Camporgiano Castle and its Unexpected Treasures

This time I was lucky. Signor Sarti on tel 338 28 79741 was the right person to contact in order to visit the ceramics museum of Camporgiano.  I returned to the little town in the upper Serchio valley dominated by its massive Estensi fortress and met him. We entered into one of the four great turrets forming a quadrilateral and at last got to see  these long-for ceramics.

Where did these ceramics come from? There was no pottery industry in the area so how did these pieces come to be here in such quantities. Signor Sarti explained it all to me. The original fortress was built in the 1300’s by the condottiere Castruccio Castracani before the advent of firepower and had high thinnish walls to deflect arrows. When cannonballs and muskets came into the fray and the town was conquered by the Estensi dynasty something defending against the new weapons of war had to be thought out. So a new fortress was built in 1446 encircling the old and displaying the inclined, thicker and lower walls which are known so well by those who visit Lucca. There was, thus, a hollow space created between the old and new fortress walls and the inhabitants used this as a dump, over the years for their old, broken or unwanted plates and pottery items. Most of these items had come from that capital of the best Italian pottery Faenza – from which, of course, we get the word faience.

The main buildings of the Estensi fortress were irreparably damaged in the 1920 earthquake but the massive walls withstood the seismic shock and a private residence was built on top of the walls.

During the last war the fortress was used as an air-raid shelter by the local inhabitants before the allies advance further north towards the decisive battle of Aulla

Quite by chance after the last war, during an archaeological dig, these pottery waste dumps were rediscovered and found to contain some truly precious pieces of renaissance works dating from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. These included everything from plates to pitchers, bowls and tiles.

A museum was eventually opened in 1976; restored in 1999 and again closed this century for several years until it was recently reopened.

In fact, when we entered the museum was covered with a layer of dust which the custodian was desperately trying to sweep away since the whole interior of the bastion had been closed for some four years.

Here is the area where the majority of the ceramics was found – between the walls of the old and the new fortress.


The collection was well lay out and there were some quite magnificent examples.

I was also able to visit the beautiful private gardens and met a charming couple from the USA who were also ‘castling’ in the area. They’d been to Italy at least twenty times and had enjoyed most of the fortresses and castles that dot the Garfagnanan and Aulla regions.

I pointed out to them the fortress of Verrucole (described in my post at which stands opposite Camporgiano near San Romano and truly the Scythian gates of the upper Serchio.


I now headed towards another great new discovery for me – the recently constructed Tibetan bridge over the Lake of Vagli. But that area deserves a whole new post!



Ponte a Moriano

The town of Ponte a Moriano is a useful stop on the way from Bagni di Lucca to Lucca. Avoiding those somewhat daunting tunnels, one turns off the slip road showing the sign to the area and, after passing some fine art nouveau villas on the left, enters into Ponte a Moriano. (It’s also possible to take the right turn just before crossing the Rivangaio Bridge).

Tuesday mornings is a good time to stop at Ponte a Moriano because it’s market day. Actually, last Tuesday the market was literally a washout. We’ve had some days of incredibly inclement weather culminating early this morning into a sequence of thunder claps that made our bed tremble and lightening that illuminated the night sky into a giant lantern.

Ponte a Moriano means ‘Bridge in the Moriano locality’ and the actual bridge itself is called Ponte di Sant’Ansano. In the centre of the bridge are the statues of the Virgin and Saint Ansano:


This year the bridge celebrated its nine hundredth birthday. Of course, the present bridge isn’t the original one of 1115. It was built in 1828 by engineer Giacomo Maracci and architect Giovanni Lazzarini after a river flood destroyed the old one. I’m sure that, despite all the recent rain, the current bridge will, again, hold its own.

Around Ponte a Moriano’s Main Square there are a number of interesting buildings and shops. Dominating it on the east side is the Nieri theatre (named after the poet from Empoli, Ippolito Nieri (1652-1708)), a fine art deco building, dating from 1930 and used as a cinema until the 1970s, which has a regular programme of plays and shows.


Continuing in a clock-wise direction there’s the post office, followed by the euro shop. I always use this shop for small articles like sellotape, screwdrivers and the like. At this time of year, of course it’s filled with witches’ hats and giant spiders since Halloween threatens to shortly descend upon us.

On the west side there’s a restaurant, da Pinza, which rarely disappoints. On this visit we discovered another shop near to da Pinza. The shop front hosted a display of art works including paintings and clay statuettes which looked very appealing. It’s run by the ‘Associazione Anni d’Argento’ (silver years association a national pensioners’’ organization) who have had this place for around four years and aims to provide pottery and painting courses to the community in addition to advice on social and medical matters. The association also organises trips to interesting historical cities.

Here are some of objects d’art we discovered in this shop last Tuesday. Not all are for sale!

If you are interested in developing, or even starting, your artistic skills in pottery and art then do contact Carolina Franchi o 0583 57345 or Maria Rosa Vitolo on 583 577861.

Ponte a Moriano is also the place to park your vehicle if you want to join the shuttle bus service to the Convento dell’Angelo where Kuhn’s music academy hold courses and provide beautiful musical settings of the church services at Easter and Christmas. (see my post at


and at

So don’t miss out on Ponte a Moriano in your next trip to Lucca!

Thoughts of an Idle Fellow

There’s always a frisson in stumbling across a Roman Villa. In England my visits to four of the greatest of them:


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and Fishbourne


– the greatest palace north of the Alps, in size larger than Buckingham palace and equal in area to the Emperor Nero’s Golden House – have always been major occasions and helped to re-connect me to one of the greatest empires the world has known and within whose boundaries I’ve spent most of my life, whether it be England, Tunisia, Italy, Morocco, France, Egypt, Spain or Jordan.

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My nearest Roman villa happens to be the Domus Romana in Lucca (see my post on it at It is, however, not strictly a villa but, as its name implies, a town house. To be a true Roman villa a countryside location is essential for these villas flourished on the products of the agricultural lands which surrounded them. Furthermore, a classic Roman villa always had its private baths as an integral part of the whole.

Massaciuccoli contains our nearest proper Roman villa.  In the 1930’s archaeological excavations began in earnest below the little town’s parish church and uncovered the impressive termae placed in a stupendous location with wonderful views over Massaciuccoli Lake and stretching to the coast.

More recently, controversial excavations have taken place on the town’s main road leading to Massa. I say controversial because they were only possible when the local school closed in 2000. The building was promptly demolished to much protest and the dig began.

The villa belonged to the Venulei family from Pisa who struck it very rich and was divided into two sections. The part on the hill above composed the Venulei’s private holiday quarters and corresponded to the Latin concept of otium, or idleness. Under the protestant work ethic we’ve inherited a distorted view of this concept which has become a saying: “idle hands make the devil’s work”. In Roman times however, it was a much prized concept centring on intellectual and philosophical musings and eschewing manual and business occupations. These came under the umbrella of negotium from which the Italians get their word for shop, “negozio” and we get our “negotiation”.

The negotium part of the Venulei’s villa was carried out in the lower part where agricultural products including wheat, wine and olives were processed and where a classical version of a traveller’s inn (or “auto grill” as my lively teenage girl-guide put it) was set up providing refreshment and washing facilities for journey-worn itinerants going to and from Rome on the main Via Aurelia.

A large arch has been erected over the excavations which have revealed much in the way of pottery, coins, decorative fragments and the general plan of the huge villa complex of how life must have been conducted almost two thousand years ago.

The most notable item found was, as in the case of the Britannic villas, a lovely mosaic. Formerly the floor of a frigidarium of another set of baths it depicts mythological animals, dolphins and masques.

The mythological animals are known as hippocampi. They were the sea god Poseidon’s own special marine equines and pulled his chariot across the waves.

Happily these animals are alive and kicking today! Our sea horses belong to the hippocampus family, in fact.


While I was there last Sunday the villa was also well and truly alive with a young school-group engaged in a project about the Romans and getting very noisily excited about it.

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The museum is only open at week-ends in winter (although the mosaic can be easily seen from the outside through a corner glass panel). It’s named after Guglielmo Lera who was a well-known and respected historian and writer from Lucca and who died as recently as 2004. The newish bridge across the Serchio between Fornaci di Barga and Bolognana has also been dedicated to his memory.

I wonder how many of us will have anything dedicated to or named after him/her, apart from a gravestone or plaque, when we pop it….

My Mum’s a Spiny Ant-Eater

In Italy, the first Sunday of every month allows free entry to the country’s state museums and art galleries. Unlike the UK there are entrance charges for all the national collections so this first Sunday is a good occasion, for families especially, to save money.

We were in Florence on the Sunday and, realising that even on admission charge days places like the Uffizi and the Pitti palace would be over-crowded, decided instead to visit one of Florence’s lesser-known wonders, the archaeological museum, which has its entrance by that most beautiful of squares, the Piazza degli Innocenti.


The museum was founded at the start of the nineteenth century and suffered severe damage in the infamous 1966 Florence floods. Despite this, there are some wonderful things on show. For me it’s worth going there just to see the fabulous chimera which was discovered in renaissance times at Arezzo.

The chimera is indeed a fabulous creature in the strict sense of the word, having the body of a lion, the tail of a serpent and, in the middle of its back, the head of a goat. In fact, the word “chimera” has been imported into scientific terminology and is applied to organisms having genetically different cells, quite apart from its popular use to refer to impossible schemes and day-dreams

Having caused widespread destruction, as most monsters are apt to do, the Chimera was killed by Bellerophon riding Pegasus, the winged horse. Here is a fresco showing the hero’s feat:


The Arezzo Chimera is now displayed in a separate room together with that other fine bronze statue of the orator which is the only surviving example of an Etruscan metal sculpture using the cire-perdue method..


There are many other fascinating things to see in Florence’s archaeological museum. Its Egyptian section, for example, is second only to that of Turin’s amazing collection.

Perhaps the finest part, however, is that displaying Etruscan artefacts collected in that former stronghold of Etruscan civilization, the southern part of Tuscany.

We thoroughly enjoyed our trip here and were glad we avoided the Uffizi as we heard that people had been queuing there for three hours to get in. Of course, the Uffizi is a must but if we want to see the paintings there we’ll sensibly book on-line at

By the way, how do I explain the weird title of this post? Simple. Chimera’s dad was Typhon, the father of all monsters, and his mum was Echidna half-woman and half-snake, the mother of all monsters. Her name is now applied to the Australian spiny ant-eater since the little animal has features which make it seem half a reptile and half a mammal. On the other hand, it looks a lot cuter than that chimera.


The Flowering Walls of Lucca

Lucca has two major gardening festivals every year. The first is called “Verdemura” and takes place at the beginning of June. (I’ve described this festival at It’s located at the northern end of the walls near porta Santa Maria. The second, and larger festival, is called “Murabilia” and takes place at the start of September. It’s held in two bulwarks at the southern part of the city walls – probably a superior place since they are near the city’s charming botanical gardens (which are free to holders of the festival’s admission ticket.) Both gardening festivals have stunning locations on the beautiful tree-avenued walls of Lucca which are now just over five hundred years old.

I far prefer these smaller gardening and flowers festivals to the huge and overcrowded events in London, of which the Chelsea Flower Show is the prime example. Why frequent those happenings if one is unable to see exhibits clearly because of the pressing crowds? The same could be said of other events in that city, such as the exhibitions at the Royal Academy – they may be marvellous but what is the point of going if one’s view of the pictures is continually obstructed by throngs of people?

Lucca’s garden festivals are just the right size not to cause exhaustion and contain the right amount of variety not to be overwhelming.

These gigantic pumpkins greeting us at the entrance of Lucca’s fourteenth “Murabilia”. They could certainly make a carriage for a little Cinderella:

What did I enjoy most at Murabilia? I found the edible plants section fascinating and liked the way that vegetables and fruit could be grown in different ways, as in plastic bottles, sacks and pallets:

The number of ancient and threatened species of fruit was remarkable and one stand was dedicated to their preservation. How boring life would be if we were just reduced to eating little more than the golden delicious variety of apples?

A solution to lawn cutting and watering was proposed by this stand presenting alternatives to grass:

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I liked the way these water lilies were grown. It’s not necessary to have a large pond in one’s garden to keep them in:

The orchid exhibition in the botanical gardens was stunning.

I was pleased to see Gingko Biloba, the “fossil tree”, in full fantail leaf. (For more on Lucca’s botannical gardens see my post at and to see a Gingko Biloba in Bagni di Lucca check out my post at

Our metal avian friends from Africa were back in all their mischievous glory.

Cacti were in sufficient variety to please everyone.

Flowers of all varieties and colours were on sale:

Murabilia lasts until 7th September so hurry if you want to see it!

For more details see

We also had time to take in the last day of an exhibition at the nearby Villa Guinigi on the excavation of a sixteenth century pottery kiln which has taken place near the San Donato gate (the one housing the tourist information office).

The exhibition was very well laid out with accompanying, decent English translations describing what was found and how it was made. Batch processing of pots using horizontal and vertical containers and the technique of graffito to produce patterns on the ceramics were excellently described. The Lucca pottery, however, failed to compete satisfactorily with the far larger establishments at Faenza and folded up to be replaced by a glass works.

It’s a pity this was the last day of the exhibition and we were probably the last visitors to view it. I do hope it can be displayed again in another venue soon.

The day was humid and slightly overcast, making it not too uncomfortable to take in the pleasant sights Lucca offered us yesterday. The couple of light showers ensured that the exhibits themselves were looking at their best.