In a previous post I mentioned an alternative commuting route between my house and the Porcari paint factory. This Tuesday, the weather being at least stable if not sunny, I decided to take that route. Crossing the Lucca Piana via Viale Europa I started climbing up to the Pizzorne plateau, passing the sweet vine-surrounded village of Matraia. Olive groves were succeeded by chestnut woods and finally by fresh resin-scented pine forests. I was now at a height of well above 1,000 metres.
The Pizzorne are the mountains facing our house and are the initial bastion of the Apennine range. Mainly composed of sedimentary rocks they are lusciously wooded. In the summer Le Pizzorne provide a welcome escape from Lucca’s heat for its inhabitants who enjoy picnics in the English-like lawns of its plateau. The views over Lucca’s plain and the city of Lucca itself, surrounded by its tree-topped walls can be spectacular.
In summer there is also a Festa delle Pizzorne and the Aldebaran restaurant serves excellent wild boar.
The Pizzorne are also a religious mountain – there are several hermitages, abbeys, shrines and sanctuaries many of which I have already visited. Finally, the Pizzorne have notoriously bad maps covering them and, at the beginning of our residence here, we had to spend a summer night among strange nocturnal creatures in the wilds of an endless forest simply because we had lost our way!
The comune town of Villa Basilica stands proudly above the valley leading to the Passo Del Trebbio which, at 900 metres, connects Pinocchio’s Collodi Valley to Bagni di Lucca’s Val di Lima. It’s often neglected by those passing through this scenic route to and from Bagni and Lucca but is well worth a visit, principally for its magnificent Pieve built in a Pisan influenced Romanesque style.
I love to break my journey in the main square facing the Pieve and just look at its wonderful façade with barley twist-like columns and lozenges. I’ve never found it closed when I’ve been there which, in some respects, is surprising since the church’s interior holds a wonderful treasure – a large crucifix by Berlinghieri, equal in artistic worth to the one, nearer to us, hanging in Tereglio’s church.
(In case you didn’t know, Bonaventura Berlinghieri is the greatest of the mediaeval painters of the Lucca area – its equivalent of Duccio, if you like – and has been credited with painting the most authentic likeness of Saint Francis which can be viewed in the monastery church of Saint Francis in flower-city Pescia.)
Other interesting paintings line the walls and there is a crypt below the raised altar area (this, unfortunately always seems closed) which belongs to an even earlier church.
Entering the Pieve di Santa Maria is quite an experience and your eyes have to adapt to the dim religious light which only comes through long-narrow windows (be careful not to fall down the steps as soon as you enter the church as they are, at first, too dark to see!) So many of Lucca’s churches have been spoilt by baroque accretions and rebuilding which increased the inner lighting with new, wider windows which, unfortunately, took away the mysterious womb-like atmosphere (similar in many ways to that of the Egyptian temples we visited) of the earlier building.
Immediately to the right is a corner where odd bits of sculptures from the church have been collected – many of them from the same artists who decorated Lucca’s cathedral. It’s a bit difficult to make them out since many of them are badly weathered but the lion – symbol of the strength of faith – can be easily recognized.
The nave, flanked by an aisle each side, and the wonderful apse crowned by Berlinghieri’s magnificent crucifix makes for one of the highest religious-architecture experiences in our area. The Pieve is, indeed, almost like a miniature version of Lucca cathedral – something which the exterior of the apse emphasises with its row of exterior columns, just like San Martino.
Villa Basilica itself has some quite noble buildings and steep picturesque streets, some of which disappear into covered passages.
Villa Basilica was an ancient centre of sword manufacture; Lorenzo il Magnifico of the Medici used to order his swords from its foundries. Villa Basilica then became a centre of paper production because of the abundance of fast-flowing water. The valley leading up to it is still filled with cartiere, or paper-mills, some still in operation, others in a state of decay. Unfortunately, since 1982, production of high-quality paper has ceased – to be replaced by toilet-paper manufacturing- highly laudable and necessary but not quite the same thing.The cartiere buildings themselves merit a separate visit and in the UK would be valued as the main features in a major industrial archaeology park (like Ironbridge, for example).
Throughout the whole time of my visit there I hardly saw any of Villa Basilica’s inhabitants but the school bus bringing the children back from their class did liven up what, otherwise in my mind, remains largely a silent and mysterious town.
However, I shall certainly try to make an appearance for the Villa Basilica TV and film festival started only in 2006. The “Giulia Ammanati” prize is given to the greatest contributors in the genre. Named after the astronomer Galileo’s mum, who was born here in 1538, recipients have included Franco Zeffirelli himself, 90 this year. More information for this year at http://www.festivalvillabasilica.it/ with an opening recitation by no less than the great actor Vittorio Gassmann reciting a poem by that quirky poet Aldo Palazzeschi.