A Restored Soldier

Our man in Ponte a Serraglio is now whiter than white in his resplendently cleaned-up Carrara marble nudity. Yesterday we passed him and had to put on our sunglasses to avoid being dazzled by his effulgent glory. I’ve mentioned the soldier in a previous post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/04/05/whiter-than-white/

To recap: the statue was sculpted by Alberto Cheli in 1923 and is in a markedly neo-classical style with leanings towards fascist grandiloquence. Its material is marble, and the steps are in pietra Serena.

Alberto Cheli was born in 1888 at Pieve Fosciana in the upper Serchio valley (where he also sculpted a war memorial). Cheli studied under Luccan Francesco Petroni. In 1932 he married Adalgisa Panconi, from whom he had twins, Giorgio and Lio. Among Cheli’s other monuments is one commemorating the poet Virgil in the Italian colony of Rosario Argentina (1930). He died in 1947 in Lucca.

It’s even more important today to preserve and conserve our war memorials for mankind has learnt nothing about the futility of war.

English war poetry is well-known to most of us. The patriotic myth of war as expounded by the likes of Rupert Brooke (If I should die, think only this of me; (…there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England etc,’) was largely demolished by the gritty realism of the verses of Wilfrid Owen so full of poignant ironies. g.g. in ‘Strange meeting”:
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend. 

I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned 

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed. 

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold. 

Let us sleep now. . . .”

But what about Italian war poetry of the same period? It’s clear the triumphal-heroic mode was elegantly expounded by the likes of D’annunzio (see my post on him at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/superman-or-satanist/ ). But was there anyone writing in Italy who approached the tragic reality of warfare in a way similar to that of Wilfrid Owen (who died just days between the armistice ended the greatest slaughter mankind has seen).

I can only think of Giuseppe Ungaretti who wrote disarmingly short poems, almost haiku like in form and sentiment, but which are full of cosmic resonances. Here’s one called ‘Soldati’ (soldiers).

 

Si sta come
d’autunno
sugli alberi
le foglie

(We are here

as leaves from

trees in autumn)

 

I wonder whether the restored statue at Ponte a Serraglio will be regarded in future years as a glorification of war heroism or as a poignant aspect of the greatest and most tragic aberration of the human psyche?

Lucca: a Tree-Lined City

Lucca is famous not only for its walls but for the trees which surround them. Many of the trees are built on the ramparts themselves. Sadly several have suffered and had to be cut down and replanted in recent years.

The same fate is regrettably happening to the trees which surround the circonvallazione, or ring road, which encircles the walls. Happily there is an ongoing project to replant the ones that have been felled with lecci or holm –oaks. Limes and planes are also being replaced.

Despite the changing arboreal landscape it is still a great pleasure to drive around the walls of Lucca, especially when the trees are fresh with their new spring leaves.

 

May Lucca still remain what poet Gabriele D’annunzio described as

…la città dall’arborato cerchio,
ove dorme la donna del Guinigi.

 

…the city with the tree-lined circle

within which sleeps Guinigi’s wife.

 

 

(Guinigi’s wife in Lucca cathedral)

 

 

Whiter than White!

No, Bagni di Lucca is not preparing for the visit of an ayatollah – remember how those gorgeous classical nudes were covered up (including the Apollo Belvedere!) during the recent visit of an eastern potentate to the Vatican museums.

In this case the scaffolding at present surrounding its war memorial is for a much needed restoration of the statue: Ponte a Serraglio’s homage to the Fallen. The work is sponsored in large part by the Cassa di Risparmio of Lucca which is also contributing towards restoration of the equally fine monument at San Cassiano.

The restoration, which is taking place one hundred years after the greatest massacre Europe has experienced, was sorely needed since moss and lichens had been covering the statue giving the noble figure a somewhat sickly appearance. Moreover, the various parts of the monument were becoming separated from each other.

(The memorial before restoration)

The statue was sculpted by Alberto Cheli in 1923 and is in a markedly neo-classical style with leanings towards fascist grandiloquence. Its material is marble, and the steps to are in pietra Serena.

Alberto Cheli was born in 1888 at Pieve Fosciana in the upper Serchio valley (where he also sculpted a war memorial). Cheli studied under Luccan Francesco Petroni. In 1932 he married Adalgisa Panconi, from whom he had twins, Giorgio and Lio. Among Cheli’s other monuments is one commemorating the poet Virgil in the Italian colony of Rosario Argentina (1930). He died in 1947 in Lucca.

(Alberto Cheli)

Certainly, the end results of the Ponte a Serraglio monument are beginning to show and a whiter-than-white heroic figure is emerging. It’s a bit too refulgent to my eyes but I’m sure time will give this fine monument some patina back to it.

Incidentally, someone I knew who lived on the opposite side of the river would wake up to a splendid view of the statue’s posterior every day. I’m sure that part of the monument’s anatomy will be nicely cleaned up too.

Fishing for Pescia’s Hidden Treasures

Pescia is one of Italy’s large list of overlooked cities.  Usually what happens is that, if travelling from Lucca to Florence, there may be a stop at Pistoia at the most. (Pistoia is, indeed – together with Prato – one of the most wonderful cities in Tuscany (or indeed in Italy!).

Yet Pescia has much of interest too and, since it is so near to the Lucchesia it is certainly worth making a day of it. Furthermore, if Peter Sellers regarded Balham as the gateway to South-West London, then Pescia is the gateway to the ‘Svizzera Pesciatina’ or ‘Pescian Switzerland’, a delightful sequence of bosky valleys and castle-like villages. (But more of that later).

Pescia has a long history dating back to at least Longobard times and, was fought over by both Lucca and Florence and even Pisa before it finally passed into Florentine domination in the fifteenth century. Indeed, there is an imposing gateway arching the road to Florence called ‘Porta Fiorentina’.

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Unusually for many Italian cities built on a river Pescia has two distinct nuclei. On the right bank of the River Pescia di Pescia (the name derives from ancient Longobard pehhia meaning stream) is the commercial centre and on the left bank is the religious side.

I’ve always enjoyed my times in Pescia and on a visit yesterday I started by exploring the commercial centre which is centrered around the large Piazza Mazzini, encircled by some very fine old buildings, a few including mediaeval towers.

The first interesting sight, however, is the ‘Casa del Fascio’ a fine example of totalitarian architecture dating from 1928. I have been unable to discover who the architect was but the building has stylistic affinities with Michelucci.

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Note the lictors’ fasces on either side of the main doorway, The building now houses the comune’s archives.

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Don’t miss the delightful church of the Madonna a Piè di Piazza which, among its treasures, has a wonderfully carved ceiling.

At Christmas time there are many nativity scenes on show and, indeed, there is a civic nativity itinerary. My main aim was to re-visit the extraordinary collection of plaster casts donated in 1980 by the descendants of Libero Andreotti and now housed in the antico Palagio del comune which is well worth a visit just by itself.

Libero Andreotti (Pescia 1875 – Florence 1933) is considered to be Pescia’s most famous citizens. (I could also include the unfortunately neglected composer of over seventy operas, Giovanni Pacini who, although born in Catania in 1796, spent the last ten years of his life in Pescia where he died in 1867 and where Pescia’s theatre is named after him. I do hope the town museum will reopen since it contains valuable Pacini memorabilia.

(If you’ve never head Pacini here’s excerpts from his opera depicting the last day of Pompeii.)

At the old Palagio comunale we were met by a charming lady who combined the role of administrator, secretary and guide. It seemed to me that she was truly doing the job of at least three people. Thanks to her enthusiasm I was able to glean the following facts about Libero Andreotti who, together with Pascoli and Puccini, formed a close friendship trio.

Libero started off working in a smithy when eight years old. When he was seventeen the determining meeting of his life occurred when he met Alfredo Caselli. Caselli was perhaps one of the most significant persons in Luccan fin de siècle social life. Born in Lucca in 1865, he inherited his father’s caffé in Via Fillungo which is now called Caffé di Simo. (Shamefully closed since 2012 this historical caffé which played such an important part in Lucca’s cultural history may well reopen next year after lengthy legal problems and structural difficulties.) The caffé is one of those great Italian institutions (like Caffé san Marco in Trieste or Gran Caffé Margherita in Viareggio) which weren’t just a place to have a cup of coffee but formed a hub for artists and intellectuals to meet and exchange ideas.

Through Caselli, Andreotti met such composers as Catalani and Puccini, poet Pascoli and painter Viani. They stimulated Libero creatively and he found his true vocation which was that of a sculptor,largely self-taught. After a disappointing stint as illustrator and caricaturist for Palermo’s weekly socialist paper ‘La Battaglia’ Libero returned to Tuscany.

He also stayed in Paris for some time where he learned new techniques and became friends with Modigliani.

The museum contains works from all stages of Andreotti’s career. From an earlier phase as a follower of post-impressionist Medardo Rossi, much admired by Rodin, Libero passed over to a more neo-classical phase. Among the exhibits are sensuous ballet sculptures depicting Nijinsky dancing Debussy’s ‘Prelude à l’après midi d’un faune’

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Libero survived his soldiering in World War One and afterwards received his first truly monumental commissions which clearly and sadly were memorials to the Fallen.

Here is the memorial to the war dead in Bolzano:

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And here is the original plaster cast in Pescia. There was some criticism that it resembled too closely Piero Della Francesca’s famous resurrection in Sansepolcro. Libero, however, received eclectic influences and was well aware of his debt to renaissance art which he adored.

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The cire-perdue method was used for Andreotti’s completed bronze works. Most of these are today dispersed or lost. Some were melted down for the war effort (a completely useless exercise like those railings removed that once surrounded London’s terraced houses). Others are in private collections, and more we don’t know where they finished up. That’s why the gipsoteca at Pescia is so important for an assessment of Andreotti’s work.

I loved this sculpture personifying the Africo and Mensola streams in Florence. Anyone who has been to Florence will know that these two streams never actually meet. The story comes from Boccaccio’s ‘Il Ninfale Fiesolano’ which tells how Africo, a shepherd, fell in love with Mensola, the goddess Diana’s favourite handmaiden. When Diana discovered their liaison she turned both into streams never to meet or cast eyes on each other again.

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The persons who comissioned the statue didn’t like it because they thought Mensola’s legs were impudically too far apart.

Another tale of catastrophic male-female encounters is shown in this one commissioned by English war poet Siegfried Sassoon and displaying Actaeon discovering Diana naked. The goddess was so incensed that she turned Actaeon into a deer that was hunted down and torn apart by his dogs. Somehow, I think the Italian greyhounds depicted wouldn’t have been capable of such a barbarity. Sadly the statue never reached the UK as it was commissioned just before the carnage of WW1.

Andreotti passed his last years in Florence where he lies buried in the cemetery delle Porte Sante at San Miniato sul Monte.

A friend has pointed out to me that Libero’s son, Aldo, became a famous mathematician at Pisa University concentrating largely on algebraic geometry. Aldo clearly inherited his father’s creative genes but developed them into the abstract geometry of mathematics rather than his father’s figurative sculpture.

Here are further examples of Libero Andreotti’s’ art we were privilege to see.

The views from the palagio’s terrace over Pescia were delightful:

This is the original for a giant horse sculpture.

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I just wonder where the giant horse has bolted to.

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And this is the great Libero Andreotti himself:

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When I heard from our charming guide that there was an untapped archive of correspondence between Libero Andreotti and Giacomo Puccini I was quite excited. The first volume of Puccini’s ‘complete’ correspondence was compiled last year by Gabriella Biagi Ravenni and Dieter Schickling. It covers the years 1877-1896 and is published by Leo S. Olschki.

I just wonder whether the great Puccini scholar Schickling is aware of this treasure trove hidden in the dusty archives of Pescia’s antico Palagio comunale. Puccini was a brilliant writer of letters which are often highly witty and reveal incredible insights into his life and works. I look forwards to the next volume with eager anticipation.

Opening hours for the museum are

Tuesday to Sunday 9 to 12 and 3 to 6 (except Thurdìsday when its 9 to 12 and 4 to 7)

Further discoveries were awaiting us in Pescia so we had to move on although I would have loved to linger longer in this extraordinary museum, dedicated to a sculptor I suspect few of us have heard of. But Pescia was so full of fascinating details:

 

 

 

The White Death Hits Bolognana

I came across this monument a few days ago when I decided I’d go through the town of Bolognana instead of by-passing it as is usually done.

It clearly refers to a great tragedy where several workmen working on a hydro-electric project lost their lives. This kind of death, which is all too common in Italy, is called ‘morte bianca’ – white death.

I need to find out more about what happened back in 1939. Perhaps the tunnel the workmen were excavating to channel the water down to the hydro-electric station collapsed upon them or they were blown up in a misaligned dynamite explosion.

Whatever the reason for the terrible accident the monument, which is divided into two parts – the original one and the much later one dedicated to victims of work-related accidents in general – , moved my emotions considerably. I thought the peace dove particularly beautifully done.

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PS I have since been told that my hypothesis was correct. A tunnel which should have brought water from Gallicano to Turrite Cava Lake collapsed killing ten young workmen on the ENEL project. It was the night of 24th November 1938. All victims came from the local area. The original monument was erected in 1942. Although restored in 2015, I still think it needs a bit of gardening around it to bring it back to its full glory and dignity again.

PS When you get your next ENEL bill a good idea to avoid cursing it is to think of the past sacrifice of so many young men in bringing you an electricity supply.

 

 

 

A Garden’s Major Arcana

The climax of our first full day, however, was the extraordinary ‘giardino dei tarocchi’. Inspired by Gaudi’s parco Guell in Barcelona and the stone monsters inhabiting the park at Bomarzo near Viterbo, the tarot garden was created by a remarkable woman and wife of Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle. Started in 1979 it was still incomplete when Niki died in 2002. The twenty-one cards of the major arcana are represented by sculptures of a high plasticity  decorated with glass intarsii and mosaics. Among the sculptures there are various machine-like creations by Tinguely himself.

As one present at Keane’s inauguration of his exhibition of paintings of the major arcana at Barga (see my post on that at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/06/05/a-major-arcana-at-barga/ ) I was particularly interested in visiting these gardens which had been on my mind for some time.

As Niki said ‘this garden was made with difficulty, love, wild enthusiasm, obsession, and most of all faith. Nothing could have stopped me.’

She continued ‘as in all fairy tales, before finding the treasure, I met on my path dragons, sorcerers, magician, and the Angel of Temperance.’

We spoke to an artist in Capalbio who described Niki as a sad woman. Perhaps it requires sad people to create places imparting joy and hope. Certainly, we came out of these extraordinary gardens quite exhilarated.

Just to remind you the symbols of the major arcana are the following:

Le Bateleur (The Mountebank, The Juggler, The Magician)

II. La Papesse (The Papess, or The Female Pope)
III. L’Impératrice (The Empress)
IV. L’Empereur (The Emperor)
V. Le Pape (The Pope, or The Hierophant)
VI. L’Amoureux (The Lovers)
VII. Le Chariot (The Chariot)
VIII. La Justice (Justice)
IX. L’Hermite (The Hermit)
X. La Roue de Fortune (The Wheel of Fortune)
XI. La Force (Strength, or Fortitude)

XII. Le Pendu (The Hanged Man)
XIII. [usually left unnamed, but “called” L’Arcane sans nom, La Mort, or Death]
XIV. Tempérance (Temperance)
XV. Le Diable (The Devil)
XVI. La Maison Dieu (The House of God, or The Tower)
XVII. L’Étoile (The Star)
XVIII. La Lune (The Moon)
XIX. Le Soleil (The Sun)
XX. Le Jugement (Judgement)
XXI. Le Monde (The World)
no number. Le Mat (The Fool)

See how many you can recognize in these pictures we took of this amazing garden. Let me remind you that the garden is an overwhelming tactile and visual experience which no photograph can properly capture. It’s also possible to enter inside several sculptures so that one experiences a psychedelic synthesis with subject and object, connecting into a transcendental oneness. Niki, herself, lived in some of these sculptures…

Truly, the giardino dei tarocchi has the extraordinary quality of disturbing, questioning but ultimately enthusing one. I was equally fascinated by the reactions of the visitors there which included all ages together with a healthy variety of pet dogs. The ‘giardino’ does achieve its purpose of uniting humans into wonder, joy and harmony. We need creations like Niki’s to truly bring the world together!

PS The garden is near Capalbio just off the Via Aurelia near the Lazio/Tuscany border.

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:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/10/02/borgo-a-mozzanos-san-rocco-e-san-sebastiano/

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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.

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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 https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/heavenly-bodies/)

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).

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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 https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/wholly-santinis/

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.

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

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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.

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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!