The countryside to the north of Florence is just as charmed as that visited yesterday to the south. From Coverciano (the home of Fiorentina FC with a superb “Museo del Calcio” documenting the glorious history of Italian football) we headed north, passing Berenson’s “villa “I Tatti”, (twice visited before with appropriate letters of recommendation) and John Temple Leader’s fantasy “Castello della Vincigliata” with exfoliating plaques along its outside walls memorializing visitors (among whom was our Empress of India, Victoria). The entrance gate was open, leading to a momentary thought that we could finally enter this forbidden strong-hold. No such chance: a courteous young man arrived on a scooter, telling us it would be impossible to enter but leaving us with a faint hope for the future by handing us a visiting card with the owner’s Teutonic name and email address imprinted on it. We were entertained instead, through grilled gates, by a friendly boxer guard dog and a conversation with a retainer. The castle is open for weddings and other private functions and we were left wondering as to the cost of such entertainments and the demi-monde who might be present.
Continuing across a pastoral countryside, with delectably long views of Florence, to Fiesole we stopped at the Etruscan city’s arcaded cemetery (dear for personal reasons) before following the Mugnone River up to the lofty heights of Monte Senario monastery. Founded in mediaeval times by seven nobles (who renounced worldly goods to seek salvation) it is in a spectacular position, surrounded by an embalming conifer forest, and contains within its fortress-like walls, the reliquary of the magnificent seven: seven skulls clearly visible through the golden tracery. Also to be viewed are some acceptable baroque decorations and altarpieces, the stark simplicity of the saints’ original cave-like chapel and an epic Annigoni fresco in the choir depicting the ascent of the founders to the Monte. The visit was rounded off in the monastery bar by a glass of the “Gemma”, a monkish liqueur with a delicious smoky amber bouquet.
I love Annigoni (who, for Britannic subjects, is primarily known for portraiture of their Sovereign). In Tuscany his art is visible in the Ponte a Buggiano church, in Montecatini’s town hall (we were present at the re-allocation of a vast canvas there) and several other places. Annigoni’s own grave is at San Miniato’s camposanto (another extraordinary cemetery) where it gazes over the resplendent birthplace of the renaissance. The artist saw himself as a valid successor to his rebirth predecessors – he certainly knew their styles and techniques well.
Across a plateau illuminated by resplendent hawthorn bushes set against the greenest grass we reached the old road to Bologna, hoping to visit Demidoff’s Pratolino estate. Originally created by the Medici, the vast area no longer contains the original villa but conserves Giambologna’s giant, hoary fountain statue to the god of the Apennines. No chance of seeing it, however, this time: we would have to wait until the end of April for a glimpse and a walk through the fine park (last time we were there it was on a cold late autumn afternoon).
Demidoff is a questionable figure: a Russian noble who accumulated fabulous wealth in minerals by exploiting peasants in his own country but who displayed a philanthropic bent in his adopted Italy (as the statue next to his Oltrarno palace publicises). Bagni di Lucca, too, came under his influence as testify the mini-pantheon and ex-hospital (now global village) built by the banks of the Camaione at Ponte di Serraglio.
A trip up to the magical church of Santa Maria a Montici and down to Piazzale Michelangelo, experiencing a glorious sunset all the way, rounded off our Florentine day.