Little Churches with Great Interiors

Italy not only possesses some of the world’s most resplendent ecclesiastical buildings (like the cathedrals of Pisa, Florence, Milan and – my favourite – Siena. Italy also has hundreds of little churches (chiesine or chiesette – as they are called). These little churches may date back to Romanesque times and, therefore, could be at least a thousand years old. Most are built on a very simple plan: rectangular with usually a semi-circular apse. Here are just three examples near us in the Serchio valley.

San Martino a Greppo near Valdottavo

Santa Lucia near Gallicano

San Romano near Poggio

If you want to explore further there’s a fine facebook page on Romanesque churches in Tuscany and beyond at

This facebook page doesn’t just concentrate in the little chiesine, which were either built for parishioners to avoid longer journeys to the main parish church (pieve) or which were, in many cases, superseded by larger churches. The page also includes the more imposing examples from this wonderful architectural era, including monastic buildings.

The interiors of the ‘chiesine’ are usually very simple and bare. Our own little chiesina at Longoio had its once-a-year great day when Mass was celebrated there last Saturday. This is a tradition which always takes place in May, the month dedicated to the Virgin Mary by the Roman Catholic Church. Other little chiesine in our area will also have their annual Mass celebrated during this month. It’s a great occasion to be actually able to enter and visit the interior of these otherwise sadly locked-up churches.

Here is our chiesina of la Vergine dei Dolori, which I have often described in other posts, decorated with flowers last Saturday.

In another area of Italy (the north-east to be more precise, which we recently visited) there’s another very unassuming church which we thought would be locked as usual.

Imagine our surprise when we found it specially opened for the afternoon.

We decided to stop and take a peep.

What we saw in the interior took our breath away!

These most wonderful frescoes were only recently rediscovered as a result of an earthquake which shook off the eighteenth-century plaster covering them. It’s proof that even the destructive powers of earthquakes can reveal unexpected blessings.

The frescoes date all the way from Longobard times to early renaissance. I shall not attempt to say anything about them but just illustrate their beauty starting with the thousand-year-old depiction of the Last Supper.

These other frescoes clearly date from a later time (fifteenth century).

As the proof of the pudding is in its eating so the proof of so many unassuming chiesine is in their interior. The only sadness is that so many of them are usually locked up for, clearly security reasons.

We just happened to be lucky as we were at the right place and at the right time.

Our dear little Cinquina was there to wait for us and hopefully carry us all the way back home. Sadly, she didn’t make it (For the reason why see ). Fortunately, we did, and that’s the important thing.

PS Why didn’t we tell you exactly where you could find the wonderful chiesina we were privileged to visit? It’s because we want you to discover your own chiesina when you’re in Italy and make it your own special space …. just like we did with our splendid example.

The Florence Flood Fifty Years On

Just over fifty years ago a third major disaster affected Florence’s unique cultural heritage. After the misguided and speculative ‘sventramento’ (disembowelment) of the city’s centre, the old market and the former ghetto in the nineteenth century,

(Florence’s old ghetto before its shameful demolition in the 1880’s)

and after the blowing up of the mediaeval houses north and south of the Ponte Vecchio during WWII (see my post at came the disastrous flood of 4th November 1966. This did not so much destroy historic buildings as damage their precious contents.

Santa Croce’s Cimabue crucifix, with its moving fragmented appearance, stands as a symbol to the time when there was no organized civil defence, no excess water drainage channels and when the interests of a few goldsmiths on the Ponte Vecchio were placed before the population of the city (these received warnings to evacuate much later…).

(Cimabue’s Crucifixion in Santa Croce before and after the 1966 flood).

I was a very young lad at the time of Florence’s inundation. Yet I was already a member of London’s Italian Institute of Culture and made aware of the catastrophe that had occurred. My future father-in-law, secretary general of the Institute and a Florentine, was instrumental in the coordination of assistance to the beleaguered cradle of the renaissance. He organized the transport of pumps and helped in the requests for volunteers to salvage what remained among the detritus of mud, sewer water and petrol.

The ‘angels of the mud’ were largely young enthusiastic people who came to Florence to save everything from paintings to manuscripts, from sculptures to musical instruments. It was truly a fantastic call to European solidarity and unity at a time when more people than ever felt what significance Florence had for them. I wish the UK had a similar sentiment towards the continent of which it’s a part today…..


In many sectors the work of clearing up the flood mess, begun by the angels, continues today. Manuscripts are still being dried out, frescoes reconstructed, sculptures salvaged and archaeological items pieced together. The exhibition at Florence’s Medici-Riccardi palace, inaugurated last year, gives us an overview of the whole tragic event with archive footage and continues to emphasise the positive aspects of Florence’s 1966 calamity. For the flood gave an impetus to the development of more effective restoration techniques, laid down the basis of the city’s present civil defence system and began work on outflow channels for the excess waters of the Arno, a river described by Italy’s supreme poet and native of Florence, Dante, as a ‘maledetta e sventurata fossa’ (‘accursed and unfortunate ditch’).


Indeed, with global warming conservation and restoration is needed now more than ever as water levels rise. This was the Arno last November when alarm bells were again rung:


The exhibition is well-organised and explained. First there’s a map showing Florence and the levels of flood water which reached over 35 (!) feet in some areas. You can see that it was the Santa Croce area with the darkest blue (Florence’s ‘East End’) which was worst affected, with 34 dead and over 10,000 families made homeless.


At the exhibition there are examples of paintings restored as far as possible to their original glory:

Books and scrolls have fared less well

As have musical instruments.


(A saved mandolin and a lost lute)

Here are further objects which have had to be restored. I was particularly taken by the Etruscan bronze with lion heads which, I feel, could have been an incense burner, rrather like those we saw around the Jokhang during our trip to Lhasa last year.

This seventeenth century model of San Firenze church with at least six different type of wood used, has only recently been salvaged as far as it is possible (wood swells up to five times its original size when immersed in water and since so many old pictures are painted on wooden panels it presents almost insurmountable problems.)

As with everything in life ‘pazienza’ (patience) is the keyword. Who knows how long we will have to wait for such other places, this time devastated by the hands of men, to be restored to as far as their primal glory as is possible? Palmyra, Aleppo and Nimrud come to mind…

Talking about which, I had to negotiate a migrant/refugee protest outside the palace which is also the seat of the regional government of Tuscany. But that demands another post.  Suffice it to say that even in the very heart of cultural delight, the world’s calamities have their sovereign shrine.


Incidentally, the Palazzo-Medici Riccardi has plenty more going for it.

  • The state rooms including that fabulous golden hall painted by Luca ‘fa Presto’ (‘works quickly’) Giordano.


  • The ancient statues gallery in the basement.


  • The garden with orange trees in winter – so delightful!




Ghosts in Love


It’s good when people read your blog and put a “like” below a post.

It’s even better when readers put a nice comment too.

But it’s wonderfully unexpected when someone reading your post actually gets inspired to write a short story about it. This is what happened to us when we visited Pontremoli, described in our post at:

and where we entered, quite by accident, into one of the most beautiful abandoned palazzi we’ve ever seen in Italy.

Maurizio Bardi is a writer, journalist and publisher, passionate about saving Italy’s beautiful neglected princesses of palaces from complete neglect and decay. We consider ourselves privileged that he wrote this short story after reading our post. It’s not just a ghost story or a fairy tale: it also carries a particularly strong punch regarding some local political situations in present day Pontremoli. We’ve translated his evocative Italian prose into English. Thank you Maurizio! Read on and enjoy.


They visited Pontremoli. They entered into the Palazzo Damiani. They took some photographs and asked themselves some questions. Then they posted their thoughts on their internet blog. And if Alexandra and Francis were ghosts returned in search of their home after nearly three hundred years? Maybe…, Everything else, however, is true, including the history of the theatre curtain.

On July 11, 2014 an English couple, Alexandra and Francis, on a visit to Pontremoli, entered by chance into Palazzo Damiani and published their disenchanted thoughts on the internet. This event inspired the following short story.

Maurizio Bardi


We felt a great wish to return to our room, in our building. Dozens of palaces, monuments of great beauty sited between two rivers, were built in eighteenth century Pontremoli.

Our building is open and unattended. Outside in the street some young people playing football, a strange game involving kicking a ball, shout and break the silence. They upset us. Farther along the horn of an iron wagon they now call a car is booming.

Nearly three centuries have passed. Why has the pleasure of silence disappeared? We are no longer able to listen. Where are those friends who frequented our palace, those intelligent souls who told us about new ideas from Paris, who spoke about the Enlightenment wandering from one place to another? Did they disappear along with Nicolò Contestabili’s frescoes, along with the collapsing walls and windows, along with our conversations in front of the fireplace?

Alexandra, my beloved, says to me: “Look at our ‘Dawn’; the fresco is now unrecognizable because of its abandonment. Remember when, under ‘Dawn’, Stefano Bertolini read us his preface to “The Spirit of Laws,” which had been requested by Montesquieu? Or do you recollect when he told us of his commitment to the legislative reforms of eighteenth century Tuscany?”

“Do you recall how the Pontremoli nobles criticized my ideas about the Enlightenment? They called me the revolutionary, the Palazzo Damiani revolutionary.”

We look for our room in the twilight. Its alcove is crumbling. The frescoed ceiling is collapsing. The walls and the plaster are collapsing. The world is collapsing. How painful! Even we, ghosts, grieve and suffer!

Francis is lost. Pleasure, which was the basis of his philosophy of a carefree and light-hearted life, has been stolen from him; that philosophy emanating from the works of Natali and Contestabili, those eighteenth century painters who gave Pontremoli its splendour.

“What can we do?” Francis asks Alexandra.

“I’ve already done something, but it was useless!”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’ve been to the mayor’s office and I made a painting fall down …”

“And the mayor?” Was she scared? “

“No. So I made it fall down again.”

“And what did she do?”

“She thought it was an attack by her political enemies. She called in a security guard and ordered him to stand still, fixed in front of the painting and guard it, day and night. I made the picture fall down again. Then the guard understood. He started talking about ghosts, but no one believed him. The guard is the only one who understands but just as he starts talking about ghosts they tell him to stop drinking. “


“So”, continued Alexandra, “I went to the Town Hall, in the room of a type of foreman. He’s the person taking care of the city’s palaces. I looked for the file on Palazzo Damiani and upset the sheets of paper on his desk, just to make him irritated.”

“Very good!”

“When he returned and saw the papers scattered everywhere he began to shout. He yelled at his deputy foreman in the room next door. He screamed that he must stop touching his documents when he wasn’t there! His face reddened, he took all the files and began to throw them about. Gradually every space in the room was filled with white sheets. He looked like a ghost! “

“Leave it well alone. If we get involved, it could also happen that the whole building collapses. Definitely.”

“Why do you say that?”

Francis’s voice saddened: “Do you remember our wonderful theatre by the river, the Rose Theatre, also built with funds from our family? They renewed it. It was he, the master builder, who was works-manager. I was happy, so I went to have a look. I looked for the terracotta floors hand-made with Terrarossa clay. I looked for the walnut doors of the master carpenters behind which we hid during the festivals. I looked for the painting before which guests arriving at the theatre remained enchanted. They are no longer there. Now they are elsewhere. But where?

I then looked for the vast theatre curtain painted by Contestabili whose creation we saw being completed day by day – a great work of art. I looked all over until I flew up into the attic. I found the curtain there in the corner, huge, curled, dying, and rotting. A great masterpiece that once had enthralled audiences was now abandoned, and before long it will be completely decomposed. “

“I can’t believe it.”

Perched on the alcove railing, exhausted, Alexandra falls asleep. I gaze out of the window that looks over what was once a small pleasant, gentle garden surrounded by arches and think about our longing, our desire to create a world which is, however, beyond that barrier that we ghosts cannot surmount.

“Let’s go”, Alexandra whispers in a soft voice. “We can’t do anything and perhaps it’s better that way.”

Then, suddenly, as if it is resurrection night for ghosts, she confronts him: “Francis, wake up! There’s no time to lose, you must tell. It’s true we are ghosts, but with the internet we ghosts can become something else!

Maurizio Bardi

Alexandra and Francis’s blog is at:

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  ). Often sanctuaries are larger and more imposing buildings than cathedrals. In Padua  the extraordinary sanctuary dedicated to Saint Anthony (see my post at 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?

A Royal Villa

The Villa Reale in the comune of Marlia is one of the grandest of aristocratic villas built by the Luccan nobility for their use both as a summer residence and also as a place to grow crops, especially vines.

Its origins go back a long way. In the longobard era there was a fort here built by the duke of Tuscia. It then passed to the Buonvisi family (the same that owned the Villa Webb in the old part of Bagni di Lucca) who held the property until 1651 when they got into financial difficulties

The Olivieri and Orsetti family then came into possession of the villa and refashioned it, adding a splendid baroque garden, parts of which still remain to this day. They also built the Palazzina dell’Orologio to house the villa’s servicing department.

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Big changes occurred when Napoleon’s sister, Elisa bought the villa from the Orsetti who were, in fact, rather unwilling to sell the place. Elisa paid the princely sum of 700,000 French francs which today (roughly) would equate to around 7 million pounds.

It was Elisa who gave the name “Reale” (royal) to the villa. She enlarged the villa at a cost of another few million euros, ordering the architects Lazzarini and Bienaimè to transform it into the neo-classical building one sees today, and completely re-drew the grounds into an English garden layout with large lawns à la Capability Brown. In the course of this re-structuring many features of the previous baroque garden were swept away to be replaced by trees and bushes transplanted from the royal palace of Caserta (Naples) where one of the first English landscape gardens was laid out.


It’s a pity one can’t visit the interiors as they contain fine plasterwork, frescoes and decorations by among other artists, Tofanelli (1750 – 1812),  a lucchese who also painted fine religious pictures for the cathedral and San Frediano in Lucca. These photographs are taken from public sources:

It must have been fantastic to be present at the grand soirées held by Elisa in the villa’s new ballroom. Among artistes invited was the great violin virtuoso Paganini who became the princess’s music teacher and, perhaps, a little more. Elisa had quite a few lovers including the chief of her armed forces, Bartolomeo Cenami.

When Napoleon was (regrettably, in my opinion) defeated at Waterloo, just two hundred years ago, British forces under the command of Lord Bentick chased poor Elisa out of her former domain  although she was pregnant for the ninth time. Sadly forgotten and in somewhat straightened circumstances Elisa died in Trieste in 1820, one year before her brother, aged just 42.

(It’s significant that, for a short time, Lucca was part of the British Empire since it was occupied by Bentinck’s troops).

The villa passed to the Bourbons and Maria Luisa. The great architect Nottolini (he of the chain bridge at Fornoli near Bagni di Lucca) added a Viennese-style coffee house and an astronomical observatory.

In 1928 the villa was bought by the Pecci-Blunt family in whose hands it remained until 2015.

Who owns it now? When the Villa Reale was put up for sale there was speculation of the usual sort. Would the Russian magnate buy it or the Arab sheik? Neither, in fact. It was sold to a swiss couple who intend to convert it into one of Italy’s first super-luxury hotels.

No doubt we’ll now see the likes of the Beckhams and Clooneys parading through the villa’s grounds. But will we be able to visit it?

I’m quite sure we will continue to admire the Villa’s magnificent gardens, some of the best in the Lucca and indeed, Tuscan area. The villa itself was never on the visiting list although, no doubt, it may be open for wedding receptions and the like.

The gardens are full of scenic features including fishponds, a Verzura (green hedge) theatre, grottoes, statues and are a joy to visit at most seasons. Rather than describe their features I’ll just show a few photographs from the time we first visited their magic ambience in September 2005.

Can it really be that long ago that we first visited the Villa Reale?

PS If you are super-rich and looking for luxury villas in Italy do consult the site at

You might even be able to find out how much the villa Reale was sold for!

Daily Life in a Mediaeval Florentine Palazzo

A trip from Bagni di Lucca to see a show in Florence should, of course, always be combined with other activities to make a proper day of it in the “City of the Lily”. The weather was not brilliant when we went there and a walk-about, window-shopping and people-watching, was combined with a visit to three museums and some churches. Florence museums, indeed Italian museums in general, are quite compact and it’s possible to visit most of them comfortably within a couple of hours each.

We took in three of Florence’s lesser-known museums. These were

  • The museo della casa fiorentina antica
  • The museo del palazzo vecchio (Florence’s city council palace)
  • The museo scientifico Galileo Galilei (Science museum)

If one wants to see how aristocratic families lived in mediaeval and early renaissance Florence then the palazzo Davanzati, which houses the Museo della Casa Fiorentina, is an absolute must. It’s very well presented and its rooms are not just beautifully decorated but also full of interesting paintings, sculptures, furniture and household items.

For a long time the palazzo was under restoration. It partly re-opened in 2005, and fully so in 2009.

The building is centrered around a (now glassed in) spectacular courtyard. I particularly liked the drainpipe…

The living quarters are distributed on three floors. The highlight of each floor is a large hall (Sala madornale) which could be used for dining or dancing.

Each floor also has a bedroom with en-suite bathroom and fitted cupboards:

Each bedroom also has gorgeous wall frescoes imitating tapestries giving an excellent idea of how Florentine palazzi interiors were once decorated. The rooms are named after their decoration. There is the “parrot” room and the “peacock” room:

The most beautifully decorated room is a bedroom illustrating the bloodthirsty story of the chatelaine of Vergy – presumably to instil the virtues of faithfulness in the spouse! (If you don’t know the story, which was very popular in mediaeval times, click on

The kitchen is on the top floor; a very sensible idea since it meant that cookery smells didn’t have to rise up from below.

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On various walls are fascinating medieval graffiti:

There is also an exquisite lace display section.

The works of art are not incredibly special but they all fit in most harmoniously in the museum’s setting. I did, however, find some items rather beautiful.

This was a lovely start to our brief visit to Florence. We should be grateful to the antiquarian Elia Volpi who purchased and restored the Palazzo Davanzati and allowed it to be open to the public way back in 1910.

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The museum’s web site is at:

There is also a post on the museum by Debra Kolkka at





A Mosque for Florence / Una Moschea per Firenze?

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

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

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

There is a majestic synagogue near Piazza d’Azeglio.


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


Not to forget the American episcopal church:

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

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So why shouldn’t Florence get its own mosque?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

(Predella in the Lindenau Museum, Thuringia, Germany)

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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 New Glory of a Heavenly Apse

Last June the indefatigable chair of the Gombereto village committee, Claudio Gemignani, realised that the seepage of rain into the apse of our local church, known as the Pieve di Controni, was reaching unacceptable proportions. All over our area buildings have, of course, been suffering badly through this year’s monstrous precipitations but the Pieve was something particularly special – a very beautiful church dating back to Romanesque times- some even say of Longobard foundation – and a landmark and much loved building of the area. At all costs the Pieve had to be saved.

If you’ve never visited this gorgeous building you may wish to read my other posts on the Pieve. These can be found at and

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With tenacity and persistence, Claudio and his team of helpers managed to get funds, both locally and from a famous Luccan bank, to restore the Pieve’s apse.

Don Vitali appropriately opened the proceedings with a celebration of the Mass, which now takes place in this church every Saturday at 4.00 PM (a time dictated by the shortage of priests which afflict most of Italy now).

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After the religious proceedings the secular part of the evening followed.

Bruno Michelucci, of the local branch of the Luccan Historical Association, introduced the evening with an interesting survey of the Pieve’s history in the nineteenth century. Several facts emerged. For example, the church tower was originally attached to the right of the entrance, giving considerable structural problems to the building. The present, separate, campanile to the left of the church’s entrance was only completed in 1882 after 20 years’ work. This is the same campanile which was restored by the same devoted group behind the apse’s restoration and which was described in my post at

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Bruno suggested something which is today a largely accepted fact: that Pardini was much better as an original architect than as a church restorer. Indeed, his best works, some of which, like the Hotel des Russes, the classical casinò and the neo-gothic Anglican Church, grace Bagni di Lucca, are original and elegant conceptions (as Enzo Piano’s are today).

However, rather like Sir Gilbert Scott and his Victorian restoration of several of England’s mediaeval parish churches, when faced with reinstating an ancient church, Pardini took things a step too far and repeated those same mistakes which Scott has been accused of: i.e. over-cleaning of stone-work, reordering (and re-sculpturing!) of columns and neo-gothic inventions of his own. With the Pieve of Controni Pardini played havoc with re-fenestration, re-flooring and with vaults covering the old wonderful painted mediaeval cross-beams (which can still be seen if one manages to climb up between that vaulting and the roof). What, however, can be said in favour of both architects is that at least they did help to save many beautiful churches from collapsing entirely.

Dampness had also begun to seriously damage the early twentieth century paintings by the Luccan artist Michele Marcucci (1845-1926), which decorate the Pieve’s apse.

Marcucci isn’t a name which immediately springs to mind when considering Luccan art of any period but, from humble origins and through intensive study of the Florentine renaissance, especially his beloved Fra Angelico, Marcucci became a big name during the liberty style era of Lucca and his funeral was celebrated with much pomp. Among Marcucci’s most famous works are some vaults of Lucca’s cathedral, San Martino, and the ceiling of the church at Porcari (near where I teach at the Materis paint factory) where a painted vault is an almost direct copy of the apse of Controni’s Pieve.

The restoration work involved the complete relaying of the apse’s stone-tiled roof (which those who have read my previous Pieve posts will recollect was built against the original façade when the church was totally reoriented after a landslide in the fifteen hundreds). Among the builders involved was the redoubtable Nicola Farina, someone we know well as he also helped out with our own, rather humbler abode, almost ten years ago!

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The paintings’ restoration (they are not true freschi since they are painted on already dried plaster) was carried out by two young experts, Francesca Fornaciari and Isabella Gambina, from Lucca. Their excellently illustrated presentation displayed the problems to be faced, including salt incrustation both over and underneath the paintwork and the detachment of the original stucco itself. It was truly a labour of patience and of love and they achieved it with great distinction as the present glory of the apse displays, enhanced too by new curtains specially made by the local parish ladies and the beautiful flowers put on show.

The evening concluded with a highly interesting collection of contemporary documents relating to the church’s original nineteenth century restoration which are in the possession of a descendant of the architect in charge of the restoration. They displayed all the problems and frustrations which today continue to harass Italians trying to improve and beautify their environment: bureaucracy, creative financing, rights-of-way litigations and all those other ills we have to bear.

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Let us hope that in the present deluge sweeping throughout Italy with devastating results the demons of bureaucracy and double-dealing will be dealt a swingeing defeat if the country is to rebuild itself. The work at the enchanting Pieve di Controni shows that everything is possible if the will is there!

Swanning it in Collodi

When I first visited the Garzoni gardens at Collodi in 2001 they were a somewhat underwhelming sight. Unkempt flower beds, dishevelled lawns and unsafe paths did little to convince me that this was one of the world’s great gardens to be compared favourably with those of Hampton Court, Versailles and Schonbrunn.

Happily all has changed today in the magnificent gardens, dating back to the seventeenth century, thanks to new ownership and continuous restoration (and maintenance). We were enthralled by their baroque wonders so wonderfully sited on the steep slopes of the Pizzorne and cascading down in spectacular terraces with secret arbours, a maze, bamboo grove and mythological creatures.

There are plenty of birds in the gardens including this graceful Australian black swan.

On the right hand side of the gardens is the butterfly house and the standard ticket gives one access to both this and the gardens (there is also a comprehensive ticket which allows access to the Pinocchio garden nearby.)

I found the butterfly house delightful although I am certainly not a lepidopterist and find the idea of pinning down specimens of this wonderful insect distasteful.

The palace itself remains closed although much restoration has been done on it. Judging from photographs of its state rooms it looks very impressive. I hope on our next visit that it will finally be open to the public.

We couldn’t leave Collodi without seeing the old village itself. It must have one of the steepest high streets in Tuscany!

The parish church at the top is charming and the oratory nearby had a photographic exhibition.

It’s good to know that there is a lot more to Collodi than the long-nosed puppet that has become famous throughout the world although without Collodi Pinocchio probably  would never have been born.

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Further details at