The Mists of Time

Rain returned yesterday and for the next few days it’s going to be very damp and misty. It’s a good time, perhaps, to look back at photographs one’s taken ten years ago of this same part of the world.

Sometimes it’s easily recognizable where the photographs have been taken, sometimes it’s not. The village must be somewhere near Corfino by the views from it but is that stretch of water Lago Pontecosi?  And what about these amazing mill wheels?

Already mysterious mists of time are descending onto pictures I’ve taken here.

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From the snow’s embrace

a crocus thrusts forth its bud:

when will spring arrive?

Assassins and Bandits are Lords where we Live

Ariosto is considered by many as second only to Dante in the hierarchy of great Italian poets. His epic poem ‘Orlando Furioso’ is one of the longest and most varied of any in western cultural history. Describing the great cycle of stories dating back to the battles between the Moorish invasion of Europe and the fight-back, by Charlemagne’s army, of chivalric paladins, ‘Orlando Furioso’ has been and continues to be one of the most influential of poems, inspiring writers like Cervantes (who somewhat parodied the genre in his fantastic‘Don Quixote’), composers like Vivaldi (who wrote two operatic versions based on the epic) and Handel (who introduced a most unusual quintuple time signature to depict Orlando’s madness – furioso means either furious or mad, madly in love that is)  to modern writers like Salman Rushdie who introduced elements of the story in his ‘The Enchantress of Florence’. Most recently, Ariosto has been the subject of an extraordinary exhibition by the artist Possenti at the Fortress of Mont’Alfonso.

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(Prof Marcello Cherubini introducing Prof Pietro Paolo Angelini at yesterday’s conference at Bagni di Lucca’s Chiesa Inglese)

It was, therefore, quite wonderful to welcome back to Bagni di Lucca’s Chiesa Inglese Pietro Paolo Angelini, a teacher, scholar and educational director from Castelnuovo di Garfagnana to introduce the presentation of his new book ‘Ludovico Ariosto Commissario Generale Estense in Garfagnana’ with its subtitle ‘di tutte queste montagne li assassini et omini di mala condizioni sono signori’ (throughout these mountains assassins and low-life men are considered as lords’)

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How did Italy’s second greatest poet finish up in a then Wild West area (some of whose traits certainly still exist today in remoter parts) to attempt to bring law and order in a bandit–infested territory? There are certain facts to be considered.

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(Ariosto’s portrait by Titian in London’s National Gallery)

First is that the Val di Serchio was divided up into a patchwork of territories belonging either to the Luccan Republic (e.g. Bagni di Lucca) or the duchy of Florence (e.g. Barga) or the Estense family from Ferrara – later Modena – (e.g. Castelnuovo di Garfagnana). These partitions provided ample space for wars and feuds but, most of all for bandits who avoided customs dues between the various parts through contraband or smuggling.

Second is the fact that Ariosto worked for Ippolito d’Este who was a mean ruler and didn’t pay the poet’s wages. When the chance came for a salaried job in the Garfagnana Ariosto took it of necessity. The pay, in fact came from the bandits themselves! There was a ‘special understanding between Lodovico and the banditti whereby each tolerated, and sometimes protected, the other – an amnesty in fact. The real scoundrels, according to Ariosto, were the priests who received harsh words (and suggested punishments too cruel to mention here) from the poet.

Third, Ariosto, coming from a princely court with its polite manners and seductive comforts, finding himself in a wild and lonely place with few sophisticated activities and, most importantly, far away from the woman he loved (and whom he secretly married just a few years before his death) Alessandra, became prone to depression and despair. Indeed, Orlando’s love-sick madness, can easily find a parallel in Ariosto’s own state of mind. Moreover, the battles between knights and monsters find a mirror in the conflicts between Governor Ariosto and the almost savage populace he had to bring under some sort of control.

Fourth, Ariosto transferred his unrequited love to the beautiful natural landscape around him. In his fourth satire he mentions the magnificent Pania Della Croce in these words (my translation): ‘the naked Pania between dawn and sunset turns me through her glory into her devotee’. This whole satire should be read for it gives a deep insight into Ariosto’s attitude to the area.

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(The Pania della Croce as seen from near Longoio)

The book is published by that most distinguished of publishers, Maria Pacini Fazzi of Lucca, and is available in Italian only (for the time being) at price twenty euros.

I consider Angelini to be a sort of modern Ariosto. I had my first job as teacher of English at Castelnuovo’s Ipsia (technical college) which was headed by Pietro Paolo. I took my first class under the illusion that country lads would have been tamer than inner London street-wise kids. I was quickly put right and realised that I would have to use all my enthusiasm and interest-keeping tactics to keep a somewhat undisciplined class in some order. These tactics were developed to the full by the great Angelini in his directorship of Garfagnana’s schools and colleges. In his gripping book, I was flattered that this whole-hearted man still remembered me after almost ten years. Pietro Paolo’s dedication to me and Alexandra  was, therefore, particularly touching.

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I also realised that John Harington, an old boy from my university (King’s College, Cambridge), was, at the end of the sixteenth century, England’s first translator of Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’; (John also invented the world’s first flush toilet, incidentally, and lived in a house in one of my first work places in London – the former Wages Inspectorate in Red Lion Square).

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(First English Translator of ‘Orlando Furioso’, Sir John Harington, King’s Cambridge)

There is also a close connection between two of Bagni di Lucca’s most distinguished visiting poets, Shelley and Byron, and Ariosto. Shelley read Ariosto while he was here and Byron’s style was closely influenced by Ariosto, to say nothing of at least two plots (‘Much Ado about Nothing’ and The Taming of the Shrew’)

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(The original for ‘The Taming of the Shrew’)

that Shakespeare swiped from Ludovico Ariosto in this, Shakespeare’s four hundredth death anniversary and Ariosto’s five hundredth anniversary of his ‘Orlando Furioso’.

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(Pietro Paolo Angelini yesterday)

Angelini spoke yesterday with lively vigour and truly reawakened our interest in this poet who recently has been restored to his rightful place after some years of neglect.  I am, therefore, truly grateful to the Fondazione Montaigne for having invited him to talk so fervently and captivatingly about Ariosto. I’m off now to re-read the adventures of Orlando, Angelica, Bradamante and Ruggiero, Alcina and Ariodante (two further Handel operas, incidentally!)

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(Ruggiero saving Angelica from the Monster by Paul-Joseph-Blanc)

Mighty Senators of the Forest

On my way back from Vagli’s Tibetan bridge (see previous post) I came across one of Italy’s own noblest green-robed senators of mighty woods (to adapt a phrase from Keats’ ‘Hyperion’). This senator was a tiny seedling when the New World was just discovered, and has given hope and nourishment to generations of families in the areas of Roggio, Puglianella and Roccalberti. It still belongs to the descendants of those families. For me it is one of the loveliest living beings upon this earth and something to truly kneel before in awe and adoration. No wonder our ancestors worshipped trees (and some of us still do!) There are many religions and cultures which give praise to these verdant giants thankfully, for without them we would not only be deprived of their fruit and wood but, most importantly, of their life-giving oxygen.

The Bread of Life in our part of the world is not just the Divinity but the Castagno, the chestnut tree, which has supported so much of the population with the flour made from its fruit.  This magnificent tree, a little outside Roggio, is half a thousand years old and is truly an immense power emanating a mystic strength which I felt throughout my whole self as I touched it.

There are many other such colossal beings in your area and perhaps, if you live here, you may have your own favourite Castagno. Just feeling it and putting your arms round it will fill your whole existence with new life and energy because the tree is one of the highest manifestations of life itself.

Here are some of pictures of that ‘Castagno monumentale’ di Roggio taken the other day.It’s 86 feet high and its circumference is 33 feet.

Which reminds me – have you already been to your Castagnata if you live in this part of the world? Yesterday I was at the delightful one at Cascio. If you weren’t there you’ll have to read all about it tomorrow….

Mediaeval Fire at Castiglione di Garfagnana

Mediaeval feste (festivals) come in all shapes and sizes in Italy. I feel there should be a good mediaeval festa guide based on three main criteria:

  1. Suitability of ambience and location.
  2. Variety of entertainment.
  3. Catering quality.

I have no doubt that the best mediaeval festa we’ve ever been to is the one at Volterra which scores very highly on all three criteria .(See my post at  https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/mediaeval-madness/) There are, however, some pretty good mediaeval festivals in our area: Nozzano, Coreglia Antelminelli and, of course, our own local one at Gombereto which does score very well on entertainment, all come to mind.

We’d never been to the one at Castiglione di Garfagnana so we decided to give it a try this year. Castiglione is probably the most picturesque town in the whole Garfagnana and certainly the best fortified one, with a formidable set of mediaeval walls equalling some of the best in Italy.   The town is also famous for its enactment of the Passion which I‘ve described in several posts including one at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/03/25/a-passion-evening-in-castiglione-della-garfagnana/

I give full marks to Castiglione for location and ambience. It’s an unbeatable place for a mediaeval night out with its turrets, machicolations, walls and towers, its narrow cobbled alleys and magnificent views. We didn’t try the catering at Castiglione as we’d previously savoured a very convivial meal of tortelli (a sort of Garfagnana-style ravioli) at Cardoso’s sagra of the same name (highly recommended).

Castiglione’s entertainment was largely confined to fire-eating and snakes giving the children especially great peals of delight. (I’m not too sure about the snakes, however.)

In case you were short of a mace and ball or needed some repair to your chain-mail there were several stalls able to cater for your needs of self-preservation or, for the ladies, pretty adornments.

I think this person might have failed to pay his equivalent of a mediaeval ENEL bill:

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We arrived at night so it was a bit difficult to photograph things. My advice would be to get to a medieval festa while there still some daylight so you can take in some of the sights.

The climax of the evening at Castiglione was, without doubt, the splendid fireworks display. Italians are masters of pyrotechnics and the show over the town’s turrets was quite awesome.

How many medieval feste have you been to? Are there any you’d like to recommend to us? We’d be delighted to know.

 

 

 

 

 

Monica Cirinnà at Gallicano

One kind of festa we’ve enjoyed in the past, especially in the Cascine Park of Florence,  is the ‘Festa dell’Unità’. This is an event organised by one of Italy’s multifarious political parties which, besides providing food and drink and some music and dancing events, is also an arena for often important political debates.

After revisiting the delightful ‘Sagra dell crisciolette’ at Cascio – described in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/whats-a-criscioletta/ we made a brief detour to Gallicano’s ‘ Festa dell’unità’, organised by Prime Minister Renzo’s party, the SD (social-democrats).

Italian politics is a maelstrom of ever-changing allegiances, kaleidoscopic alliances and confusionary tactics. To add to the muddle is the presence of a religious state – the Vatican City – in the middle of a nation nominally secular constitutionally but permeated by centuries of inbred-Catholicism.

Only this year the ‘legge Cirinnà’ finally sanctioned civil unions between same-sex couples. The end of years of crusades against laws which bound Italian society to a quasi-feudal morality (for example, divorce was only introduced in 1970 and any kind of abortion was declared criminal until 1975) the legge Cirinnà was only pushed through to avoid Italy being condemned for abuse of civil rights by the European Union which threatened sanctions against it.

Despite passing through the ‘legge Cirinnà’ only in June this year there are still shortcomings in Italy compared with other western countries. First, the new law doesn’t allow adoption between same-sex couples. Second, it  doesn’t permit in-vitro fertilization for children (as in the case of Elton John) so the chances of same-sex couples having proxy-children is nil. There has been a huge debate on this with violent clashes between the country’s secular and religious factions, with the condemnatory phrase ‘uterus for-hire’ and others of equally vociferously emotional tones.

In the middle of this moral-political-religious clash stands one remarkable woman, Monica Cirinnà, who managed to be the leading influence in getting the law, named after her, through the complexities, hurdles and mayhem of Italian politics.

It was this very woman who spoke and debated at Gallicano’s ‘Festa dell’unità’ yesterday evening. We reached the venue quite by chance but I wouldn’t have missed hearing this extraordinary woman speak. And one has to be an amazing woman to be able to survive in the still macho-dominated Italian political scene where females are subject continuously to vulgar sexist remarks: most recently even addressed to the leader of the chamber of deputies herself, Laura Boldrini.

Something about Monica. Born in Rome she graduated in Law at that city’s Sapienza University. She entered politics in 1993 when she was elected to the green party representing the capital’s council three times. In 2008 Monica joined the Social Democratic party. Cirinnà is married to former senator Esterino Montino.

In 2013 Cirinnà was elected to the Italian senate where she fought against dinosaur-sized odds (including such powerful people as Vatican city cardinals and highly traditional, yet supposedly left-wing politicians) to finally enable Italy’s first law to give equal civil union rights to same-sex people to be passed through parliament. Indeed in 2016 Monica was voted by Gay.it Italy’s foremost ‘Gay rights champion.’

Until the Cirinnà law came into being no mayor in Italy could perform a civil union between same-sex people. I remember that some years ago I was approached by the now-mayor of Bagni di Lucca to act as a ceremony facilitator between two girls who’d been united by civil law in the UK. It was a lovely occasion in Pian di Fiume and my ritualistic role was much appreciated. Then, the mayor could just look on. Now he can fully act his part in sealing both heterosexual and same-sex marriages.

I was bold enough to take the platform and talk about my experience there and was applauded for what I related.

Monica Cirinnà spoke forcefully and passionately about her experiences in the situation of same sex civil unions. She said there was a lot more to do but at least the unions had been officially sanctioned by law.  Monica also stated that a true watershed had been passed between church and state. She bluntly and courteously remembered remarking to a leading figure of the Catholic C.E.I. – ‘your job is to look after the spiritual and religious dimension of Italian society, ours is to safeguard its secular and civil rights’.Cirinnà is married to former senator Esterino Montino.

Clearly the debate will go on and on. So many Italians are used to the traditional family of mum and dad plus children that it will take years for them to accept that the overriding feature of any union is love. Children need to be loved, protected and guided. They do not need to be discriminated against because they come from one-parent families or same-sex-partner families. Furthermore, the terrible spate of feminicide that has been occurring in Italy, where every three days one woman is killed by a partner or husband who thinks she is his possession and just won’t let go of her, is atrocious. Even in relatively civilised Lucca there has been a woman, Vania Vannucchi, who recently had petrol poured over her by ex-husband Pasquale Russo and set on fire. Vania was rushed to Pisa hospital with 93% burns over her body. Despite every care she died after three days of unimaginable agony this 3rd of August..

Heterosexual civil unions are some form of guarantee that children and spouses will be afforded the respect, protections and rights they deserve. It is good for Italy that the Cirinnà law has finally been passed to afford the same rights for same-sex civil unions on 5th June this year. And about time too!

 

PS Monica Cirinnà is also a campaigner for women’s rights and a firm believer in rights for animals too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s a Criscioletta?

‘La Sagra delle Crisciolette’ at Cascio which I attended a couple of evenings ago is a delight. We always seemed to miss it but this time with friends we finally made it!

Cascio is a charmer of a village with a great ambience and is famous for its unique criscioletta, a sort of pancake made with yellow (maize) and white flour, topped with a couple of slices of bacon and then cooked between two ferri (toasting irons) which have been greased with lard over a fire. The bacon melts its fat over the flour and thus binds the pancake firmly together.

I’ve described the town of Cascio and its history in some detail at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/the-cascio-criscioletta/ . You’re welcome to read there how Cascio got its impressive town walls, turrets and gateway.

From being the food of the poor the criscioletta has been turned into a much-prized dish of the Garfagnana. The sagra has been going since 1969 and is now more flourishing than ever having been moved from the sports ground to the historic centre of the town, adding considerably to its atmosphere.

It’s best to arrive at Cascio by 7 pm so that one can admire the old town and enjoy the extensive views of the Serchio valley with the Apennines on one side and the Apuan range on the other. It’s also a good time because you can find a parking place with (relative) ease.

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One is then directed to the cash desk where one can order food and drink. We decided on a platter which included a criscioletta, ham, salami, cheese plus some beer.

Having found our table we then queued up with our food vouchers and collected the scrumptious vittles.

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Above us, on top of a terrace, the crisciolettari (crisciolette makers) were all in a line, busy making the pancakes topped with bacon slices which were then delivered to the general populace via a chute.

It was great fun, in addition to see the children play on the bouncy slide, and to generally people-watch.

The views from the ‘terrazza dell’Ada’, on the base of one of the four towers which mark the quadrilateral marked by Cascio’s 16th century walls were extensive and a warm sunset glow permeated the Garfagnana valley.

We took a digestive walk around the town after barely managing to devour the contents of our brimming platter. It was so filling!

There was a beautiful photographic exhibition inside the main gateway by La Spezia-born  Iris Gonelli, an engineer working at a nearby biopharmaceutical factory, who clearly loves travel and has a striking eye for taking spectacular photographs.

Most pretty were the flowery decorations set up by the local children at various points of the town.

At the top of the town was another row of crisciolettari busy at their crisciolettian task.

A folk-rock group was getting ready to play a selection of traditional melodies from the Lucca hills.

It must have been hot on that hot evening on the grills!

There’s also a disco further down in the remains of the Castellan’s mansion,

Some sagre provide less than spectacular food, other sagre are overcrowded with insufficient eating space. Cascio’s sagra is just right.  Excellent seating, spectacular views, lovely town, friendly people and most of all that irresistible criscioletta, truly worth travelling half the globe (or at least the Lucchesia) to savour it, whether with bacon, cheese or even with home-made Nutella!

The sagra continues from the 5th to 7th August and is open from 10 am until around midnight.

Don’t forget that Cascio also hosts a brilliant chestnut festival in autumn.

Building Bridges in the Lucchesia

One could write so much on our area’s bridges. The Ponte Del Diavolo (more appropriately called Ponte Della Maddalena) is, of course, the most famous example of bridge building in the area and is a veritable gateway to the upper Serchio Valley. Built by command of the great ruler Countess Matilde di Canossa it dates back to the 11th century.

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Bagni di Lucca’s Ponte delle Catene is probably Italy’s first suspension bridge. Designed by Nottolini in 1840 it was finally completed in 1860.

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Sadly, many bridges were destroyed by retreating German forces in World War II. There used to be, for example, an ancient bridge at Calavorno but only a part of its ruined piers remain today.

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(Remains of old Calavorno bridge just downstream from the new bridge)

 I’ve managed to find a photograph of the old bridge in a book by Arnaldo Bonaventura published in 1913 as an illustrated monograph in a series entitled’ Italia Artistica’. The ‘Ponte a Calavorno’ was one of the oldest bridges spanning the Serchio. Dating from 1376 it was built by the Orlandinghi, feudal lords of Loppia, who were patrons of the old Ospedale (or traveller’s hostel) of San Leonardo in Calavorno. Its two arches of different sizes recall a little the very disparate arches of the Ponte della Maddalena.

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Happily, however, there are still many old bridges remaining in the valleys leading off from the Serchio. The pretty one at Fabbriche di Vallico is the best known of what in England would be called a pack-horse bridge. From spring-time onwards it’s decorated with overflowing geraneum boxes.

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Just past the artificial lake on the left side of the road leading to Fabbriche to Vallico in the Turrite Cava valley is a further example of packhorse (or packmule?) bridges.

Known as ‘il pontaccio’ the bridge crosses the Turrite Cava stream and gives its name to the nearby small community (which also boasts a restaurant ‘Il Laghetto’ serving some of the best wild boar I’ve come across). It’s an arched bridge which had become somewhat dilapidated but was expertly restored in 2004.

The arch is 36 feet in span wide and reaches 16 feet at its highest point above the stream. The road across the bridge is 5 feet wide.  It’s thought to date from at least the fourteenth century and is built with stones from the stream itself.

Il pontaccio may look a picturesque but humble little bridge. However, it once served a very important role in linking the old state of Lucca with the Garfagnana territories ruled over by the Estensi family. Goods were traded between the two countries over this bridge.

At this moment, when the frontiers of Europe appear to be clamming up against each other, bridges of all types have assumed a particular importance. After all, bridges are the first things to be blown up in hostile situations – bridges between people, communities and countries. We should be grateful; therefore, that il Pontaccio was spared to survive to this day as a symbol of unity and strength.

Postscript:

Since I landed in this part of the planet eleven years ago three new bridges have been built in our area. They are the bridges that cross the Serchio at Fornaci di Barga, Pian di Coreglia and Rivangaio. A fourth one is planned across the same river to link up with the new hospital at San Luca and avoid having to go into town – a sort of northern by-pass in fact. Not bad going but one must consider that Italy is, indeed, a nation that truly invented bridge building starting with the Roman arch.

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(The Roman Bridge at Rimini – First Century AD)