A Ducal Palace Press Conference for Bagni di Lucca’s 2014 Arts Festival

“Conto alla rovescia” is an often-recurring Italian expression. It simply means “count-down” and it’s definitely count-down time for the Bagni di Lucca Arts Festival which officially opens on July 4th at 6.30 pm with a grand and entertaining evening of jugglers, circus and music for everyone.

Yesterday we were in Lucca’s sumptuous ducal palace in Piazza Napoleone to attend the Arts Festival press release conference. Introducing was the festival’s seminal figure, Jaqueline Varela, with her fluent and persuasive style, in the centre of the table was Mayor Massimo Betti of Bagni di Lucca and to his left was Jake, Jaqueline’s other half.

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The progress this Bagni-di-Lucca shaking event has made since its incredibly successful debut last year could be seen in the choice of location and the presence of our commune’s first citizen. Few places can match the opulence of the magnificent state rooms of Lucca’s biggest palace and it is significant that the festival now has strengthened the official imprimatur of the commune’s administration.

Incidentally, the superlative frescoes in the ducal palace are not there to glorify the reign of Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister, over Lucca. Quite the opposite: Luigi Ademollo painted them in 1820 by command of her successor, Maria Luisa di Borbona to affirm the virtues of the restoration and condemn the vices of the former empire. Such is the power of art!

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Among the audience were representatives of all the major Italian and English language newspapers and magazines of the province and region. Questions were asked and were all satisfactorily answered. Would there be any differences in year two of the Arts festival as distinct from year one? The winning formula would be pursued of course – a balance between formal and flexible organisation. There would, however, be an effort to involve Bagni di Lucca Villa more in the event. After all, Villa does have more than its share of empty shops – I am particularly thinking of that delightful venue which used to be at the Piazzetta and, of course, the precarious future of the circolo dei forestieri.

Further venues at Ponte would be opened, including the Casino, and greater emphasis would be paid to involving all sectors of the public at all degrees of artistic interest or involvement by introducing more art and sculpture courses.

We know now that after the “strepitoso” success” of last year’s “first edition”, the Bagni di Lucca Arts Festival can only grow from strength to strength. The energy is vibrant, the enthusiasm is strong and the creativity is flowering.

Concentrating on the primal instinct of artistry which lies in every sentient being we can now build the festival into something which will continue to form a major part of Bagni di Lucca’s identity and its already very attractive calendar of events.

For further information about the festival and its events do click on its web site at:



Pisa’s San Ranieri Regatta

If September is Lucca’s month, so full is it of processions, fairs and other events, June is definitely Pisa’s moment of glory and festivities. San Ranieri is the patron saint of Pisa and for three days this month he is celebrated in style by the inhabitants of one of Italy’s four ancient maritime republics (the other three, in case you didn’t know, are Amalfi, Venice and Genoa).

Ranieri Scàcceri was born in Pisa in 1118 and died there in 1161. He was a hermit who travelled to the Holy Land, became a miracle-worker, was adopted as Pisa’s patron saint and is buried under the high altar of its wonderful cathedral.

On the 16th the Luminara lights up the city with over 100,000 candle-lanterns. I’ve seen this magical evening on a previous occasion and it casts a delightfully archaic light over the city’s river front and the area round the leaning tower. The Luminara is something not to be missed and gives one the best impression of what a mediaeval city would have looked like before the invention of electricity.

Lucca’s own Luminara on the occasion of the celebration of the “Santo Volto” in September gives a similar impression but, of course, lacks the peculiarly beautiful effect of the lights reflected into the river Arno which describes a broad arch, rather like a long-bow, through Pisa.


Moreover, Pisa’s version highlights the architectural features of its buildings in a stunning manner. The candles appear to be left around after the event and most passers-by help themselves to their remains.

The celebrations in honour of San Ranieri continue the next day in the Arno, where the “Regatta di San Ranieri.” is celebrated. Four boats, inspired by the Medici Order of the Knights of St. Stephen (Pope and martyr) founded in 1561 and who played such a leading part in defeating the Muslims at the battle of Lepanto in 1571 (remember Shakespeare’s “Othello”?) from the city’s historic districts (or quarters) of S. Maria, S. Francesco, S. Martino and S. Antonio, respectively decorated with blue, yellow, red and green lights, compete to win the Palio (or religious banner – as in the more famous Palio di Siena) di San Ranieri. Climbers, known as “montatori”, have to climb up a rope at the finish line to reach the prize at the top of a ten metre high flagpole mounted on a barge in the middle of the river. The last one to arrive gets as a prize a pair of ducks.


Before the race proper there was a cortege with drummers. They start them young in this part of the world:

The race takes place over a distance of 1,500 metres along the Arno and against the river’s current. It is, therefore, a particularly tough exercise, considering also the heavy weight of the boats themselves. The competition begins near the railway bridge and ends in front of the Palazzo Medici Bridge near the city’s fortress. The boats have fixed seats and a crew of eight rowers, a helmsman and the “montatore”.

Victory actually does not depend on who wins but on the skill and agility of the first “montatore”, who manages to grab the flag.

This customs harkens back to the victorious Battle of Lepanto where the Order of Santo Stefano had to board the infidel ships and win the pennant that was on top of the enemy’s mast. The flags captured then are still preserved today in Pisa’s Chiesa dei Cavalieri.


The event we witnessed last night was enhanced by spectacular lighting effects which truly added to the occasion.

If you’ve missed the Luminara and the regatta then you can still join in today for the big procession which will take San Ranieri’s remains around the city together with a costumed cortege.

For those interested in statistics this is the current score of victories of the various quarters in modern times:

  • Sant’Antonio 24
  • Santa Maria 23
  • San Martino 11
  • San Francesco 6

San Martino (the red boat) won this year’s regatta followed by the yellow, blue and green boats.

I don’t know if bets were taken…


July Music Events for Lucca Province


This year, too, the “Lorenzo Malfatti” voice academy from Pittsburgh is returning. Fifteen students were selected earlier in the United States to perfect their talents with singing, recitation and drama lessons at the “Boccherini” Music Institute with teachers Sean Kelly, Reed Woodhouse, Franc D’Ambrosio and Barbara Paver, some of whom have already worked in previous years with the University of Cincinnati. The students of the “Malfatti” academy will perform on Wednesday 16th at 9 pm, in Piazza Cittadella 22nd and on Tuesday 22nd at the Praetorian Palace. The program includes music by Monteverdi, Mozart, Puccini, Handel, Haydn, Rossini, Bellini and Tosti. Their final concert, “Celle under the Stars”, is on Friday 25th at Celle di Pescaglia. Free admission.


“Cluster”, the contemporary music association, continues its activities with the sound-track to Elisa Zadi’s exhibition, “Sacred Myths and Stories of the men and saints”, at the Fondazione Banca del Monte di Lucca from July 5th to 27th. The exhibition will use the original soundtrack composed by Francesco Cipriano, titled “O crus ave”, for baritone, chorus and piano and recorded recently in Berlin.


On Saturday 5th (9.15 pm, Church of San Paolino) the thirtieth Sacred Music Festival organized by Polifonica Lucchese and its conductor Egisto Matteucci will be held. The program, titled “Mater”, includes contemporary choral pieces written in honour of the Mother of Christ and will be performed by the Harmonia Women’s Choir (see photo) and the Piccola Harmonia choir from Venice, conducted by Nicola Ardolino. These two choirs have been awarded many prizes in competitions.


The eighth year of the “Peace Organ of Sant’Anna di Camaiore” festival is dedicated to the memory of the wartime massacre at St. Anna di Stazzema. On Sunday 5th, organ recital by Hansjörg Albrecht (see photo) who, on Monday 6th at 9.30 pm in Marina di Pietrasanta, near the Teatro la Versilia, directs the great “Remembrance Concert” with the Munich Bachchor and the Orchestra Regionale della Toscana. On July 13th, we return to Stazzema with the world premiere of “Music for a Church” for two trumpets and organ by Jan Müller-Wieland, with Hannes Läubin, Max Westermann and Luca Scandali. On the 20th there’s a recital by organist Gerhard Weinberger while on the 27th there’s a performance by Edoardo Bellotti. All concerts are free entry and start at 6 pm.


Wednesday 2nd at 9 pm in the Church of S. Maria Corteorlandini there’s a choral concert with the American choir, California Central Coast Chorale, conducted by Sean Boulware. The program includes music by Mozart, Pitoni, Vecchi and Palestrina. The evening will be introduced by “Il Baluardo” choir, conducted by Elio Antichi.


On June 22nd, in Castelnuovo Garfagnana, the IAM festival starts with musicians from five continents. The program (see next page) includes, on Tuesday, July 1st (9.15 pm, Capuchin Church of Castelnuovo), an evening of performances by the teachers; Thursday 3rd (5.30 pm, Saletta Suffredini Castelnuovo) recital by student Alexander Bolotin. At 9.15 pm (Capuchin Church of Castelnuovo) an evening recital by the teachers. Friday 4th (5.30 pm), at the Palazzo Ducale in Lucca, a special “Students’ Gala” with free entry. Saturday, 5th, from 5.30 pm onwards, students’ outdoor concerts in the centre of Castelnuovo Garfagnana. Sunday 6th (9.15 pm, Teatro Alfieri Castelnuovo) evening with the Orchestra of the “International Academy of Music”. Monday, 7th (9.15 pm, Teatro Alfieri) final concert with the students.



On Sunday 6th, in the church of Pieve a Elici, the Versilia chamber music festival returns with a performance by the La Scala Quartet of works by Mozart, Beethoven, Webern and Ravel. On Saturday, 12th, Francesca Dego (violin) and Francesca Leonardi (piano) play Beethoven.

On Sunday, 20th pianist Giuseppe Albanese returns to play music by Mendelssohn, Schubert and Liszt. The festival ends on Sunday 27th with a performance by a trio consisting of Elisa Eleonora Papandrea (violin), Monaldo Braconi (piano) and Alessandro Carbonare (clarinet) who play Stravinsky, Gershwin, Poulenc, Stefano Priolo and Kuttenberger. All concerts start at 9.15 pm. Please note that on Monday 7th (9 pm) AML is programming a concert at the Auditorium del Suffragio (Lucca) , with the “Boccherini” institute, to commemorate the pianist Sonja Pahor who died in July last year. Performing will be many artists and former colleagues of the Conservatory. Free admission. More information available on phone no:  0583 469960.


In July, the fourth year of the Francigena International Arts Festival, with events scattered along stretches of the Via Francigena in the province of Lucca, returns. This is the programme: 8th (9.15 pm Auditorium “Da Massa Carrara” in Porcari) Atmos Quartet; 10th (9.15 pm Park Hotel “Villa Ariston”, Lido di Camaiore) Maurizio Mastrini at the piano; 18th (6 pm Porcari) Concert Orchestra Training Course for secondary schools; 18th (9.15 pm) Villa Bertelli of Forte dei Marmi) Orchestra della Toscana; 18th (9 pm Piazza Ricasoli in Altopascio) Fulbrook Jazz Concert, Orchestra and Dance Bands; 19th (9.15 pm Puccini Theatre of Altopascio), Orchestra della Toscana; 22nd (9.15 pm Piazza Ospitaleri of Altopascio) La Finta Semplice by Mozart with the orchestra and soloists of the “Mascagni” music institute; 23rd (9.15 pm Montecarlo) Parkstone Concert Band and Chamber Choir; 25th (9.15 pm Polo culturale “Artemisia” in Capannori) Eros Pagni and Gianni Quilici; 26th (9.15 pm Cloister of Palazzo Carmignani, Monte Carlo) St. Andrea Collegiate choir, Department of Ancient Music Ensemble FIAF, Fontegara consort. Finally, on 3rd, 11th, 19th, 26th and 30th (6.30 pm) at Altopascio’s Medici loggia there are performances by “I Giovani Talenti della Francigena”. Info: http://www.francigenafestival.it



LuccaOPERAfestival is staging Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore in Lucca in the Cloister of San Micheletto on 18th and 19th July at 9 pm. The cast is made up of young artists: Marco Ciaponi tenor, soprano Michelle Buscemi, and basses Mattia Campetti and Roberto Lorenzi. The Bruno Maderna orchestra will be conducted by Jonathan Brandani. Direction is by Stefania Panighini. The performances are made possible thanks to the contribution of the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca, UNESCO Club Vienna, Mc Donald scholarship trusts (Melbourne) and with the collaboration of the Municipality and the Province of Lucca. For reservations: luccaoperafestival@gmail.com


In July concerts in the Oratorio degli Angeli Custodi continue. The previously announced concert on Saturday 6th (From Argentine Tango to film music) has been postponed. Sunday 20th, young pianist Aldo Lucca Dotto will play music by Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin. Saturday 26th will be devoted to contemporary music by young composers who are winners of the Counterpoint competition from America. On Sunday 27th there’s a recital by flautist Linda Di Martino Wetherill and guitarist Fernando Maglia. All concerts start at 9 pm; Tickets from € 5 to € 12: Info: http://www.iconcertidegliangeli.com.


On Monday 7th, at 9.15 pm, in the church of St. Michele Arcangelo, the thirty-third “Corsanico Festival”, an international classical music festival organized by the “Vincenzo Colonna” friends of organ music, starts. The festival opens with the “Cheltenham Choir” conducted by Gordon Busbridge, with organist Alexander Ffinch (free admission); Friday 11th, an evening dedicated to movie soundtracks with the “Nello Salza Ensemble” (admission € 10); Friday 18th, “Music Régia” with the King’s Peterborough Orchestra, conductor and organist Nicholas Kerrison (free admission); Tuesday 22nd, guitar duo Flavio Cucchi and Shinobu Sugawara will perform a repertoire ranging from contemporary music to Boccherini (admission € 10); Saturday 26th, “I Solisti dell ‘Orchestra da Camera Fiorentina” will play baroque music. Concerts continue through August.


Starting the nineteenth “Città di Camaiore” organ festival on Wednesday 23rd in the Church of the Badia di Camaiore there’s an organ recital by Adriano Falcioni. Monday 28th, in the Collegiate Church of S. Maria Asssunta, an evening “In memory of Don Angelo Bevilacqua” with Angelo Spinelli’s Requiem Mass for male voices and organ, with the men from Lucca cathedral’s  “Santa Cecilia” choir conducted by Luca Bacci (organist Julia Biagetti). The concerts, which continue in August, are at 9.15 pm. Entrance fee: € 5. The event is promoted by the “Marco Santucci” association and the comune of Camaiore in collaboration with the Bank Foundations of Lucca.


The “G. Puccini” Filarmonica from Colle di Compito performs a  “Concert under the Stars” on Thursday, 3rd in the Piazzetta del Santuario at Colle di Compito. The band will play light and modern pieces, many arranged by Carlo Pucci and will be accompanied by lively majorettes (see photo). The concert will be repeated on July 10th at the Centro Culturale Compitese (via Fonda 1). Free admission.


Saturday 12th (9.30 pm Parish Church of Camigliano) will be the first evening of the 36th Camigliano Choral festival, sponsored by Camigliano’s “G. Puccini” choir with the patronage of Capannori. The “Puccini” Choir, conducted by Luigi Della Maggiora, will open the evening, followed by the “Voci del Serchio” choir conducted by Ugo Menconi (with a popular Italian and international repertoire) and the “Coro del Noce” from the Trentino conducted by John Cristoforetti (see photo), who will delight us with traditional folk songs of the mountains. Free admission.


Throughout the summer, the Botanical Garden of Lucca will have weekly concerts and events sponsored by the City in collaboration with institutions and associations. Friday, July 4th, concert for the bicentenary of Adolphe Sax’s birth, with the Timeless Saxophone Quartet and Hector Bonafè. Friday 11th, evening “Arti sotto l’albero”, Italian and South American music by Alessandro Orsi; 18th, guitarist Edoardo Pieri and flautist Filippo Del Noce will perform (see picture) and on Sunday 20th there’s “Gioco di specchi” by Stefano Massini, a theatrical performance directed by Ciro Masella with Marco Brinzi and Ciro Masella. Friday, 25th, “Journey into film music” with pianist and arranger Luigi Nicolini.


This year will be the start of Massarosa Music Fest, an event organized by the “Republica di Lucca-Città stato” and dedicated to young students throughout Tuscany (artistic direction by Julia Matteucci). From July 22nd to 27th teachers of flute, clarinet, guitar, cello and double bass, will supervise participants in individual courses of study and practice of traditional chamber music at the Massarosa Comprehensive School in Via Cavalieri di Vittorio Veneto. After the opening concert of the Massarosa Music Fest (22nd at 9 pm) where all the teachers perform, other concerts will follow where the students will participate as soloists or in chamber music groups. Info: http://www.larepubblicadilucca.wix.com / massarosamusicfestfest


The “Catalani” Circle of Friends of Music is organizing for Saturday, 12th at 7 pm an evening entitled “Invitation to dinner with Puccini – Concert,” followed by a “Puccini” dinner, at the Puccini Restaurant Piazza Cittadella, based on Luccan dishes loved and appreciated by the Master. Soprano Valentina Piovano and tenor Alessandro Fantoni sing Puccini, Lehar, Rota, Catalani, Pietri, accompanied on the piano by Marco Ferruzzi. The “Catalani” Circle is organising on the 26th a trip to the Torre Del Lago theatre, to see Puccini’s La Bohème. Information on 347 9981851.


The activities of the symphony school summer campus continue with “Music Weeks in the company of …” from 8.30 am to 3 pm and aimed at children aged 5 to 12 years. The daily lessons provide preparatory courses, choir, theatre and music, individual instrument lessons, group music and English language learning. The summer camps in the month of July will be: “Catalani” week (June 30-July 4) “Boccherini” week (7-11 July), “Donizetti” week (14-18 July), and “Mozart” week (21 – July 25). Information: tel. 0583 312052 or: scuola.sinfonia @ tin.it


For the inauguration of the Church of Santa Caterina di Lucca, returned to the city after its restoration, on Wednesday 9th at 9 pm there’s a preview entitled “Dittico Sacro”: a theatrical video divided into two minimodrammi composed by Girolamo Deraco on libretti by Deborah Pioli: “Vidi Arcana Dei” for reciting soprano and bass drum, and “Stabat Mater” for soprano, narrator and video premiere. The show will make use of multimedia installations by director Nino Cannatà and will be performed by soprano Maria Elena Romanazzi and percussionist Matteo Cammisa.

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From Longoio to London


When I packed my suitcase on the 10th of this month to attend a family event in London I was made to realize that I’d left out an important item but as he had no passport I had to leave Napoleone behind.

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Stansted airport’s architect must have been partly inspired by Liverpool street station’s architect as the roof supporting piers declare:

Anyway, both of these ports of entry into the UK are worthy of its great history of engineering skills in a way which Heathrow airport and Victoria station are not!

What is less worthy are the train fares in the UK. Either one spends six pounds on a terror Terravision bus or twenty-four pounds on a railway single ticket! When I gasped at the price for a thirty-six mile train journey the ticket issuer agreed with me saying it was disgustingly high and would only please the likes of share-holders. However, since there were major traffic hold-ups around London (I’d taken an early (6 am flight) from Pisa to save on fares and, of course, arrived just in time for the rush hour!) I took the train instead.

I was glad to see that there were still station platform whistle-blowers around.

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Not having visited the UK for three years, but having been born and having lived and worked in the great wen for most of my life, the culture shock was only slight. The countryside was beautifully green:

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Liverpool street travel centre was helpful and suggested that with my time in London I should get an oyster card, a sort of travel debit card. Indeed, as I write this now all money seems to have been banned from changing hands between passengers and conductors on London’s public transport system. No wonder they are closing down most ticket offices…

No, this is not a picture from Banaras but from a North London inner suburb I was travelling to, quite near Neasden town centre. How could “Private Eye” have belittled that place with its marvellously executed Hindu temple?

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If one has just five days to spend in London then one should clearly spend them wisely. On our first evening we attended a triple bill at the Royal Ballet (booked beforehand, of course).

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The evening was an absolute delight. First was Ashton’s “The Dream” based on Shakespeare’s “Midsummer night’s dream” with music by Mendelssohn and arranged by Lanchberry. A modern minimalist piece followed with transcendental music by Arvo Part. The final ballet was a hilarious take-off of a serious Chopin piano recital with the wandering thoughts of the audience, whether they be malevolent or romantic, actually personified in the ballet. I realised that, in Italy, not only was I missing live Wagner but also a great dance company.

Covent Garden’s foyer always has some interesting ballet costumes on display:

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 It’s amazing to think that this area was a working fruit and veg market until well into the nineteen-seventies (indeed, the opening scene of Shaw’s Pygmalion takes place there). I wonder what happened to that extraordinary venue called “Middle Earth” where I heard Captain Beefheart and the Pink Floyd perform. Here is a historic picture of the market’s last vendor:

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Covent Garden station still has lifts instead of escalators and two of these were being replaced. So to return home we decided to take the Piccadilly line from Green Park and hopped on a bus to get there. Armed with my oyster card public transport in London was no problem and on the front seat of the top deck of a new “Boris” bus I got nice views of London by night.

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The best thing about the Boris Bus is that you can board and alight without difficulty as the rear end of the bus is a hark-back to the old days of the Routemaster. Here are the two compared:

It seemed almost unbelievable that I had started the day so early in a remote Apennine valley, making sure the ducks and cats were adequately catered for with food and water and finished up in the upper stalls of the royal opera  house delighting in the performance of the best ballet company of the world.

Must do this more often. I thought.

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(Stephen McRae as Oberon in “The Dream”.)


Lucca’s Place of Judgement


In E.M. Foster’s novel, “A Room with a View”, much of which is based on the author’s own experiences in Italy,  the cockney landlady, Miss Bartlett makes this comment to her young guest, Lucy Honeychurch:

“Tut, tut! Miss Lucy! I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker. He does but touches the surface of things. As to the true Italy–he does not even dream of it. The true Italy is only to be found by patient observation.”

I’m now entering into my tenth year of residence in Italy. During this time I have found something of the true Italy, if not always by very patient observation, then by immersing myself into the swimming pool of Italian life, both in leisure and in work.

In the field of education I have experienced teaching the third years of secondary education, just before they enter into the various Licei which divide up Italian youth, the boisterous energy of the technical colleges, the more relaxed pace of the adult evening classes, the intensive pace set by private profit-making institutions, private pupils in ones twos and threes, elegant and intelligent courses run in business environments… Indeed, in the field of education my experiences, though shorter, have been much more varied that in the UK where, for the most part, I taught in a community college.

Of hospital experiences, luckily, I have had few, apart from hungry hornets and surreptitious scorpions. Now, however, thanks to an individual I shall not name but merely describe as coming from Essex I shall be having a new experience, that of standing trial and taking part in the Italian legal system

On Monday I wanted to find out where I would have to defend myself and it was quite near to the palace where that extraordinary golden bedroom can be found and where Lucca’s main art gallery is situated – the palazzo Mansi in Via Galli-Tassi.

The tribunale di Lucca is a very pleasant building, originally designed by the great architect Giuseppe Pardini in the nineteenth century, and expanded in more modern times but still in Pardini’s neo-classical style.

The corridors are long and filled with interesting old filing cabinets.

The interior courtyard has beautiful views over the Pisan Mountain.

There is an old photograph showing building work in the last century:

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I asked for some information and was directed to a particular department. This department stated that it was not their responsibility and that I should go to another department on the second floor. This department re-directed me to a room further along. When I reached this room I was told to go to another section as a form was required for the information I required. When I reached that section it was… closed. In other words, an excellent simulation of the circumlocution office as described in the great Charles Dickens’ novel “Little Dorrit” and also hinted at in the Jarndyce v Jarndyce case in “Bleak House”!.

When I returned home I realised that the tribunal also has a web site and information can be requested through an application form. Perhaps I’ll try that now.

In case you don’t know why on earth I should be present at the tribunal then it’s not necessary for you to know. If you do know then that’s OK. If I know that you know then that’s even better. If you know that I know that you know then that’s the best of all…


Eagle Castle

Ladies, imagine walking through a thick forest, climbing up a steep hill and then coming across a ruined castle and falling in love with it.

This is how the castle looked like when first found:


Imagine, then, having a rich husband who not only will buy up the hill but also provide sufficient funds to restore the castle to its former grandeur.

Imagine finally that the castle and its location take off successfully, not only as one’s own home, but also as an exclusive holiday resort and conference centre.

This, in brief, is the story behind the Castello dell ‘Aquila (Eagle Castle) which lies just to the north of the Garfagnana in that castle-ridden area called Lunigiana.

The Castle overlooks the mediaeval village of Gragnola which is on the railway line going all the way from Lucca to Aulla. Its origins go back to the times when pilgrims would travel along the via Francigena to reach Rome and it is first mentioned in 1366. The families that owned the castle came from branches of the Malaspina. Its founder-builder was Galeotto di Fosdinovo (1352-1367) who was succeeded by his son Leonardo I (1393-1403). The family died out in the first half of the fifteenth century and was succeeded by Lazaro, son of Antonio Alberico Marquis of Fosdinovo. This family, too, died out in the first half of the seventeenth century and the castle was abandoned to the elements until rediscovered by the current owner who hails from the Veneto region.

We have visited the castle on two occasions. The first was in June 2006 when I and a supply teacher took our class from IPSIA (technical college), Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, on a visit to the castle. The students were particularly impressed on hearing that only two years previously a skeleton with an arrow through its throat had been found  and was now on show:


The second occasion was in winter and the castle, again, did not fail to amaze.

The views from the castle are quite sublime, encompassing the Apuan and Apennine ranges.

The guests’ rooms are tastefully furnished with many antique pieces.

There is a great hall and a chapel which are used for conferences, mediaeval banquets, marriages, concerts and other events.

When I was a kid I used to read the “adventure” series by then popular children’s author Enid Blyton. I was particularly gripped by “The castle of adventure”. It seemed to me that, visiting the Castello dell ‘Aquila, I had truly come across the prototype of such a castle!

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For more information on the castle see its web site at: http://www.castellodellaquila.it/castelloaquila/.

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 https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/the-loppia-lo) the “gruppo vocale Gli Stereotipi” (web site at http://www.stereo-tipi.it/Stereo_Tipi_Gruppo_Vocale/Home.html) 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 https://www.facebook.com/pages/Scuola-Civica-di-Musica-MSalotti-di-Borgo-a-Mozzano/283857698298922) 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!




I Smell a Mouse

The ancient Egyptians worshipped them because they kept down the mice attacking their granaries. When they died they were mummified and given as offerings to the cat goddess Bastet.


Both Bastet and Sekhmet (the lion god) originated from the lion-like god Bast, Lower Egypt adopting the cat and Upper Egypt the lion. Both gods were also gods of warfare – perhaps Lower Egypt had smaller occurrences of warfare?

I was going to worship Napoleon our head cat (in Italian “gatto mammone”) for the same reason of destroying vermin. There was some growling going on behind the wine rack yesterday afternoon and this was why:

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What to do? Let nature take its course or intervene? Cat or mouse situation? Living in the country does mean mice come in the house from time to time, especially for warmth during the winter months. I am reliably informed that even in urban settings like London there will be considerable mouse (and rat) problems.

I saw Napoleon have fun with the poor rodent and then sentimentality finally got the upper hand:

Not being able to witness the mouse’s eventual disembowelment, I managed to scoop the frightened little thing into a sweeper and was able to deposit it in a quiet part of the garden where, no doubt, it will be chased by another feline.

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I would, anyway, prefer if my cats played with these mice – at least in the house – which they do, interrupting my TV viewing since the toys are lined up in front of the set.

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Reflection on human nature: if aggressive behaviour occurs between people do we just watch it or rush off, or do we intervene? It’s a pity some humans aren’t the size of a cat or even a mouse…

Republic or Monarchy Day?

June the 2nd is Republic day in Italy, commemorating the 1946 referendum which decided, with a majority of over two million votes, in favour of a republic instead of the previous monarchy. It is a national holiday with most shops, institutions and facilities closed.

It is also Armed Forces Day and there is an impressive parade of Italian military might down the Via dei Fori Imperiali in Rome. Looking at my friends’ comments in facebook this parade has certainly divided opinion. Some write it’s a big waste of money, which could be better spent elsewhere (especially on culture), others say it’s a stirring and impressive spectacle which should make one proud of living in this country..

Each year Italy’s Republic day concentrates on a particular theme. In 2012 the day was dedicated to those affected by the earthquake in Emilia. In 2013 it was dedicated to families and firms in economic difficulty and this year the theme was a commemoration of world war one which broke out one hundred years ago.

Whatever one may think about the day’s emphasis I am sure there is no difference of opinion when Italy’s Unknown Soldier is remembered by the laying of a wreath on this day by the president of the republic:

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Few could remain unimpressed by the tri-colour fly-past of the Italian air force:

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June 2nd happens also to be the anniversary of H.M. the Queen of England’s coronation in 1953. (I can just about remember that auspicious event – Bromley high street was closed to traffic and there was a lot of bunting and celebration). The 61st year of Elizabeth II’s coronation was celebrated in typically ebullient style by Lucca’s premier musical anglophile Maestro Andrea Colombini (wearing his now famous union jack waistcoat) in the beautifully restored church of the Servites within the walled city.

This was the concert programme:


Homage to Republic day was paid by the opening performance of the Italian national anthem (which sounds a lot better when played with a full symphony orchestra and chorus, as on this occasion)..

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Elgar, Vaughan-Williams, Handel, Grainger, Parry, Arne and some, traditional tunes followed. Colombini has clearly got the peculiar English musical idiom under his belt and I could hardly fault the performances which gained in high spirits what they occasionally lost in accuracy. I especially loved the way the second movement of Ralph (pronounced correctly by Colombini) V-W’s folk song suite was performed and I was very glad, too, that Elgar’s Imperial march, composed for another Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, was played, with the brass section coming to the fore. Perhaps one day Colombini might choose the neglected, but wonderful, Coronation march written in 1911 for King George V’th crowning when the Servites’ church beautiful organ is fully restored (the march has an organ part). “NImrod” brought out (naturally!) the highest emotions and I am not ashamed to admit I was close to tears when I heard Colombini’s rendering of this majestic and moving item.

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We are lucky to have Colombini. Not only will his performances of English music bring tinges of nostalgia to ex-pats but, more importantly, they will finally destroy the myth that England is a land without music. I’ll never forgive the otherwise great German poet Heine (another of Bagni di Lucca’s illustrious visitors) for declaring about the English:

“These people have no ear, neither for the beat nor indeed for music in any form, and their unnatural passion for piano-playing and singing is all the more disgusting. There is verily nothing on earth as terrible as English musical composition, except English painting.”

Humph! Colombini has certainly put an end to that myth – the Italian part of the audience were as enthusiastic about what they heard as the English. (I also thought of the headmaster of the school in Genoa I did an EU teacher exchange with in 1995 who worshipped English music and showed me with pride his recordings of the complete symphonies by Bax, Rubbra and V-W himself). With an ending fully worthy of any last night of the proms I exited not into the streets of South Kensington but into the almost empty vie of Lucca.

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Yet, as is surely appropriate, Italy’s republic day had the last word as I crossed the bridge over the Serchio on my way home.

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Snippets from the evening’s concert follow:


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: https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/from-flour-to-flowers-festa-di-santa-zita/

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: https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/seeing-red/

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: https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/three-mysteries-in-one-luccan-church/

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: https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/saint-gemma-galgani-mystic-saint-or-mental-patient/

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!