A Mysterious, Moonlit Temple

I’d seen a picture of it somewhere before – a mysterious, autumn-red-brick ionic-style temple deep in the Tuscan countryside south of the Arno – and it captivated me. When would I be able to get to see it?

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In March 2006 I was teaching young people at IPSIA in Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. IPSIA stands for “Istituto Professionale dell’Industria e del Artigianato” (professional institute for industry and crafts). I suppose the English equivalent would be some form of technical college and, like the archetypal “tech”, the intake was not particularly drawn to high academic achievement. Most of the students believed they were second-best to those who got into the more prestigious Liceo and part of my job in teaching English, I felt, was to convince them that they were not failures but were also able to achieve.

To help me in this task (nowhere as difficult, I should say, as that described in some of Tom Sharpe’s books)  I had a support teacher, Giovanni Fascetti, from Pisa who turned out to be involved in curating the same temple that had enchanted me and who on full moonlit nights would escort special groups around it. “Would you like to visit it?” he asked me. “We’re meeting there at full moon next week”. “Sure!” I replied

I checked out where the temple was situated: near a little town of Montefoscoli deep in the Pisan hills. On the moonlit night I started out on my scooter and decided the best route there would be to go over the Trebbio pass from Benabbio to Collodi, across the Arno valley and thence proceed into the Pisan hills.

It wasn’t the fastest route but it was definitely the coldest! By the time I got to Montefoscoli I had virtually turned into an ice-block. Fortunately, the farmhouse near the temple where we met up had a roaring wood stove going and I practically sat on top of it to de-congeal myself.

There is a steep learning curve as far as routes and temperatures are concerned in Italy. I didn’t know March could still be so cold, especially at night. I don’t think I’d repeat the same experience.

But I would repeat the visit to the magical temple and have done so. It is such an arcane place and so dreamlike, especially under full lunar influences.

The temple of Minerva Medica is a neoclassical building located near the borgo of Montefoscoli ,which is in the province of Pisa. It was built around 1823 by the architect Rodolfo Castinelli and commissioned by Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri, a famous doctor of medicine and luminary of the University of Pisa, with the main intentions of erecting a memorial to his father Francesco, also a doctor in Pisa, and of celebrating their profession with a dedication to the goddess Minerva of medicine.

The structure, preceded by a portico of eight Ionic columns and surmounted by a pediment, stands on a hill in a small grove of holm oaks which had once covered a much larger area. The temple’s surfaces are characterized by the use of brick which imitate ancient Roman opus reticulatum work. The finish of these bricks and of the whole work is of incredible finesse and reminds me a little of another monument of similar material that I would later that year visit in the UK: the Watts chapel in Surrey (see http://www.wattsgallery.org.uk/watts-chapel).

Inside the temple an atrium leads into a semi-circular hall which has substantial remains of its original decoration.

There is an upstairs inner balcony which must have acted rather like a minstrels’ gallery.


It is now generally agreed that the building, in addition to its function as a memorial and as a place for diversions and entertainment, was also a Masonic temple since there are characteristic symbols of the secret society (or is it a “society with secrets”?) dotted around the temple.

Since that initial visit the temple of Minerva Medica has played a significant part in my life. I’ve been to chamber music concerts there and during the day it’s a lovely place to walk to from Montefoscoli.

Needless to say, I didn’t have to scooter back to Longoio that night. I was invited by the descendant lady of the Vaccà family, to whom the temple belongs, to stay at her palazzo in Montefoscoli where further delights awaited me. But that is another post.

For more information about the Tempio, including opening times and events there, do consult the site at:



5 thoughts on “A Mysterious, Moonlit Temple

  1. Yet another gem in Italy that needs a lot of tlc. It truly has a magical atmosphere which echoes the ghosts of the past who knows possibly the Shelleys and Byron visited too. It is true to say that I actually did see them albeit 21st Century versions in period costume. What fun and what nostalgia of those balmy summer days as we are still steeped in those cold wet winter days!

  2. Pingback: Il Gombo – Pisa’s Ex-Presidential Seaside Villa and Park | From London to Longoio (and Lucca and Beyond) Part Two

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