Is it Brigid, Brigit, Bridgit, Bridget, Brigida or Birgitta?

An email from a dear friend yesterday reminded me that the first of February is Saint Brigid’s day. Saint Brigid is one of Ireland’s three patron saints, the other two being Saint Columba and Saint Patrick.


Saint Columba also links Ireland to Scotland through his founding of the monastery on the beautiful island of Iona which we visited in 1988.

(Sandra on Iona in 1988)

Indeed, St Columba was buried there in 597. In 794, however, the Vikings landed on Iona and divided his relics between Iona and Downpatrick cathedral hill where he was joined by Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid.

My friend also reminded me that Saint Brigid is the patron saint of poets and smiths – a great combination since poets are known as word-smiths and, indeed, T. S. Eliot in his introduction to The Wasteland dedicated it to Ezra Pound whom he described in Italian as ‘il migliore Fabbro’ (the best smith) quoting line 117 from Canto XXVI of Dante’s Purgatory.

Last but not least spring is supposed to begin now – at least in Ireland – but then they have a very positive spirit over there!

In addition to Saint Brigid (sometimes spelt Brigit or Bridgit or Bridget) of Kildare there’s Saint Bridget of Sweden.


Saint Bridget (Birgitta) was the founder of the Bridgettine nuns and is one of the six patrons saints of Europe. (The other five are St Benedict, Saint Cyril, Saint Methodius, Saint Catherine of Siena and Sr. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross – Edith Stein – who was murdered by the Nazis in the Auschwitz gas chambers in 1942 and was made a saint in 1998).

In Florence there’s the church of Saints Maria and Brigida, south of the Arno.


A convent of nuns from the order the Swedish Saint Bridget founded has recently been restored after years of neglect and conversion into poor dwellings. Interestingly, the convent caused some controversy when it was founded since at first both monks and nuns lived in the same building. Later the monks moved to a separate location.

(View of the convent from the Via del Paradiso)

What survives of the Bridgettine convent today in addition to the church of Santa Maria and Brigida are the parts of a chapel, a small cloister and refectory with remains of a fresco. The convent is one of Florence’s lesser known gems but it’s rather difficult to get inside it as it’s private housing. Thanks should be given to the architect and restorer Paolo Antonio Martini that the remains were saved in 1999.

It’s a lovely walk up the Via del Paradiso but, be warned, it becomes so steep you really start thinking you’ll get to the destination it’s named after!

Two Saint Brigids are better than one, especially if they are patron saints of Ireland and Europe respectively.

Of Giants and Dwarves

One of the world’s tallest ever men,  Charles Byrne, 8 foot 2 inches tall and known as the Irish giant had wished to be buried at sea when he died aged 22 in 1783. An eminent surgeon, however, had other ideas and bought his body for his collection. We gazed upon the giant’s colossal skeleton, placed next to one of the smallest human’s remains at the awesome Hunterian museum at Britain’s royal college of surgeons in Lincoln’s inn fields, London.

John Hunter, born in Long Calderwood, Scotland in 1728, was one of those persons of the enlightenment who did so much to help better humanity in both ideas and practical living – in this case medical science. He did much to progress knowledge in venereal diseases, the lymphatic system, inflammation and the growth of bones and teeth.

Hunter and Byrne were the subjects a novel by Hilary Mantel (one of my favourite, and certainly one of Britain’s major contemporary authors   – she’s already won the Booker price twice, her “Wolf Hall” is scoring a major success on world TV and the last part of her trilogy on the rise of Thomas Cromwell is due out this year). It’s “The giant O’Brien” in which the shadier sides of John Hunter, including suspicions of dubious body-snatching practises and controlled death of pregnant women for medical dissection, are hinted at.

imageTo come to a more pleasant side of life I was pleased to note that after her husband’s death Mrs Hunter, a poet of no mean reputation in her time, formed a friendship (some say a love match) with Joseph Haydn during one of his famous trips arranged by Salomon to London who set several of her verses to music including this one:

My mother bids me bind my hair

With bands of rosy hue,

Tie up my sleeves with ribbons rare,

And lace my bodice blue.


Hunter was an inveterate collector and although, unfortunately, much of his huge collection was destroyed when the building housing it was bombed in WWII, enough remains to fascinate, tease or even squirm.

The museum, which has been beautifully presented since my last visit there some years ago, has been brought up to date with many new exhibits. Two particularly fascinated me. One was on the rapid evolution of plastic surgery. Hunter was a pioneer in the treatment of war wounds but it required the great war to develop ways of treating the horrific wounds more powerful weapons inflicted. Unpleasant photographs of facial injuries showed the progress from initial wearing of face masks to sophisticated cranial reconstructions and skin grafts. Happy marriage pictures showed that many patients were now able to lead near normal lives and attract spouses.

This led me to realise that the too often unsung heroes of war are the medical teams who bravely step into the field to try to save the lives of those who are victims of man’s paramount stupidity to man.

Four videos showed fascinating insights into today’s surgical techniques. I was particularly taken by the one on brain surgery to remove a tumour. The precision of handling a medical version of a Black and Decker to drill holes through the skull to remove pressure, and the subsequent intervention, made engrossing watching.

This is a museum I would recommend to anyone even if they do not intend to make a career as brain surgeons. Indeed, during our visit, a group of art students from nearby st Martin’s school of art, under the guidance of their teacher, were engaged in sketching some of the most unusual formaldehyde exhibits of freaks from the human and animal world. Damien Hirst eat your heart out…

When the Last Heads Rolled in Lucca

In the UK the Death penalty was permanently abolished by Act of Parliament in 1969. In Tuscany it was abolished in 1786. That’s a difference of 183 years!

However, since Lucca remained a separate duchy until it was sold in 1847 to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany by Duke Carlo Lodovico, it still had the death penalty on its statute book, although for years the punishment had never been carried out on any of its citizens – that is, until 1845, when a notorious band of armed bandits were caught, tried and executed.

Alessandra Garibotti, a young solicitor from Bagni di Lucca, gave a very informative and lively account of what happened in 1845 yesterday evening.

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Alessandra spoke at the rifugio Fiori, a mountain hostel just outside the village of Monti di Villa where one of the bandits came from.

The band included the following members:

  • Fabiano Bartolomei, nicknamed “the weasel”
  • Natale Giusti
  • Demetrio Prosperi, nicknamed “the red”
  • Tommaso Bartolomei, nicknamed “Blackbeard”
  • Giuseppe Alessandri known as “Cabala” – he would go around the country disguised as a pilgrim and distribute holy images.
  • Pietro Buero, already accused of raping and killing a woman in Corsica
  • Giovanni Nardi who had been in a seminary as a child and was thus called “the abbot of Cocciglia” since he was born in that village, which is only down the road from us in the Controneria.

Here is a contemporary print of the band, dating from 1845:

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From 1837 to 1842 the gang carried out a series of increasingly audacious and violent burglaries both in the Pisan Mountain and the Garfagnana areas. Armed with ancient harquebuses they terrorised their victims and sometimes raped their women if they were considered pretty.  They even attacked priests, some of whom were also armed!

The main booty mainly consisted of jewellery, money and, surprisingly for today (but then it was rather expensive), linen.

Of the gang, six were caught and found guilty of the crimes of aggravated theft, violence and offence to women (rape was then not specifically stated in the statute book.) They were then (surprisingly, for they hadn’t killed any of their burglary victims) given the death penalty.

The Duke of Lucca pondered deeply over the requests for a pardon and spent a whole night in his private chapel in Marlia looking at the evidence and praying to God for guidance. The answer came the following day and only one of the six caught, Natale Giusti, had his sentenced transmuted from death to ten years’ forced labour in Viareggio.

The public reaction was mixed. Some Lucchesi decided to stay away while the execution took place as they were against it like their Tuscan neighbours. The majority, however, gathered in a huge crowd – around eight thousand it’s estimated – to witness the grand spectacle of seeing five men lose their heads.

The guillotine (introduced when Napoleon’s sister was Princess of Lucca and imported from France) was wheeled outside Porta San Donato. On 29th July 1845 at 6 am the prisoners were dragged out of the San Giorgio prison (still there today) accompanied by some priests to comfort them and hear their last prayers. By 7 am all heads had rolled into the tumbril and the show was over. People dispersed and the carnival atmosphere now turned to dejection and a sense of guilt for all those who had witnessed this awful event.

In defence of the times and the population of Lucca, it should be said that no-one volunteered to be the executioner. There is a “casa del Boia” (or executioner’s house) on the wall of Lucca to this day which has recently been restored and converted into a hostel for pilgrims going to Rome on the ancient Via Francigena, but the house’s occupier the night before the execution had to be imported from Parma, where, apparently, the death penalty was still in force.  For an account of this house and its new use see my post at

Furthermore, when Lucca became part of the grand-duchy of Tuscany in 1847, the grand-duke Leopold II was glad to see the guillotine burnt. Only one part remained: the cutting blade which was taken away by a priest, put on a boat at Viareggio and thrown into the sea where it sank without trace.

Alessandra’s presentation was most engrossing with a map showing where the band operated and she brought to our attention several anecdotes which, in a sense, have merged reality with myth. For example, did Blackbeard really wear his boots back-to-front when escaping in the snow from his pursuers to confuse them? I’d find it rather difficult to walk in reversed shoes…

There are further unanswered questions. Was there an appeals system in force when Lucca was taken over by the grand-duchy? Did anyone claim compensation, for example?

The terrible irony of the situation was that when the grand-duchy of Tuscany decided, in a somewhat rigged plebiscite, to become part of the new kingdom of Italy in 1861 it again had to suffer a regime which had capital punishment since the new united Italy had the death penalty which was not officially abolished until 1889, (although in practise no execution had taken place since 1878). There was an interim period under Mussolini who in 1922, reintroduced capital punishment for murdering any member of the royal family and any form of treason against the state. The death penalty in Italy was finally killed off in 1945 at the end of WWII.

The last execution in Lucca was, therefore, also the last public one. The last public execution in the UK was in 1867 when Michael Barrett, an Irish revolutionary, was hung for his part in a bombing campaign. Let us remember these sordid facts when, while watching TV news, we hear about yet another execution by those fanatics of the IS.

At least the TV channels have the decency not to play the entire videos…..

Let us also remind those who would like to re-introduce capital punishment in the UK that it’s possible to compensate a lifer if it is found that there has been a miscarriage of justice in their respect but that it is not possible to compensate a dead man…..

Outside the rifugio is this plaque which says that the local school was named after the great Italian revolutionary, Giuseppe Mazzini, “ostrasized (i.e. exiled by the reactionary governments in Italy) to London”. At least, while the death penalty lingered on in the heart of the Empire, it remained a city where relative freedom of thought could be practised then and, hopefully, today too.

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The Magical Steles of Pontremoli

We continued our walk towards Pontremoli Main Square where the famous steles, which were the main reason for our visit, are housed in the undercroft of the town hall. We’d so much wanted to see them and now we were so close to them!

The streetscape was delightful as was the main square. There were many noble palaces which had been tastefully restored and some rather unusual balconies too. The old town gate showed traces of a portcullis:

We crossed a charming bridge over the river Magra which had to be reconstructed after the Germans blew it up in April 25th  1945. As the war in Italy finished on April 27th, with the hanging of Mussolini in Piazzale Loreto in Milan, this bridge must have been one of the last casualties of that war. Apart from this, we saw very little of war damage such as virtually flattened Aulla further down the valley. Indeed, the streets we passed through were full of character and reminded us that Pontremoli was once an important staging post for pilgrims on the via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, and obtained much wealth from important pilgrims.

One of its past travellers was Sigeric, who was abbot of Glastonbury. In 990 Sigeric  travelled to Rome to receive his abbot’s authority from Pope John XV and the diary he kept of his itinerary provides one of the most valuable documents about the via Francigena and its precise route. On his death Sigeric was buried in Canterbury cathedral.

The steles are normally on display in the castle of Piagnaro, just above the town, but since this was undergoing restoration they had been moved to their present location.

Our initial disappointment at not being able to visit the steles in the castle were quickly allayed by the fact that they are displayed in a rather more suitable location here, in the deep recesses of the mediaeval undercroft of the palazzo municipal rather than being huddled together in a brightly lit room in the castle.

What are these steles and what do they tell us of the civilization that produced them? They are classified into three groups A, B and C depending on their style and provenance, which is generally in the upper Lunigiana region. They unmistakably are burial memorials, very much like the traditional graveyard stones one gets in old English churchyards, and represent either male or female forms.

The males always carry some dagger which is a symbol of their temporal power and class – the females have small petite breasts which indicate their importance in fertility ceremonies. Some steles have necks, others don’t. Some have even lost their heads, although their necks show evidence of jewellery, like torques. Eyes are downcast, faces are highly stylised and mouths are hidden, perhaps because they were considered the entrance to the soul which had to be heavily protected.

More than this not much is known about them except that the steles extend in age from over four thousand years ago to the beginning of the Etruscan period around 300 BC. (One of these later ones has an inscription in a Ligurian-Etruscan language on it).

Are there any connections between these steles and the rest of stone and bronze age Europe? A chart at the museum illustrated dolmens from Wales and the ring of Brodgar from Orkney, both of which we had visited, but stated that these other monuments had no human or anthropomorphic representations on them, although they were clearly part of a huge megalithic culture with frequent contacts between each other from as far afield as Malta to Orkney.

However, both my wife and I were sure we’d seen something like these particular steles before. We racked our brains and realised that we’d seen comparable stones on an island in Lough Earne, Co.  Fermanagh, Northern Ireland – Boa Island – which we’d visited in distant 1992 during an extensive visit around the emerald isle. In both cases the human shape is much stylised, and emphasis is given to the upper limbs. In both cases too, a few steles, appear to have been deliberately damaged or disfigured – in the case of Pontremoli by cutting some of them in half. Several of these steles were even used later as building stone for subsequent buildings and were discovered and recovered from them as recently as twenty years ago.

Why the deliberate destruction? My opinion is that the steles, both Italian and Irish, represented the cult of ancient pagan gods which were subsequently deemed as unbecoming with the growth of Christianity. They became considered works of the devil and were either hidden or damaged.

Whatever power they possessed once, whatever methods were used to disposess them of their esoteric powers the steles continue to hold an immense presence today. We both fell under their arcane magic and received strange pulsations from looking into their eyes, counting the fingers of their hands and just being with them alone. For there were few other visitors around when we met these petrified people from another age.

Such is the supremacy of great and profound art –it communicates without having to be understood. We didn’t know the names of the gods these people worshipped, let alone their own personal names. We had no idea of their beliefs and yet, in some unfathomable way, they were expressing to us things about themselves that our subconscious was receiving. The great Seamus Heaney put it well in that poem he wrote about the Irish steles on Boa island:  “January God”:


God-eyed, sex-mouthed, its brain

A watery wound. 

In the wet gap of the year,

Daubed with fresh lake mud,

I faltered near his power —-

January God. 

Who broke the water, the hymen

With his great antlers —-

There reigned upon each ghost tine

His familiars,

The mothering earth, the stones

Taken by each wave,

The fleshy aftergrass, the bones

Subsoil in each grave.