The Brancoleria is the name given to a valley in the Pizzorne whose chief village is Brancoli. It is a very beautiful and lush area and in the height of summer can look like something out of a Chinese rain forest with lots of giant bamboo groves. No pandas though, unfortunately.
People who live in the Brancoleria must be quite lucky as they are not only in unspoilt mountain scenery but also less than half-an-hour from Lucca‘s urbane vivacity. I think this is what prompted some English people we’d met in Vico Pancellorum and who lived in a large, palatial house at the top of that village to move from what we thought was an idyllic spot to the Brancoleria and to a smaller place.
On my way to and from Lucca I sometimes stop and make a detour through the area with its delightful villages. Brancoli itself has one of the most magnificent Pievi in the whole of Lucca province. (A Pieve is a step above a plain parish church and used to be until recently the only kind of church where baptism could take place).
Inside, the Pieve, dedicated to Saint George, has a nave and two aisles separated by columns and pilasters surmounted by capitals decorated with stylised plant motifs, The roof is supported on wooden trusses and the apse is slightly raised and is still divided by a partition, for in the Middle Ages there was a distinct barrier between the officiants of a church service and the congregation. (This division is still a feature of Orthodox churches and, indeed of many English cathedrals, abbeys and kingly chapels where the choir is a space completely unto itself).
The octagonal font of the twelfth century, in the left aisle, is signed “Guido”, the Lombard master of Lucca who, I mentioned in a previous post ,was responsible for the original Romanesque Santa Maria Corteorlandini in that city. It is decorated with plant motifs and heads; with a fruit carved on each corner. If you think the font is rather large that is because, again in the mediaeval church, baptism was achieved by complete immersion and not just confined to new-born babies – repentant adults would also have to be immersed!
Sadly the stoup (the holy water basin in which the faithful dip their hands and do the sign of the cross when entering the church) and dating from the eleventh century, was unfortunately stolen in June 2000 as the sorry sign says – a new one, however, has been put in its place. Goodness knows where the original has finished up. I hope it’s on the huge database of stolen works of art and that someone somewhere may be racking their conscience about it…
The best piece of sculpture, however, is the ambo or pulpit, dated 1194 and the work of master Guidetto. It is rectangular in plan, with Corinthian columns that sustain it, two of of which are supported on lions, one of which is in the act of killing a serpent-like dragon – clearly a depiction of the triumph of good over evil. In my opinion it’s just as fine as the larger pulpit with lions in Barga cathedral and harks towards the magnificent pulpits one can see in Pistoia’s churches.
There are several other wonderful works of art in this church including a Della Robbia tabernacle depicting Saint George and the misused dragon. There is also a fine thirteenth century painted crucifix and a sweet fresco of the Annunciation.
Some years back our choir sang in San Giorgio di Brancoli on Saint George’s day in a special service attended by members of the order of Saint George wearing their opulent cloaks. Later that Sunday I went to a St George’s day party organized by an English friend – Saint George can truly be said to be an international saint and a good excuse to celebrate!
I should add that the Brancoleria makes excellent walking country and we have done several excursions in this area, reaching the rather ghastly concrete cross which dominates its highest point and is a typical sixties replacement of the original wooden one (which was demolished by Gerry when he turned the hill on which it stands into a gun emplacement and observation post for the Gothic line).The views are quite marvellous, commanding both the upper and lower valley of the Serchio and beyond.