From Carpet-Eaters to Carpet-Baggers

The carpet-eater of Braunau am Inn started off by admiring someone who was once Churchill’s favourite Italian. (In  January 1927, he wrote to Mussolini: “If I had been an Italian I am sure I would have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.”)


(Berlin 1937)

Sadly by 1938 it was the other way round. The Italian racial laws implemented that year forbade all those of Jewish descent and other minority groups to hold property, marry white Italians etc. etc. M was truly sucking up to H. This poster dating from that year sums it all up:leggi1

(Jews can’t …….)

It’s interesting to note that the terms ‘racialist’ or ‘racist’ at the time meant those who believed in the implementation of the theory of a superior race: quite the opposite of what the term means today, as these posters from post-1938 Italy demonstrate:

To the credit of Italians the majority of that nation was shocked by such grossly xenophobic rules. For years Jews had been integrated into Italian society in a way often unimaginable in other European countries. They had contributed profoundly to the peninsula in terms of culture politics and science and fought with distinction in the First World War. Jews and those of African descent were also fully integrated in Mussolini’s ‘balilla’ fascist youth movement’:


Just to name a few Italian composers of Jewish descent the following come to mind: Giacomo Orefice, Leone Sinigaglia, Felice Boghen, Fernando Liuzzi, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Aldo Finzi (a relative of the English Gerald Finzi, also a composer), Renzo Massarani and Vittorio Rieti.

The contribution of Jewish-origin people to Tuscany was particularly significant and the ‘Ebrei/Jews in Toscana/Tuscany’ exhibition in the Galleria delle Carrozze (next to the Medici-Riccardi palace on its right)  brought out this contribution in an excellently designed and documented display which, opening last December, continues until 26th February from 10 to 6 daily..

From the relaxation of mediaeval persecutions to the establishment of thriving communities, particularly in Livorno and Florence, the exhibition documents, with flair, the essentiality of Jewish culture in Italian society and culture .

It’s unfortunate that the Jewish ghetto, together with the old market, in Florence’s mediaeval centre was torn down by misguided town-planners in the late nineteenth century,  One has to go to such places as Pitigliano (see my post at to savour the atmosphere of these ancient centres and, of course, visit Venice where the original ‘ghetto’ was founded back in mediaeval times in an area of that city with the same name.

As compensation one can visit Florence’s beautiful synagogue where the exhibition continues:


When faced with the draconian racial laws several Italian ‘Schindler equivalents’ saved many Jews from being entirely ostracized. However, after the establishment of the Repubblica di Salò puppet state in 1943, when Italy was divided between Nazi fascists and Allied-army supporters, anti-Semitic persecution got really bad. Underground movements and the Catholic Church provided shelter and escape for Italian Jews;  the numbers finishing up in the gas chambers were far less than those in other parts of the Third Reich. Around 7,500 Italian Jews were victims of the Shoah as distinct (for example) from 500,000 Hungarian Jews,(and Hungary had a total population of just nine million  as compared to forty-five million Italians in 1940….)

I have already written posts about particular people of Jewish extraction (see my post on the great Piero Nissim at and also his ancestor, Giorgio Nissim.

01142017-330Giorgio Nissim, an Italian Schindler)

On my mother’s side of the family (my mother originated from northern Italy) there was at least one marriage between Gentile and Jew. Eliezer Turri (whose son now lives in Denmark with his Danish wife, and where he directs a media company) was a distinguished artist and writer. I remember him, particularly from childhood days, when a visit to his house was a supreme treat, for Eliezer was fascinated by model railways and had built an incredible Rivarossi set complete with local and international express trains. The display even incorporated a tram system. It was thanks to the absence of racialist sentiments among his friends that Eliezer was able to avoid a real-life train journey to Silesia’s extermination camps.

It’s important to realize this and reflect on danger signs that are returning to impinge on our society today. There is no need to remind intelligent and tolerant citizens of what these signs are. We got one yesterday…

Indeed, this Monday in Fornoli, at 10 am, there will be a ceremony in the peace park in memory of little Liliana Urbach from Bagni di Lucca who wasn’t so lucky and was the youngest Italian to die in a death camp. (For more information on her do look at my post at


It’s so important to remember what happened in Italy to a seemingly well-integrated community. It doesn’t take a demagogue to change opinions – all it requires is indifference.


 (Platform 21 at Milan Stazione Centrale – final destination Auschwitz)


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!




Potala Palace

Everyone’s got their own list of ten buildings they want to see in their lifetime. My own particular ten (which do change from time to time!) are the following

  1. The Pyramids (and the Sphinx)
  2. Petra, Jordan
  3. Angkor Wat
  4. Potala
  5. Avebury (not Stonehenge which you can’t even get close to)
  6. Chartres Cathedral
  7. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
  8. Taj Mahal
  9. Musikverein, Vienna
  10. Cracow main square.

Note that I haven’t mentioned anything in Italy. Since that country contains seventy percent of the world’s heritage sites I think it would be a little unfair to include anything from it!

I’m glad to remark that I can now die happily since all ten on my list have now been seen, the most recent being the Potala palace of Lhasa which I visited earlier this month as part of our journey to Tibet.

We waited for our second day before visiting this wondrous palace since it does include a lot of steps to reach the top and it does require a couple of days to get used to strolling about at twelve thousand feet above sea level on just two thirds of the oxygen supply you’re normally used to breathing back home. We didn’t suffer any undue effects since I’d been suggested a Chinese medicine which worked wonders (or was it the placebo effect?).

Despite the fact that the Potala has been somewhat isolated from the rest of Lhasa, with the demolition of an old village in front of it and the construction of a grand ceremonial square, this magnificent palace still dominates the city like no other building possibly could. Its massive, but strangely gracious shape, looms ever in the background like a beautiful white and red dragon, supinely resting on the hill after which it is named.

Seeing the Potala for the first time is surely one of the noblest sights that can be seen in one’s lifetime.

The visit arrangement was complicated: permissions, passports, daily visitor quota numbers, timed tickets and just one hour to see the palace (although I’m sure we spent rather more than that) were happily arranged for us beforehand. Otherwise, it can be like wanting to see Leonardo’s ‘last supper’ in Milan without booking weeks ahead.

Be prepared for a lot of sometimes steep and irregular steps. Any effort, however, was whisked away from me by the sheer beauty and grandeur of what I was approaching – the sheer otherworldly nature and exoticism of this former seat of religious and temporal power in the mountain kingdom.

People say that the Potala is now just a lifeless museum because its rightful inhabitant, the Dalai Lama, has been in exile for almost sixty years. That’s true and not true, for the Tibetans treat the palace like a shrine and leave their offerings in terms of yak butter candles and little banknotes everywhere and there is a religious quietness about the whole environment.

We were so lucky not only with the weather – the white-washed walls (which were being repainted by a bevy of women at the time) stood out brilliantly against a true blue sky of cerulean intensity – but with the fact that we weren’t besieged by too many other tourists, mostly Chinese. We never felt ‘overcrowded’.

No photographs are allowed in the interior although one can take as many as one likes from the outside. There is, however, a very good illustrated album one can purchase to show the amazing treasures of the thousand odd rooms which the palace encloses. You could also see the film ‘Kundun’ I’d mentioned in a previous post since much of it was shot inside the palace.

Here are a few facts about the UNESCO world heritage Potala. Its two colours divide its main areas: the white part is where the living quarters of the Dalai Lama were housed; the red part is dedicated to religious shrines and chapels, The hill on which the palace is built is called Mount Potalaka and is the abode of Avalokitesvara, a Bodhisattva (i.e. a person who attains Moksha or liberation not for his own sake but for that of all humankind, putting his fellow beings’ liberation above his own).

The present building dates from 1646 although it is, of course built on a much earlier and smaller palace. Its dimensions are around one thousand three hundred feet long and one thousand one hundred feet wide. Its sloping walls are over ten feet thick. And its thirteen floors rise to a height of almost four hundred feet. Its top is one thousand feet above Lhasa street level.

I was very, very moved by my visit to the Potala with its sudden transitions of darkness and light, its unexpected confrontation with both compassionate and war-like divinities, its thangkas, its still existing living quarters of the fourteenth Dalai lama, its amazing views from the upper windows, its variety of steps, ladders: the surprising changes of level left me with an impression that I had entered into a fantasy-world-dream. For all it mattered I could have stood on a different planet in a parallel solar system.

I would rank my visit to the Potala as one of the greatest visits to any building anywhere in the world and I am so glad that my ten great buildings to see have now been concluded. I’m sure, of course that readers will say ‘but you must add this…and this… to the list.’ Ok then, Madurai Meenakshmi temple here I come (again)…

Let these photographs tell some of the rest of that unforgettable second morning in Lhasa’s Potala palace:

Three Amazing New Museums in Bagni di Lucca

Bagni di Lucca has three new museums and they are all housed in that magnificent Villa where Byron lived when he stayed in our town in 1822, the Villa Webb situated in that hilly part of town known as Terme alla Villa.

Each museum is splendidly decked out by volunteers and each displays a very different aspect.

The ground floor of the villa houses a palatial hall with the insignia of the Vicariate of the Val di Lima. You’ll probably be familiar with the vicariate as its members fire the cannon that start conferences by the Fondazione Montaigne. The hall is beautifully arranged with banners, costumes instruments of battle and armour.

On the first floor is an immaculate collection of the board and card gambling games which brought Bagni di Lucca fame as the first casino in Europe. You should find time to examine the different ways you could win or lose a fortune a couple of centuries ago. Some of the games may be familiar such as the Biribisso, one of the antecedents of such fluttering delights as Montecarlo’s Chemin de Fer. The director of the historical collection of the casino games is the encyclopaedically knowledgeable Virgilio Contrucci, familiar as the barman at the antiche terme.

The top floor of the villa Webb contains one of the most amazing museums ever. Titled the ‘museum of the impossible ‘it will fascinate anyone enamoured with the macabre, the freakish, the delivish, the mythical and the alchemical – in fact, anything to do with the esoteric and pure black magic.

Don’t miss out on the kitchens now splendidly arranged with old brass and terracotta ware.

The luscious gardens have been revealed stripped now of their insidiuous brambles. There is even a delightful nymphaeum.

The Villa Webb is open at week-ends by special booking. We were lucky in that we met the caretaker quite by chance so we had the whole place to ourselves.

I still can’t quite believe whether the things we saw in that villa were a dream or a vanishing vision. Certainly, it’s Bagni di Lucca’s most extraordinary new attraction and has already enticed curious visitors from the four corners of the world. It’s an excellent example of how the comune di Bagni di Lucca can lease out its catalogue of empty historic properties to enthusiastic groups of people eager to make Bagni di Lucca an even more attractive place to visit and allow these buildings to re-live again.

PS The number to phone for a booking is 345 8035 945 or 338 2015 232. Visits may be booked at any reasonable time. There is a donation box for your visit to the museum.

Florence’s Magic Railway: Part One

There’s a delightful railway route from Florence over the Apennnines which takes in some very sweet small towns and also some major cities. We discovered this route some years ago when the first part, which goes from Florence to Borgo San Lorenzo, had still not been reconstructed after being damaged by the Germans in World War Two. It had to take over fifty years to get the trains running on the rails again (in 1999). It was well worth the wait for not only does the route pass through some spectacular scenery but has also become a well-used commuter route to and from the Mugello region of Tuscany.

The full route takes one to Ravenna with its awesome Byzantine basilicas, mosaics and, of course, Dante’s tomb. One can, however, stop at some beautiful places en route. Faenza, we visited some years ago when we had to go by train round Pontassieve. If you’re into pottery and renaissance crockery (Faenza is where we get the word Faience from) go there for the museum is fabulous, the eateries are great (especially the flat unleavened bread called Piadina) and the town is absolutely charming.

We only had an afternoon to travel from Florence yesterday but visited two places which we found very rewarding.

Florence Railway station is one of Italy’s seminal modern buildings. Desiged by a team headed by the great Michelucci to replace the old station (designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel of Clifton Bridge fame) and completed in 1934 its amazing glass roof is an evocation of the city’s Arno river.

The station also conserves a sad memory (like so many other Italian Railway station – remember my post on Milan’s railway station at )

This time it’s platform 16 where a poignant memorial has recently been erected to remember the thousands of victims of man’s intolerance to man who were deported to the Nazi death camps between 1943 and 1945. It’s only respectful to give a minute’s silence to this exterminating railtrack.

To return to our journey: first, for old time’s sake, after a plesant journey through the appennines

we alighted at Marradi, famous for the biggest and best chestnut festival in the whole of Tuscany. The town is homeland of the great Italian poet Dino Campana (who was born there in 1885 but who sadly ended his days in a lunatic asylum and is buried in the Badia of Scandicci near Florence in 1932).

Marradi looked a bit empty without the October chestnut pageants but its was still very pleasant to walk around its old streets

We also visit the chestnut museum. I was amazed to find also a section on the chestnut industry in Australia. I’d never thought there was one.

Our second stop, was a wonderful surprise…but you must read tomorrow’s instalment to find out what surprise!




PS Warning. The magic railway line starts at platform 17 at Florence’s main-line SantaMaria Novella station. What the authorities don’t tell you is that it’s a long way down from the starting platfrom of all the other railway lines and requires a ten minute’s walk to get there!


Ghosts in Love


It’s good when people read your blog and put a “like” below a post.

It’s even better when readers put a nice comment too.

But it’s wonderfully unexpected when someone reading your post actually gets inspired to write a short story about it. This is what happened to us when we visited Pontremoli, described in our post at:

and where we entered, quite by accident, into one of the most beautiful abandoned palazzi we’ve ever seen in Italy.

Maurizio Bardi is a writer, journalist and publisher, passionate about saving Italy’s beautiful neglected princesses of palaces from complete neglect and decay. We consider ourselves privileged that he wrote this short story after reading our post. It’s not just a ghost story or a fairy tale: it also carries a particularly strong punch regarding some local political situations in present day Pontremoli. We’ve translated his evocative Italian prose into English. Thank you Maurizio! Read on and enjoy.


They visited Pontremoli. They entered into the Palazzo Damiani. They took some photographs and asked themselves some questions. Then they posted their thoughts on their internet blog. And if Alexandra and Francis were ghosts returned in search of their home after nearly three hundred years? Maybe…, Everything else, however, is true, including the history of the theatre curtain.

On July 11, 2014 an English couple, Alexandra and Francis, on a visit to Pontremoli, entered by chance into Palazzo Damiani and published their disenchanted thoughts on the internet. This event inspired the following short story.

Maurizio Bardi


We felt a great wish to return to our room, in our building. Dozens of palaces, monuments of great beauty sited between two rivers, were built in eighteenth century Pontremoli.

Our building is open and unattended. Outside in the street some young people playing football, a strange game involving kicking a ball, shout and break the silence. They upset us. Farther along the horn of an iron wagon they now call a car is booming.

Nearly three centuries have passed. Why has the pleasure of silence disappeared? We are no longer able to listen. Where are those friends who frequented our palace, those intelligent souls who told us about new ideas from Paris, who spoke about the Enlightenment wandering from one place to another? Did they disappear along with Nicolò Contestabili’s frescoes, along with the collapsing walls and windows, along with our conversations in front of the fireplace?

Alexandra, my beloved, says to me: “Look at our ‘Dawn’; the fresco is now unrecognizable because of its abandonment. Remember when, under ‘Dawn’, Stefano Bertolini read us his preface to “The Spirit of Laws,” which had been requested by Montesquieu? Or do you recollect when he told us of his commitment to the legislative reforms of eighteenth century Tuscany?”

“Do you recall how the Pontremoli nobles criticized my ideas about the Enlightenment? They called me the revolutionary, the Palazzo Damiani revolutionary.”

We look for our room in the twilight. Its alcove is crumbling. The frescoed ceiling is collapsing. The walls and the plaster are collapsing. The world is collapsing. How painful! Even we, ghosts, grieve and suffer!

Francis is lost. Pleasure, which was the basis of his philosophy of a carefree and light-hearted life, has been stolen from him; that philosophy emanating from the works of Natali and Contestabili, those eighteenth century painters who gave Pontremoli its splendour.

“What can we do?” Francis asks Alexandra.

“I’ve already done something, but it was useless!”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’ve been to the mayor’s office and I made a painting fall down …”

“And the mayor?” Was she scared? “

“No. So I made it fall down again.”

“And what did she do?”

“She thought it was an attack by her political enemies. She called in a security guard and ordered him to stand still, fixed in front of the painting and guard it, day and night. I made the picture fall down again. Then the guard understood. He started talking about ghosts, but no one believed him. The guard is the only one who understands but just as he starts talking about ghosts they tell him to stop drinking. “


“So”, continued Alexandra, “I went to the Town Hall, in the room of a type of foreman. He’s the person taking care of the city’s palaces. I looked for the file on Palazzo Damiani and upset the sheets of paper on his desk, just to make him irritated.”

“Very good!”

“When he returned and saw the papers scattered everywhere he began to shout. He yelled at his deputy foreman in the room next door. He screamed that he must stop touching his documents when he wasn’t there! His face reddened, he took all the files and began to throw them about. Gradually every space in the room was filled with white sheets. He looked like a ghost! “

“Leave it well alone. If we get involved, it could also happen that the whole building collapses. Definitely.”

“Why do you say that?”

Francis’s voice saddened: “Do you remember our wonderful theatre by the river, the Rose Theatre, also built with funds from our family? They renewed it. It was he, the master builder, who was works-manager. I was happy, so I went to have a look. I looked for the terracotta floors hand-made with Terrarossa clay. I looked for the walnut doors of the master carpenters behind which we hid during the festivals. I looked for the painting before which guests arriving at the theatre remained enchanted. They are no longer there. Now they are elsewhere. But where?

I then looked for the vast theatre curtain painted by Contestabili whose creation we saw being completed day by day – a great work of art. I looked all over until I flew up into the attic. I found the curtain there in the corner, huge, curled, dying, and rotting. A great masterpiece that once had enthralled audiences was now abandoned, and before long it will be completely decomposed. “

“I can’t believe it.”

Perched on the alcove railing, exhausted, Alexandra falls asleep. I gaze out of the window that looks over what was once a small pleasant, gentle garden surrounded by arches and think about our longing, our desire to create a world which is, however, beyond that barrier that we ghosts cannot surmount.

“Let’s go”, Alexandra whispers in a soft voice. “We can’t do anything and perhaps it’s better that way.”

Then, suddenly, as if it is resurrection night for ghosts, she confronts him: “Francis, wake up! There’s no time to lose, you must tell. It’s true we are ghosts, but with the internet we ghosts can become something else!

Maurizio Bardi

Alexandra and Francis’s blog is at:

The Fall of the House of an Italian Usher?

Pian di Cerreto, at the start of the road from Castelnuovo di Garfagnana to Corfino, may appear to consist of just one sweet but undistinguished church and a couple of houses. Last Monday I decided to see if there was anything more to this hamlet.

Beyond the church which, in fact, only dates from the 1920s when the old church, much closer to the centre of Pian di Cerreto, collapsed as a result of the terrible earthquake that devastated nearby Villa Collemandina (see my post at I came across a veritable charm of  alleys lined by old stone buildings. Pretty but nothing too special.

But when I turned the corner I suddenly saw this:

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The incredibly large palazzo, one of the largest I’ve seen anywhere in the region, merited a closer look. I found that it was abandoned and actually falling apart.

At the risk of collapsing beams I entered the half-open door. Here was truly that phantasmagorical interior landscape of decrepitude through paralysis. In its own way it was just as frightening as the recapture by the jungle of so many of the temples we’d visited in Cambodia the previous month.

In the gloom I put my foot on a plastic bottle which created a bubbly creak. ‘Anyone in there?’ said a voice from outside. I exited the building to find a man feeding his chicken in a run just outside the north part of the palazzo.

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‘Be careful’, he said. ‘The whole building is pericolante (unstable).’ I took his advice and decided to halt my exploration. The thought of giant rafters suddenly collapsing on my head was too much to bear. I asked the person why nothing was being done to repair the building. ‘It costs too much money and no-one wants to buy it from us anyway,’ he explained. I enquired as to whether there were any frescoes such as the ones I’ve described in my Pontremoli post at . ‘No’, he replied. ‘There are none.’

I wanted to find out more about this ghostly apparition of a mammoth palazzo. This is what I discovered:

It’s called the Palazzo Poggi. The building is set in a location with stunning views of the Apuan Alps to the southwest and the Apennines to the northeast. Among the mountains I could see the highest of the Apuans, the Monte Pisanino (last one on right), which I’d climbed twenty years ago:

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and the Pania di Corfino which I’d tackled again just two years ago.

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The current owners of the building are descendants of the ancient family of the Counts of Bacciano and it was inhabited until the last century.  Count Poggi Poggio Castellaro, husband of Maria Anna Giovannoli, expanded the structure but because of two world wars he was unable to finish it.

In fact, one can clearly see the original structure to the right in this photograph and the unfinished extension to the left. This would have made the palazzo an almost symmetrical quadrilateral structure.

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The building is built on classical architectural lines  with portals, windows, stone stairs, carved from local quarries owned by the Count Poggi Poggio They were crafted by master stonemasons. The palazzo has three main stories, cellars and attics and is contained within a park of about 8,000 square metres.

What a pity this incredible building is left to wreck and ruin! What mysteries must be contained in it if only its collapsing walls could tell before they fall? It’s probably the same old story of the decline of family fortunes, of bad business deals, of dissipation a-la-seventh-Marquess-of-Bristol. Who knows?

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I’d passed another vast building just outside Pian di Cerreto for years before I decided to explore it too on this occasion. Again, I found an uninhabited decaying building, but this time in rather better condition. It was now used as a storehouse and all the doors were locked.

Here, too, there had been the idea of an extension but in this case it was never started. The exterior façade shows a lack of symmetry with two sets of windows on the right but only one on the left.

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The jagged set of extension stones, however, remains to give the general idea of what might have been.

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What was most delightful about this semi-ghost of a palazzo was its garden with an attractive maze of box hedges.

At least part of the garden was kept up…

Let me finish this post on an upbeat note. There is one grand palazzo in Pian di Cerreto which is beautifully maintained. Here it is:

Is this the original palazzo Giovannoli?

There are still three mysteries, lurking in my mind about Pian di Cerreto. How come this charming but unassuming little place has these grand buildings sprouting among its rather more modest houses?  And where was the old church situated? And why do some of the smaller houses have huge corbels on their facades? Were these stones taken from other buildings vanished in the earthquake? Or perhaps from a castle?

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I must return and try to investigate further. Italy is so full of seemingly unsolved mysteries that it becomes a most tantalizing country!

I did discover, however, why the hamlet is called Pian di Cerreto. It’s because of this tree:

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The plaque next to it reads:

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(Trans: Cerro (Quercus Cerris = Turkey or Austrian Oak) The plant which has given the name to Pian di Cerreto (Turkey Oak level)


A Lovely Library Ceiling at Borgo a Mozzano

Every week I go to give an English lesson at the library of Borgo a Mozzano which has now moved to the gracious palazzo Santini, restored after over ten year’s work and re-opened in 2014.

The palazzo is next to Saint Rocco’s church which I have described at

The library was originally housed in the palazzo Pellegrini in Borgo a Mozzano’s high street. That beautiful seventeenth century palazzo is now for sale at one million euros (see if you’re interested!)

It’s very relaxing to gaze up at the ceilings of palazzo Santini. Many of them have some delightful frescoes. Here is one I particularly like.

I don’t know who the painter was but the romantic landscape scenes and the grotteschi decorations point to the end of the eighteenth century.

The art of interior decoration in Italy reached its apex by the nineteenth century and even in small villages one can come across some rich decorations.

Fortunately the tradition of landscape and trompe-d’oeil decoration continues in Italy (and elsewhere, I hope). In a fine former orphanage at Benabbio there are good examples painted by Julia Alexandra Mee, daughter of the late painter Raymond Victor Lee. Julia continued her training at the Accademia delle Belle Arti, Florence, where she learnt traditional painting techniques such as fresco. (If you are a ‘Grapevine’ reader you’ll have read her fascinating articles on that subject).

The library of Borgo a Mozzano, which is free to join and also holds several English language books, has a facebook page at:


Of Temples, Waterfalls and Elephants

Laos once had a royal family and this morning we visited their palace which dates from 1904 and replaces an older one. For me the most distinctive features were the very attractive wall murals illustrating scenes from traditional Laotian life painted by Alix Ayme, sister of novelist Marcel Ayme and dating from 1930. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the palace,


We then climbed up to the top of Phu Si Hill. Fortunately, the morning was cool and we were able to admire the  extensive views of the countryside around from the quaint temple of That Chomsi.


More amazing sights awaited us when we drove into the the beautiful hilly country around Luang Prabang and reached what must be one of the most spectacular waterfalls I have ever seen. In fact, the Kuang Si are a series of waterfalls culminating into a gigantic plunge of several hundred feet.


We had a picnic by the gushing waters and then cooled off in the near turquoise waters of one of the pools. Nearby are some native bears saved from poachers.


Just before arriving at our rustic hotel we stopped at an elephant camp where   we were made welcome by the pachiderms who were after the sugar cane we offered them. Sadly there are less than a thousand elephants left in Laos but at least they are safe in places like this.


Of the three indo chinese nations we have visited I have no doubt that the jewel in the crown is Laos. Let us hope that old Asia willl continue to live on here for some time to come. The fact that Luang Prabang is celebrating its twentieth anniversary as a world heritage site is a good sign.

The One with Wind-Swept Hair

The door opened and I found myself in an immense white gallery vaulted high and stretching into the distance.

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Upon the gallery walls were hung pictures of noble lords and ladies, several in the company of their favourite pets.

Among a family group there was a cat,with a hogarthian stare at a caged bird.

At the end of the gallery was a statue to the lady who had ordered this huge room: Maria Luigia, Napoleon’s ex-wife who (sensibly) had preferred divorce to spending the rest of her life on a barren island in the south Atlantic.

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The gallery now led to a darker passage, again hung with paintings, this time dating back to older times.

There were some exquisite examples of marquetry:

And some tiles from a nuns’ convent. Perhaps, due to the enclosed nature of their order, these were probably the closest contact the sisters would make with the hurly-burly of Parma.

At the end of the dark passage there she was, all in her luscious unkempt beauty ‘la scapigliata’ (the uncombed one) painted in earth colours by that greatest and most mysterious of polymathic artists, Leonardo da Vinci. There she was, all mine in an intimate togetherness, with no-one around as no-one had been around in the white gallery I’d left.

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We stayed together for a good quarter of an hour. This truly was bliss, to have this exquisite picture all to myself to gaze on. How could I ever tolerate gazing on La Gioconda (Mona Lisa to English speakers) or Leonardo’s paintings in the Uffizi with all those milling crowds around? A painting like this could only be appreciated and loved in solitude and silence.

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But who was la scapigliata, she with the wind-swept hair? Clearly, she was a relative, a sister even, of the Virgin of the Rocks…

The small picture is painted in umber and white lead on a wooden panel measuring (24.7 x 21 cm) is dated around 1508. It was perhaps the same work that Ippolito Calandra in 1531 suggested could be hung in the bedroom of Frederico Gonzaga’s wife (and Isabella d’Este daughter) Margherita Paleologa. In 1501 Margaret had asked a Madonna for her study from Leonardo. Is this the one? Maybe.

Anyway, with difficulty I had to tear myself away from her. La scapigliata had truly enchanted me!


Demi-closed eyelids,

artfully dishevelled hair:

lightly, soft lips smile.