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!




The Southern Limits of Tuscany

Tuscany may not look very big on a world map but its size is deceptive. Mountain roads lengthen journeys and the only real way to visit many parts of perhaps Italy’s most beautiful, and certainly most varied, region is to locate a base and stay there for some days.

We found Manciano fitted the bill perfectly. Equidistant from the mysterious ‘tufo’ towns of Pitigliano, Sovana and Sorano, the natural beauties of the lagoon of Burano and the wild beaches beyond it is located among the rolling hills of southern Tuscany – a region perhaps as neglected by the impatient tourist as our part of northern Tuscany once was.

We chose an agriturismo a little distance outside Manciano with a very good price and a friendly ambience. This morning, for example, we had breakfast in the garden which overlooks a deer park, part of the animals kept here which also include chicken and goats. It was lovely to see the deer, with some prized horned specimens having their breakfast too.

Our room was well-appointed and it was amazingly booked just a few days before the mad rush of Ferragosto, the Italian Bank holiday, when it’s impossible to find anything decent, especially if it’s near the sea.

After a standard drive down the Via Aurelia we branched inland at Albinia and reached our base after a journey of around four hours. Traffic was light and the countryside of La Maremma quite glorious with irs rolling hills, vast panoramas, umbrella pines and golden fields. It was difficult to believe that this area was once considered ‘maledetta’, cursed, because of the lack of proper drainage and the high incidence of malaria.

Yesterday we started off with an excellent continental breakfast of home-made ricotta, peach jam, cake, yogurt and caffé-latte served in the delighful early morning sunshine of the farmhouse’s garden.

We then set off to Manciano’s centro storico. The steep narrow streets led us to the main church and, near the top, to an excellent museum which gave us an insight into the history of the area. There has been a settlement here since the Old Stone Age and Manciano became an important centre under the Etruscans and Romans.

The castle keep (cassero) at the top is the home of the town council and it was very windy on the terrace surrounding it, giving us splendidly clear views of the surrounding country.

There was an interesting art exhibition nearby.

We proceeded to Capalbio, an even more spectacular southern Tuscan hill town with its ultra-steep streets and charming corners.

The Romanesque parish church has some beautiful old frescoes and the views from the town extended towards a truly blue Mediterranean.

There was a great walk around the town walls. I wonder if Capalbio was ever captured with such strong defences which included an outer wall as well?

The climax of the day, however, was yet to come!

Esther and her King

How many of you know the story of Esther?

I know two stories. First is, of course, Esther, that remarkable woman who has a whole book dedicated to her in the Old Testament.

07172016 017Second is the Esther of Dickens’ masterpiece ‘Bleak House’.


Although over two thousand years separate the two Esthers there is something that links the two together. They were both very beautiful not just in their outward form but in their inner being (emphasising the point that Dickens’ Esther could still be beautiful even after her face was scarred after catching smallpox). Both Esthers did not know who their mothers were. The biblical Esther was an orphan who grew up in exile. Dickens’ Esther was an illegitimate ‘orphaned’ child who only met her mum just before the mother died.

Both women became wives of highly regarded men. Biblical Esther became wife to King Ahasuerus; Dickens’ Esther became wife to Doctor Allan Woodcourt.

Both women have lives tinged by the aura of a fairy tale. Through their goodness, their inner strength, their determination to face the world’s difficulties with honesty they have become transfigured into virtual religious symbols of all that is best in woman.

I don’t know whether Charles Dickens purposefully adopted the name ‘Esther’ for his heroine but I do feel he must have touched on the biblical and fable-like allusions in that wonderful name. Certainly, both women see their way through the dismal obscurity often laid upon one’s life – exile in the case of the Biblical Esther and the Courts of Chancery in the case of Dickens’ heroine – to enter into a world of clarity and purest light.

Esther is the subject of a truly fascinating exhibition which opened at the Circolo dei Forestieri’s Sala Rosa yesterday 16th of July and will continue until the 30th of the month.

07172016 001

Devised by artist Eva Alessandra Lombardi its theme is the liberation of women through their meeting with a ‘prince charming’, a  marriage between that which is royal and that which is sacred.

(The official opening of Eva Alessandra Lombardi’s exhibition)

Fairy tales are full of this theme and place great emphasis on the colour blue (which, as far as paintings are concerned, was once the most expensive colour to produce).

The paintings on display at the exhibition develop this theme, also through such stories as the Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.

The archetypal story is that of the meeting and marriage between Esther and King Ahasuerus ((Xerxes). I entered into the palace of this King many years ago at Persepolis in present-day Iran:

There is also a psalm which sums up the sentiments of this story which can be read on many different levels: fable, history, moral, religious. It’s psalm 45 (which was also most wonderfully set to music by Handel as one of his Coronation anthems):

Psalm 45 (King James Version)

My heart is inditing a good matter: I speak of the things which I have made touching the king: my tongue is the pen of a ready writer.

Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God hath blessed thee for ever.

Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most mighty, with thy glory and thy majesty.

And in thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness; and thy right hand shall teach thee terrible things.

Thine arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; whereby the people fall under thee.

Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre.

Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.

All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad.

Kings’ daughters were among thy honourable women: upon thy right hand did stand the queen in gold of Ophir.

Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house;

So shall the king greatly desire thy beauty: for he is thy Lord; and worship thou him.

 And the daughter of Tyre shall be there with a gift; even the rich among the people shall intreat thy favour.

The king’s daughter is all glorious within: her clothing is of wrought gold.

She shall be brought unto the king in raiment of needlework: the virgins her companions that follow her shall be brought unto thee.

With gladness and rejoicing shall they be brought: they shall enter into the king’s palace.

Instead of thy fathers shall be thy children, whom thou mayest make princes in all the earth.

I will make thy name to be remembered in all generations: therefore shall the people praise thee for ever and ever.

07172016 017

There’s also a children’s corner in the exhibition where they can indulge in drawing and colouring activities. Surely a good idea!

You have until 30th July to visit this fascinating and thought-provoking exhibition which was opened by mayor Betti on the 16th of this month.

PS If you love Handel (and who doesn’t: Jimi Hendrix had three of his masterpieces in his record collection when he lived for a while next to Handel’s house) you’ll know that the composer wrote an oratorio on Esther’s story:




Early Morning at Villa Fiori’s Extempore Painting

Early last Sunday morning competitors from all parts of Italy were choosing their views, setting up their easels, arranging their brushes and sorting out their palettes. It’s one of Bagni di Lucca’s big days: the extempore painting competition, now in its ninth year, where in the space of a few hours artists paint a picture related to the multiplicity of beautiful views around Ponte a Serraglio.

07102016 015

(Villa Fiori still looking for an Azure Prince)

The priority, however, above all else was to find a shady and sequestered spot, for the day promised to be torrid – fine if you want to have your paints dry quickly, not so good if you want to keep a cool head!

(Setting up essential supplies – the bar and the seating for lunch)

I’d be quite contented just to be able to paint the lovely bark on this plane tree in the villa’s gardens:

07102016 021

Here are some shots of yesterday’s early morning. By six pm all entries had been delivered, arranged on easels, adjudicated and prizes allocated.

But to know the winners you’ll have to wait until tomorrow!

If you too love painting either creating or just looking at one I hope you had a fine Sunday too. And maybe next year join us at Ponte a Serraglio?

07102016 006

(Morena Guarnaschelli (right) plus assistant.Without her indefatigable enthusiasm this event would never have taken off in the marvellous way it has done.)

A Cool English Lesson

What do you do if the room allocated to you for your English lesson is too hot? In Italy it’s simple: just take your class out and into the nearest church, for these buildings are really cool in summer!

San Rocco, at the end of that sweet square outside the library where my lesson took place, is one of Borgo a Mozzano’s noblest building. I have already described it in my post at:

07012016 034

I thought I knew this church pretty well but when I stepped into it last Thursday I was overwhelmed by something inside it I had never seen before.

07012016 035

To gaze on Santini’s addition to his altar rising up like a staircase to heaven was absolutely overwhelming!

At this stage, Mr Pieroni, the sage of Borgo a Mozzano and the director of the Gothic Line project stepped in with a visitor and explained to us a little more about this fine-looking church. Santini’s additions to the principal altar had been made specially for the Feast of Corpus Domini and it took two weeks for the local townsfolk to erect it this year.

(If you don’t know what or how important the feast of Corpus Domini is do read my post on it at

Who was Francesco Santini?

Santini was born in Cerreto, which is just above Borgo a Mozzano, and there is news of him from 1640 to 1660. He came from a family of highly regarded carvers in the area. Santini’s first work is a wooden altar, dating from 1642, in the monastery church of San Francesco in Borgo a Mozzano. It’s the first altar you see on the right entering the church and was commissioned by the Society of the Immaculate Conception. I have always been taken by this altar. Its superb carving of the serpentine columns, unadorned by any overlying paint, reminds me somewhat of England’s own marvellous Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721).


Francesco Santini is a good example of an exceptional artist born into a thriving craft tradition. Much in the same way as other creators spring from a family tradition, (a great example is the number of musicians in the Bach family), he was just one of many other Santinis who carried on what they considered a craft but what many of us today would consider an art. A later Santini, for example, Alessandro created the altar of another of Barga’s churches, San Rocco.

At least we are able to give names to the Santinis. I wonder how many other great artistic works lie in our territory with their creator’s name remaining unknown!

PS I’ve written more about the great Santini in my post at

The attractive floor decoration in the nave of San Rocco was composed out of coloured sawdust and is yet another long-standing local tradition. It clearly represents the plight of the refugees, over four thousands of which have been drowned this year alone. (Indeed, only a couple of days a boat was lifted from the ocean depth (using some very sophisticated Italian technology)  with over eight hundred bodies trapped in the boat’s hold. The remains of the corpses are now in Augusta, Sicily being identified through taking DNA samples from them.

07012016 024

I found the contrast between the depiction of the grim ocean depths before the heavenly stairway rather poignant.

07012016 048

The floor decoration should have been placed outside in the square but due to the unpredictable weather this year it was placed inside the church and very effective it looks there too.

Why is there an oval stuck in the middle of this painting? It’s because it’s actually a door opening out and showing a miraculous image of an ancient terracotta Madonna behind it. No-one had the key, however, to show it to me.

Ou English lesson consisted in developing a vocabulary to describe ecclesiastical features like nave, apse, transept, portico, altar etc and by the end of it I’m sure that any one of my students could have become a very good guide! Actually, the student in my tutelage is an excellent artist and restorer and she was able to point out to me several artistic features in the beautiful paintings adorning the side altars and, in particular, be able to give me her opinion as to some were superior to others. She pointed out to such features as composition, the way the hands were painted, the way the light fell on the faces, the manner of laying on the brushstrokes.

San Rocco’s organ is a fine Agati organ dating from 1851. I climbed up to have a closer look at it and it still produces a rather good sound. I think, however, that prosepctive organists in this area must be tested for vertigo before they take up any job…

I think I leant more from that lesson that she did from mine! However, learning a language is all about being able to get one’s meaning across and I’m sure we both, in our own ways, managed to express quite involved aspects of aesthetics and art in general.

07012016 065

So, if you’re in a hot classroom and perhaps not feeling too inspired just take your students to visit a nearby church. At least in Tuscany’s now torrid afternoons you can do that and turn a routine lesson into something much more stimulating!



Inner Landscapes at Barga

If you were lucky enough to see David Manetti’s exhibition in the refectory of the old Clarissan convent of Santa Elisabetta, now the conservatory of music, near Barga’s Duomo then you would have entered into the mind of an artist who firmly follows a post-impressionist idiom with a wonderful clarity of vision, an appreciative respect for the techniques of past landscape artists and a real sense of the variety of environments which comprise our part of the world – the Lucchesia and the Serchio valley

If you weren’t so lucky then you’ll just have to feast on this selection of photographs of Manetti’s picture I took during my recent visit to Barga.

David Manetti was born in Lucca in 1968 and graduated from its Liceo artistico in 1986. In 1990 Manetti graduated from Florence’s Accademia delle belle Arti.

David started his career as a graphics designer and professional illustrator. He then entered into the field of painting developing there principally as a landscape artist.  His pictures are particularly evocative, conjuring up an interior scenery of the mind. They are essentially a visual counterpart of that famous wordsworthian phrase about poetry being ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity.’

I particularly like those pictures in which the painter concentrates on water and clouds. Clearly he has studied the great northern European tradition of landscape painting, in particular, Turner and the Flemish school. It’s significant that, in the absence of that inordinate demand for religious paintings in Catholic Europe, landscapes in protestant countries achieve an interior spirituality quite different from that of the Italian ‘vedutisti’.

Again, the wordsworthian ‘let nature be thy guide’ leads one to consider a meditation on nature as a truly religious experience, even when dealing with animals like cats.

06252016 067

I shall follow David Manetti’s further excursions into the Lucchesia countryside with much interest. Through his paintings he has already enabled me to see some familiar places in a very different light – the Torre dei Guinigi, for example, with those trees growing from its top as if transposed from the forests of the mountains surrounding the city

or those secretive, neglected canals which once were major arteries of communication for the Lucchesia,

06252016 072

or that Viareggian sea with a phantom of a three-master in the background: could that indistinct vessel be the ‘Don Juan’ caught up in the storm which drowned Shelley?

06252016 065

These and other mysteries permeate Manetti’s sceneries. And even the linchetti and other phantasmagorical elfin creatures of the Garfagnana have a look-in:

Incidentally, the Nuns’ refectory itself is worth a look at for its simple but noble architecture and its collection of old paintings – to say nothing of the Della Robbia’s in the church itself.

Cavani’s Magic Mountains

It’s good to see Emilio Cavani’s muscular landscapes of the Apuan Alps on show at the Atrio Gallery of Bagni di Lucca’s Comune. We’d last seen them some years ago at the festa Del Castagno (chestnut festival) at Lupinaia and remember them with great pleasure. More than any other painter I know, Cavani truly captures the superb sculptural shapes of the extraordinary mountains we are so privileged to live amongst. He paints them with ardour and a true rendering of their almost animate quality, The mountains really come alive and their rocks seem to speak to us of primal ages and the metamorphoses of our planet. At the same time, Cavani’s technique is firmly grounded in the perennial forms so beautifully delineated by such artists as Cezanne himself.

Something about Emilio Cavani. Born in Castelnuovo di Garfagnana in 1934 he comes from a family of craftsmen and restorers. He still works in restoration and wood carving. In the 1960’s Cavani concentrated on paintings of the Apuans’ marble quarries emphasizing the hard and dangerous work the miners are involved in. In the 1980’s he turned his attention to the mountains themselves which he has thoroughly explored as an experienced mountaineer.

Cavani’s teachers include such painters as Gino Bertoncini, Angelo Roberto Fiori, Vasco Cavani and Angelo Scapanini. Most interestingly, Cavani struck up a friendship with the great anthropologist and explorer Fosco Maraini who is buried nearby at Alpe San Antonio. (To learn more about Maraini see my post on him at Maraini was a great admirer of Cavani’s paintings.

Cavani’s exhibitions have been numerous and in 2004 he won first prize as the painter who best captured the essence of our Garfagnana landscape.

Many of his works are in private collections, in Italy, Australia, Japan, Canada, the United States, in Scotland, in England and some of his works were commissioned by the University of Vermont, (Department of Art).

A poem, at the exhibition, by Mara Mucini, who collaborated with me in last year’s literary section of the Bagni di Lucca Arts Festival, aptly describes the allure of the Apuans.

06182016 036

Here is a selection of Emilio Cavani’s paintings which imbue the extraordinary Apuan Alps with an arcane magic. Those of you who know these mountains will have no problem in recognizing the Pania della Croce, il Passo della Sella, il Monte Forato, la Pania Secca, il Monte Sumbra, il Pisanino, il Pizzo dell ‘Uccello, il Procinto, I bimbi del Procinto – all mountains which even I at some time or other have tackled.


PS The exhibition ends on June 24th.