Where Venice’s last Doge died, where Napoleon stayed and where Sting played

The Veneto region of Italy is famous for its beautiful Palladian villas which did so much to influence the typical eighteenth century English country house. We have visited a handful of these villas on previous trips to this region and knew what splendours to expect. However, we were quite unprepared for the glories of the Villa Manin which is near Passariano on a secondary route from Udine to Trieste.

The villa owes its sixteenth century origin to a Friulian Antonio Manin who, having lost territories in Dalmatia as the Venetian republic’s power diminished, decided to concentrate on land and expanding his agricultural domains.

In succeeding centuries the villa was added to with barcòn (Venetian for service wings), a classical portico and, most astonishingly, a monumental exedra consisting of two semi-circular arms, almost horse-shoe shaped, which embrace the front area of the villa.

The Villa Manin has been the scene of the most disparate events. In 1796 Napoleon stayed with his first wife, Josephine Beauharnais, whose amorous entreaties in such gorgeous surroundings he could not possibly have refused. (Or did he?)

Here too Napoleon signed the treaty of Campoformido (or Campoformio) which brought the Serenissima republic of Venice to a tragic end after almost a thousand years of independence. Indeed, the last Doge died here in this bed:

In subsequent years the villa went through highs and lows until, in the second half of the last century, it had fallen into a sorry state of decay and was sold by the last of its noble owners to the region of Venice in 1962 for the equivalent of £ 70,000, on condition that it be restored to its original glory.

After years of restoration the villa has reached something of its former splendour despite the fact that most of the original furnishings have gone.

The exterior is dazzling and owes its present appearance largely due to the architect Domenico Rossi who brought in some French influence in the neo-classical design. Next time we’re in the area we must visit Udine where the cathedral’s façade is also by Rossi.

The interior has some very fine features. The chapel is in a typically ornate baroque style and houses the ancestors of the Manin family.

The villa’s ‘garage’ houses some fine examples of old carriages and landaus.

The Villa’s park, designed by Ziborghi in an English landscape style influenced surely in part by Capability Brown, is huge and one could spend a whole day just walking around it.

This sweet little sign says ‘please don’t tread on the grass here, the narcissi are just about to be born’.

The villa’s piano Nobile has rooms painted by Dorigny, Amigoni and Oretti with some youthful contributions by Tiepolo before he became the greatest of eighteenth century decorative artists.

Today the villa has new life as a centre of restoration of works of art particularly those damaged by the terrible Friuli earthquake of 1976 in which almost a thousand people died. It also holds art exhibitions ranging from Sebastiano Ricci to Kandinsky, The one we saw during our visit had as its theme World War one which in 1917 raged only a few miles away from this seemingly idyllic arcadia.

The Villa is also a sort of Italian ‘Woburn Abbey’ with pop concerts given by such groups as Kiss, Iron Maiden, Radiohead and Sting. Pity the Stones didn’t choose this place instead of Lucca -there would have been much more room and I might have even been able to get a ticket!

There’s also a very atmospheric bar and restaurant, an adventure trail for children in the park and very helpful staff.

Indeed, I was not only impressed by the prodigious villa itself but also by the almost National Trustian way it was managed. I do hope that more of Italy’s magnificent country houses will emulate Villa Manin in bringing new energy into properties which could so easily have crumbled into dust.

All the World’s a Stage

Bagni di Lucca’s amateur dramatic season finished last Sunday with “Di che segno sei?” (What sign are you?), a commedia brillante (comedy) in two acts by Mariaraffaella Lanzara, the noted playwright and teacher who lives in Lucca.

The plot is relatively simple. The protagonist’s wife is enamoured of a wizard who gives her the most preposterous advice about keeping witches and curses at a distance. For example, she goes around with her wrists encircled by strings of garlic (so strong that we could easily smell them where we were sitting in the theatre).

To wean his wife off someone he feels is a complete charlatan the husband tells her he’s going to pretend to be a wizard himself. He dresses up with wig, cloak and provides a multicoloured ball before which he allures his gullible clients. These include an impossibly shy young man, a sexually over-heated female, and a few other characters. Finally, the famous wizard himself appears before the disguised husband and declares that being a wizard is a great profession since it enables him to grab loads of money from credulous clients.

The wife, who is hiding behind a screen, hears this and furiously comes out into the open attacking the wizard who has been seizing her attention and her money. End of play.

Here are some scenes from it:

Actually, although we felt that the play was somewhat weak we realised it served two useful purposes. First, it enabled the actors to impersonate a wide variety of characters most successfully. Second, the play has relevance  to contemporary Italy which is still besotted with fortune-telling, horoscopes, astrology, card-reading, magic charms and secret formulae. I don’t know how much money the Italian public spend on these fripperies but it must be quite considerable! I exclude here, of course, the religious aspect in which certain saints are meant to forecast winning lottery numbers or predict the best marriage partner.

There is a very ambiguous relationship between magic and religion, especially in Italy. At its worst it descend into satanic sects which are regular news items on TV  and are often interweaved with unsolved murder enquiries. The evil eye is a particular preoccupation, especially when driving, and cars tend to be filled with good-luck charms and the like.

Fortunately, I have no completely black cat (there’s a neighbouring one which could be eligible for the title but she has three white paws), I only use garlic for souping up my peas and I only tend to find my star-sign prediction(Leo) at the end of the day when I read the papers at the local bar.

For further theatrical information it’s worth looking up the Lucca branch of the F.I.T.A. page (Federazione Italiana Teatro Amatoriale) at their web site at http://www.fitalucca.it/.

Rita Nelli, who organises the season also has a facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/rita.nelli1?fref=ts.

I note looking at Rita’s page that amateur theatre continues to thrive this week-end with Peter Schaffer’s ”Black Comedy” at the Teatro Nieri at nearby Ponte a Moriano. Tomorrow, Sunday, there’s Chekov’s “Il Gabbiano” (the seagull) at the Teatro degli Rassicurati at Montecarlo near Pescia.

And don’t forget, we have our own professional theatre season comingup at Bagni di Lucca’s Teatro Accademico. Full details are at: http://www.prolocobagnidilucca.it/stagione%20di%20prosa%202015%202016.pdf

But before that don’t miss Cenerentola (Cinderella), again at Bagni di Lucca. Details for this are at http://www.prolocobagnidilucca.it/cenerentola.pdf

Who said we’re missing out on London’s West End by living here? (At least the seat prices are more affordable here…)



The Angel of Our Great Bagni di Lucca Library

For me the greatest repository of learning, culture and everything that is of the highest value in our civilization is quite clearly contained in libraries. To think that the baths of Diocletian and Caracalla in ancient Rome were not just places one went to have a good scrub down and pick up interesting gossip but were also centres of learning, discussion and reading; to realise that such places as Aquae Sulis in England (today better known as Bath)


and, indeed, all the other great centres of Rome: Ephesus, Alexandra Constantinople and Ephesus were places both of cleansing and culture is, indeed, awesome.


The library of Ephesus still stands. At least its façade does but where are those priceless collections of scrolls that lived there? Have we lost for ever 90% of classical literature? We have to thank the early Muslim dynasties for having transcribed so much of that which might have been lost to us today. It is, indeed, ironic that fanatics professing the faith have recently torched some of the most precious ancient documents in the ancient desert University of Timbuctoo.

In Bagni di Lucca we have both: baths dating to early time and one of the finest and most individual libraries in Italy, indeed the world. In my ‘camera oscura’ interview with Doctor Angela Amadei, the chief librarian of Bagni di Lucca’s unique collection, as part of the on-going Bagni di Lucca festival I was able to find out many detail about the wonderful library heritage our comune.

There had, of course, been circulating libraries in Bagni di Lucca way back in the nineteenth century. Books were borrowed, begged or bestowed on the many forestieri (mainly English-speakers) which visited the baths for health reasons or just to escape the unbearable heat of summer Florence. In the Circolo dei Forestieri the library was housed on its upper floor. Meanwhile the palazzo degli inglesi, better known as the Anglican church, had not had a sermon preached in in since the thirties when, because of gathering war-clouds, most Brits escaped from a country they loved with all their heart. “Tea with Mussolini”, that evocative film by the great Zeffirelli, gives us something of the atmosphere at that time.

Abandoned, and to some extent vandalized, the church was eventually bought by the comune in 1976 but much work was required to restore it as a habitation fit for books (and librarians!). This restoration continues to this day and only recently the original altar of the church has been rehabilitated and re-installed as pride of place in this amazingly renaissance-shaped but gothic-detailed building.

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In 2005 our much-appreciated, highly industrious and ever-helpful librarian, Doctor Angela Amadei, arrived on the scene only to find a mammoth task awaiting her. The books she had to manage in a space which is becoming ever more constricted are large in number and contain some very valuable items. The library, indeed, can be divided into two sections: books one can borrow, just by filling in a form and agreeing to abide to the standard library regulations, and the reserve collection which may only be consulted on the spot but from which photocopies may be had. Further to this Angela, through the library network in Tuscany is able to procure books which even our library does not hold, and at very short notice. I have availed myself of this service and have been impressed!

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Ian Greenlees (about whom I have talked in a previous post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/r-i-p-ian/ ) left the majority of his collection of twenty thousand books to the library, dedicated to the great local violinist Adolfo Betti,  giving a great gift but also causing immense problems for librarians. Angela is the only full-time (close onto forty hour a week!) librarian and she has been lucky in obtaining financial assistance from the region in her superhuman task of cataloguing a collection which contain rare item such as first editions of Dickens and the Brownings since Greenlees was a great collector of rare books. Already, one tenth of the collection has been catalogued and, when finally completed, it should be a great day for our comune’s library.


Of course, libraries today are not just about silently browsing through shelves and borrowing something from one’s favourite author. They are increasingly becoming places for related social activities. Angela pointed out that the library of Bagni di Lucca is a centre for major conferences organised with the help of Pisa university on a number of incredibly interesting topics, starting, back in 2008, with the Brownings, who spent their summers here, and acting in partnership with Marcello Cherubini’s “Michel de Montaigne” foundation.

The library is a place for both classical and jazz concerts and it hosts a great winter film season (with English subtitle for those whose Italian language skills are not too developed) since Bagni doesn’t have its own cinema. As far as books are concerned, the number of English book is immense and fascinating. You are bound to find a volume to entertain, educate or elucidate among those rich shelves.

The library’s future is being built upon further projects. Already the parents’ evening, where children are encouraged to read as part of a Europe-wide literacy project, has proved most successful. The “silver mouse” project has given undigitised older citizens the confidence to use the computer to communicate, not only to their long-lost relatives, but also to help them write their own stories. I remember holding such classes when I was an I. T. lecturer in the UK and it’s great to know such projects are now advancing in Italy and at Bagni di Lucca.

How are new books selected for the library? It’s largely a collaboration between what the public want and what the librarian feels are books which will hold considerable interest. Funds are limited but Angela has given a great emphasis to children’s literature, especially those below the age of six.

Many of the commune’s children, when seeing our beautiful library for the first time, think it looks just like the library in Harry Potter’ Hogwart’s academy for it high ceiling and gothicky detail does indeed evoke that sort of atmosphere. It also links up with the Potter books’ author in her devoted encouragement to make the ability to read book a natural right for all children. Perhaps she might consider our own Bagni di Lucca’s library in her thoughts on the subject.

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There is a little problem with the library in the fact that, as a converted Anglican place of worship it is one big space and has no truly defined separate sections like the newly moved library at Borgo a Mozzano, for example. I am sure that a solution will be found to this problem and that a dedicated space devoted just to children will be found.

In the meanwhile, the library has an area that is superbly suited for large events, like conferences. Two important one are due to occur after the summer mayhem. There will be a conference on feminist aspects in nineteenth century literature this autumn and also a major item on that formidable woman of power the countess Matilde di Canossa.


You can find out all about these amazing events and also further details at the library’ site which is at


and also at Angela on her facebook page at


There is also an important fact to mention. The old use of the library as an anglican church has a direct link to the protestant cemetery of Bagni di Lucca about which I have already written several posts, including one at


and also at


plus the amazing find at:


Angela described in considerable detail the miraculous recovery at the cemetery and the devoted task of restoring it (for which benefactors will be amply recognized by Prof. Marcello Cherubini, president of the Montaigne Foundation which has organized so many stimulating study events at Bagni di Lucca’s library and beyond).

We are so lucky to have such an interesting library and one run by such a pleasant and enthusiastic librarian like Angela, a true jewel in the crown of the local administration. As a member for close onto ten years I am so pleased to be one of the (free) subscribers. The library is truly a very important resource and a major reason for living in this part of the world!

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PS The Comune’s archive is held instead in the school opposite the library.

Kety’s Great Idea for Villa’s New Exhibition Space

Why should art be confined to museums, galleries and studios? In Pisa, thanks to the organisation of my neighbour, Aldo Baiocchi, there are regular exhibitions at the Coop supermarket in Cisanello district, for example. This is a great idea, especially if the check-out queues are long! People who would never regularly step into an art gallery begin to get in touch with artists and perhaps even take up painting themselves. When in London, I was particularly pleased with the “poems on the underground” scheme, first launched in 1986. Since 2000 there has also been “art on the underground” with exhibitions embellishing many of London’ tube stations. That’s the way to democratise art!

There is an extraordinary artistic flair in so many Italians as the country’s rich cultural history amply displays that it doesn’t take too much for people here to connect to the world of creativity so long as it’s made easily accessible and not regarded as being confined to an elitist minority.

Indeed, “Civilization” Clark recognised the importance of making art more widely accessible to everyone in the UK and started a pioneer scheme in the 1930’s when he became the youngest head of the National Gallery. He realised that the average British worker didn’t get the chance that even the remotest farm-worker in Italy gets of admiring beautiful frescoes in local churches or meeting friends in elegant renaissance piazzas. Beauty can only inspire further beauty just as ugliness, regrettably, breeds further ugliness.

Born from an idea by Barga-born artist Kety Bastiani, well-known for her delicate fantasy-realist paintings themed by transcendent symbolism and exquisite technique, Bagni di Lucca’s town hall entrance hall has been transformed into an exhibition centre for painting, culture, photography, fine arts and crafts. So if you’re entering the building to attempt to sort out your latest bill or even brave the “ufficio tecnico” you can relax your mind a little by taking in what’s inside BdL’s “municipio” foyer.

The centre officially opened on 30th May with an interesting exhibition by a group of photographers from the area. That ended on 12 June. It was well- attended and Kety’s idea of bringing art into the work place was much relished.

The town hall itself is a fine building, actually called “il palazzo della Lena” after an ancient local family, and dates back to at least the sixteenth century. I looked inside it yesterday to see that now Kety was exhibiting her own works which will on view until 26th June. The show is titled “thoughts about love”.

There is little need to explain Kety’s art which, I find, speaks immediately to the heart of any sensitive person. There are recurring themes: couples, horses, joined hands, butterflies, swans, infinite horizons, the root connection between love and nature.

There was also a delightful pairing of the famous statuette of Bagni di Lucca’s bather in the foyer with one of Kety’s paintings on the same subject.

I did notice, however, a significant change in her technique this year. The paint is less evenly applied, the textures more broken, the light often darker, the interpretation of themes more ambiguous. Surely this is the paramount sign of a painter that is constantly rediscovering herself through her art and is not stuck in any particular groove.


What’s also good about the town hall scenario is that its garden is being restored and will provide further exhibition space, for example for sculpture.

Forthcoming exhibitions will include:

Daniele Bianchi painter until 10th July.

Anna Garibotti until 4th July

The Borgo degli artisti group until 7th August

If you feel that you would like to contribute to the exhibition space do get in touch with Kety at ketybastiani@yahoo.it or phone 346 1435317. You’ve got until the end of this month if you want to put on a show in August and September.

Bagni di Lucca is certainly turning into an invigorating artistic centre. Not only will its Ponte art exhibition open in full flower next month but Villa is, thanks to Kety’ imaginative project and the cooperation of the municipal authorities, establishing itself as a place where both well-known and more reclusive artists will be able to present their creations to an increasingly artistically aware audience who will also be able to purchase their work at very affordable prices.





Seaview Trieste-Style

Described by “Lonely Planet” guide as “the most underestimated of Italian tourist destinations”, Trieste is a truly fascinating place to discover, not least because of its location at the crossroads of three worlds, the Italian Mediterranean, the Mittel-European Austrian and the Slavonic Balkans.

It was also James Joyce’s favourite place and Italo Svevo’s too (who was taught English by Joyce before setting out to our London borough of Greenwich to run a paint factory – but that is another story.)

Trieste could be described as Vienna-by-the-sea. Its impressive buildings do have a strong taste of classic Ringstrasse architecture.

But Trieste is also typically Italian with its narrow winding streets in the old town and its beautiful cathedral dedicated to San Giusto.

Trieste has the reputation of being the original caffé centre of Italy. When the Turks had to retreat from their siege of Vienna in 1683 they left behind a bag of….coffee beans and Austria and Italy were hooked on the dark liquid. Of course, if the Turks had won we’d still be hooked but then Italy and Europe would be full of minarets rather than campanili! The best place to drink il Caffè is, of course, the magnificently historic San Marco Caffè.

Just outside Trieste is probably what must be one of Europe’s finest preserved 19th century summer palaces: the Schloss Miramar. Thanks to contemporary drawings and designs the interior has been restored with all the original fittings and furnishings making a visit to the palace a truly time-warping experience.

Miramare was the scene of some of the most passionate and most tragic episodes in the history of the Hapsburgs. It was built by Emperor Franz Joseph’s younger brother the archduke Maximilian. This young man was one of the brightest sparks in an otherwise staid and stuffy dynasty. He reformed the Austrian navy, rebuilt Trieste port, went on several expeditions, issued liberal reforms and fell in love with Charlotte, a Belgian princess.


Still on his idealistic bent Max took up Napoleon III’s offer to restore the empire in Mexico. Despite his best intentions he failed to attract support from Juarez and his rebels and was executed at Queretaro in 1867 – a scene dramatically illustrated in Manet’s famous painting.

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Understandably Charlotte, now called Carlotta, became insane after the incident and spent much of her later life under care.  She died in 1927 having regained some of her sanity.

The palace was subsequently used by the emperor himself and his wife Elizabeth. Nicknamed Sissi, Elizabeth was a paragon of beauty with a highly fashionable sixteen-inch waist, and always kept her weight below fifty kilos. She was also Europe’s best female equestrian and adhered to a strict regime of exercises and walking. Sissi preserved her skin by sleeping with a slice of veal and strawberries on her face.  Her shampoo was a mixture of cognac and eggs and she took over three hours every week to wash her flowing locks. She would also take her bath in heated olive oil. Anybody tried it out there?

After producing a male heir in the shape of Rudolph, Sissi never again slept with her husband and instead entertained a sequence of handsome aristocratic lovers (including an English noble) within the velvets and brocades of Miramar’s love nest, well away from the stiff formalism of Vienna’s imperial court which she could never stand.


But tragedy did not end here. Her son, Rudolph, unhappy with his marriage to Belgian princess Stephanie, fell desperately for the baroness Mary Vetsera. Opposed to the liaison by his autocratic father he and Mary entered into a murder-suicide pact and their bodies were discovered in the family’s hunting lodge at Mayerling on 30th January 1889.

Actually the mystery has never been properly cleared up. Some say that Mary Vetsera died as a result of a botched abortion: she was just eighteen at the time. Others say that she shot Rudolph first. There is also a murder theory by a jealous third party. The facts, hushed up when they occurred, were never fully revealed and the Mayerling “incident” remains one history’s great mysteries. (Incidentally the wonderful Macmillan Ballet danced by London’s Royal Ballet takes another yet another slant on the story).

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As if the death of his son, the crown prince and heir to the throne, were not enough, Emperor Franz Joseph had to witness his beautiful Sissi murdered in 1898 by Luigi Luchesi, an Italian anarchist near Geneva. We visited Sissi’s tomb in the imperial Hapsburg vaults in Vienna way back in 1991.


Franz Joseph died in 1916. At least he was spared seeing the break-up of the thousand year old Hapsburg Empire. His son Charles succeed him but gave up the throne after World War One when the old empire was carved up between the newly emerging countries of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia. In 2004 Charles was, unusually, beatified by Pope John Paul II in spite of the fact that he had ordered the use of poison gas in the Great War against Italy. He is now known as “the blessed Charles”.

One would never guess all these tragic and often weird events wandering through the luscious rooms of Miramare (literally “Sea view”) and traipsing across the summer palace’s exotic gardens. I hope that in some way this beautiful setting gave solace to Austria’s last imperial family so often beset by calamity and recriminations.

All my photographs date from my last visit to these fairyland places in April 2007. I must return soon and find out more!

Crossing Over at Palazzo Bove, San Gennaro

Easter Monday is known in Italy as pasquetta (literally “little Easter”.). It is also more traditionally known as the “giorno dell’Angelo” referring to the angel who met the three Marys: Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James and Joseph, and Mary Salomé at Christ’s empty sepulchre the morning after His resurrection. More liturgically correctly defined it’s the Monday of the Octave of Easter.

Pasquetta is the traditional time for families to make a day trip to attractions near and far. Collodi, the village from which the author Carlo Lorenzini borrowed his pen name of Carlo Collodi (his mother worked at the Garzoni palace situated at the end of the village and famous for its lovely gardens – see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/09/05/swanning-it-in-collodi/) and went on to write one of the world’s most read children’s books was no exception; there was a large influx of visitors there at Pasquetta.

Long queues gathered outside Pinocchio’s theme park and every parking space, legal and illegal, seemed to be taken up. However, we did not head for the park but, instead, to the antiquarian market where valuable memorabilia belonging to the marionette with a propensity to lengthen his nose if he told lies, and who eventually, after various, semi-catastrophic, mishaps, realises himself and becomes a real boy, were on sale.

As with that other favourite character, Mickey Mouse, prices for 1920’s and 30’ items especially went sky high. Even an edition from the sixties illustrated by that amazing artist Jacovitti, noted for his salami trademark, was priced at 160 euros.

These items made a welcome contrast to the usual stuff relating to Pinocchio one gets at Collodi:

In 1983 we were lucky enough to attend a book presentation commemorating one hundred years since the publication of Pinocchio with a compilation of Pinocchio illustrated editions at the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence and were invited to a meal afterwards based on dishes found in the book. Fortunately, we weren’t treated to pear peelings (remember that episode?) but to whole pears and, as I remember, also to a very red lobster. (That’s why the restaurant by Pinocchio’s theme park is called “Il Gambero Rosso”).

I wonder how many further illustrated editions have appeared since then. Pinocchio is certainly a book that invites artists to their fancy when illustrating the multifarious adventures of this irritating but still very likeable character.

Of monuments in Collodi the only one bereft of any humans was the vast parish church.

In its right transept was a picturesque (if that is the right word) representation of the passion of Christ illustrating the various emblems associated with it.

In case you didn’t know what these are here’s a list of them. See if you can recognize them all in the photos. They also, of course, appear in the various village crosses erected by the Passionist fathers on their missions.

  • The Last Supper’s Bread and Wine
  • Christ’s cloak
  • the glove that struck Jesus while being derided by the soldiers
  • the pitcher for water used by Pilate to wash his hands
  • the chalice (Holy Grail) of the Last Supper,
  • the container used by Nicodemus containing myrrh to anoint the body of Jesus after his deposition,
  • a drum and dice used by soldiers used to gamble for His tunic,
  • the scourge
  • whips
  • Sorghum
  • the ladder used to bring down the body of Christ,
  • the shroud with the face of Christ on it (Veronica’s shroud)
  • the crown of thorns,
  • Longinus’ (the centurion) spear
  • the sponge soaked in vinegar,
  • a basket with three nails of the crucifixion,
  • hammer used to hammer in the nails into Christ’s limbs
  • Pliers to drag them out when His body was brought down from the cross,
  • the column where Christ was flagellated
  • the cock which crowed when Peter denied Christ twice

We then headed for the extremely charming village of San Gennaro above Collodi on the Luccan hills. Despite its Neapolitan sounding name it’s very much in the Tuscan tradition and used to be the summer haunt of Lucca’s gentry during the sultry summer season. For this reason there are some very elegant palazzi and delightful gardens.

The parish church is also notable for having the only one of two Leonardo da Vinci sculptures the public can view (the other is in a private vault somewhere). More sceptical people use the phrase “attributed to” but I truly think (like author of a stimulating book on Leonardo Charles Nicholl) that the statue of the angel just to the right of the interior entrance is by the great polymath himself. Just compare it with one of the two angels painted by the apprentice Leonardo on the left side of Verrocchio’s Christ’s baptism in the Uffizi and you can make up your own mind about it.

Anyway, our main reason for coming to San Gennaro was to reply to an invitation by the owner of one of the best palazzi in the village, Palazzo Bove, to attend a concert which also formed part of an excursion by Lucca’s association for music lovers the Catalani club. If you read my monthly reports on the Lucca music scene you’ll know about all their various activities which include trips to attend concerts and operas in other Italian cities and also their key part in the restoration of Alfredo’s family home in Colognora di Pescaglia which is now enriched by a museum. (Among other memorabilia there, is a recent donation of valuable correspondence. If you don’t know who Catalani was do consult my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/catalanis-calamitous-life/ ).

Unlike other concerts the association attends this was not an operatic or classical recital. Instead, it charted Italian song and pop music greats from the fifties onwards. Modugno, Endrigo, Mina, Abba (what a great song “The Winner takes it all” is!) and my particular favourite from Tottenham, Adele, were represented. Not only that but the singers were aged 14 and 17 respectively and one of the pianists was just 12. If all this sounds a bit twee or too much for you then it certainly wasn’t. The performances were all convincing, the piano arrangements by Damiano Calloni were superb and the discriminating audience, more used to bel canto, was utterly captivated.

The programme was presented (at the last minute, pace what it said on the programme) by one of Andrea Bocelli’s collaborating artistes who sang a moving arrangement of the Rainbow song from “The wizard of Oz. Ilaria Della Bidia has a great track record at age only 34. Born and bred in Lucca province she graduated in Piano at Lucca’s own Boccherini conservatoire and studied vocal technique in Rome. Already with several recordings to her credit Ilaria can sing in nine different languages including Swahili and Arabic.


At the end of the recital the chair of the Catalani association, Francesco Pardini, presented a picture of Alfredo Catalani with the title of one of his greatest operas, Lorelei, to Count Bove as thanks for his hospitality in accommodating us in his palace at San Gennaro.

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We returned home through the softest landscape imaginable: the Luccan hills made roseate by the setting sun and the Apennine peaks shining with freshly fallen snow.

Today, for most Italians it’s back to the grindstone again and for me it’s time to think about making my allotment ready for some planting. The weather, although, freshened by a penetrating tramontana (north wind), remain beautifully sunny.

PS The palazzo Bove is a great place for weddings. See its web site at


Getting the Hang of It

The hanging gardens of Babylon were one of the Seven Wonders of the World.  They were reputedly built by King Nebuchadnezzar for his wife Queen Amytis who came from a hilly and green part of the world and missed her native homeland in the flat and more arid Mesopotamian plain.


(one idea of what Babylon’s hanging gardens may have looked like)

I was thinking of Babylon’s hanging gardens yesterday for three reasons.

First, they are the only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world not to have been actually located. Were they thus a dream vision of an ideal garden and did they really exist? (What really existed until recently in the valley between two rivers that is Mesopotamia, the cradle of our western civilization, was a large part of the wonders of the ancient cities of Nineveh housed in the museum of Mosul.)

Second, so many Italian gardens are natural hanging gardens, largely due to the lie of the land, and are formed in descending terraces. Our best local example is, of course, the Garzoni gardens at Collodi (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/09/05/swanning-it-in-collodi/ )

Third, I realised we had our own miniature version of the hanging gardens at our own home as these photos taken a couple of days ago modestly  suggest:


..which reminds me that the growing season is well and truly in full swing. Is all my garden equipment working, I hope…

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(our hanging garden cat, Carlotta)


Swanning it in Collodi

When I first visited the Garzoni gardens at Collodi in 2001 they were a somewhat underwhelming sight. Unkempt flower beds, dishevelled lawns and unsafe paths did little to convince me that this was one of the world’s great gardens to be compared favourably with those of Hampton Court, Versailles and Schonbrunn.

Happily all has changed today in the magnificent gardens, dating back to the seventeenth century, thanks to new ownership and continuous restoration (and maintenance). We were enthralled by their baroque wonders so wonderfully sited on the steep slopes of the Pizzorne and cascading down in spectacular terraces with secret arbours, a maze, bamboo grove and mythological creatures.

There are plenty of birds in the gardens including this graceful Australian black swan.

On the right hand side of the gardens is the butterfly house and the standard ticket gives one access to both this and the gardens (there is also a comprehensive ticket which allows access to the Pinocchio garden nearby.)

I found the butterfly house delightful although I am certainly not a lepidopterist and find the idea of pinning down specimens of this wonderful insect distasteful.

The palace itself remains closed although much restoration has been done on it. Judging from photographs of its state rooms it looks very impressive. I hope on our next visit that it will finally be open to the public.

We couldn’t leave Collodi without seeing the old village itself. It must have one of the steepest high streets in Tuscany!

The parish church at the top is charming and the oratory nearby had a photographic exhibition.

It’s good to know that there is a lot more to Collodi than the long-nosed puppet that has become famous throughout the world although without Collodi Pinocchio probably  would never have been born.

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Further details at http://www.discovertuscany.com/the-pinocchio-park-in-collodi.html

The Ways of the Sun – Open-Air Painting in the Nineteenth Century

Among the monuments declared UNESCO world heritage sites last year were the villas built by the Medici family of Florence when they were in power. The greatest of these villas is the splendid one at Poggio a Caiano but all the villas are of interest. Surprisingly, there is a good example on the seaward side – surprising because it is not within easy striking distance from Florence.

Why was the Seravezza villa built? Primarily it was a strategic defence post near the borders of the Genoese and Pisan republics, defending the Medici’s interest in the silver mines and the marble quarries that surround its area. But the villa also served a leisure purpose since it was near first-rate hunting grounds for wild boar and deer. It’s even painted by Utens in his celebrated series of lunettes illustrating Medicean villas and on view at the “Firenze com’era” museum in Florence:


In 1996 the top floor of the villa became the excellently set up museum of work and popular traditions of this part of the world. It’s worth visiting the villa just for the fascinating insights the museum gives on how life was once lived here amid the marble quarries, the forests and the farmland.

The first floor is the setting for many temporary exhibitions, one of which we were keen to visit yesterday before it closes on September 7th. The exhibition is called Le vie Del sole:  La “scuola di Staggia” Ed il paesaggio in Toscana fra Barbizon e la “macchia” and concentrates on an unusual relationship: that between the open air schools of Barbizon, France and the macchiaiuoli painters of Italy. From Barbizon the Italian painters learnt to paint in the open air as distinct from the standard studios and this led to a superior chromatic intensity, greater faithfulness to the landscape around them and, ultimately, to the liberation of Italian painting from the previous stultifying academicism.

It was wonderful to see paintings reflecting the Tuscan countryside – paintings whose worth had been neglected until now and were due for a major reappraisal.

Sadly, for a long time the paintings of the Mirko brothers (originating from Hungary) and their friends and followers were not regarded for their true and pioneering worth in heralding the advent of the Italian equivalent of impressionism. This means that many of the paintings’ whereabouts are unknown and that there are also countless misattributions. At the same time, rediscoveries are being made and an appeal has gone out to auction houses and collectors to recognize and locate paintings belonging to this school.

Art history is constantly changing in the values it gives to different painters and their schools. There was a time when travellers would come to Italy principally to see pictures by Guido Reni and Carlo Dolci and not even have known about Masaccio or Piero Della Francesca. This attitude had radically changed by the twentieth century which brought the earlier painters to the fore. The twentieth century, however, also reacted unduly  against  the pre-impressionist schools of the nineteenth and gave far less worth to paintings it then regarded as chocolate boxy and academic. The organisers of the exhibition at the palazzo Mediceo of Seravezza are to be congratulated on helping to restore these painters to their just position in the history of painting.

More information, including the exhibition’s opening times, is to be found at http://www.terremedicee.it/eventi_detail.php?idEv=255.