Chrysanthemums for the End of an Era?

Many of us will look back at the last six years of Bagni di Lucca as a golden period thanks to the local Fondazione Michel de Montaigne which, from 2008 onwards, has organised the most thought-provoking conferences covering the majority of the important personalities who have visited the comune through the centuries.

Founder and leading luminary of the Fondazione, which is sponsored by a variety of bodies, starting from the comune itself but also including banks and commercial associations, is Prof. Marcello Cherubini, whose own father wrote one of the completest guides to the area. An enthusiastic visionary, a hard task-master and an indefatigable fund-raiser, Marcello has helped forge a purer level of scholarship with regard to Bagni di Lucca’s history, evidenced in the panoply of publications for each conference, which will ever be held in the highest esteem.

I have been attending these conferences since they began and have been fascinated by the personalities and the works of so many of those who stayed in this unique part of the world.  Shelley, Ouida, Liszt, the Trollopes, Sir Richard Burton (the explorer that is), the Brownings, Heine, Montale and Puccini come to mind just at first thought! The list is truly awesome and it is to the credit of the Fondazione that they are no longer only a list of famous and not-so-famous names but breathing, living personalities brought into our present age with relevance and clarity through the participation of the many learned savants from all part of the world who have come here and presented their papers.

Here is the flyer for the latest (and last?) conference, which ends today:

home_1_00

Not only has the Fondazione concentrated on the personalities and the backgrounds of those who have visited Bagni di Lucca but it has also engaged in works of restoration and revaluation. One of the most noteworthy of these (and one about which I have already written about – vide https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/29/some-corner-of-a-foreign-field/) is the refurbishment of selected funerary monuments in the Cimitero degli Inglesi (more accurately”dei protestanti” as there are many people buried here who were born outside the then British Empire) after years of neglect and decay when the whole place seemed destined itself to die under the ravaging mosses and undergrowth.

09142013 037

(Restoring Colonel Stisted’s tomb. Colonel Stisted founded the Cemetery and Bagni’s Anglican church – now its library in 1846)

It was, therefore, both significant and poignant that a lovely open air concert was held yesterday afternoon in the Cimitero to celebrate the cleaning up of yet more tombs . For me it also seemed to elegise the end of an era of mind-opening conferences and cultural events at Bagni di Lucca.

The young players were favoured by serene weather and a capacity audience. After a graceful arrangement of part of Handel’s water music, the first movement of Beethoven’s String quartet op 18 no 4 followed. I could have quite happily heard the other three movements but time was at a premium and so we plunged into the last item: Puccini’s I Crisantemi, written for the death of the Duke Amedeo di Savoia in 1890 and one of the most poignant pieces of music I know. Indeed, the composer himself realised the emotions of this music and re-used much of it in the death scene of his first great success, “Manon Lescaut”.

The fact that the great composer’s grand-daughter, Simonetta, was present added greatly to the occasion and, watching her, I could see that she truly appreciated this tribute, not only to the dead of the Cimitero, not only to the end of an era of stimulating and often magnificent conferences but also to her own granddad who so loved a place which gave him his start in his career (playing the piano at evenings at Bagni’s Casinò) and to which he often returned (principally when he was composing” la Fanciulla”).

09142013 022

(Dr. Marcello Cherubini and Simonetta Puccini listening to “I Crisantemi”)

Here is a rather wind-shaken recording of the performance of this heart-rending threnody:

The weather and the music truly blessed us and I felt that I was present at a unique moment in the history of the wonderful comune of Bagni di Lucca.

Poignant Picture Postcards

There are few objects more evocative of former times than the old picture postcard, first produced in 1894 when British publishers were given permission by the Royal Mail to manufacture and distribute them. The novelty quickly spread to other countries and Bagni di Lucca, as a popular destination for foreigners escaping from Florence’s torrid summer heat, has always been well supplied with these items. As a result of a successful exhibition last year a fascinating book has been produced by the Fondazione Michel de Montaigne which reproduces the old postcards. I attended its launch yesterday in the venerable surroundings of Villa’s Chiesa Inglese. The chair of the fondazione, the mayor and the cultural assessor all praised the work of the Istituto storico in searching and collating the book’s cards.

The proceeds from the volume will go to the restoration of Bagni’s Cimitero Inglese. (Already work is well under way in bringing the funerary monument of the once popular writer Ouida back to its former glory and others are already beautifully finished.)

Today, with digital photography, internet connections and Facebook pages at the reach of all, it’s sometimes difficult to realize that the usual way to communicate while on holiday to your friends and folks at home was through the medium of the postcard. Cards were also sent by local inhabitants to their emigrated relatives in far-flung places. I can only guess at the home-sickness of those receiving treasured images of their native places.

Of course, postcards are still on sale but they are mostly now sent just to one’s mother-in-law or those dear older relatives who have not connected to the web (and probably never will!). However, Mail art, a populist artistic movement which centres on sending one’s creatively-designed envelopes through the postal service is encouraging many to return to the old-fashioned system.

Looking at this finely designed book (a snip at only euros 25) I was fascinated by how little Bagni di Lucca has really changed over the years. When I compare the atrocious devastation wrought on my former place of residence, Woolwich, London, much of it since we moved there in 1979 (during that time they succeeded in demolishing an elegant Georgian terrace, obliterated General Gordon’s birthplace, bulldozed a fine early nineteenth century non-conformist chapel,  annihilated the original Edwardian post-office with yet another Tesco’s  etc. etc…. the list is too terrible to complete but I don’t think I’d recognize the place even though I only left in 2005) I am comforted by the fact that Italians do still regard their town landscape, especially “il centro storico”, as worthy of preservation – although sometimes neglected.

The one thing that has changed in Bagni di Lucca is the arboreal vegetation. Ponte a Serraglio’s war memorial square was much more verdant once. Just look at what surrounded it before the war. And the same went for the square of the Circolo dei Forestieri with its plane trees and the piazza at Ponte a Serraglio.

img316

There were plenty more shops too. Look how busy Ponte a Serraglio was. Thank goodness the arts festival is refurbishing these now-abandoned shops for exhibition purposes for this summer.

Looking at the book’s postcards I’ve finally discovered the secret of the gothic towers in Villa Fiori: Villa Fiori had once the appearance of a gothic castle before it was modified in the twentieth century into its present classical style. So those towers would have gone very well with the original building!

img309

It’s re-assuring also to know that the river-terrace tower of an acquaintance’s house in Ponte still stands after all those years despite the river floods and still serves its original purpose as a relaxing place to take tea or a glass of wine in summer’s heat while surrounded by the coolness of the river waters.

img311

The book is divided into sections relating to the different parts of the territory of the comune of Bagni di Lucca – from the old hot baths to the chain bridge to the English cemetery to the several villages that surround it.

My only disappointment with the book’s selection is that no postcards were found to show me what the interior of the Anglican church looked like before its partial dilapidation and, as for the Teatro Accademico, I would have loved to gaze on its rococo decorations before they were ruthless torn away in a 1960’s “restoration.”

If you go the library or Petri’s you will be sure to find this very interesting and well-produced book on sale. You can go to Debra’s blog at

http://bellabagnidilucca.com

to see what the places depicted in the book look like today.

img308

A GRAVE SILENCE

Around our local parish church of San Gemignano there is a stone pillar, the lone relic from what used to be the burial ground before its removal to a separate area. In former times this quarter (as old photographs show) would have been crowded with tombstones. The recent excavations around the old church crowning Castle Hill at another village in the comune, Benabbio, have dug up the bones of inmates in the graveyard, many of whom died in one of the epidemics of rampant cholera, bubonic plague common in previous disinfectant-ignorant centuries or just plain TB. Through sanitary edicts, these unhygienic places were closed down, the bodies exhumed and “dedicated” locales allotted to them, some short distance away from the residences of the living – hence the lack of very old tombs in Italian cemeteries. (Another reason is that the grave-plot is always lease-hold rather than free-hold and the bones will be dug up upon lease expiry to be deposited in the more modest columbariums of the cemetery wall).Indeed, in Italy I have seen little approaching the classic English country churchyard with tombs of “our rude forefathers”, often dating back hundreds of years, scattered around the parish tower; little chance of recollecting Gray’s elegy here (except, perhaps, if you visit the protestant cemeteries in Rome and Florence). At Bagni di Lucca, however, if one feels nostalgic there is the “cimitero inglese” by the river Lima. For long neglected, this hallowed acre is being restored to its former glory – last year there was an re-opening ceremony with local dignitaries – and, now with fixed visiting hours, it is much easier to gain access to its characteristically English graveyard scenario of turf, trees and stone inscriptions. In many cemeteries, the magnificence of tombs is often at some variance from the relative importance of the remains contained in them. With the protestant cemetery, however, there is often a close correlation between the best of the tombs and the significance of those buried within them. Thus, I single out among the finest those of Ouida (once best-selling novelist), Rose Cleveland (sister of a US president, pioneering charity worker and lesbian lover and Angelina Whipple, her partner and author of “A Famous Corner of Italy” – the classic book on Bagni di Lucca). These pictures illustrate their morose beauty:

Today’s Italian cemeteries are often ugly things and sometimes, especially in urban centres, appear to be the analogy of apartment blocks rather than the English equivalent of detached houses set in turfy grounds within a tree-lined suburban avenue. Yet they hold immense historical value in their dedications and tomb photographs. They also have a strong social hold as witnesses the “Festa dei morti” when, every November, relatives gather with bunches of flowers and a prayer to remember departed family members in quasi-Etruscan rituals. (Interestingly, children are not excluded from attending funerals, as they often are in England).

I have found some extraordinary cemeteries in this country – among these I count Staglieno in Genoa (which also has Mazzini’s tomb) and Milan’s “cimitero monumentale” with Verdi’s memorial. More recently, I visited Lucca’s very own “cimitero monumentale” and was moved to find a commemorative plaque to Catalani, finally erected in 2003, 150 years after his untimely death. Many of the funerary shrines are quite astonishing, built in every conceivable architectural style and displaying a wide variety of statues guaranteed to make one weep with sorrow, or nausea. The Italian “campi santi” (holy fields) are, indeed “cities of the dead” – direct descendants of the ancient necropolis.

Graveyards naturally produce concentrated thoughts about one’s own mortality and among several ex-pats here I have discerned a slight worry about what may happen to them when they shake off their mortal coil. Will they get that traditional churchyard burial in native soil or will the hospital ward in which they die incinerate their body, or don’t they really care what happens to them?

Without wishing to sound prematurely morbid I feel it is up to everyone to make some death provisions, especially in Italy. I do not wish myself or my body to be a burden on anyone, (transhipment charges can be very high and bureaucratic arrangements complex), so I have made arrangements to be cremated (as has been perfectly permissible in Italy for some years), my ashes to be placed in an urn and then flown to Blighty to be scattered over the Thames at Gallion’s reach in the London (Royal) Borough of Greenwich (a place which obviously holds a secret significance to me). Alternatively, I am promised a position in Plumstead cemetery SE18, which might prove a suitable alternative as the views from there are quite splendid.

I’m apologetic in sounding somewhat overcast but recent events in Boston have truly shaken my heart.