Of Angel Staircases and Angelic Seafood in Livorno

I recently discussed with a friend what we considered to be the most neglected towns and cities in Italy. Neglected, that is, from a point of visiting them rather than having them badly looked after.  I consider Livorno one of the most neglected cities in Italy, especially as it happens also to be Tuscany’s second largest urban centre and one of Italy’s major seafood centres. Until quite lately it was also neglected in terms of its appearance too. But things are changing.

I’ve written quite a bit about Livorno. I won’t repeat what I said here but would suggest you read my posts at:


and at:


Our day at Livorno had begun with the visit to the ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ (do see my previous post). More was to follow. In particular, there was a trip to a sumptuous villa with fabulous paintings by that greatest of Italian impressionists, Giovanni Fattori. I’ve visited this extraordinary place twice already. Depending on your taste-buds you can either call villa Mimbelli an elegant example of La Belle Epoque, or a supreme case of O.T.T. vulgarity. The villa was built by Architect Vincenzo Micheli between 1865 and 1875 for Francesco Mimbelli, a rich merchant and his wife, Enrichetta Rodocanacchi. If nothing else, the villa just shows what wealth flowed into Livorno.

(PS The Mooreish (moresco) room above is the smoking chamber for men only. I originally thought it may have been a harem.)

The grand staircase is decorated with charming ceramic putti. There were very differing views in my party about if they would allow this sort of thing in their residence:

There are some interesting, somewhat eclectic paintings on the first two floors:

The finest paintings, however, are kept on the top floor whose modest decoration and lower ceiling height show that this must have been the servants’ quarters.

Livornese Giovanni Fattori’s paintings of military manoeuvres and battles during the Italian war of independence show his supreme skill in capturing horse anatomy and the dynamics of the drills themselves. He is, indeed, the painter that dragged Italy into the new world of impressionism and French trends. The term macchiaioli (macchia=stain) is used to describe this Italian version of ‘plein-air’ and light-infected painting. Other paintings on this top floor included examples of some of the Livornese painters who followed Fattori’s technique.

Here are some fine adornments for their lords and masters:

We didn’t have much enthisiasm to explore the exotic gardens surrounding the villa (which also have specimens of palms from the Canaries) because of the deluge that was raining ‘a catinelle’ (= cats and dogs) upon us. So the brave act of one of our group to fetch the car enabled us to drive to a very particular restaurant for lunch; but not before taking a walk on the spectacular Terrazza Mascagni and gazing on an even more spectacular seafront view. What a passionate backcloth for that couple having their wedding photographs taken!

Cacciucco is Livorno’s most famous dish. It’s a fish stew/soup like no other and has featured not only in many famous recipe books but, more recently, also on TV.  In London’s Seymour Street there’s the unmissable Michelin-starred Locanda Locatelli for some of the best Italian food in town. (Giorgio Locatelli has won ‘best Italian restaurant’ award twice already too). Locatelli with art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon decided they’d track down the cacciucco in Livorno:

If you slide to 47 minutes. 46 seconds of this video of the BBC programme ‘Italy unpacked’:

you’ll find out more about where, what and how and how we ate!

After lunch the weather brightened up a little and we decided to explore a little of Livorno. Despite the almost blanket bombing of World War Two, we came across some delightful corners in this cosmopolitan city including the new fortress, ‘la nuova Venezia’, the aristocratic via Borra, the fabulous market building, the Inigo Jones-designed cathedral in the main square, the statue of the four moorish slaves, the sanctuary of Saint Caterina and much else including that inimitable Livornese drink, Ponce, (punch) a sort of caffé corretto with rum and cognac introduced by English sailors to the city they called ‘Leghorn’.

Just look at these pictures to entice you to Livorno:

I, at least, am sure that relegating Livorno to a city not worth a special journey is a big mistake!









Over the Rainbow

Yesterday, another national day of mourning for Italy as twenty eight of the two hundred and thirty one killed by the earthquake in Amatrice received their last rites, as the local people had wanted, in their own town instead of the unwished-for arrangement at Rieti.

To-date there are two hundred and ninety two victims of the area’s earthquake and several people more remain still missing.

Of all the many moving images from yesterday there were two that stand out in my mind:

The cocker spaniel by the coffin of his master and friend, killed in the earthquake:


The letter written by the firefighter to the little girl he valiantly tried to save but arrived too late.


So many lives lost, so many young lives lost in the fullness of their awakening promises:

It finally rained yesterday after weeks of drought. The heavens were truly weeping and I was hoping a new sign might appear in the sky. I’m sure it will.


I could only think of one song yesterday and one singer whose life, too, was tragically cut short.




Festa della Repubblica Italiana

Italy’s seventieth Republic day yesterday came and went with nothing much happening in Bagni di Lucca except more rain. Three years ago there was a good concert at the Teatro Accademico (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/viva-verdi/ ) but if there was an event in our comune I missed it because nothing was publicised.

Watching on RAI 1, however, I saw the impressive parade of armed forces (including, of course, the carabinieri) which this year was amplified by mayors from all parts of Italy, and the public services including nurses and fire-fighters, some in historic costumes.

Towards the end of the parade the Bersaglieri (Italian for marksmen – bersaglio means target) with their helmets adorned with black capercaillie feathers did their incredibly fast march past (180 steps per minute – a jog in fact) which must be difficult especially if you are playing a tuba!

Finally, the President, after greeting a group of children who presented him with a tricolour painting, entered his Lancia Flaminia preceded by the cuirassiers in their gleaming armour and went towards the Quirinal palace whose gardens are specially opened to the public on Republic day.

The proceedings were accompanied by a persistent light rain but, as one of the commandants said of his troops ‘a soldier never gets wet.’

Napoleon meanwhile was sheltering from the Bagni di Lucca rain and probably thinking ‘this is weather for the ducks’.

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The freccie Tricolori, the nickname given to the national aerobatic squadron of the 313th group of the Italian air force, crowned the morning with a spectacular fly-past painting the skies with the Italian tricolour.

The three colours in the Italian flag have been interpreted in several ways. The white could stand for alpine snow, the green for the land itself, and the red for the blood poured in securing a united Italy. The actor Roberto Benigni affirms that the three colours go back to Dante who in his Purgatory writes:

..sovra candido vel cinta d’uliva
donna m’apparve, sotto verde manto
vestita di color di fiamma viva. 
And down, within and outside of the car,

Fell showering, in WHITE veil with olive wreath’d,

A virgin in my view appear’d, beneath

GREEN mantle, rob’d in hue of living flame (RED):

(Carey’s Translation)

 Theologically the colours stand for green = hope, white = faith, red = love.

The most important point about Republic day is that it celebrates the time when Italian voting not only became free of totalitarian shackles but also when the franchise was doubled by the inclusion of women for the first time. The referendum of 1946 established the Italian Republic and the monarchy had to go into exile until 2002. (The vote was 12, 717,923 (54.3%) for the republic and 10,719,284 (45.7%) for the retention of the monarchy, a close-run thing it seems to me). Before that time women were largely deemed domestic factories for producing children, feeding their lords and masters and keeping the house clean.


(2 July 1946: one of the first women voters in Italy)

Although the representation of women in politics and industry is still far from satisfactory in today’s Italy it certainly has made major strides since 1946 – both the minister for defence and the leader of the Italian equivalent of the House of Commons are women.

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(President Sergio Mattarella in centre with Senate Leader Pietro Grasso to his left and Chamber of Deputies leader Laura Boldrini to his right)

Perhaps next year I’ll make it to Rome for real in time for Republic day although I’m sure I won’t get as good viewing as I obtained yesterday on the ‘panel’. (TVs are no longer ‘boxes’ these days unless you haven’t changed yours in years…).




Forced to Pay for an Italian Television Licence?

Listening to news of important modifications to ‘Auntie’ BBC UK television this morning I was reminded  of equally radical changes to the procedure for payment of a TV licence in Italy.

If, as a payer of electricity bills to ENEL or an equivalent Italian electricity supplier (e.g. Edison, Eni, GDS etc.) , you hadn’t noticed, realise this grim fact: from July the ‘canone RAI’ (licence fee) will be incorporated as part of your total electricity supply bill.


The good news is that the fee has been reduced from Euro 113.50 to Euro 100.00.  (Presumably it’s better to have everyone pay a reduced fee than only some paying the former fee).

The bad news is that if you haven’t got TV programme receiving equipment in Italy you’ll have to go through a somewhat complicated procedure to cancel your additional payment to wonderful RAI.

There are various web-sites to show you how you can ‘disdire’ (cancel) the TV licence fee. All the sites are catering for an Italian-speaking market and require some knowledge of bureaucratic terms. Have you passed your exam in business and bureaucratic Italian yet?

Here’s one of the sites:


To deny yourself the pleasure of having a receiving TV in your Italian home you must fill in a self-certification form for Italian Inland Revenue purpose. In certain situations one may lawfully terminate paying one’s TV licence even if one possesses a TV set. The following categories may fill in this form to state that they don’t want to pay the licence:

  1. Those who don’t own a television set.
  2. Those who own a TV and are paying an electricity bill but already have a TV licence for their own home in the name of another member of the family.
  3. Those who are over 75 years of age, receive an income of less than Euros 6,713.88 per annum and live in a house with, at most, just their spouse present.
  4. Those who have electricity bill in the name of a deceased relative.

The deadlines for declaring that one doesn’t own a TV (self-certification) is May 10th for on-line transmission (this was available from April 4th) and April 30th for those sending their self-certification by post (address to send to is Agenzia delle Entrate Ufficio di Torino 1, S.A.T. – Sportello abbonamenti TV – Casella Postale 22 – 10121 Torino.

The reason for this forcible change is that RAI depends on two-thirds of its income on the license fee which is more than its income was seven years ago when just half the licence fee supported the national TV station. The rest of RAI’s income comes from advertising. Since tax evasion here is tantamount to a national sport, dictatorial measures have had to be imposed by the government to get its long-suffering citizens to pay up.

The quality of Italian television has been the source of complaints from many Italians and certainly not without justification. If one is into game shows, chat programmes and glitzy variety then there is certainly plenty to choose from!

My view is that careful programme selection can turn up some gems like the documentaries Superquark and Ulisse with Piero and Alberto Angela, frightening factual criminal investigations like chi l’ha visto (Italian equivalent of Crimewatch, only much more sinister), lighter programme like Bake off Italia (no translation needed) and, of course, the internationally well-regarded Commissario Montalbano (Inspector Montalbano) which has been running since 1999 and is based on Andrea Camilleri’s brilliant crime thrillers. I wish, however, that original English language films were not dubbed in Italian when shown on RAI. It’s rather surreal to hear Steve McQueen speak with a Neapolitan accent!

If you don’t want to watch Italian TV, don’t have a TV and don’t have TV programme receiving equipment then you must do a self-certification as described above and fill in the form to be downloaded at:


Once it used to be ‘can’t pay, won’t pay.’ Now it’s ‘won’t pay, must pay’. The deadline has been extended to May 16th. It may be too late not to see the TV license incorporated into your next Italian electricity bill but it’s possible to apply later than this date and, hopefully, have the extra license fee charge cancelled.

However, be warned: there are snooper vans going around the country checking up on people who say that they don’t have a TV but conversely have one receiving set. The penalties are confiscation of all TV sets and TV receiving equipment, including aerials, plus a hefty fine. Alternatively, you could resign yourself to watching the box and pay, even if you have no intention of viewing RAI (Radio Televisione Italiana).


(PS This doesn’t mean you’ll be shot by a canon if you don’t pay up- it means’ beware of the TV licence’)

What next? Italian car road tax on your gas bill?





Sanremo, Bosso and London

The post mortem discussions on Italian tv of that quintessence of Italian glitz, kitch and sometimes real genius, the Sanremo song contest, are still dragging on a week after the last limelight has cooled down. Begun in 1951 by the ligurian seaside resort as a publicity venture and a way to drag the town out of the postwar depression the festival started out with just three singers including the great Nilla Pizza whose song ‘grazie dei fiori’ won and remains still etched in the heart of many Italians. (My own favourite Pizzi favourite is ‘vola colomba bianca vola ‘ which won the 1952 competition.)

The biggest hit of the seventy year old festival and its one truly international success was Domenico Modugno’s ‘nel blu dipinto di blu’ aka ‘volare’ of 1958.

Originally, the competition winner was the song writer and each song was sung by two separate singers. Now, however, it’s firmly based on the singer or group. This year I Stadio won with ‘un giorno mi dirai’, a song which is an indirect homage to the great song writer Lucio Dalla who died in 2012, and for whom I Stadio were the backing group.

Italians either love or loath Sanremo and foreign viewers will hold the same polarised views. Divided into separate categories for established and for new artists Sanremo also has a celebrity spot, this year crowned by Elton John and Laura Pausini. The real coup d’eclat this year, however, was the appearance of the highly listenable and acclaimed classical musician, Ezio Bosso. Regrettably suffering from SLA, an extreme form of multiple sclerosis, since 2011, Bosso is making a presence in London this week since his music forms part of a triple ballet bill with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden which we’ll be attending this evening. The ballet is called The golden hour’, originally written for the San Francisco ballet, with choreography by Christopher Wheeldon.

Ezio Bosso made a heart-melting impression both at Sanremo’s Ariston theatre where the contest has been held since 1977 and in the homes of the eleven million guests glued to their sets during the five days of the festival.

Unfortunately, the emphasis was on Bosso’s semi-physical-incoherence as a speaker because of SLA contrasted with his dexterity on the keyboard when playing his enchanted piece ‘following a bird’. What wasn’t mentioned because of the festival’s characteristic dumbing down to the audience is that Bosso is also a classical composer of four operas, four symphonies and is a conductor with such soloists as Brunello and Krylov and orchestras like the London symphony. Indeed, Bosso’s mentor was none other than the great Abbado himself.

‘The greatest thing about music is that it brings us all together.’

Ezio Bosso certainly did that at Sanremo, bringing as one the festival’s lovers and loathers as never before – we will be truly privileged to hear him tonight at one of the world’s greatest theatres, London’s Royal Opera House.



A Spectacularly Living Christmas Crib

NOI (“us”) TV is our local TV station and it’s worth watching as not only does it give the local weather report and road conditions but tells us of what’s on around too.

It was through my wife’s watching NOI TV that we didn’t miss one of the most spectacular presepi viventi (living cribs) in our area. It’s at Ruota which, although nestled in the Montagna Pisana (Pisan Hill), is still in Lucca province, being in Capannori Comune.

I thought that all the presepi viventi in our area had stopped by Christmas day but the one at Ruota is always held on St Stephen’s day (better known in the UK as Boxing Day). This year it’s celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary!

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The event started around 2.30 so we left shortly after lunch. At Pieve di Compito we parked our car, paid a ticket of 4 euros each, which included the shuttle bus service (the road winding up to Ruota, which literally means “wheel”, is particularly narrow), admission to the presepe, a concert and tasters.

Ruota is a delightful village high up on the Pisan Mountain which I’d previously passed through on the way down from the mountain from the Pisan side. Dante has this to say about the mountain and the rivalry between Lucca and Pisa (in canto 23 of the Inferno):

al monte per che i Pisan veder Lucca non ponno

Which means that the mountain’s there so that the Pisans don’t have to see the Luccans. (I would also add that the Luccans don’t have to look on the Pisans too!).

I have done several walks in the Pisan Mountain and it’s great trekking country.

The concert in Ruota’s beautiful church was delightful. Organised by a local music school it included everyone from children to mature musicians. Among the pieces played was a fair spate of Christmas carols with audience participation and also some Mariah Carey and jazz. The theme tune from “Cinema Paradiso” played on guitar and harmonica was particularly touching.

I recognized the tenor sax from his appearance in Kuhn’s Christmas Eve concert. Have sax will travel…

Something about Ruota’s church: dating back to the eleventh century its exterior still retains Romanesque features. The single apse interior and apse, however, have been altered over the centuries.

I was stunned by the magnificent painting of the Madonna enthroned with Saints Bartholomew, John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene and Apollonia, by Vincenzo Frediani and dating from 1488. I found it as good as anything that quattrocento Florentines like Ghirlandaio had produced. It’s incredible how little churches in remote mountain locations can harbour such beautiful works of art. But then this is Italy…

The wooden sculpture depicting the Madonna and Child from the mid fourteenth century was also quite wonderful.

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After the concert we joined the nativity procession as Joseph and Mary unsuccessfully called upon various traders to seek shelter.

The young couple tried various places:

Finally they found a stable and the baby Jesus was born.


The narrow streets and stone houses of Ruota proved absolutely right for a traditional presepe setting and for all of those present it provided a great Boxing Day treat. We are so privileged to be able to assist at these charming events which help to bring back the true significance of Christmas into our hearts.

Here are further highlights from this enchanting presepe showing also some of the traditional crafts represented from an age which, for Italy, isn’t that far back at all:






Howl, Howl, Howl, Howl, Howl

Last night RAI TV gave us one of its all-too-rare highlights: a live broadcast of Dario Fo’s monologue (first issued in 1999)  “Francesco Lu Santo Jullare”, (Francis, the holy jester), which, at age 88, he delivered with amazing energy and panache in his own creative Italianate dialect (e.g. “permissione instead of “permesso”, “papéo” instead of “papa” etc.).


Nobel Prize winner in 1997, Fo is famous for his satires on politics, religion, the police, the family and other Italian institutions. This time, however, he had a kind word to say about the present Pope Bergoglio, starting from his name, the first time a Pope had dared to call himself “Francis” (which was a name used for the first time ever by Francis’s family and which means “son of the French woman” since Francis’ mum came from France). Like St Francis, Fo drew parallels with Bergoglio’s wish to live in relative poverty, using an “old banger” as a means of transport, his attachment to simple accommodation, his proverbial understatements, his queueing up for his meal at the vatican lunchtime canteen, his abhorrence of high finance, indeed, of money, in any form –  a theme which recurs week after week in Bergoglio’s “udienze”.

Proceeding from the first pope Fo had anything positive to say about, the great actor, playwright, producer, author, supreme commedia dell‘artista, went on to describe incidents from the life of St Francis against vivid painted backcloths of almost neo-gothic symbolism. Fo’s aim was to present Francis, warts and all, free from the iconographic cleansing of the Council of Narbonne and later hagiographers who, finding the real St Francis too much to take, attempted to turn him into a sentimentalised figure, more pleasing to the Church and less controversial.


One incident narrated in Fo’s multi-charactered monologue related to that famous wolf he meets in Gubbio:

Francis persuades the raw-lamb-and-goat-meat loving wolf to become a more “moderate” beast. Perhaps the wolf, himself, wanted to become more “civilised”, to bark rather than howl and turn into man’s best friend – in other words to domesticate himself, become part of a congregation instead of remaining a lone outsider.  Noticing that shepherds killed and ate their lambs at Easter “in honour of God” (as they still do in Italy today – roast lamb is not a common dish here except at Christ’s resurrection feast), the wolf pleaded provocatively with Francis (Fo’s howling-barking simulation of the conversation between man and beast was here particularly masterly) to turn him into a “moderate” man so that he could legally eat meat!


Those who have read “The Little Flowers of Saint Francis” will know the end of the story. The wolf renounces his savage slaughter, is adopted as Gubbio’s city pet, becomes as meek as a lamb, is given free luncheon vouchers until the end of his life when he is accorded a solemn burial.

I thought of this part of Dario Fo’s brilliant monologue, particularly as there are several shepherds in these parts who take a very different view regarding wolves. For example, noticing his flock steadily decreasing one local shepherd even took the expedient of setting up a CCTV camera. Replaying the recording, the horrified man noticed the unmerciful slaughter of his animals by a wolf who carted off an average of one lamb per night.

There was nothing this shepherd could do. Unlike wild boars, wolves are protected species in Italy, and for anyone to “cull” the ancestral dog would amount to hefty fines or even imprisonment,

What do we do then? I am reminded of a shark-infested beach in Queensland Australia where, after several bathers had lost limbs or even their lives at the teeth of the primitive monsters of the deep, the authorities decided to step in and kill off the sharks to allow safe bathing. Did this make the bathers happy? Quite the opposite! There were large protests on the beaches against the authorities for interfering with nature!

Did Francis interfere with nature? What was the real message of his meeting with the Wolf of Gubbio? Can wildness be tamed whether it appears in animal or human form? Can two opposed species manage to speak the same language? Can the lion lie down with the lamb?

I look around me and see that once domesticated and cultivated landscapes are being abandoned to unbridled natural re-forestation, that the birds are reclaiming their woods after years of persecution by the rifle and that by full-moon-light I can hear the faint ululation of wolves repopulating the mountain tops after having wandered here along the Apennines all the way from Calabria and La Sila through the Abruzzi. At the same time my wife has noted that at full moon I seem to her to appear to become more hairy and lycanthropic…