No Mute Inglorious Miltons Here: Benabbio’s Claim to Fame

If anyone thinks that the villages surrounding Bagni di Lucca were inhabited by what Gray, in his immortal elegy on a country churchyard, referred to as mute inglorious Miltons, then think again. A series of conferences, started in 2010 under the aegis of the Fondazione Michel Montaigne and its director Marcello Cherubini (whose own father was a distinguished historian of the comune of Bagni di Lucca), continues to reveal the number of inhabitants who made a highly significant impact on the international scene, especially in art, literature and music.

The results of these study days will be presented next Saturday 27th June at 5.30 pm in Bagni di di Lucca’s library, otherwise known as the ex-Anglican church.

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I remember the conference on that extraordinary engraver,  Bartolomeo Nerici, at Crasciana last  year (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/enlightened-engraver/), in 2012 the conference on Nicolao Dorati, the great renaissance composer born in Granaiola, and the amazing connections brought out between the English court at the Royal palace of Eltham where Chaucer was poet-in-residence and Pancio da Controne (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/from-pieve-di-controni-to-eltham-palace/

This year’s conference was held at Benabbio which is a large village on the way towards the passo Del Trebbio and, therefore, an alternative, mountainous route to Lucca. This may explain the extraordinary richness of Benabbio’s heritage, some of which I’ve described in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/visiting-in-the-rain/ but which requires a lot more sites added to it, including the castle and the museum

Here are two exquisite statues of the annunciation by Jacobo della Quercia’s dad, which date back to the 1300’s.

Here are other items from this marvellous little museum in the hidden mountain village:

The conference was held in the very beautiful oratorio of the SS Sacramento, which dates back to the XVII century and has still part of its ceiling encased by a “cassettone” above the precious altar.

Benabbio has produced at least five important historical figures of which three were the subject of the conference.

This was the conference programme:

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The conference was introduced by mayor Massimo Betti and coordinated by Bruno Micheletti.

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Antonio Nicolao (1753-1827 or 1830) was a historian and chronicler who produced Lucca’s first major history in several volumes, the last of which remains incomplete but which was to deal with the buildings of Lucca itself, including churches and palaces. The speaker, Tommaso Maria Rossi, is archivist of the diocesan archive of Lucca cathedral and was able to discover many new details, not the least of which is that we are not exactly sure when the great man died, 1827 or 1830. It would be good to get a reprint of Nicolao’s work as it is difficult to find and what he wrote sounds fascinating.

It’s significant that Nicolao became a regular cleric of the order of the Mother of God which was originally in the monastery of the church of Santa Maria Corteorlandini, the church Luccans popularly call Santa Maria Nera to distinguish it from Santa Maria Bianca , Santa Maria Forisportam. The order placed great emphasis on learning and, indeed, the Lucca state archives and public library are housed in the former monastery.

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Francesco Cianelli 1838-1910 was Antonio’s nephew and he too, was ordained as a priest. Francesco became a classics scholar and teacher at Lucca’ seminary and was the author of various epigram and inscription published together towards the end of the nineteenth century. He was also one of the great poet, Giovanni Pascoli’s, Latin mentor and friend. In fact, Pascoli refers to Cianelli with great esteem and affection. Pascoli should know for he managed to buy his lovely house at Castelvecchio Pascoli with the prize money obtained by winning various international Latin verse writing competitions!

Incidentally, Francesco Cianelli is buried in the local cemetery. Clearly, he is not one of the mute inglorious ones inhumed there.

Marcello Cherubini gave his talk on  Antonio Viviani 1770-1830, a poet to both the Pontifical and Neapolitan courts who wrote various dramas, poems and tragedies in a neo-classical style, with reference to Viviani’ chronicle of events in the area between 1799 and 1802.

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Both papers were not only interesting but fun too, especially Viviani’s account of what happened to the area during those momentous years 1799-1802, i.e. between Napoleon’s invasion of Italy and the peace of Amiens. The antagonism between the republicans and their tree of liberty, erected in Benabbio’s main square, and the religionist who opposed them chopping down the infamous tree and replacing it with a cross, only to have Lucca turned into a Napoleonic principality in 1802 with the arrival of Bonaparte’s sister, Elisa Baciocchi, gave rise to the closest the area had to an insurrection until that is, of course, the years 1944-5 with the battles between the partisans and the Nazi occupiers.

I would also add that Benabbio continues to host significant persons. Some of them have their ancestry there. Thecla Reuten, for example, the Dutch actress born in 1975 has a mum born in Benabbio and often returns to the village. And of course the great English painter Raymond Victor Mee (1945-2006) and his wife Julia Mee, also a highly regarded artist, fell in love with this almost hidden village which inspired their work as Tahiti inspired Gauguin and Barga, Bellamy.

However, it’s slightly disappointing that I have been unable to find details of any famous cultural contributions some other villages, like Longoio, have made to the world.

The conference was concluded by a short concert of music by Kreisler, Beethoven, Paganini (who was Elisa’s music teacher and lover) and Sgambati (who spent his summers in Benabbio) played by Carlo-Andrea Berti (violin) and Alvise Pascucci (keyboard).

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Enlightened Engraver

Much has been made in the Bagni di Lucca area of famous visitors from abroad. Indeed, the commune’s foundation, which curates cultural events, is named after the famous sixteenth-century French traveller to the area, Michel de Montaigne.

The Val di Lima, however, has produced its own galaxy of important locals who have contributed extensively to human knowledge and artistic pursuits. For example, Granaiola is the birthplace of noteworthy composer and madrigalist, Nicolao Dorati (1513-1593), who was commemorated in an important conference in the parish church there in 2012, by Prof. Gabriella Ravenni and Bruno Micheletti, an event which was followed by an exquisite organ concert of Dorati’s music played by the area’s finest organist, Enrico Barsanti.

I have already written about the extraordinary local character of Pancio da Controne, subject of another conference in 2013, who ended up as the King of England’s physician at Eltham Palace London, in my post at Longoio.wordpress.com. It was, therefore, with some interest that I attended a symposium on yet another local star I’d never heard about, the Abbé Bartolomeo Nerici, given at his birthplace of Crasciana.

Crasciana is one of the highest placed and most splendid villages in the Val di Lima and it’s worth going there just to enjoy the superb views it offers and walk through the picturesque fan-tail layout of its streets.

Why was Nerici important? It’s because he engraved the Lucca edition of the most famous document of the age of enlightenment, the “Encyclopedie”, brainchild of Diderot and precursor of the French revolution and the modern age.

After Prof. Cherubini’s, Michel de Montaigne’s foundation’s president’s, and Mayor Betti’s welcoming words the conference kicked off with a paper by Bruno Micheletti (of the Bagni di Lucca’s Historical association) on the life and importance of Nerici. This was followed by a detailed look at the types of illustrations Nerici produced, from both the Encyclopedie and other spheres, such as portraits and views, by Sebastiano Micheli.

The last paper was a revealing commentary by Bagni di Lucca’s chief librarian, Angela Amadei, herself a Crascianian, on the building in which the conference took place, Crasciana church, which is full of gorgeous artistic treasures bearing witness to the former importance of this village, a staging post on the road between Val di Lima and Val di Nievole.

It’s significant to realise that in many respects Nerici was sticking his neck out when he contributed to the Encyclopedie. Rather like those prohibitions in translating the Bible into English which provoked the burning of Ridley and Latimer in 1555, many of the encyclopaedist were in danger of their lives when they decided to present the state of contemporary world knowledge without reference to religious censure or superstitious beliefs. Part of the beauty of their work is revealed in the illustrations and Nerici was a great engraver with an acute eye for detail and accuracy. In Crasciana church there were several examples of these engravings, including one of a flea and another of Machiavelli, and these were placed on the left aisle of the church in contrast to the beautiful silken priestly vestments from the church’s own cupboards exhibited on the right aisle of the church, almost as if to present two contrasting world views.

A strikingly executed recital on the magnificent 18th century Agati organ by now-nationally recognised Enrico Barsanti concluded the proceedings with pieces ranging from anonymous eighteenth century Luccan composers through a delightful item constructed on the cuckoo’s notes (with added bird effects by filling certain organ pipes with water!) to the great JS Bach himself.

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At the end of the proceedings, Bagni di Lucca’s cultural supremo Dr. Valentino gave a warmly applauded vote of thanks to all participants.

In the golden evening sunset of the year’s longest day we made our way home visiting yet more attractive places such as the old Pieve at Sala and an abandoned castle.

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I find it extraordinary that I was warned about descending into local provincialism by abandoning the great metropolis of London and coming to live in the Val di Lima. Geographically remote the area may be, but the richness of its monuments, the learning of its historical and contemporary figures, the Claude Lorrain-like beauty of its landscape and the seeming endlessness of the discoveries I make every day I live here must give the lie to those who imagine that to stay here must affect one’s instinctive curiosity and ability to learn.