Of Angel Staircases and Angelic Seafood in Livorno

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

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

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/06/29/leghorn-or-livorno/

and at:

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/legging-it-in-leghorn/

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some fine adornments for their lords and masters:

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

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

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

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

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

Just look at these pictures to entice you to Livorno:

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sea Fever

Ocean liners have right of way wherever they go except when they meet the most beautiful woman on the high seas. They then turn off their engines and as a sign of respect and adoration they give three blasts on their horn.

This stunning woman (for all ships are feminine ‘she’) has been a recurring theme in my life ever since I met her while still at infant school. It was a time when Italy was still considered by many ignorant brits a country of spaghetti eaters and mandolin players, a country accused of cowardice which reputedly built tanks with one forward and three reverse gears, a country of aye-ties and poor emigrants. When the gorgeous lines of Italy’s true flagship first entered the Thames estuary and sailed into London she was instrumental in changing rudely stereotyped perceptions of Italy. Italy could stand proud and erect with her ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ as ambassador to its ‘bel paese’ throughout the world.

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(Regrettably a negative attitude between Italy and the UK still occasionally happens today. For example in yesterday’s news I heard that UK schools have been asked to distinguish between Neapolitan, other Italian and Sicilian-origin schoolchildren in their registers! The Italian ambassador in London, with true English sarcasm, reminded UK’s education secretary that Italy has been one country since 1861. See https://www.thelocal.it/20161012/english-schools-criticized-for-differentiating-between-italians-sicilians-and-neapolitans )

To get back on-board. The triple-mast ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ was built at Castellamare di Stabia and launched in 1931 as a twin Italian navy training ship to the ‘Cristoforo Colombo’. Her dimensions are as follows:  length‎ 331 ft. (including bowsprit) and height‎ 177.2 ft. Her top speed‎ with ‎sails is 10 knots and with engine, 12 knots. There are 26 sails and fully unfurled they cover an area of 30400 square feet. The total crew is 450 men (and now women too).

What happened to her sister ship? War reparations forced Italy to give the ‘Cristoforo Colombo’ to Russia who promptly demoted her to a tramp merchant vessel, painted her a dirty grey colour and finally (accidentally?) caused her demise in a fire on board which completely destroyed her.

Together with my wife the ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ sailing ship remains one of the two most beautiful women I have ever met.

Here are some photographs taken of Sandra with an officer of the ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ one year after our marriage.

And here is this wonderful ship in London again in 1985:

And in 1987.

Then I did not see her for a long time and was truly missing her. In 2014 I did manage to catch a sight of her in the Darsena of La Spezia during a special open day (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/a-top-secret-establishment/). She’d gone in there for a complete overhaul and looked vulnerable and a little sorry for herself stripped into her nakedness:

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When I heard that ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ had been re-launched this year and would be moored for a few days at Livorno I truly had an attack of fever, sea fever. I had to see her and be with her again. Fortunately some friends were also interested and in uncertain weather we motored to Livorno.

There was already an umbrellaed queue waiting at the Medicean port gates in the driving rain. On board we were able to visit the main deck and the steering cabin where we met the commandant Curzio Pacifici (what an appropriate surname!).

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Suddenly the rain accelerated into a storm precipitating with violence on the ship and on the horizon I could see a tornado brewing. What must it have been like to be on a ship like this rounding Cape Horn, I wondered. Truly, the wind, the rain and the louring clouds, ink-black, added to the dramatic effect. It was unforgettable. Imagine having to reef the sails climbing up the masts in this sort of weather in the high seas!

It was difficult to leave this gorgeous ship. I really must have got that sea fever badly. As John Masefield wrote:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

 

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

 

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

 

 

 

PS If you read Italian there’s an interesting web page on the ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ at

http://www.mondovespucci.com/ITAL/PAGINE/miapassi.html

 

 

 

A Different Way to Enjoy Pisa

Pisa’s greatest attraction is also its greatest misfortune. The leaning tower attracts busloads of tourists, many from Mediterranean cruises landing at Livorno (who instead of seeing that city as a highly interesting example of a Medicean port dating back to the sixteenth century, avoid it) who are whisked to the piazza dei Miracoli to take the statutory shot of the illusion of holding up the tower and then (if lucky) move on to Florence or else equally quickly to be whisked back to their cruise liner.

The fact is that, although the famous piazza is without doubt one of the world’s great sights, there are many smaller miracoli to be seen in Pisa, not least of which is the lively street scene and the greater openness of its people when compared with the more enclosed Luccan character.

Yesterday we had occasion to go to Pisa to meet relatives at the airport and decided to make a day of it. First stop was the Royal Palace, a national museum which again is exceedingly neglected in favour of the better known Museo san Matteo.

Dating back to 1583 when Tuscan grand duke Francis I decided to build a lovely new palace overlooking the Arno it was designed by Buontalenti who also had a big hand in designing the Pitti palace gardens in Florence.

For the two hours we were there admiring its rooms, fine arms collection, paintings (including a Bronzino, a Breughel and even a Raphael), fabulous tapestries from the Geubels factory in Brussels, furniture, exquisite dresses dating back to renaissance times, intimate miniatures and sculpture we actually had the place to ourselves and were left quite alone to enjoy its wonders.

I was particularly impressed by a collection of Japanese ceramics which I am sure fellow blogger at http://sequinsandcherryblossom.com/ will have something to say about.

There were also some fine modern paintings:

We had a great meal at a restaurant recommended to us by a young member of the museum staff: Stelio’s in nearby piazza Dante where we ate beautifully and simply cooked food complete with wine, cover and the addition of a local troubadour for around ten euros a head.

Stelio’s has been here for fifty years and is a veritable Pisan institution. Stelio himself is now eighty and his two sons show every wish to carry on with the business. The restaurant was filled with every conceivable type of client. Apart from us brits, there were students, workers, retired, office workers, and university profs (the university is what gives Pisa its zesty life). Eating there seemed like something out of Bohemian life as it genuinely was.

After the meal the sun came out and our intention to visit the museum of calculating machines didn’t quite work out as we were waylaid by the lovely botanical gardens which, happily, were not badly damaged by the recent great storm.

Pisa’s botanical gardens were created by Cosimo I de’ Medici and developed by the great botanist, Luca Ghini. Founded in 1543 they are the oldest botanical gardens in the world and the first to be connected to a university.

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The magical gardens revealed some wonderful plants including a 200-year old magnolia, that living fossil of a tree the Gingko Biloba

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and much else, including a huge yew tree (or tree of death as they call it here in Italy where it is very rare) an astonishing Australian araucaria, native of Queensland with a huge trunk and very prickly leaves,

a lovely pond and much, much else.

The view of Pisa’s leaning tower from “i giardini botannici” was transcendental, growing out of the gardens like the most exotic plant and, again, we had the whole place to ourselves!

Then it was time to head to the airport to collect our guests. We were so glad we made a day of it in Pisa instead doing the usual shuttle service tour to the airport from home and back. We would have otherwise missed so much of this truly life-enhancing city.

 

Leghorn or Livorno?

Livorno is Tuscany’s third largest city after Florence and Prato. Unfortunately, it sometimes doesn’t get a very good press, both from the tourist agencies and from Tuscany’s own inhabitants. It’s meant to be a city with nothing of really outstanding interest and the people’s character is often disparagingly depicted. (But then isn’t this the fate of most Italian cities as depicted by their neighbours…).

All this is, of course, quite stereotyped and wrong. Livorno is a fascinating place to visit and is unique among Tuscan cities in that it was specifically planned as a port city by the Medici in the sixteenth century when Pisa had become hopelessly silted up.

Situated along the coast of the Ligurian Sea, Livorno is one of the most important Italian ports, both commercially and as a tourist embarkation centre. What a pity all those hoards alighting from cruise ships for a hasty visit to Pisa’s leaning tower don’t stop for at least an hour there…

Livorno’s general appearance is modern, not just because it has no mediaeval buildings, but because it was heavily bombed in World war two. Despite this there are many districts and buildings of charm. For example, the “Venice” area, so –called because of its canals, is fascinating.

The old and “new” fortresses are also well worth perusing.

There are some magnificent examples of art nouveau buildings, often with an oriental or saracenic tinge, along the seafront.

Livorno also happens to be, historically, the most “international” and multi-ethnic city in Tuscany because of its origin as a free port frequented by foreign merchants and home to consulates and shipping companies. For example, there is the protestant cemetery with the tombs of such notables as the author Smollett (whose writings on Italy make particularly amusing reading). And soon the Dutch protestant church (one of the largest in Italy) will be restored after years of neglect. Jewish communities, too, have benefitted from the city’s tradition of religious tolerance.

Livorno used to be a renowned beach resorts with spas, and was also known as Montecatini-by-the-sea. I doubt if few people would choose it today as their favourite bathing establishment – the port is too close for that. There are, however, delightful walks to be had along the seafront leading to that superb marine plaza, the terrazza Mascagni, dedicated to one of the city’s three best known sons and happy scene of shows and dancing in the summer months

Livorno’s two other most famous sons are Modigliani, whose house still remains and is visitable (though, regrettably, without any of his priceless works) and Italian impressionist painter, Fattori, some of whose wonderful paintings are fortunately still with the city and displayed in the luxurious villa Mimbelli.

Nearby is the Montenero Sanctuary, dedicated to Our Lady of Grace, patron saint of Tuscany, The sanctuary, which has magnificent views looking out over the bay, hosts also a very interesting collection of ex-votos mainly dealing with (naturally) miraculous escapes from the sea and road accidents

We’ve visited Livorno (or Leghorn as it is traditionally known among brits) several times, and not just for the purpose of jumping on a ferry to Corsica or Sardinia. Each time we have found something new of interest for us, whether it be a visit on the open day of the Naval Academy or whether it be the aquarium and Mediterranean sea-life museum. (photographs here were all taken during a visit in June 2006).

Above all, Livorno has a real “city feel”, so if one pines for crowds, night-life and traffic after the sylvan peace of Bagni di Lucca then “Leghorn” is an appropriate destination.

You may also be interested in reading another post about Livorno at http://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/legging-it-in-leghorn/