The unexplored treasures of Casentino in Tuscany

Porciano CastleThe area of Casentino in Tuscany is rarely explored by tourists, yet it is home to ancient monasteries and parish churches, centuries old forests,  medieval castles and traditional handicrafts. A place where Dante Alighieri, father of the Italian language, found refuge after his exile from Florence, and the birthplace of Michelangelo.

The valley was once a prehistoric lake as fossil traces have shown, later home to the Etruscans and if you look into the Arno river as it flows under the Ponte Vecchio you will see a part of Casentino float by as the Arno originates on Mount Falterona.

And its not the only thing in Florence that comes from the Casentino area – as the beams inside Brunelleschi’s Dome on the Cathedral come from the forest cultivated by the monks of Camaldoli, floated down on the Arno River.

Castle at PoppiThe place is full of legends and plots against the Florentines, mostly organized by the Count Guidi family who had castles not only throughout Casentino but all the way to Northern Italy. Legend has it that they could get a message from their Castle in Poppi to the border of France in less than 8 hours using a system of flames and mirrors from tower to tower.Poppi- Castello di Conti Guidi

 

 

 

At their Castle di Romena the Guidi family hired Maestro Adamo to make counterfeit florins with the idea of flooding the market with inferior coins bringing the ruling Florentine families to their knees. But the Florentines found out and Adamo was burnt at the stake while the Guidi’s got off scot free! They were known as a blood thirsty lot, which their nicknames indicated – Guido Guerra ( the war maker), Guido Bevesangue (the blood drinker), and housed Dante at the Castle for a period of 5 years after his exile from Florence.

 

Locals and pilgrims pass through the area stopping at the ancient parish churches like – Pieve di San Pietro a Romena……

continuing on their way to the Monastery of La Verna, that sits on a spectacular rocky outcrop. Count Orlando Cattani captivated by Saint Francis’ oratory on love and forgiveness, donated the mountain to him as a hermitage for those in need. Saint Francis loved the wilderness and spent many years in retreat here. It had a bustling atmosphere when we passed through and the friars were very welcoming.

 

 

Casentino woolCasentino also boasts traditional handicrafts that are sort after to this day. Panno CasentinoCasentino wool has been around since the Etruscans, quite distinctive for its frayed ringlets that make the wool both warmer and more durable. Originally the effect was made by

Casentino jacket

Photo credit: Jane Telford

 

beating the cloth with a stick, a process now which is done by machine. In the Middle ages the monks wore robes of Casentino wool and the House of Savoy ( the royal family of Italy) in the 19th century used the bright orange cloth as a decorative and warming cloth on their horses. The bright orange became the tradition on overcoats and jackets although not always the colour chosen, as seen here on my workshop colleague.

Stia is well know for its wrought iron work, and anyone searching for quality wooden furniture can find it here. The forests produce the most beautiful wood together with chestnuts which have been ground in old flour mills like the one below for centuries.Mulino Grifoni Open to visitors as a tourist attraction, the miller gives a great explanation on the process and the changing nature of grains, working on the reintroduction of old grain types known to be healthier for us.

Mulino Grifoni AD 1696 inscribed over the entrance!

So just when you think you have seen all of Tuscany, make sure you have incuded Casentino on that list.

 

Something to be proud of – Palmyra Arch

Palmyra ArchI could not contain my delight on hearing the Arch of Triumph, the copy made  for Palmyra, Syria was on display in Florence for a month. In timing with the first ever G7 Ministers Summit on Culture which Italy promoted on taking over the presidency of the G7.

With the premise “Culture as a tool for dialogue between the people…The international community will thus reaffirm its commitment to recover and preserve the heritage of mankind damaged by natural disasters, hit during conflict and attacked by terrorism and in combating illicit trafficking of cultural property. Among the objectives of the summit is the need for agreement on  a cultural component in peacekeeping missions promoted by the United Nations and to make the summit of Ministers of Culture permanent at the next G7.”

Florence is the perfect setting for such an event and the Palmyra Arch of Triumphhas become a true global symbol of the triumph of cooperation over conflict, optimism over despair and human ingenuity over senseless destruction.”

I am provincial enough to say I am so very Tuscan proud of the Italian capacity to conceive the idea and the craftsmanship that built it….it’s been in their DNA for centuries!

I leave you with more details from my post of 24/4/2016:

As I watched the building of the antique marble arch of Palmyra in Syria I could not be more impressed by Italian creativity and talent in using the most update technology of 3D printers to recreate a work of art destroyed in the civil conflict in Syria. While never to replace the original it is still heartening to see the use of the current technology in recreating such a masterpiece. Congratulations to the company -TorArt- which has succeeded in the project, working together with the Institute of Digital Archeology.
Fascinated as I am by the new technology ( see my previous blog on Makers) I am even more impressed by seeing it used to enormous benefits of us all.

And to think it is on my doorstep, by workers from Fantascritti quarry in Carrara, Tuscany, adds an extra note of pride for their ingenuity and craftsmanship. The arch went on display in Trafalgar Square London 19th April, and will go to New York, Dubai and then home to Syria.

Arch Trafalgar Square

Arch in Trafalgar Square Photo credit Lucy Glasser

Fantascritti quarry museumIt also brought back fond memories of various tours I had taken to the quarry of Fantascritti where a retiree of the quarry –Walter Danesi, had created an outstanding museum dedicated to the difficulties and hardships involved in extracting the most beautiful marble in the world. Marble that has created masterpieces, like Michelangelo’s David and more.

The difficulties can be seen here in the photos from the quarry museum, where many have risked their lives over the centuries and continue to do so. The last unfortunate accident on site was but 10 days ago when two workers were crushed under tons of marble and a third rescued as he remained suspended in the air. Not surprisingly the area of Carrara has been known to be a strong anarchist haunt as Man challenges the elements of Nature and the ongoing pressure of extraction to meet today’s demands.

Walter Danesi always had lots of stories to tell of his time as a quarry worker and gave a warm welcome to my tour groups and my family. He wrote a dedication in his book Walter Danesiwhich I cherish “To lovely Susi, with admiration, Walter Danesi”Walter Danesi book

 

 

 

 

 

 

So if you are ever in the area of Carrara, about an hour from Pisa or Lucca, drive up to the Fantascritti Quarry to see for yourselves the marvel of marble and the incredible effort that has gone into it’s extraction and sculpting. Be warned though, it is still a working Quarry and the truck drivers don’t take kindly to visitors on the long windy road…..understandably!

Nothing like the Santo Spirito church

Brunelleschi ranted and raved as he led us personally to the Altar in the Santo Spirito church in Florence – just one of the personalities we were to meet from the itinerant Theatre group – La Compagnia delle Seggiole. This genius who had designed the Dome on the Cathedral of Florence some years earlier, was grumbling about how his plans for this church had been modified after his death. He vent his frustration on his local patrons who had not permitted the destruction of the dwellings facing the Arno river, as he had rather boldly designed the church to face the river! While he had begun designs for the project around 1428, work did not commence until 1444 and since he died 2 years after he never saw the completion…..at least not until his return this evening!Santa Spirito church Florence

Monna Giovanna  (the voce of the local people) swept past and told him to stop grumbling as she recounted life in the area amidst  the wool workers and dyers.

I love storytellers and this theatre group has taken me through many monumental buildings in Florence and historical events like the dreadful flood in 1966.

The church is in Oltrano – the opposite side of the Arno river a less touristy area with the most beautiful plain façade (again not how Brunelleschi had planned). The Renaissance elegance so evident inside, and a rather lay back tree lined piazza outside created to eliminate the squalor that surrounded the church in the past. Even today it still has a hangover from its seedy past of drug dealing and alcoholics, replaced now by American students and hip bars and hangouts.

In1980 Mario Mariotti projected hundreds of outlandish slides on the façade, a ‘happening‘ considered advanced for its time and certainly Florentines remained impressed by the display. They were still talking about it in 1985 when I arrived and took me to a café in the piazza where oodles of photos of the slides almost completely covered the walls.

This evening instead was a step into the minds of the great artists of the time. A young Michelangelo appeared praising his recently departed patron Lorenzo the Magnificent for having left him under the protection of the Convent of Santo Spirito. Here he could deepen his studies of anatomy by studying the corpses from the hospital and in thanks he carved the crucifix for the church, at the tender age of 18.

 

Florence Santa Spirito church

An entertaining experience as we wandered through the Cloisters of the Dead, accompanied by Giuliano da Sangallo, the architect of the octagonal Sacristy  which houses Michelangelo’s crucifix. A stop to admire the frescoes of the refectory and later welcomed into the Vestibule by an Augustinian monk with more stories to tell.Frescoe in Refectory

 

 

 

Then it was time to say goodnight to our illustrious  company and Monna Giovanna was quick to remind us that she will be taking us through the Museum of the Innocents as “Una Donna Innocente” next month!Theatre performers

 

 

 

 

 

 

The old and new of Carrara Marble workers

As I watched the building of the antique marble arch of Palmyra in Syria I could not be more impressed by Italian creativity and talent in using the most update technology of 3D printers to recreate a work of art destroyed in the civil conflict in Syria. While never to replace the original it is still heartening to see the use of the current technology in recreating such a masterpiece. Congratulations to the company –TorArt– which has succeeded in the project, working together with the Institute of Digital Archeology.

Fascinated as I am by the new technology ( see my previous blog on Makers)  I am even more impressed by seeing it used to enormous benefits of us all.

And to think it is on my doorstep, by workers from Fantascritti quarry in Carrara, Tuscany, adds an extra note of pride for their ingenuity and craftsmanship. The arch went on display in Trafalgar Square London 19th April, and will go to New York, Dubai and then home to Syria.

Arch Trafalgar square

Arch in Trafalgar Square Photo credit Lucy Glasser

Fantascritti quarry museumIt also brought back fond memories of various tours I had taken to the quarry of Fantascritti where a retiree of the quarry –Walter Danesi, had created an outstanding museum dedicated to the difficulties and hardships involved in extracting the most beautiful marble in the world. Marble that has created masterpieces, like Michelangelo’s David and more.

The difficulties can be seen here in the photos from the quarry museum, where many have risked their lives over the centuries and continue to do so. The last unfortunate accident on site was but 10 days ago when two workers were crushed under tons of marble and a third rescued as he remained suspended in the air. Not surprisingly the area of Carrara has been known to  be a strong anarchist  haunt as Man challenges the elements of Nature and the ongoing pressure of extraction to meet today’s demands.

Walter Danesi always had lots of stories to tell of his time as a quarry worker and gave a warm welcome to my tour groups and my family. He Walter Danesi book dedicaionwrote a dedication in his book which I cherish “To lovely Susi, with admiration, Walter Danesi”Walter Danesi book

 

 

 

 

 

So if you are ever in the area of Carrara, about an hour from Pisa or Lucca, drive up to the Fantascritti Quarry to see for yourselves the marvel of marble and the incredible effort that has gone into it’s extraction and sculpting. Be warned though, it is still a working Quarry and the truck drivers don’t take kindly to visitors on the long windy road…..understandably!

 

 

 

Some things never change in Florence

Dante Alighieri I have been doing a course on the history of Florence during the time of Dante (1265-1321) and Boccaccio (1313-1375) and found they were surprisingly modern…or we are still incredibly medieval!!  The more I learn of Florentine history the better I understand  the power and beauty of this magnificent city along with its lurks and perks!

A peek behind the scenes reveals that Florence was a significant economic influence in Europe, minting the first gold florins, being  bankers to the great monarchies and Popes, and creators of the modern day cheque. It was the 4th largest city of Europe after Paris, Milan and Venice with a population of around 100,000, due to the constant migration from the countryside and nearby cities. A population that had doubled  in size creating new social, political and economic issues which had to be addressed. However city dwellers did not look favourably on the influx of these ‘outsiders’, a mix of noble families, ‘snobs’ seeking to consolidate their wealth and power, together with workers required for the new industries and continuing construction. In fact some of the most important buildings of Florence were begun in this period – Palazzo Vecchio, the Cathedral, Giotto’s bell tower, Bargello Museum, Palazzo Spini- Ferroni (home to Ferragamo) although many were not completed until centuries later.

With the minting of the gold florin came a complex tax system collecting 300,000 florins per year most of which (200,000!) was spent on military expenses – mercenaries, arms etc. Being a major commercial city the main Council income came from the tax on goods entering and leaving the city, like an early VAT tax, and the management for the collection of this tax was given to merchants, who stood at the doors of the city – a type of medieval outsourcing.

Florence Wine door

Wine window, Via delle Belle Donne

The second highest tax revenue came from the sale of wine to the public, with a hefty 30% tax on each glass sold! On average 1 litre of wine was  consumed each day and the city had numerous taverns. Aside from the taverns many noble families with country estates sold glasses and flasks from small wine windows in the wall of their Palazzi. “This cellar remains open for sales from Nov 1 until all of April from 6am – 2pm and 5-8pm From May 1 through all of Oct from 8am -3pm and from 6-9pm. On holidays it remains open for sales until 3pm”

Salt and Tobacco signThe salt tax was the third highest revenue and a public monopoly which continued until the 1970’s as can still be seen in the black or blue ‘T’ signs outside todays Tabacchi stores.

But when the city tried to introduce a tax on property there was a general revolt by citizens, so it was only imposed on country estates. Curious that this has been an election issue for political parties over the past 20 years and even our current Prime Minister Renzi has abolished it again on first homes!

Solicitors sanctioned all contracts, and everything was so well documented that it was common practice to declare less than the actual value, and families avoided the tax on public land by building extensions to their homes only from the first story up. So tax evasion, endless  paperwork and bureaucracy are nothing new!

Women were expected to dress in a sober fashion with little or no jewellery and could be fined for boasting their newly acquired wealth by a specific officer assigned to controlPalazzo Vecchio Florence their attire. The list of officials was endless and the system of governors complex, who while elected were oligarchic in nature, and to avoid being bribed or corrupted remained locked inside the Palazzo Vecchio for their entire term of 2 months!

 

Bargello Museum

Palazzo di Podesta (foreign officials)

 

 

 

After the military expenses, the revenue was spent on “foreign officials or magistrates and their entourage”  who managed the city’s affairs and were employed from outside the city to ensure their impartiality.

Each citizen was required to will a small sum of their estate to the building of the Cathedral and maintenance of the city’s walls. While maintenance of the city’s bridges, roads and public buildings appears to have been very low on the Council’s list of priorities.

700 florins were given each year in alms for the maintenance of the hospital Santa Maria Nuova which remains in operation to this day.

Via dei LeoniAnd 500 florins for the upkeep of the 24 lions kept in cages behind the Palazzo Vecchio. Florence, street of lionsYou may stroll along the street bearing witness to the fact.Marzocco lion

 

 

 

 

Many Marzocco lions can be found around Florence as a symbol of the free Republic of Florence of this time.

As a multinational style of society Florence suffered its own Global Financial Crisis when the influential bankers like Frescobaldi, Bardi, and Peruzzi families loaned too extravagantly to the Kings of England who were unable to repay their debts and the word soon spread to creditors who came knocking on their doors. The English barons revolted thus taking the banking power away from these ‘foreigners’.

So much of this explains the snobbery of Florentines, their resilience and their cheekiness of character which I have grown to love.

How much we owe to these medieval ancestors for our current political, economic and social system….both for better and worse!