really giving a look this attractive place with its fin-de-siècle atmosphere deserves. What would be a British seaside resort equivalent for it, I wonder? Worthing perhaps? There was no British equivalent, however for the wonderful sunshine we experienced before heading on to meet our guest at the airport.

English Road-Rage in Italy?

Don’t think that Italian car drivers show the most unacceptable road manners in Europe and that the British are the most courteous, never failing to obey traffic regulations here, including stopping at a zebra crossing when there’s a pedestrian. English ‘Road-Rage’, was thoroughly demonstrated in its full capacity of bullying and vulgarity yesterday when, after a beautiful day in Garfagnana, we headed to the Blood donor Festa at San Cassiano, a festa we try to never miss for its liveliness, sociability and great contribution to those who need our blood (and I do not speak of Dracula!).

Once out of the parking lot and going home via the steep hill coming out of San Cassiano towards Bagni di Lucca, we were blocked by a black car. Before we tried to tell the driver of this car, ‘please, reverse into that space just behind. out of this car came the English words: ‘you reverse’. My wife, who was driving, tried to explain in English. ‘Please reverse. There is a place just a few steps to your right where you can wait and let us pass. This is the regulation in Italy ‘. In fact, she was referring to that part of the Italian Highway Code which states:

On mountain or otherwise steep roads, if passing each other is impossible, it is the driver going downhill who must  pull over and stop as possible to the right edge of the road or move back to a wider part of the road where there is a passing place.

In the event that it becomes necessary to reverse, it is necessary to have regard to the type of vehicles: – combinations of vehicles (i.e. vehicles formed by a tractor vehicle and a trailer) always have priority over other vehicles; – Vehicles of total mass full load exceeding 3.5 tons always take precedence over the overall mass of a full load up to 3.5 tons; – Buses always have precedence over the trucks. In the case in which the vehicles are both belonging to the same category among those mentioned above, (that is, in our case), the reverse must be carried out by the driver of the vehicle traveling downhill.

At this point the British car tried to move forward blocking us against the grass and rock verge on our right side. In addition, it was in danger of smashing into a parked car on it right. My wife warned them that they could damage that machine.

Behind the British car an Italian car drove down and stopped behind the passing place to enable the British car to reverse and park there so that we and the line of cars behind could pass.

No way! At this point, words were coming out of the British car which can’t repeated in full here – only to say that they related to female body parts ‘you c ***’ etc. The female in the British car then got out in the middle of the road and repeated these same words. We noticed that her accent was not exactly BBC standard. (In England, if an English person opens their mouth, it soon becomes clear not only where they live, but often what their life-style is like. This is the tragedy of the English. Just think of that delightful musical “My Fair Lady” with the incomparable Audrey Hepburn to understand this sad fact).

“Our car is bigger than yours,” continued his companion. This typical example of bullying failed to move our car, now stuck between a rock and a hard place. Finally, the British realized that there was nothing to do but to begin reversing to the passing place not far behind their car and which had been so kindly vacated by the Italian car behind them.

When we could finally pass, the driver of that infernal English machine opened his window and said to my wife in English, “Are you happy now? You f ******* c ***. ”

What a nice end to a day full of joy for us!

Who are these vulgar Brits who invade our Controneria summer and do nothing but drink, drink, drink, who have not read a verse of Dante, who cannot even order a coffee in Italian, who cannot distinguish a Vasari from a Veronese, who trash this beautiful country, in short, believe that the imperialists are still in this blessed land. Would they like to reconquer the Lucchesia as they once did after the battle of Waterloo?


08112015 196

(A better contribution to Italy from Britain – our plate of Fish & Chips at Barga’s delicious Sagra di Pesce e Patate which carries on until 16th August) and where we supped yesterday.

08112015 201



Italy’s Second Rome

Mosaic-making is the one art which can be said to be truly universal, From Sumerian and pre-Columbian civilizations up to the present day it has flourished and produced many exquisite masterpieces. Moreover, it is also one of the most durable of creations; where paintings have faded away and statues lost their limbs, mosaics have retained their original colouration and faithfully transmitted their vibrant glory to the present day.

Roman mosaics, with their different gradations of tesserae sizes and techniques, are spread throughout Europe and North Africa (where the finest examples can be found). From England’s Lullingstone Roman villa just outside London

 download (1)

through Sicily’s Piazza Armerina


to the incredible examples in Tunisia (which we visited on our honeymoon)

surviving mosaics just show how universally their technique was spread throughout the known world.

Mosaics continued to be composed after the fall of the Roman Empire and some of the most splendid examples are to be found in Byzantine art, particularly at Ravenna (which we must revisit as soon as possible!) In Sicily, where we stayed in the winter of 2011-12, the superb examples in the palatine chapel of Palermo, Monreale and Cefalù are unbeatable.

Lucca, of course, has its own mosaic masterpiece in Berlinghieri’s work on the façade of San Frediano.

Lucca 1

After a lull during the Baroque era mosaics came back to their own again in the nineteenth century and it would be difficult to find a modern church in Italy without at least one example in its interior.

Aquileia is now a modest fishing village with  around 3,500 inhabitants situated in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region of north-east Italy but once it was Italy’s largest city with a population of over 100,000. Indeed, it was called the “Second Rome”. Attila the Hun laid it waste in 452 and its citizens fled to an island in the Lagoon to found one of the Mediterranean’s greatest maritime powers, Venice. Aquileia was rebuilt and became a Christian patriarchate in the 6th century. In 1420 the Venetians conquered it but later Aquileia was seized by the Austrian empire, within whose confines it remained until 1918 when it became part of the new kingdom of Italy.

Abundant traces of Aquileia’s rich history remain to this day and I was glad to visit it in April 2007. From Roman times are the remains of the main street and the port area, now to be found ten miles inland since the lagoon is slowly silting up. The archaeological area  is excellently documented.

In Aquileia’s ancient patriarchal basilica is one of the world’s largest mosaics dating back to the 4th century AD. It represents scenes from the Old Testament and is filled with Christian symbolism. For example, the story of Jonah being swallowed by the whale and subsequently ejected by the sea-monster  refers to Christ’s death and His resurrection after three days.


There’s a battle depicted between a cock and a tortoise explained by the symbolism of the cock singing at dawn as the light of Christ and the tortoise as the symbol of hell or Tartarus.


The depiction of fish and crustaceans is both delightful and accurate. The species depicted can be easily recognised on today’s fish stalls.

The fish is, of course, the well-known Greek acronym of ichthys, meaning Iesus Cristos Theou Uios Soter (Jesus Christ Saviour, Son of God). That’s why fish used to be customarily eaten on Fridays in Catholic families to symbolise Good Friday and Christ’s eventual resurrection three days later, i.e. on Sunday.

In 1998 the archaeological site of Aquileia, together with the remains of the patriarchal Basilica complex, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Behind the basilica is a small war cemetery. It was from here that the Unknown Soldier was taken to lie at the front of the Altar of the Nation (colloquially known as the “wedding cake”) in Rome’s Piazza Venezia.

Aquileia and its surroundings are lovely, if somewhat melancholic, places to visit. Their rich past and present desolation prompts one to musings on the transience of civilizations and peoples.

PS Our Serchio valley has its own Aquileja (spelt with a “j” instead of an “i” – perhaps same derivation from “Aquila” meaning an eagle?). It’s of course, in a very different environment among verdant hills far from the flat, formerly malarial, plains of Veneto’s Aquileia, but just the sound of its name evokes for me fond memories of my visit to what was once the largest city in Europe.

Something Fishy in Fornaci

I’m not a great fish eater unlike my wife who, anyway, is born under the sign of Pisces. Fish ‘n chips in the UK and in Barga’s namesake summer festival, with the odd tinned tuna and Garfagnana’s trout are just about my limit. Perhaps I need some fish education here especially when living in a Mediterranean land (and in a region facing the Tyrrhenian Sea) where fish varieties can be so different and where the members of the finny tribe sometimes look so odd.

There’s a fish stall at the market at Fornaci di Barga which takes place on Fridays and it also makes a circulating appearance at Fornoli on Tuesdays and at Ponte a Moriano as well.

Here are some specimens (and customers) at the motorised stall, including some crustaceans and shell-fish.

My wife chose small fry (our whitebait?) which she prepared according to her special recipe and it provided part of a most delicious lunch.

04042015 021

Perhaps I’d better begin an English Italian dictionary of fishy terms.

Here’s a start with a list headed by two of Italy’s most popular sea-fish:

Bronzino (branzino in northern Italy) – sea bass

Orata – guilt-head sea bream

Triglie – mullet

Scorfano – scorpionfish

Calamari- squid

Polpo – octopus

Vongole – clams

Cozze – mussels

Sard(in)e- sardines

Acciughe – anchovies

Seppie – cuttlefish

Gamberi – prawn

Scampi – langoustines

Aragoste – spiny lobster

Sogliole – sole

Palamita – bonito

Coda di rospo – monkfish

Cicale – mantis shrimp

Gallinella – tub gurnard

Dentice – red snapper

(Do feel free to add to this!)

Of river fish I’ll stick to this one in our part of the world:

Trota – trout

There are some great fish dishes in Italy including fish soup which originates from Livorno and comes under the name Cacciucco. There’s a good recipe for it at


Fish in Italy also has important religious connotations. Once it was customary to restrict oneself to fish on Fridays as an obligation of the Roman Catholic religion. On Christmas Eve it’s usual here to have fish only as a meal a sort of lean before the Christnas day fat.

We thought we’d go along with these customs and so yesterday’s Good Friday was commemorated with that delicious dish of small fry drizzled with lemon from our very own lemon tree.

04042015 020