Florence’s Cloister of Vows

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

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

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

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

No. Image before restoration

(Click on icon to see image)

Image after or during restoration

(Click on image to see larger view)

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


A Museum All to Myself in Florence

As I write a very strong and icy wind is sweeping across Italy bringing ever more misery to the earthquaked cities, towns and villages of central Italy and our first snowflakes here. This morning I woke up to a house without electricity but, fortunately, still supplied with gas and a good stock of wood.

The Museo San Marco, which I visited on my recent trip to Florence, seems eons away, especially the divine tranquillity of its cloisters and the frescoes in the friars’ cells painted by Beato Angelico.


January and February are particularly good months to visit Florence’s great cultural heritage. The tourist masses have not yet arrived and it’s often possible to have the place to oneself. At San Marco I was the only person there for most of the time – it was wonderful!

How did this monastery come to be created and who was Beato Angelico?

The foundation of the monastery by Silvestrine monks (a sub-order of the Benedictines) dates back to before 1300 and there are some frescoes below ground which still remain from this period.


In 1418 the monks were told to leave because of irregularities in their order but it wasn’t until 1420 that, thanks to Cosimo de Medici, they were replaced by Dominican friars from Fiesole. The friars found a very dilapidated structure mainly consisting of wooden huts so in 1437 Cosimo commissioned the great architect Michelozzo to rebuild the monastery according to renaissance ideals. In 1443 San Marco was finally consecrated.

The structure is of great beauty and contains two large cloisters (St Anthony and St Dominic) with painted lunettes:

and two smaller ones.

In addition to the friars’ cells

San Marco also includes a chapter house, two refectories, dormitories, a library and a pilgrim’s guest house.

The library may be confidently said to have truly sparked off the great advancement of learning, particularly the rediscovery of classical texts, which underwrote the whole renaissance adventure and marked a break from the previous age of mediaeval scholasticism. Without this library we might well still be speculating on the number of angels on the top of a pin…..

Among the greats of this new learning curve were humanist Agnolo Poliziano (Politian) and Pico Della Mirandola who are both buried in the adjoining church. (Incidentally these writers together with Marsilio Ficino are part of the teaching of the School of Economic Science in London whose events and courses we have attended).


(Tombs of Politian and Pico della Mirandola with statue of Savonarola in Florence’s San Marco church)

How perfect it must have been to have one’s mind opened by studying texts in this airy and light-filled library!

There is a good display showing how the illuminated manuscripts were produced. The parchment was made from animal skin which then had to be coated with gesso to produce a workable surface.

All the colours had to be ground from their sources. Blue was particularly prized.

Then, of course, there was all the binding to be done after the writing and illuminating:

What a difference from word-processing a document today and how much more beautiful the end product!.

The heart of the monastery are, however the rows of Dominican friars’ cells decorated by frescoes by Beato Angelico in the 1440’s. Beato Angelico was actually beatified, (by Pope John Paul II in 1982), but his transcendence as a painter earned him the title of ‘Beato’ soon after his death. Artistry and adoration are magnificently combined by Beato Angelico:

(The frescoes of episodes from Christ’s life don’t follow a chronological sequence down the cells but I have arranged them above as they succeeded one another)

For those with sight difficulties there was a tactile representation of one of the frescoes – the Annunciation:

Giovanni da Fiesole, to give him his original name, started off as a miniaturist very much in the late mediaeval tradition. Indeed, Beato Angelico illuminated one of the books in the library:


Born in Vicchio in 1395 Giovanni’s aims were to combine mediaeval devotional painting in the post-byzantine idiom with the new rules of perspective, light and shade of renaissance art. In this he succeeded admirably. In one sense Beato Angelico might be regarded as a naïf painter but he certainly knew his contemporary artists well and was fully up-to.-date with what was happening creatively around him.

It’s no wonder that Beato Angelico is the patron saint of artists – his day is celebrated on February 18.

Two of the cells provided a retreat for Cosimo de Medici:

Another was home to the fundamentalist priest Savonarola who railed against the decadence and luxury of renaissance Florence and even persuaded Botticelli to burn some of his more sensual pictures.

Not surprisingly he eventually finished up at the stake in Piazza Signoria (his burning place is marked by a plaque today):

I think the portable chair Savonarola invented was the best thing about him: take a dowel out and the chair folds flat:

The museum has further works by Beato Angelico in the old pilgrims’ hostel.


This includes the restored wonderful Pala Annalena which had arrived from the workshop just a few days previously :


and also works by Fra’ Bartolomeo, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Alesso Baldovinetti, Jacopo Vignali, Bernardino Poccetti and Giovanni Antonio Sogliani:

I particularly like Ghirlandaio’s last supper with those lovely birds and that well-fed cat by the table. I feel that the cat is there to celebrate an animal whose intervention in capturing vermin from the granary stores safeguarded provisions for the Last Supper – or indeed any supper for that matter…I’m glad the birds flying above are safe from his claws!

PS In case you are confused by the difference between priest, monk and friar see http://aleteia.org/2015/12/07/what-is-the-difference-between-a-friar-a-monk-and-a-priest/

In short not all priests are monks or friars and not all monks or friars are priests.

Of Santuari, Basiliche, Duomi and Cattedrali in Parma

A sanctuary is a place of safety. Traditionally, one can seek sanctuary from an enemy by sheltering in the sacred precincts of a religious building. Today, unfortunately as world events have shown, such places are no guarantee of safety at all.

A sanctuary is also a place associated with a saint. Italy is a country of saints and sanctuaries proliferate. Lucca, for example, has its sanctuary dedicated to Saint Gemma (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/saint-gemma-galgani-mystic-saint-or-mental-patient/  ). Often sanctuaries are larger and more imposing buildings than cathedrals. In Padua  the extraordinary sanctuary dedicated to Saint Anthony (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/the-saint-of-lost-causes/) dominates the town in a way that the Duomo does not.

Parma’s magnificent cathedral (the Correggio frescoes in its cupola are the precursor of the ascending-heavenly-angelic 3-D effects which characterize counter-reformation churches), which we visited on a previous trip to this city, still retains its primacy among religious edifices:


but coming a close second is the beautiful sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata (literally Saint Mary of the stockade) which I had missed out on the previous visit but was now able to see last week-end.

The sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata is also a basilica. At this stage one might rightly be confused about the terms duomo, cattedrale and basilica as applied in Italy. Let’s try to explain their difference:

A basilica is, literally, ‘the house of the king’ and, thus, of the Lord. Its name derives from Greek ‘Basileus’ which signifies king and from ‘oikos’ which means house. Every church could thus be defined as a basilica but the Roman Catholic Church only gives to some the title of basilica (which could be a minor or major one) depending on their importance and artistic value. A basilica, furthermore must be able maintain the correct decorum in the practise of its religious rites.

A Duomo, from Latin ‘Domus’ meaning house, still remains the house of God and is the most important church in a town or city. It’s usually originally built in gothic style with a firm emphasis on the vertical – aspirations going heavenwards.

A cattedrale (cathedral) is a Duomo located in a town or city which is also the seat of a bishop. In fact, the name cattedrale comes from Latin ‘cathedra’ meaning a throne – for that’s where the bishop has his seat.

The Basilica of Santa Maria della Steccata, from 1718 the seat of the Constantinian Order of St. George (which is supposed to date back to its founding by the Roman Emperor Constantine) was constructed between 1521 and 1539 and in 2008 elevated to the rank of minor basilica. So it’s both a sanctuary and a basilica but not a duomo or cattedrale. I hope that explains it now!

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On the site of the present church a religious building existed since 1392 and an oratory was built to house a venerated image of St. John the Baptist painted in fresco on the outer wall of a house. The building became home to a brotherhood dedicated to the Virgin of the Annunciation and engaged in the distribution of dowries for poor girls and unmarried women who lacked paternal protection.

Towards the end of the fourteenth century a picture of the Madonna nursing the baby Jesus on the facade of the oratory was painted. This image soon became the object of special devotion on the part of the people of Parma Since the area of ​​the building was protected by a fence, erected perhaps to control the flow of pilgrims, the Virgin began to be invoked under the title of ‘Our Lady of the Steccata’ (stockade).

In order to conserve the precious image, the congregants, in 1521, decided to build a large sanctuary. On April 4, 1521 the Bishop of Lodi, Nicola Urbani, laid the foundation stone of the present building. The work was entrusted to the architects Bernardino and Giovan Francesco Zaccagni from Torrechiara, who had already directed the construction of the town’s abbey church of St. John.  From 1525 work continued under Gian Francesco d’Agrate. The dome was raised, however, between 1526 and 1527 by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, who was sent to Parma from Pope Clement VII where he had been involved in the construction of the new Saint Peter’s basilica…

The church was consecrated on February 24, 1539 by Cardinal Ciocchi Gian Maria del Monte, papal legate of the duchies of Parma and Piacenza.

The building’s plan is a Greek cross, with transepts placed on the cardinal axes. Between the cross’s arms there are four quadrangular chapels. The church is, indeed, very similar to the original plan for Saint Peter’s in Rome before Maderna changed that building’s Michaelangeloesque plan into the more generally accepted Latin cross, with a long nave better suited to liturgical purposes.

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The interior is decorated with seventeenth century frescoes of the Parma school.  The entire pictorial decoration was initially entrusted to Parmigianino, but only he managed to paint a few frescoes depicting the three wise


and the three foolish virgins.


The decoration was continued by Michelangelo Anselmi, who painted the frescoes of the Coronation of the Virgin in the eastern apse (designed by Giulio Romano),

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and Bernardino Gatti, who painted the Assumption of Mary in the dome.

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The interior is permeated with a rich and mystic atmosphere intensified by the arrival of many pilgrims while I was there. It’s pure frozen music and would, in fact, make a wonderful ambience for such works as Palestrina’s polyphonic masses.

I was also able to visit the sacristy which I would rate as one of the most beautiful of any visited in Italy. The wood carving of the cupboards containing the priest’s vestments is supreme and their contents, richly embroidered by an enclosed order of nuns, is quite heavenly. Photography is not encouraged so you’ll have to imagine much of it. However, here are some shots I took of this opulent room:

Equally interesting is the crypt. In 1823, at the behest of Marie Luigia of Austria, a crypt was built to preserve the tombs of the dukes and princes of the houses of Farnese and Bourbon-Parma (the ashes were transferred from the church of Santa Maria Del Tempio). Here there’s a connection with the crypt of the Hapsburgs we saw in Vienna quite a few years back,


for Maria Luigia was herself a member of this great Austrian dynasty of the Hapsburgs.

The basilica has two magnificent organs.

The Antegnati organ dates back to 1574. The Antegnati were a Brescian family of organ builders who were active between the end of the fifteenth and the start of the eighteenth century.  The organ was restored in 1778 by Antonio Negri Poncini and again by the now defunct Tamburini firm of organ builders in 1970.

The second organ was built by Carlo Vegezzi-Bossi in 1892 and restored in 1940, again by Tamburini.

It would be fantastic to hear these organs. Next visit perhaps?

Bagni Di Lucca Arts Festival – Three Times Lucky!!!

It was a great opening and continued into an animated and highly social evening. I am, of course, referring to the first night of Bagni di Lucca’s arts festival, now in its third year.

Around six o’clock with the streets of Ponte a Serraglio turned into a pedestrian “island” the artists gathered together around the blue and white flouncy ribbon.

Mayor Betti after a short speech in which he praised Jaqueline Varela and her band of volunteers in re-creating a great cultural event, giving our comune prestige and fame, with flair, determination and dedication, cut the ribbon.

Then it was the turn for us to visit the exhibitions in rooms all converted into exhibition space from long-closed shops. The amount of work in rendering these places again fit for artistic purposes was immense. Battles against dampness were won, walls were repainted, and everything was made fit for purpose in a remarkably short time, again through volunteers.

There was so much to see and so many truly interesting artists to meet that I can only concentrate on a couple of rooms which grabbed me on the first evening. I’ll try to let you see the other rooms in later posts.

The marine-coloured strip covering three sides of this room and covered with black spots almost haphazardly grown on them, like patches of moss, revealed itself as a tragic metaphor for the thousands of refugees who chance the highly uncertain sea voyage from war-stricken countries just across the Mediterranean from Italy and instead drown in the deep at the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers.

The painting by artist Anna Darlington of Cembroni will change for both better and worse. Worse, because each day further spots will be added to signify yet more deaths in that terrible sea-change just south of Italy, for better because it will make more and more people aware of the scale of the human disaster that is now occurring so frequently that reactions can almost change to a mere shrug of the shoulders.

The other exhibition room which fascinated me was entitled “Leftovers – Utopia revisited”.  Austro-Russian photographer Chris Dematté captured haunting images of sculptures glorifying the progress of socialism into communism in Stalinist and post –Stalinist Russia. Many of these sculptures have either been destroyed or relegated to some obscure statue graveyard.

When in Kiev some years ago we remember the colossal features of Mother Russia which, apparently, has only been saved from the pick-axe not just because of its huge size but because it has become Mother Ukraine in the hearts of so many of its inhabitants when remembering that it was the Ukrainian forces who first marched into Berlin at the end of WWII. Otherwise, so many of these statues are just embarrassments to the cities they inhabit. Such is the price of totalitarianism.

It was interesting to note that an Italian fascist era war memorial statue on the opposite side of the street from the exhibition was spared this fate!

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There was, of course, plenty more to see and make one think at the Arts festival. But for me, the great joy was being able to meet the artists and talk to them about their ideas, aspirations, dejections and hopes.

The utopia of a better life in Europe for star-struck refugees now being eaten by creatures of the deep, the utopia of a fully communist state where money would no longer exist, the utopia that a utopia can actually exist……..all vanished in our ever-more dystopic world!

What do we have left on this planet whose shortening life we can almost feel daily in our own blood and bones? Again, the film by Sergio Talenti with the most stunning visual images and deeply reflective commentary spoken by Debora Pioli brought these truly universal preoccupations to mind.

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We are no longer strictly alone as a life-planet. 1,400 light years away there’s a place so similar to ours that we could almost intuitively see our other halves there. But 1,400 lights years is still a long time to travel and wait!

Art, the harbinger, the prophet of so many things to come, can travel faster than light, can bring us closer to each other, can make us think more deeply about things, many of which we’ve never really considered, can give us the energy to go forwards, may even give us the strength to save our planet.

These thoughts were rushing through my mind as the twilight closed into night and the beautiful fusion sounds of Mozait, the Italo-Mozambique band, started up in Ponte’s main square before a townscape changed magically into expectation, joy and increasing hope for the future on our own earth’s tortured, beloved, inimitable ambience.

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Tonight, Sandra and I will give some readings in the camera oscura room (where Sergio’s film was projected) starting at 7.30 PM. You are all welcome to come along and even write more things on the wall, words which may have inspired you or even troubled you but certainly which have made you think. For the word and poetry have entered this year into the festival for the first time and we would be so happy for you to be there tonight and enter into the dialogue, which, although, largely in English will be explained to those whose first language is Italian. Further events in this room are planned, all of which will be advertised here.

On Monday, for a start there’s another reading with Jenny McIntosh at 7.00 PM.

Libraries are our Best Friends

Libraries come in all shapes and sizes, particularly in Italy. They all have one thing in common, however: they are places of refuge and learning and, often, of elegance.

Libraries are places of refuge because they provide oases from the invasion of ignorance which show no signs of abating in the outside world. They are dwellings of learning because there’s always something new one can find out about oneself and the world in these most ancient centres of erudition. And they are abodes of elegance because many of them are truly beautiful buildings to visit.

All these three elements were combined when I visited Borgo a Mozzano’s library yesterday to meet up with a student for an English lesson. The library has quite recently been moved from another ancient palace in Borgo a Mozzano’s long high street which is bordered by tall buildings worthy of any Oltrarno Florentine street. The library is situated in a beautiful square bounded on one side by the stunning baroque church of San Rocco with it great apse frescoes by neo-classical artist Luigi Ademollo.

The first room that struck me in the library was this one with the sweetest tartanesque wall decorations.

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That, however, was just the beginning. Further rooms had very beautiful ceilings which date back to neo-classical times. They were decorated with attractive medallions and whimsical grotesques. True, some of the ceilings were a little obscured by the necessities of modern library fittings and lighting but these were done with certain discretion and one was still able to admire the elegant proportions of each room.

Of course, a library is not just a collection of pleasing ceilings and creative wall decorations. Its pulsing heart is it books and I was very happy to see such a wide collection not just of volumes but also an extensive archive collection. Indeed, there was a young researcher there going through ancient dog-eared manuscripts and rebuilding family connections in a long established family of figurinai (the makers of local traditional makers of plaster of Paris statues which travelled the world in the lucchesi portmanteaux – so widespread that wags would brag that they even reached America before Columbus landed there himself and so were able to sell him the first New World souvenirs).

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In the midst of this beautiful library with an enclosed upper portico (in which we have also attended intimate chamber music concerts, some given by Borgo a Mozzano’s distinguished Marco Salotti music school under the presidency of renowned guitarist Antonio Rondina)  it was absolutely no surprise that the lesson went well and learning was achieved.

A web site for the library with opening hours is at http://www.comune.borgoamozzano.lucca.it/content.php?p=5.3

(PS “Libreria” is “bookshop” in Italian –not library which is “Biblioteca”!)

We are fortunate in Italy in having some of the most magnificent libraries in the world. Clearly, some of them like the Piccolomini in Siena or the Vatican in Rome are the ne-plus-ultra of cosmic librarianship but in so many smaller places there are fine libraries well curated by devoted and often overworked and underpaid librarians.

I mention our own Bagni di Lucca library in the old Anglican Church, greatly enriched by Ian Greenlees’ legacy (see https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/r-i-p-ian/) which provides a safe haven for all aspects of learning under Dr Angela Amadei. Further afield, the modern state-of-the art and quite spectacular Mario Luzi library in Florence, dedicated to one of the greatest modern Italian poet has recently be refurbished and provides every form of access, whether electronic or paper-based for research. (See my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/09/01/why-fie/ on that library)

When I consider the poor state of many libraries in my former borough of Greenwich, London – several of which have closed down, some of which have sold entire collections of classic books because they were considered irrelevant (!!!) and one of which some years ago introduced break-dancing (!) in one of its room to encourage younger users – then I become even more grateful for the quiet, studious and devoted ambience of Italy’s carriers of civilization’s torch throughout the peninsula and beyond.

And libraries don’t have to be huge things. One of the most charming ones I know is the little one in Bagni di Lucca’s public garden, mercifully spared by the ill wind at the beginning of last March. (See my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/bring-and-buy-or-exchange/ for more on that one.

As Walter Cronkite, the famous American journalist, said: “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”

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Of Marmots and Candles

The second of February is a day chosen in several parts of the northern hemisphere for the purpose of deciding how soon the spring will start.

In the USA, for example, it’s called groundhog day. The tradition there says that if it’s cloudy when a groundhog (our equivalent would be marmot) comes out of its burrow on February 2nd it will be an early spring. On the other hand, if it’s a sunny day, the groundhog will see its own shadow and go back into its burrow. This means that winter will carry on for another six weeks.

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The rhyme goes like this:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
winter will not come again.

In French Canada it’s called Jour de la Marmotte. .

In Italy February 2nd coincides with the religious festival of Candelora (in the UK, Candlemas).  Named after the lighting of candles in churches to symbolise the arrival of Christ’s light on the earth, it also celebrates two other event which have an ancient Hebraic root. First is the presentation of Jesus in the temple. Second is the purification of the Virgin since for forty days after giving birth a woman was reckoned to be in an impure state.

(Fresco by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel Padova which we visited last year)

The February festival has both pagan origins and later accretions. In pagan times it celebrated the rebirth of light after the darkest and coldest period of winter (c. f .my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/i-giorni-della-merla/). In parts of Italy the festival became combined with that of popular saints. In Catania, for example, the 2nd of February also celebrates Saint Agatha, the city’s patron saint who is depicted bearing a dish on which appear to be two crème caramels but are, in fact, her breasts which were cut off at a torture session before her martyrdom (significantly Saint Agatha is patron saint of breast cancer victims – and also, incidentally, of safe eruptions on mount Etna.).


Be as it may, does the Festa della Candelora in Italy bring any weather predictions? Surprisingly, the weather on Candelora can signal two opposite trends depending on what one does (or doesn’t believe). The first is signalled by this verse

Madonna della Candelora
dell’inverno sèmo fòra
ma se piove o tira vento,
de l’inverno semo ancora ‘rento.’

(My translation follows:

 Candlemas Madonna,

If the day comes fine

We’ll be out of winter.

But if it’s rain or brine

To more winter we must re-enter.)

In other words, if the weather is fine on February second we’ll be out of winter, otherwise winter will drag on.

However, there is a second Italian version which goes like this and predicts the complete opposite event:

Per la Santa Candelora
se nevica o se plora
dell’inverno siamo fora,
ma se l’è sole o solicello
siamo sempre a mezzo inverno’


(My translation follows:


On the feast of Candlemas,

If the day brings rains or snows,

We’ll be well out of winter.

But if there’s sun and no clouds pass

And all about brightness glows

We’ll still be in mid-winter.)


Which versified Candlemas weather prediction do I believe in? This year, without a doubt it has to be the second.

To prove my point, yesterday, during a gloriously scenic visit to friends living well above the snow-line in a beautiful lonesome location above Coreglia Antelminelli, this is what the weather was like.

Waking up this morning and stumbling down to write this I look outside my window and notice something white coming down:

Ah well. Let there always be verses to cope with every weather condition so that no-one can ever be proved right or wrong! At least I saw these for the first time yesterday:


A Florentine Cloister Returns to its Former Colours

The basilica of the Santissima Annnunziata, (The most Holy Annunciation), in Florence’s square of the same name is reputed to be one of the holiest sites in Italy. Its fame relies on a picture of the Virgin which, because the painter was unable to finish her portrait to his satisfaction, was completed by an angel. There are several of these paintings created by divine intervention in Italy and clearly they mean a lot to those who have the Faith.

The painting in Santissima Annnunziata is kept within an elaborate shrine which contrasts with the beautiful Giotto-like simplicity of the portrait:.

I was more interested in the restoration work on the frescoes in the chiostro dei voti (votive cloister) which precedes this church. Its graceful proportions were designed by Michelozzo and the frescoes decorating it were painted by some of the greatest renaissance artists including Andrea Del Sarto and Pontormo.

Here is the Visitation as painted by Pontormo before its restoration in 2008


And here it is as I saw it last Sunday.


Here is Franciabigio’s betrothal of the Virgin before restoration:


 And here it is as seen last Sunday.


The difference is rather welcome since what was once a somewhat dingy fresco has now been brought back to something approaching its original lively colours.

I hope the same gets done for Andrea del Sarto’s masterpiece, the Madonna del Sacco (Madonna of the sack – so -called because St Joseph is resting on a sack during their flight to Egypt) which is not only in a parlous condition in the adjoining Chiostro dei Morti but also very hard to see because of its position and the reflective glass in front of it:


With all the frescoes and monuments needing urgent attention in Italy there would be jobs for life for anyone deciding on a career as an arts restorer. After years of underfunding for such projects there are increasing funds now available,  largely from private enterprise, to enable Italy’s inordinate wealth of artistic wonders to be fully appreciated and revalued.

I’m a particular fan of Pontormo and visited the excellent exhibition dedicated to him and Rosso Rossi at the Palazzo Strozzi last year. To see my account of that click on


The French Connection

The patron male saint of Italy is Saint Francis of Assisi (as Saint Catherine of Siena is the female patron saint) and his day is October 4th. I happened to be in Fiesole at the time. It was a splendid late afternoon and Fiesole was mercifully free of tourists. A wedding had just taken place at its cathedral and I noted the incredibly high (and slim) heels Italian women love to wear for these occasions:

There is a cumulative ticket which enables one to see Fiesole’s Etruscan and Roman city and also the Museo Bandini. I’d seen the classical sites before but was keen to visit the Museo Bandini which although small has a number of very attractive pictures and terracottas. The museum was founded in 1795 by Canon Angelo Maria Bandini and moved to its present purpose –built accomodation in 1913.

Canon Bandini must have had a far-reaching vision of what to include in his collection: so-called “primitive” (i.e. pre-renaissance) art was largely ignored in the nineteenth century and was only truly recognized for its importance in the twentieth century. So, if you’re into painters like Neri di Bicci, Lorenzo Monaco and Taddeo Gaddi and like those paintings with a gold background and gorgeous gothic frames then this is place to come to.

It is also a place to visit for its lovely collection of Robbianesque terracottas. As usual for many museums in Italy, I had the whole place to myself while huge queues were ever present outside the Uffizi.

For me the star item was this incredibly beautiful depiction of the Madonna and child by Brunelleschi (who also put the cupola on Florence’s cathedral).

I then climbed up the hill leading to the friary of Saint Francis at the top. There was time to view the missionary museum, mainly concentrating on the Far East although there is also a section on ancient Egypt). Despite the fact that the exhibits are interesting and sometimes of a high quality, the utter lack of documentation about them is appalling. I’m sure the friars could spare some time from their other duties to catalogue and label their museum more appropriately.

Here are some of the items on display.

I spotted a Bodhisattva, some delicate cork pictures and exquisite silk gowns.

At around 5.00 the service began. I felt very glad to be there. After all, I’m called Francis. It seemed the right place to celebrate this saint who breathed new life in the Roman Catholic Church as indeed I am sure his namesake is doing today in the Vatican.

After the Mass we were invited to a Festa in a set of cloisters I’d never seen before at the friary. They were much larger than the one the public normally sees. It was just as well as there were plenty of us there. We were served from large cauldrons. The first course was a delicious Ribollita and also some rice. We ended with cakes and wine.

In case you didn’t know how to make a typically Florentine Ribollita here is a menu which was given to me:


400 g of kale

450 g of boiled cannellini beans with a piece of ham rind (keeps the cooking water)

1 carrot

2 ripe tomatoes

1/2 leek 2 onions +

1 stalk of celery

2 cloves of garlic, peeled

1 potato

4-6 slices of bread

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 sprig of thyme 1 sprig of rosemary +

Salt and pepper


1) Prepare the cabbage.

Wash the cabbage careful, drain it and cut into pieces. Wash the tomatoes, boil them for about 1 minute, drain and peel them and cut into cubes. Finely chop the garlic.


2) Make the sauce.

Sauté the tomatoes with olive oil, chopped garlic, carrot, celery, onion, potato and leek, cleaned and cut into cubes for 4-5 minutes. Combine the beans and mix well.


3) Cook.

Pour the sauce with beans into a pot. Combine 1 litre of broth from the beans, cabbage and cook for more than 1 hour over low heat. Add the chopped bread and stir.


4) Spice it.

Stir-fry the remaining oil with the other clove of garlic, thyme and rosemary, washed, dried and chopped, for 2-3 minutes. Pour the flavoured oil and stir into the soup.


5) Complete.

Cook for about 1 minute, season with salt, sprinkle with plenty of pepper, stir and switch off. Sprinkle with a little olive oil. To transform the cabbage soup and black beans in proper Ribollita, prepare it the day before and heat it over low heat.

The evening was magical as I stepped outside to enjoy the twilight descending over the hill and the great city of Florence below me.

I returned to where I was staying and was just in time for a neighbour’s firework’s party. No penny bangers here but then the neighbour is a famous Florentine fashion designer:

The best things in life are not only free but totally unplanned.


PS Why is this post called the French Connection? It’s because Francis means “the person from France” which (from Provence), is where his family originated.

Volcanic Baths in Saturn(ia) and Go-Karts in Civitella

Next day’s itinerary took us first to Scansano, famous for its Morellino wine. The hilltop town is also very attractive and we enjoyed a welcome break here.

There is an interesting museum with a collection of Etruscan items and a section on wine-making.

I’d seen a picture of the cascatelle of Saturnia (little waterfalls) and was determined we should include this on our itinerary. The cascatelle are fed by hot thermal springs and emanate a smell of bad eggs. They are very curative for a variety of ailments (mainly back-ache) and also very relaxing

The “little waterfalls” were gushing and despite the number of people enjoying the warm waters we too found a place and for about half an hour I had the pleasure of a hot waterfall pouring over me.

The waterfalls are free which is not the case with Saturnia terme, an exclusive hotel and golf course complex we skirted on our way to the actual town of Saturnia, which is quiet and attractive.

The borgo of Saturnia should not be missed – it has a good section of Roman road – part of the Via Clodia – going through its Etruscan-era gate:

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Near Saturnia is a jewel of a hilltop town, Montemerano, happily free from those busloads of tourists that infect those other attractions of Tuscany like San Gemignano.

The parish church is quite beautiful and contains a number of valuable pictures including a Lorenzetti.

The church also has a quaint Madonna called the Madonna della gattaiola or the cat-flap Madonna. The story goes that a priest needing a new door for his house found a plank of wood with a discarded portrait of the Madonna on it. Being also a cat owner the priest decided to use the panel with one small modification, – a round hole in the bottom right of the painting which one can still observe today to serve as a cat-flap. This is surely a prime example of a picture that is admired for something that is missing from it!


Our journey now took us towards the coast. We wanted to experience the fun of crossing the two tomboli that have roads on them out of the three that connect Monte Argentario to the Italian mainland. In one of the two lagoons a windmill had been built.

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Orbetello is a fine old town and famous for the pioneers of Italian flying boats.

Monte Argentario is a beautiful place. Once an island, it now hosts marinas and a surfeit of time shares and parking is a real problem….it’s not quite our place we decided.

Before returning to our hotel we looked into Civitella Marittima (marittima means that the place is in the Maremma, not that it’s near the sea), a nearby hill town. Here the inhabitants were celebrating the Palio of the carretti – or hand-made, non-motorised go-karts This is another example of the inventiveness of Italian palios.

I realise that the idea of the Palio is also to release tension between the various parts of a town and avoid such shameful phenomenas as Britain’s (and the USA’s) regular inner city riots. Setting off steam in this way is a great way also to attract visitors and turn the different elements of the town into a real community.

We wandered around looking at the stalls and eating Donzelle. These are not maidens but a variety of delicious fried bread.

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There were the usual artisan stalls and some less usual fashions displayed.

Returning to our base we realised that this was to be the last night in this area before proceeding next morning to Florence.

Of Castles and Abbeys

The following morning was overcast so it was an ideal day to visit museums and monuments. We headed out for Montalcino which has the reputation of producing the best wine in Italy – the Brunello. It was a place I’d last seen in 1997 when I’d reached it on my Honda Transalp on my first major motorbike trip across Europe. I was glad to revisit it and for Sandra to see this proud little hill town for the first time.

We parked our fiat Cinquina near the main museum and were just in time to enter it when threatening thunder surrounded Montalcino and it began to rain.


The museum was very well laid out and contained, among other treasures, some paintings by Lorenzetti, one of the greats of the Senese school of painting.

It takes no art  critic to realise that there are major differences between Senese and Florentine paintings even if the two cities are so close to each other. Whereas, in the fifteenth century Florence entered fully into the renaissance and developed perspective and new ways of presenting familiar religious subjects Siena continued with its post-byzantine style which eschewed perspective and used stylised poses and gold backgrounds. It developed this exquisite hieratic style to perfection culminating in the works of Simone Martini and Lorenzetti.

I was particularly intrigued by these pottery vases which date back to the thirteenth century and featured strange animals including ferocious felines and exotic birds.

We had intended to continue our journey sooner but the weather was still very rainy and when we were invited to a lunch at a nearby palazzo we took up the offer. It was organized for a Festa dell’unità (or political party related Festa) and featured antipasto, two pasta courses (penne and local thick spaghetti called pici) meat and veg course, finished by delicious water melon and cake, washed down by excellent local wines.

At our long table were a party of Italians from north of the Apennines and we enjoyed their company especially as they appeared to be well-versed in their musical subjects.

It wasn’t until three that we managed to leave our table, rather later that expected, and headed for the castle which produced great views but little else apart from its splendid battlements and towers.

After lunch we headed to Sant’Antimo, the exquisite Benedictine monastery just outside Montalcino and set in a beautiful valley. This too I’d visited on my two-wheel escapade back in 1997 and was keen that Sandra saw this fine building .

Constructed in a French-influenced Cluniac-style of architecture, the abbey is striking both in its exterior and interior with some wonderful carved column capitals. The monks worship here seven times in twenty-four hours and sing fine plainchant. Unfortunately, we could not wait for the vespers as this would have made us return home too late and instead we headed past the slopes of Monte Amiata.

This mountain is all that remains of a once active volcano and has thickly wooded slopes. Apparently, there is still some geo-thermic activity, as this ENEL plant we passed showed ,with its naturally caught geodesic vapours.

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Our last stop was a mediaeval Festa at Cana, a sweet little village south west of Arcidosso which boasts an extraordinary position among pinnacles and gorges.

Here we met Dante reciting the last Canto of his “Paradiso”.

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We enjoyed sauntering along the picturesque streets of this semi-forgotten village and delighted in a languid sunset stretching out onto the Maremman plain.

Southern Tuscany is sometimes neglected, especially by those of us centred in Northern Tuscany. It is just a little too far for a day trip. It’s not that the distances are excessive but that the roads are so twisty that it takes so much longer get to places.

We shall certainly back to explore those places we missed this time and, perhaps, even get to the top of that extinct volcano which for the whole day was swathed in clouds.