02 December 2012

A week in Tuscany with Verdi and in the vineyards

The vines, groves and terraces that have given Tuscany the name ‘Chiantishire’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

As summer was turning to autumn, I spent a week in the historic towns and vineyards in the heart of Tuscany, which has affectionately become known to many people in England as “Chiantishire.”

Tony Blair has spent holidays in “Chiantishire,” Prince Charles was once interested in buying a palazzo near Siena with a private chapel, vineyards and a price tag of £1.3 million, and Antonio Banderas, Sting, Bryan Ferry, Sir John Mortimer, Richard Gere, Mary Wesley and Dame Muriel Spark all have homes there too.

A T-shirt explains why many tourists see Tuscany as ‘Chiantishire’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

During that week in Tuscany, I stayed in Montecatini Terme, a spa town with a population of 21,000 and dating from the belle époque. The celebrities who once came to Montecatini included the composers Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini and Gioacchini Rossini.

I was staying at the Grand Hotel Plaza and Locanda Maggiore, where Rossini was a guest in 1852, and where Verdi, who lived from 1882 to 1900. Verdi is remembered with such pride in the hotel that his portrait still hangs in the lobby and is used to decorate the wrappings and packaging on the hotel soap, bath cream, shampoo – even the shower caps.

Fine art in Florence

The Duomo of Florence and the Palazzo Vecchio seen from the terraces of the Uffizi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Montecatini Terme was a perfect base for visiting Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Siena and San Gimignano. This was my second visit to Florence, but a day never does justice to the city, and an afternoon in the Uffizi only gave an appetising taste of one of the greatest art galleries in the world.

My walking tour of Florence began at the 11th century Baptistry in Piazza di San Giovanni, with its east door decorated with gilded bass bronze reliefs and the “Gate of Paradise.” The Baptistry was part of the complex of the Duomo or Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The dome of the duomo is the city’s iconic landmark and stands alongside the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Coliseum in Rome as one of Italy’s three most photographed sites.

A copy of Michelangelo’s David in the Piazza della Signoria ... the most photographed image in Florence (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The civic heart of mediaeval and Renaissance Florence is the Piazza della Signoria, with its sculptures, statues, fountains, the Loggia del Lanzi built by the Swiss bodyguards of Cosimo I de Medici, and the Palazzo Vecchio, which was the centre of Florentine political intrigue in the high Middle Ages.

The most photographed image in the square is a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, although the original is now housed safely away from weather and human hands in the Accadmemia.

The Ponte Vecchio in Florence straddles the Arno at its narrowest point (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Another popular sight in Florence is the Ponte Vecchio, which has straddled the River Arno at its narrowest point since the year 972. But there are hidden delights in the side streets, such as the palazzo where Leonardo da Vinci lived while he was working in Florence.

The basilica in the Piazza di Santa Croce is the burial place of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. In front of it is the statue of Dante and a wide open square used once for burning heretics and still used once a year for the calcio storico, the local version of rough-and-tumble mediaeval football.

Popular reproductions of great works of art in Uffizi on sale in in the Piazza di Santa Croce (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

After lunch we spent an afternoon in the Uffizi. But how can one summarise an afternoon in the Uffizi? Fra Angelico. Giotto. Botticelli. Piero della Francesca. Raphael. Da Vinci. Michelangelo. A week in Tuscany, a month in Tuscany, could never do justice to one room in the Uffizi.

Leaning towers and city walls

The Tower of Pisa ... still leaning after all those years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Everyone who comes to Pisa wants to be photographed in a pose as though they are pushing the Leaning Tower back into place. But few stop to think about why the tower was built and why it tilts, and fewer still go on to admire the Cathedral and the Baptistry that share the same green piece of land.

The entrance through the old city walls brings visitors straight in front of the Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) or Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles), the wide, walled, partly-paved and partly-grassed area at the heart of the city with the “Leaning Tower.”

The tower was built originally as the campanile or bell tower for cathedral. Building work began in 1173, but five years later, as work reached the third-floor level, the weak subsoil and poor foundations caused the tower to start tilting. The building was left alone for a century, the subsoil stabilised and the building was saved from collapsing.

Building work resumed in 1272, and the upper floors were added, with one side taller than the other. The seventh and final floor was added in 1319. But by then the building was leaning one degree, or 80 cm from vertical. Today, the tower is leaning by about four degrees.

The Baptistry, Duomo and Belfry ... a complete ecclesiastical and architectural collection in Pisa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The true heart of the piazza, however, is the Duomo or Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, built in 1064 by Buscheto. Pisa’s most famous son, Galileo Galilei, is said to have formulated his theory about the movement of a pendulum by watching the swinging of the sanctuary lamp hanging in the cathedral nave.

In front of the west doors of the cathedral, the Baptistry dates from 1153 and was completed in the 14th century. It is the largest baptistry in Italy, and is even a few centimetres higher than the Leaning Tower. The Baptistry is also known for its acoustics, and as visitors we were treated to a short singing demonstration of the inbuilt sound system.

The narrow streets of Lucca ... a compact and attractive town that has remained intact (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Pisa’s neighbouring rival, Lucca, is the birthplace of Puccini. Lucca was saved from bombing during World War II, leaving intact the walls, tiny squares, narrow streets and alleyways, with their fountains, their statues of Garibaldi, and the city’s mediaeval churches, including the Church of San Michele and the duomo or Cattedrale di San Martino.

Siena’s saints and horses

The Piazza del Campo in Siena is the venue for the Palio horse race twice a year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Siena is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Italy and its centre has been designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco. The Piazza del Campo or central square houses the Palazzo Pubblico or Town Hall and the Torre del Mangia, but it is best known as the venue for the Palio – a horse race held in the centre of Siena twice a year.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Siena is one of the great examples of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Siena’s duomo or cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is one of the great examples of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture. Its main façade was completed in 1380, but the duomo is unusual for a cathedral, having an axis running north-south rather than east-west.

The 13th century conflict between Ghibelline Siena and Guelph Florence forms the backdrop for some of Dante’s Commedia. In 1260, Florence besieged Siena and attacked by catapulting dung and dead donkeys into the city. When Siena was devastated by the plague in 1348, two-thirds of the population of 100,000 was wiped out and the city capitulated to Cosimo de Medici of Florence.

The Basilica of San Domenico, also known as Basilica Cateriniana, is closely identified with the life of Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), the Dominican mystic, theologian and scholastic philosopher. She worked to bring the exiled papacy back to Rome from Avignon, and tried to reconcile the feuding feudal Italian city-states.

Mediaeval towers and parades

A mediaeval guild parades through the streets of San Gimignano (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We had a taste of mediaeval Tuscany when we visited San Gimignano and watched a colourful procession of guild members and drummers make their way up through the narrow streets to in the Piazza Duomo and the cathedral or duomo.

San Gimignano is a walled hill town 50 km north-west of Siena. It is best known for its mediaeval architecture and its 15 towers of different heights that are emblematic of the town and that dominate the surrounding Tuscan countryside for miles around.

The town takes its name from Saint Geminianus, the Bishop of Modena who defended the town from Attila and the Huns. San Gimignano also became a victim of the feuds between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Dante visited the town as the ambassador of the Guelphs and addressed the town council in the Communal Palace in 1300. But the Black Death wiped out most of the population in 1348, and the survivors were forced to submit to Florence in 1353.

Unexplored and hidden charms

Walking along the Via Dell’Amore or the “Walk of Love,” between Manarola and Riomaggiore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The major tourist cities and the delights of the Tuscan countryside and the vineyards of “Chiantishire” mean Tuscany’s smaller cities remain unexplored and hidden delights. And we did not have to travel far from Montecatini to appreciate them.

Close to Monetecatini, neighbouring Pistoia has mediaeval ramparts and in its centro storico there are piazzas, squares and a maze of side streets to rival those of any other town in Tuscany.

The duomo or Cattedrale di San Zeno has a beautiful Pisan-Romanesque façade and a silver altarpiece that took two centuries to build before it was completed by Brunelleschi. The duomo shares the piazza with the former bishops’ palace, now a museum, and a 14th century octagonal baptistry.

We planned to spend a day by the sea in the coastal town of Viareggio, once Puccini’s favourite resort. When Shelley drowned at Viareggio in 1822 and his body was washed up on the beach, Byron had him cremated on the spot.

But Viareggio proved to be unattractive today, and we spent only an hour or two there. Instead, we spent a day by the sea just north of Tuscany in the Liguria region, visiting the Cinque Terre, a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera.

The area takes its name from five pretty picturesque coastal villages – Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore – and they still show signs of the devastating torrential rains, floods and mudslides in October 2011.

Part of the charm of this area is the lack of visible corporate or commercial development. There are few roads into the five villages, and instead they are connected by rail and by a walking trail known as the Sentiero Azzuro or “Light Blue Trail.” From Manarola to Riomaggiore the trail is called the Via Dell’Amore, or the “Walk of Love.”

Verdi and vineyards

The vineyard on the slopes at Fattoria il Poggia outside Montecarlo, near Lucca (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

But there are other delights in Tuscany too, including the vineyards, the olive groves, the food and wine – and the opera. In Montecatini Terme, we spent a balmy evening at a staging of Verdi’s La Traviata in Tettuccio, a popular hot spring bath dating from 1779.

Another evening was spent under the full moon in Montecarlo, near Lucca, visiting an olive grove and a vineyard at Fattoria il Poggia. There we saw the olive presses used to press olive oil, tasted wines from the grapes in the vineyard, and dined in the farmyard.

The funicular links Montecatini Terme and Montecatini Alto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

On our last day, we took the ten-minute steep journey on the Funicolare up the hill to explore the old town of Montecatini Alto. We were back in Verdi’s Grand Hotel Plaza and Locanda Maggiore before the thunderstorm broke. We knew we were heading home to autumn and winter in Ireland.

Montecatini Alto ... all the charm of a walled, hilltop mediaeval Tuscan town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and these photographs were first published in December 2012 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).

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