From Tallis To Garibaldi

Most of my working life has been spent in Greenwich, now upgraded to “Royal” status because of the former presence of a monarch’s palace there.

In fact, Henry VIII was baptised in the local parish church of Saint Alphege where I attended a lunchtime piano recital given by students from the Trinity College of Music.

The royal palace was replaced by the seamen’s hospital which in turn was occupied by the royal naval college. This has now moved outside London and its premises, probably the finest renaissance buildings in the UK (and designed by Wren and Hawksmoor) are now the campus of the University of Greenwich.

The recital included works by De Falla played by Sofia Sarmento from Portugal and Schubert’s complete Moments Musicaux played by Italian Filippo Di Bari.

I thoroughly enjoyed hearing both young performers and wish them well in their future careers. St Alphege, of course, has a long and noble musical history since the time when that “father of English church music” Thomas Tallis, was organist there. Part of that organ’s keyboard has survived to this day.

Greenwich, although so familiar and pleasurable to me only disappointed in one respect: the ghastly new display of the famous tea clipper the “Cutty Sark”. How anyone could submerge her fine hull in a glass and steel cocoon, completely destroying her fine line is anybody’s business.

From Greenwich we made our way to the Italian Institute in Belgrave square where an unusual musical recitation, “Garibaldi in London” was given composed by Marcello Panni who has worked extensively as composer and conductor and has written several operas staged at La Scala, Florence, Rome and Bonn.

Garibaldi was memorably quoted by Tennyson as “having the divine stupidity of a hero” and was both feted and feared by the British establishment: feted because of his romantic exploits in uniting cultivated Britons’ favourite country of exile, and feared because, as Queen Victoria correctly said, he was also a revolutionary.

The music was lively in a sort of post Weill-jazzy idiom and aptly described the ambiguity of Garibaldi’s one and only visit to the British Isles in 1864.

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The recitation did not include one incident which I recollect was depicted in the “Illustrated London news” of the time. On his way to the Crystal palace to address working men’s associations Garibaldi passed my old school, Dulwich College watched by hundreds of enthusiastic boys. Seeing the horses in some difficult when approaching the steep hill leading to the palace the Dulwich boys tied ropes onto the carriage and helped pull Garibaldi’s retinue along College road for quite some distance.



Off-Roading in the Pizzorne

Today’s midday temperatures in Lucca are due to surpass thirty-five degrees centigrade. I was in the city this morning and it was getting hot, hot, hot. What to do? I decided my return home would be via the Pizzorne, a mountain table to the north of Lucca reaching above 4000 feet. The average drop in temperature for every 100 metres one rises is (on average) about half a degree. So could I expect the Pizzorne temperature to be around twenty degrees below Lucca? Well not quite, as heat radiates from the ground and Lucca is not yet at sea level.

However, reaching the Pizzorne via Matraia the temperature was around ten degrees less than Lucca, which made it feel very comfortable!

From le Pizzorne it’s possible to do some great off-road biking or even land-rovering. Starting from the little church near the Aldebaran restaurant by the fountain in the centre of the Pizzorne meadows, if one goes right one ends up at Lugliano and if one goes left one finishes up at Corsena, both of which are villages near to Bagni di Lucca.

I’ve often done both roads but this time, because of heavy winter rains, they were more than usually deeply rutted and I had to be very careful about where my wheels were going. All the same, I made it to Corsena within an hour.

The first part of the route takes one on a track to the right of a stream which, not surprisingly, is called Pizzorne. At a particular point the track crosses over a cement bridge to the left side and continues alongside the stream.

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The road then diverges and sweeps through some wonderful chestnut forests with good views over both the Val di Lima and the Serchio valley.

There are various landmarks to look out for.

This shrine:

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This cross

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Then one spots Corsena’s houses and very soon one’s ass is saved from becoming too sore with the bumpy ride by the miraculous appearance of tarmac. Three cheers for macadam!

The route can also be happily done by mountain bike or even walked. It’s very pleasant whatever transport one use.

One spot of advice – don’t hazard it in winter. The Aldebaran restaurant is usually closed and the road can become as muddy as a rugger field.

There are no restrictions about off-roading this route except as far as hunting and mushroom collecting off ifrom it are concerned. It’s important to know about restrictions. Off-roading in the Prato Fiorito road from Albereta requires a special forestry commission pass and if one is caught without it fines can be tough.

Looking at the maps it’s difficult to know what is a tarmacked and what isn’t a tarmacked road. I’ve been caught out in several occasions because Italian detailed maps are so unreliable and one map often contradicts another. My definition of heaven would be Italy covered by Ordnance Survey maps but, alas, this is still some miles (forgive the pun) away.

What’s the best route to take? Corsena or Lugliano? Sometimes the Lugliano route is easier going than the Corsena one. This happened a couple of years ago when the Corsena route had a lot more landslides and rock falls. For sheer interest the Lugliano is better as one passes the Hermitage of Saint Bartholomew. One can also cut across to Boveglio at one stage and pass by the sanctuary of the Madonna of the snow.

Whatever one decides to do it’s better to go with someone who knows the route, either because they live in the area or because they’ve learnt it from (sometimes) bitter experience.

One of my favourite rides is to go from Lugliano to the Pizzorne and then returned via Corsena as a loop.

It’s much more fun than doing the standard boring Serchio valley routes to Lucca, especially if one’s not in a hurry and wants to stop and have a great cool picnic in the shade of centuries old chestnut trees. But beware; it’s not for the standard saloon car!


Immaculate a Capella at Loppia

During the Christmastime of 1984 BBC’s Radio 3 produced a wonderful set of broadcasts with the title “Octave of the Nativity”: ten liturgical reconstructions of the Masses for that season, with introductions by Cormac Rigby. The Masses reconstructed dated from early plainsong to the most complex high renaissance polyphony and included choirs from the continent. The high Mass from St Peter’s Rome, however, did not feature the Sistine Chapel choir. Upon enquiry I found the reason why that choir wasn’t asked to sing was that it was not considered of “recordable quality”. The BBC was correct. I still have in my possession a vinyl record of the Vatican choir dating from the 1960’s and it sounds absolutely terrible. Much of the reason is that it sings like a collection of operatic soloists rather than a homogeneous entity and the respect due to period performance practises are absolutely nil. I wonder if it has since improved.

In the 1970’s British choirs brought themselves up-to-date with genuine performance practise – for example, reducing formerly mammoth numbers in Handel’s Messiah – and spawned a number of smaller vocal groups. I particularly enjoyed the Consort of Music under Anthony Rooley and Harry Cristophers’ the Sixteen.

It would have seemed on the borders of impossibility to imagine that, in this current age and place, in one of the remotest valleys of Central Italy, I would have been able to hear a local vocal group that could compete successfully with the stratospheric standards of the greatest English choirs.

In the immaculate setting of the Pieve di Loppia (for more on this marvellous building do see my post on it at the “gruppo vocale Gli Stereotipi” (web site at performed a recital of music ranging from the strictest renaissance a Capella, through baroque pieces, visiting the English shores with Purcell, the German heartland with Rheinberger and contemporary America with Whiteacre to finish up in South Africa.

The group consists of Lia Salotti, Serena Salotti, Valentina Simonelli, Giulia Manfredini, Andrea Salvoni, Morando Bertoncini, Martino Biondi, Gioele Tomei.

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I have been involved in music making with several of these members: in particular, Lia Salotti who runs the Civic School of Music at Borgo di Mozzano (Facebook page at who got us up to scratch for the memorable concert we gave at the convent of San Francesco at Borgo for Christmas 2012.

I was stunned again at Loppia by the near-perfection of the Stereotipi’s performances. Period stylistic practises were fully adhered to, difficult enharmonic changes were steered through with aplomb, and the togetherness of the voices was extraordinarily pleasing.

Moreover, the introduction of a theme to the recital “From Dawn to Dawn” was genial. Each piece described the journey from dawn to noon to evening and night, waking up the following morning in a resurrection of life itself. The Stereotipi realise that every recital can be even more effective if it has a coordinating theme to lift it into almost philosophical as well as musical heavens.

Here is their rendition of Rheinberger’s “Abendlied”

Several members of the group have visited and studied in the UK and it showed. In particular, I noted the beneficial influence of such groups as the Cambridge Singers. Here are the Stereotipi in one of their star items, Lotti’s “Miserere”:

I am so glad that one of the Stereotipi’s members, Andrea Salvoni, is our choirmaster with our San Pietro and Paolo di Ghivizzano choir. He knows what he wants from us because he has achieved it singing with the Stereotipi, one of the finest “gruppi vocali” I have heard in Italy so far.

Hearing the high standards of the “Stereotipi” (which title I find a playful use of the word since they are quite the opposite of stereotypes!) I do not feel that brits need suffer from culture shock when they listen to these singers upon return to Italy from Evensong in one of the great English cathedrals. More and more choirs and vocal groups in Italy are approaching “recordable quality”, thanks to the much higher standards of musical training, and this country should be proud of that. Only recently I received a comment about our own choir from stern critic, Francesco Cipriano, the editor of LuccaMusica music events magazine, where he affirms “some choirs from the remotest villages in our mountains can stand comparison with and even in some cases surpass many northern choirs”.

It’s true that DOC music should be played or sung to best effect by DOC musicians. But if Italy, with Colombini, can produce a very valid rendition of Elgar or Vaughan-Williams then the Stereotipi can produce an effective performance of a Purcell anthem too.

It remains obvious, however, that when it comes to their own music Italian musicians have now got the idiom very much more fluently under their belt than musicians from other countries. I expect Vivaldi today to be played by the likes of Fabio Biondi and certainly I’ll be glad to hear more Monteverdi and other Italian madrigalists from the excellent “Gli Stereotipi.”

Do look out for their next recital (consult their web site) and help to ensure the venue gets packed as it deserves to be (and shamefully wasn’t at Loppia, probably because of poor publicity) when these guys and dolls are performing!




Four Great Luccan Spiritual Women

A colleague, who is now qualified also as a tourist guide for Lucca and who sings in that doyen of Garfagnana choirs at Gallicano, told me that for a place with such a relatively small population Lucca has a remarkable quartet of “spiritual” women i.e. women who had a strong faith in God and who found strength through Him to achieve outstanding things, particularly in times when women were still regarded as second-class citizens with few rights. They are in chronological order:

  • Zita
  • Maria Barbantini
  • Elena Guerra
  • Emma Galgani

Two of them have been canonised (i.e. are saints) and two of them have been beatified (i.e. are blessed) I’d realised that in some way or another I’d touched on all four of these amazing women in at least one of my posts so I’m bringing them all together here and referring to where I’ve written about them elsewhere:


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Saint Zita was born at Monsagrati, near Lucca (where there is a lovely chapel to her memory) in 1218 and died in 1278. She was canonized in 1698. Her attributes are the lily (purity) and a set of keys (referring to her position as a servant in her owner’s house). Zita’s Saint’s day is 27th April and she is buried in the basilica of San Frediano. Saint Zita is patron saint of domestic servants, governesses, housewives and bakers. My contribution to Saint Zita can be found at:

Maria Barbantini


The blessed Maria Domenica Brun Barbantini was born in Lucca, in 1789 and died there in 1868. She married but unfortunately her husband died after a few months, leaving her pregnant with Lorenzo. Sadly, when just six Lorenzo, too, died. At this stage Maria Barbantini decided to found in 1829 the congregation of the ministering sisters for the sick at the hospital of Saint Camillo de Lellis. She was beatified by Pope (now saint) John Paul II in 1995. She is commemorated on the 22 May and her remains are at the Sisters’ church in Via Elisa, Lucca My contribution to the Blessed Barbantini can be found at:

Elena Guerra

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The blessed Elena Guerra was born in 1835 and died in 1914. She was beatified by Pope (now saint) John 23rd in 1959. Her remains are venerated at the church of Saint Augustine in Lucca. Her remembrance day is April 11th. My contribution on Elena Guerra can be found at:

Gemma Galgani

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Saint Gemma was born in 1878 and died in 1903. She was beatified in 1933 and made a saint in 1940. Her remains are venerated at the monastery and sanctuary of Saint Gemma just outside the eastern walls of Lucca. Her saint’s day is 11th April. My post about Gemma is at:

I think few other cities of comparable size have contributed so many women to the list of saints and blessed in the Roman Catholic calendar as Lucca!

Forgiving your Executioners: the Story of Don Aldo Mei

Fiano is a village in the comune of Pescaglia that lies half way, in a beautifully scenic position, on the road going from Val Pedogna to Val Freddana.

I’d visited Fiano before during its delightful Christmas market (one of the best in the area – well worth going to) and found it an attractive, if not especially notable, place stretching into three well-defined sections with a height differential of over three hundred feet from upper to lower “frazioni”.

Fiano has a big church (probably too big for today’s needs) built by the efforts of the then parish priest Don Quilici between 1912 and 1923, and replacing the original one which was collapsing. I have been unable to find out more information about the original church but the present building, although not exactly to my taste, built in a pseudo-Romanesque style, has, at least, a fantastic panoramic position over the whole area.

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The church has a single nave with a transept.


The bell tower is much older and one can spot medieval stone work in its lower section.

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 In the church, a victim of Nazi-fascism, Don Aldo Mei (parish priest here from 1935 to 1944) is buried. This is his tomb.

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In a nearby glass case, are displayed the glasses and clothes (stained with blood) Don Mei wore when he was executed by the Nazis in 1944.


But who was Don Mei?

I managed to get his story as follows: On August 2 1944, shortly after celebrating Mass in Fiano’s parish church, Don Mei was arrested by the SS on the charge that he had given refuge to Jews, fascist regime deserters and partisans. He was taken to Lucca and sentenced to death. Lucca’s archbishop, Monsignor Torrini, was unable to save him and on August 4th Don Mei was taken by the walls of Lucca just outside Porta Elisa.

“I’m dying because of hate’s dark storm, I, who only wanted to live for love”, he declared . Don Mei was forced to dig his own grave and then killed with twenty-eight gunshots by the SS firing squad. Poignantly, before the execution he forgave and blessed his murderers.

Here is Don Mei’s memorial on the spot in Lucca he was executed:


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This is the last view Don Mei saw before he died:

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Fiano’s parishioners did not forget Don Mei’s heroic action and they have unveiled a memorial to him opposite the parish church.

I only discovered the story of Don Mei because I finally decided to stop at the statue I’d spotted. It’s a good thing if one decides to stop and look instead of saying, “Ah well, next time”, or declaring, “It’s not important enough for me to stop.”

In 1997 I visited various war cemeteries and was completely overwhelmed by the numbers of young men fallen. In particular, at Verdun, where the majority of victims remain unknown by name, I met a nice English lady who said she was doing her “holocaust” tour. I feel there is enough around Lucca province to merit a similar kind of tour.

After all, through the strong socialist leanings of such workers as the marble quarries of Massa and Carrara and the independent spirit of the people of this region, there has always been a strong opposition to fascism, even during the period when it was most rampant. Indeed, the area of Carrara was awarded the Cross of Valour of the Italian republic, much like the inhabitants of Malta were awarded the George Cross, the highest honour for civilian valour.

Lucca is not only about wonderful olive oil, great wines, fine dining, courteous people, amazing heritage, seductive music and beautiful scenery; it is also about strength and determination in the face of overwhelming odds and a robust stand against oppression an inhumanity. This is, I feel, fully personified in such people as Don Mei who was killed when he was just thirty-two, but whose altruistic life is remembered today by those who care about life’s greatest values.


How to Get Rid of Excess Fat in an Enjoyable Way

We’ve had two days of rain now – very welcome for our plants but not brilliant for getting around. So I was glad that last Monday I took a trip around the Luccan hills on my scooter

Lucca’s hills to the north of the city are the home to some of the best olive oil and wines in the whole of Italy. They are divided into the ranges to the east of the river Serchio and those to the west.

The eastern hills rise quite steeply and merge into the Pizzorne, the plateau precursors of the main Apennine ridge of sedimentary rocks. I know this part quite well so was keen to explore the western hills which are the precursors of the metamorphic Apuan range. Few river valleys have such different geological formations on opposite banks!

The western hills are pure heaven and have some of the most wonderfully gentle landscapes I have ever seen in Italy, surpassing, in my opinion even Chiantishire. There are delightful wooded lanes,and extensive views towards the Apuans:

There are beautiful Pievi – here at Santo Stefano::

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 Great vineyards:

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Lovely olive groves

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And the best long-views of Lucca I have ever seen:

There is indeed so much to enjoy and explore here that I feel I have neglected this area for the more dramatic parts of the Lucchesia further north.

One place stopped at was Mutigliano, a delightful village which has an unusual feature I’d visited before without realising what it meant.

Last summer I’d gone with two friends to a sagra, or festival, “dei Rigatoni” (a type of pasta) just outside Mutigliano. It was great fun, both for the food and the dancing.

(For more information on the sagra click on

This time I wanted to explore more of the area around where the summer sagra is held. The dance area looked quite different now.

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There were two forlorn eagles, one of which had lost a wing, perched on columns,

There was a Roman-style “altar” sculpted (by Bacelli) with delicate mourning figures:

There was also a collapsing monument with difficult-to-decipher writing on it (but which I later discovered was General Diaz’ proclamation of the great Italian victory concluding World War I at Vittorio Veneto).

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I realised I was in a “Parco della Rimembranza”, a park set up to remember the fallen of World War I and where the beautiful holm-oak woods surrounding the entrance amphitheatre symbolised those who died, but had no grave, in that four-year-long massacre. This memorial was laid out in 1924 by the new Italian fascist government who also designed another similar memorial, this time in an urban setting, in Piazza Verdi just inside Lucca’s Porta Sant’Anna (and which – after much heated debate – is being restored to its original glory).

Strangely, although the Mutigliano memorial park appeared so neglected, its forlornness added to the tragic poignancy  of that conflict from which, clearly, the fascist government hadn’t learnt any lessons when it plunged Italy into a second world war in 1940.

I do feel, however, that, as a token that this year is the centennial commemoration of the Great War, the eagles could be cleaned up and the missing wing replaced.

I plunged into the woods and my spirit was immediately raised by the beauty of the trees.

At odd intervals very good signs explained different aspects of the forest flora and fauna. Some of them had three-D effects and all were good for learning the correct Italian for animal species.

(Moscardino means a Dormouse)

At other intervals there was a fitness activity with indication of how to use it according to different levels of competence – an open-air gym in effect. I tried one or two of them, the only one around to do so, and thought this was quite an enjoyable way of helping to lose some of that “spare tyre” accumulated through the rinfreschi we’d been offered at the start of the week.

Through the woods I could see a large building which once had been the summer holiday camp for orphans of the war…

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Lucca, therefore, has two Parchi Della Rimembranza, both inaugurated on 8th June 1924 by Costanzo Ciano who had collaborated in heroic exploits with poet D’Annunzio in WWI (see my post at The one in Lucca commemorates fallen soldiers from the city and the one in Mutigliano commemorates those from the countryside who died.

I wonder how many of us will remember the parks’ original purpose, whether we  hit the dance floor at the ”Sagra dei Rigatoni”, or exercise ourselves in the surrounding woods, or whether we wait for our bus in Piazza Verdi in Lucca?

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Four Little Sights on the Way to the Supermarket

It’s easy to ignore sights that one passes by on a regular basis. Just going from Ponte a Serraglio, and using the Brennero road taking one to Chifenti and beyond, there are four such sights that are worth at least a second look.

The first of these turns out to be the back-end of a chapel, although it took me some time to realise that it was a religious building until I spotted a Della robbianesque plaque to the Madonna sheltered under the protective gable.

Tramping through high grass to its entrance I found the chapel a most attractive building in reasonable shape.

In less good shape, however, were the public gardens and children’s playground surrounding it. Although I love it when London’s parks are allowed to have “wild” bits with plenty of natural flora and fauna I realised that this was not the intent of these gardens! Let us hope that the comune will find the funds to employ a grass-cutter or, at the very least, that the local residents will find volunteers to do the job the council should  do, even just for the safety of the children playing in this area (snakes love tall grass).

The second sight is Ponte a Serraglio’s cemetery, the other of Bagni di Lucca’s still-in-use cemeteries. There are a number of attractive tombs, including one with stained glass and another with a good modern sculpture and yet another one in a terrible state where the angel seems to be also grieving at its condition.

There are never any very old tombs in Italian cemeteries because of the process of de-entombment after a varying number of years into wall ossuaries when the tomb’s lease runs out. So it’s rather difficult to write an Italian version of Gray’s Elegy. (Although the great neo-classical poet, Ugo Foscolo, who ended his tormented life in 1827 in London and was buried in St Nicholas Churchyard Chiswick, until his remains were returned with great pomp in 1871 to lie with those of Michelangelo and Galileo in Florence’s Pantheon of Santa Croce church, did have a try with his elegiac “Dei Sepolcri” – appropriately about Santa Croce.)

Outside the cemetery walls, but still presumably in in its grounds, are two other memorials – one to a soldier with freshly laid tulips (I wonder why his memorial was not placed within the walls) and the other commemorating the victims of something which happened in 1944. There is unfortunately nothing to say either what the event was or the names of those who died as a result of it. However, judging by other memorials dating to 1944 it may have most probably been some Nazi-Fascist atrocity.

The third sight is caught crossing into the comune of Borgo a Mozzano and it’s a delightful little shrine placed in front of a very abandoned and somewhat dilapidated farmhouse which could have been turned into a picturesque dwelling. The shrine is well-cared for by persons unknown and there is even a prayer to Saint Rita tacked on to the left gate.

The fourth sight does not look very promising from the outside

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Inside it’s a different matter as the building is what would be the equivalent of an English “proprietary” chapel and is well-cared for by a family who own it and live in Artali, which is a part of Longoio. The chapel’s altar is impressive with barley-twist columns, sweet angels playing under a stellar roof and a fine eighteenth century painting of the Virgin with saints.

There are two interesting inscriptions which date the chapel.

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The neo-gothic windows must have been cut at a later date, however.

Often it’s quite a good idea to take a few minutes off one’s journey to Penny Market or the station to stop and look around – it’s quite interesting what one can find!