Little Luciano

When going to a concert at Pieve a Elici (see my post at it’s best to make at least an afternoon of the trip there, particularly as there isn’t an eatery near to the sublime Romanesque church.

In addition, it’s worth visiting the nearby village of Luciano which is an absolute delight. Dating back to Roman times where a certain centurion, Lucianus, had a farm there as a reward for services rendered to the army, it’s a small conglomeration of houses and villas with splendid views both towards the Tyrhennian Sea and the Apuan mountains behind them.

Several famous persons sojourned at Luciano including poet Carducci, Patriot Luigi Farina, artist Michele Marcucci (1846-1926), who also contributed to the apse frescoes at the Elici Pieve, and even the great novelist Alessandro Manzoni.

A walk around this tiny village is most enjoyable if you have time to spare after your dinner and before the start of the concert at the Pieve of Elici. And if you have even more time there are many more delightful villages to visit in this area: Bargecchia and Bozzano just for starters.




Tiger-Hunting in Viareggio’s most Exquisite Art Nouveau Villa

Viareggio, that heartland of seaside art nouveau offered the jewel in its crown of ville and villette for public viewing yesterday as part of the FAI open weekend.

The villa Argentina is a masterpiece of architecture and decoration in which both the great Galileo Chini and Alfredo Belluomini collaborated. The original building dated from 1868 but was restructured by the two great exponents of ‘lo stile liberty’ in the 1920’s. Built at the corner of two streets its exterior is enhanced by an elegant L-shaped layout and its cupid depicting tiles. The villa was originally commissioned by Francesca Rocca Oytana, of Argentinian descent.

Villa Argentina  later became a hotel and was expanded. By the end of the last century, however, it had fallen into a sorry state of dilapidation.

It was then that Viareggio council with the help of government arts funds bought it and began its restoration which, with the typical on-off syndrome so prevalent in this country took longer than envisaged. Finally, in November 2014, the villa Argentina was re-opened and its garden re-laid according to its original plans which include a rare species of tree from Argentina itself


The interior is dominated by the spectacular ball-room decorated in Chini’s most delicate orientalising style, this time veering towards Persian influence. There is a lovely fresco depicting the preparation for a tiger-hunt by Giuseppe Biasi who spent much of his time living in exotic countries. I have no hesitation in saying that this is one of the most beautiful rooms I have ever seen in my life. It is simply magic.

The other rooms are a little more sober, although their floors are marvellous:

The rooms formed ideal backgrounds to a remarkable exhibition of sculpture and water colours by Czech-born artist Ivan Theimer and his theme of ‘other worlds’. This exhibition should deservedly require a separate post. It was fascinating. Theimer seems to have reincarnated ancient Etruscan, Egyptian and Classical themes in a virtuoso and haunting manner.

I particularly enjoyed his statue of a boy with dolphin and the models of monuments which have been erected in some major European squares.

What I most enjoyed, however, were the artist’s delicately observed water colours from Uzbekistan to Vietnam to China and India which fitted in so well with the oriental feel of the villa. We recognized several places we’d visited including Petra, Ha Long bay and that amazing waterfall in Laos:


If anyone has a heart for art nouveau then this extraordinarily fine villa has to be on their must-see list. Built at the very end of that glorious period of art and architecture it is a superb summing up of everything that I most value of what the Italians call ‘lo stile liberty’. Indeed, Villa Argentina will becomes a centre for the study of art nouveau as it so spaciously flowered in Viareggio’s golden years.

Two Marine Trumpets Hit Italy

Yesterday Tuscany was flagellated by terrific storms. After one of the hottest summers we’ve experienced in the ten years we’ve been here the rain came with a vengeance. It’s a well-known saying that after the big summer bank holiday called Ferragosto and taking place in mid –August, the weather’s liable to alter but this change was dramatic. It shows how temperature changes are becoming ever more contrasted and is another dangerous sign of global warming.

Fortunately, we avoided the worst of it in Longoio but further south and, especially along the Tyrhennian coast, many holidaymakers must have thought they were in the middle of a Caribbean hurricane.

My part-time neighbour, Aldo, from Pisa told me his city was on its knees and his own residence there suffered some damage. After patching it up he decided he’d come to a safer place, Longoio!

Here are some pictures, taken from the papers, of Pisa on its knees.

It was literally what the Italians call a tromba marina (marine trumpet) i.e. a sea-twister or sea-spout. Here’s a photo showing its approach near Livorno.

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Dryden’s line, the trumpet’s loud clangour excites us to arms’in the St Cecilia ode, somewhat inappropriately, came to mind but it led me to music and a recent meeting with the director of’ La Serenissima’, the major period instrument band dedicated to Vivaldi’s music, (‘La Repubblica Serenissima di Venezia’) Adrian Chandler, at a cordial barbecue by a friend’s house situated in remote Apennine heights quite near us. How did Adrian chance to be there? It’s because my friend is secretary of the friends of this much-applauded and awarded group of musicians whose web site is at

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(A view of the sunset during our meal)

Another marine trumpet or ‘tromba marina’ hit me, though in a much gentler way, talking to Adrian. For the tromba marina is a single-stringed (although sympathetic strings may be added) long triangularly shaped instrument with a history dating even before mediaeval times (it’s, in fact, played by Goth neo-mediaeval group Corvus Corax – see ) and in vogue until the eighteenth century.

Here’s a picture of the instrument (centre down) played by the Corvus Corax goths:


Based on harmonics and with a trembly bridge, the tromba marina produce a somewhat raspy sound evocative of a trumpet. Then why not play a trumpet? It’s because it was once not considered appropriate for women, and especially nuns, to play the trumpet (would it excite them too much?).

Vivaldi did not specifically write music for the tromba marina but instead wrote several concerti with violins ‘in tromba marina’. What did this exactly mean? Adrian, working in conjunction with Prof. Talbot, the supreme Vivaldi scholar, has invented a special violin bridge which helps the violin produce tromba marina- like tone. I’ve heard of authentic music practice research but this example must be one of the most ingenious ones to date and, remarkably, could be the nearest we’ve ever got to Vivaldi’s sound at Venice’s Pio Ospedale della Pietà where he was music master for many years for the unwanted girls deposited there (unwanted because either illegitimate or from overly poor families or from mothers unable to feed them).


(A modern reconstruction of a tromba marina)

Incidentally, the nomenclature ‘tromba marina’ comes from German Marientrompete or ‘Mary’s Trumpet’ referring to the Madonna worshipped by the nuns in their religious institutions.

I’ve often thought that the girls, segregated behind a grill in the Pietà, and playing divine music by a divine master were hidden from public view because of their beauty and seductive qualities. This was promptly dashed by Adrian who remarked that several of them were getting on a bit (some were in their seventies) and others were just plain ugly.

(Our meal could have been more seductive than many of those gals at la Pietà)

The second tromba marina will hit Cartmel Priory in Cumbria UK, on 26th September 2015 at 7:30 pm. More details at

Thankfully, this second tromba marina will be a lot less destructive than the first and, indeed, will be a welcomed antidote to the world’s troubles, weather-wise and other. I shall also listen more carefully to the composer’s four seasons – especially the change between summer and autumn!

I do Like to be beside the Seaside

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(It’s giaggiolo time again!)

With the continuing series of lovely days – starting rather cold at around two degrees centigrade but then developing into a rapidly warming crescendo to above twenty degrees what better place to enjoy the weather than at the seaside. This is what we did yesterday going to our favourite short-haul seaside place, Marina di Vecchiano near Migliarino. Situated in the midst of the remaining Mediterranean coastal macchia of umbrella pines and firs it offers the basics which do include a watchtower with staff ready to save unwary bathers (closed), a first aid post (closed), a beach bar (closed) and a bar near the main parking space (open!).

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What we had come to enjoy, however, is the warm ozone-laden sea breeze, the enchanting sound of waves lapping upon the shore, the arcane vision of the Apuan alps rising majestically behind and the amazing emptiness of the whole area before the summer madness begins.

The waters were just as warm (if not warmer) than that of many Welsh seaside resorts at the height of their summer season but I did not see much evidence of April bathers at Vecchiano. It was a great day, however, just to walk up and down the beach and relax in the soft sands caressed by a warm sun and a gentle breeze..

After the Storm a Bit of Calm…

The work of clearing roads, replacing roof tiles, sweeping streets free of debris, and generally getting back to some sense of normality goes on. It was truly a great storm, tornado or hurricane even, with wind speeds of up to 220 kilometres per hour recorded. Of all the Tuscan provinces affected it’s been confirmed that Bagni di Lucca was the hardest hit. Capannori then followed, not forgetting the pines of Versilia.

This morning I went down with our local woodman Maurizio to work out how to put my orto shed up again. Much to my disappointment I noted that the sciacalli (jackals) had already been at work and that both my bush strimmers, one of which I’d just bought last August as “my own” birthday present had disappeared. My pump had also gone and the wind had wrecked part of the plastic sheeting used to line my reservoir.

I checked up the pictures I took of the shed on the day the storm on Wednesday at 4.30 pm and noted that the bush strimmers had already been taken. So my theory of their disappearance is that either they were taken on the day of the storm before 4.30 pm or that the shed had been broken into during my absence in London some time in February. Since the front door was down with the rest of the wreckage there was no way of knowing if the shed had actually been broken into. It is now literally broken.

Anyway I now realise that storm damage can be an opportunist open door (forgive the pun) for jackals (I’d use a far stronger word in English) AKA thieves and pilferers.

On the bright side of things the raging wind inferno, if it was the earth’s will that it had to happen could not have happened at a better time. Most of the damage was done around 6.30 am which meant that few people were out and about. Moreover, none of the trees (except the evergreens which were, of course, the worst affected, also because of their shallow roots) had sprouted their leaves as yet. Furthermore, several of the fallen trees showed signs of inner decay – they could have fallen at any time and perhaps killed someone.

As it was the victims in our area remain only one (one too many, of course) – a lad who was killed when one of the boulders, which are traditionally used to secure roof tiles (the tiles are of two types: tavole, the actual tiles, and coppi, the rounded bits which are used to bind the tavole together), fell off down on his head. The worst damage was, of course, to the cars many of which in our area have smashed windows, dented body work, not just as a result of trees falling on them but because of the whirlwind of debris which smashed against them.

I shall now have a little more knowledge of what it’s like to go through a Caribbean hurricane or a south East Asian typhoon. I shall know how frightening the noise of the wind can be, an almost biblical rushing of the winds after a great calamity. I shall also know how people can pull themselves together in a concerted effort and help each other. Indeed, I’m shortly off to be rewarded by lunch from a friend who lives in San Gemignano for having aided her in sweep up the mountains of tiles which were swept off her house on that fateful night which no-one ever remembers having happened in living memory. We had to eat the food anyway as without any electricity everything would have gone bad in the deep freeze. I don’t think I’ve eaten so much pizza at one meal in my life!

Anyway we’re alive, the sun is shining today and the gusts of wind have largely abated. And the shepherd girl who has just come past my front gate with her flock has confirmed that all her sheep are safe. These are the truly important things in life.

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(A romantic candle-lit supper by default)

A couple more things. One of Mr Plod’s blinds is now flapping perilously in the wind and will eventually drop down on the ground. I wonder if he is going to accuse me of having stolen that one too. Is it the case of the blind leading the blind?

On more positive notes, our lovely lemon tree has found a new home or at least a new pot and Cheeky, among the other cats, doesn’t bat an eyelid at any recollection of the night when the universe howled and even uplifted a neighbour’s cat from ground until it was found the following morning at the top of a tree.

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Incidentally, here’s a picture of my storm survival kit which saw us through it.

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And I would include the flowers I planted this morning as another calming measure, apart from the G & T.

What’s seeing us publish, at long last, these much delayed posts is the generator they’ve installed in our little village of Longoio. Viva l’Italia!

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Water, Water Everywhere…

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It’s some jolt to be returning from the fifth driest country in the world, Jordan which is yearning for water, to an Italy which is literally being submerged by rain, rain and more rain. Yet little news of the present grievous state of this country appears to reach other European TV channels (or am I wrong?). ALL areas are now affected by the “maltempo” (bad weather).

One of the worst affected parts is Chiavari next to Lavagna where I stayed while on a teacher exchange in 1995.

But, to repeat, all areas of Italy are affected and I was concerned about further landslides on my road back to Longoio on Monday.

2014 has seen almost unrelenting rain throughout all parts of Italy throughout the year. The vendemmia has been a disaster, thousands of families have had to leave their homes, there have been a considerable number of deaths, and communications by road and rail have been severely affected.

Where is that “beaker full of the warm South” so beloved of Keats, and the dream of so many visitors to and ex-pats of this beautiful country?

There are, in my opinion, three reasons of this state of affairs in Italy.

First, unquestionably, global warming. Temperatures here have been above average for most seasons and even now, well into November, autumn (or fall, if you like) colours are just peeping through and most trees still have their leaves on. I compared photographs taken of my area five years ago at this very time with those of today and the difference is very clear.

Second, Italy is a geologically very young and fragile country with none of those ancient (and stable) rocks one gets in the UK. There are certainly no Cambrian strata here – most of the country is made up from the relatively recent folding mountains era and plains are largely alluvial and not eroded. The country is still very much on the move and to top it all, most of it (except Sardinia) is highly seismic.

Third, and most immediately telling, is the lack of money with consequent lack of investment (especially in geologists) in providing for an adequate natural drainage system in Italy’s 80% hilly scenario. From a largely agricultural economy in the immediate post-war period to a largely industrial one by the eighties, with huge areas submerged under concrete, millions left the formerly beautifully manicured countryside which now, in vast tracts, is reverting to an almost primeval wilderness. Again, old photos of my area show terraced barley and wheat fields where today the voracious acacia tree is taking over everything which is not cultivated.

What to do? No place is now safe to live in in Italy. In the last forty years alone over four thousand people have died in flash floods or “bombe d’acqua” (water bombs) as they are known here. More rain fell in Piacenza in two years yesterday than in the entire previous year turning whole streets into rivers of mud. Sondrio is virtually cut off by landslides, Milan’s traffic underpasses have been turned into canals, and the level of the Po, Italy’s longest river, is giving everyone sleepless nights. And when all this is added to this year’s previous disasters at Parma, Genoa, the Puglia, Sardinia (the list is seemingly endless) anyone who thinks that coming to live, whether permanently or semi-permanently, in Italy means a life of peace and stability needs radically to think again.


Damage to our property? Keep fingers crossed. The only significant damage is seeping dampness into the walls which now require re-plastering, and moss on some of my library books which have had to be moved from their shelves. Our orto (allotment) this year has been a disaster, especially for tomatoes (as it has been for everyone else).

This is a warning to outsiders: Italy is in a mess!

We knew it has always been in a mess politically since it was unified in 1861. We know that has been in a mess economically since the crisis hit in 2008 (the economy is now classified not just as being “in recession” but being ”in stagnation”). We know that, with a vengeance unheard of before, it is in a mess geologically and ecologically.

What makes a true lover of Italy then? Not the connoisseur admiration of its inestimable number of world heritage sites (over half of the world’s such sites are here in Italy). Not the appreciation of its exquisite cuisine. Not the simpaticismo of its natives (although there is increasing evidence of their “nervosismo” (translated as “irritation and not “nervousness”)). What makes a true lover of Italy today is the ability to put up with the unceasing vacillations of the political weather, the desperate weather of its economic position but, most of all, the unpredictable and often frightening natural weather which has never hit us so hard as this year.

I can only hope that this phenomenon is a passing phase, although, somehow, I doubt it. Storms are getting worst throughout the world, especially in the USA.  I think that Italy will have to do a lot to re-adapt its life-style to what could well be an increasingly different and challenging climate pattern. When I’m no longer able to have my morning cappuccino and pezzo dolce in a piazza with some sunshine in it then I might begin to waver (but only slightly – I shall always be a lover of Italy).

La Dolce Vita then? Not quite…La Dolce Vita Amara is more like it, perhaps.


PS Some pictures below I scanned from yesterday’s newspapers:




Carrara = Marble

Lunigiana is superlative castle-land. Wedged between two once warring powers, the republic of Genoa and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and infested by brigands, this region’s nobles found refuge in building fortresses and citadels. Yesterday we decided to visit one of the best of them: the castle at Fosdinovo.

Our journey took us through the greater part of that coastal area, the Versilia where we stopped for a break at Carrara. Derived from the ancient Sanskrit word for stone, Kar, Carrara has been the centre of Italy’s marble industry for centuries. Even the pavement cobbles are marble, splendid but a risk when it’s raining as they are so slippery, and the town is surrounded by yards full of the heavy white stuff ready for transhipment abroad, perhaps to adorn a Russian magnate’s villa or a Sheik’s palace.

We took a walk into the old part of the town which is surprisingly attractive. At the start of the picturesque Via Santa Maria we spotted Repetti’s house. In case you didn’t know, Emanuele Repetti was a nineteenth century Historian and Naturalist. In 1833 he published his Dizionario geografico fisico storico Della Toscana, which is a key source for anyone who attempts a guide book today, being a fascinating gazetteer of places of interest in the region. The same rare mediaeval house provides lodging for the great poet and literary founder of the renaissance, Petrarch.

The Piazza del Duomo discloses a magnificent cathedral, now shining marble-white after recent cleaning. The building was closed but its exterior was ornate enough, with a gorgeous rose window crowning a façade built in the Luccan Romanesque style and some fine carvings.

In the same square is the statue called “Il Gigante” and sculpted by Bandinelli (the same one who did the giant called “Il Biancone” in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence). Here too is the house Michelangelo stayed in while he was looking for suitable marble blocks in the nearby mountains to fashion into his eternal masterpieces. (For further information about the artist and a walk I took among the quarries he frequented see my post at

High up on another building in this square is this charming statue depicting Modesty. Was this a warning against the area becoming a red light district I wonder?

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Still in the square we spotted this strange spike high up on the corner of a residential building.

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There is a saying in these parts: “it’s like being hung on Negroni’s spike”, referring to the original use of this item which was to append sentences issued to refractory citizens for crimes they might have committed, from bankruptcy to murder. Fortunately, we did not notice any bits of paper stuck on this spike so presume that Carrara’s citizens, at least for today, were fully law-abiding and no-one’s name was open to shame on Negroni’s (the owner of the house) spike.

There is plenty more to see at Carrara including the Marble museum and, of course, the marble quarries themselves, but we wanted to press on to Fosdinovo castle. We shall certainly be back, however, for Carrara is quicker to get to than at first thought. Despite the fact that one either has to battle one’s way via circuitous mountain roads through the Apuans to get to this proud little city or motorway round the southern end of the range via Lucca, the journey takes less than two hours from Bagni di Lucca.