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Piazza San Marco Florence

Piazza San Marco Florence

The present day Church and Monastery of San Marco in Florence was built on the foundation of a 12th Century Valambrosian Monastery. It was in 1435 that the Dominicans from the Convent of San Domenico, located in the hills above Florence in the town of Fiesole, assumed responsibility for the church and buildings. In 1437, the prior of San Marco appealed to Cosimo di Medici (the elder) for the funds to expand the entire complex. Such request was granted and the building you enter today are as those of the time of the early Renaissance.

The piazza that fronts the church is a hive of constant activity. Buses from across the city stop near a wonderful gelateria, Carabè. Motorcycles parked like the spine of a dinosaur line the edges of the central garden and fountain. It is a space that meets its design, yet detracts from enticing visitors into one of the most peaceful and most treasured collections of art in Florence.

Enter. Early morning is the best time to visit, before the crowds arrive. I am always in San Marco immediately after opening at 8:15am. Walking through the arched Cloister of Sant’Antonio and up the long stairway to the monks cells is, for me, a voyage back in time. Morning light reflects against the sandal-polished terracotta floors that line the hallways.

The light of Angelico, the shadows in San Marco

The light of Angelico, the Shadows in San Marco

In each of the cells are works by the early Renaissance artist and master of the fresco Fra Angelico (Beato Angelico in Italian). There are a total of forty-three monk’s cells at San Marco, each decorated with a work by Angelico. What startles most visitors on each visit is the masterpiece of this level of the Monastery, Fra Angelico’s Annunciation.

The master’s use of light – note the beam of sunlight that touches Mary, the fine detail of the angel’s wings. Even the folds of the cloth on both main figures is as if you could touch and feel the texture of the fabric. The panel at the base of the work tells the story of Mary’s life.Devoid of most other symbols that were used in most depictions of this event, and of Mary’s life, Fra Angelico chose to focus on the moment and the effect that the news brought by an angel had on Mary.

Fra AngelicoAnnunciation1438 - 1445

Fra Angelico
Annunciation
1438 – 1445

Within the hushed corridors of this spiritual place, I remember the monks who, from early morning til dark, toiled daily at their chores and then returned to their cells reminded by Angelico’s work of the most important reason they had dedicated their life to the church.

After time in this area of the monastery, I descend the long stairwell and enter the small refectory. It was in this very room that Ghirlandaio, a master who studied the hand of Fra Angelico, created what many consider his masterpiece, L’ultima Cena, the Last Supper. The work was completed in 1486 and is located in the small refectory, a place reserved for very special guests in the lodger’s wing of the monastery. The space now also contains the book shop, where you can find some gorgeous art books if you are interested.

The work by Ghirlandaio not so much mimics, rather pays deference to, an earlier work by Andrea del Castango in the Convent of Sant’Apollonia located only a five minute walk from Piazza San Marco. With the actual arches in the space providing a shelter for the fresco, the entire wall is covered in the most incredible colors. Again, and as with Angelico, the folds of fabric, the details of beards, the fingernails of the saints, the shimmer of light on the old halos above each of the figures nearly beyond belief. This is another gift from the halls of San Marco.

Last SupperDomenico Ghirlandaio 1486 Monastery San Marco

Last Supper
Domenico Ghirlandaio 1486 Monastery San Marco

On March 21 of 2011, the Tabernacle of the Linaioli, a highly prized masterpiece by Fra Angelico, was showcased in the Library of Michelozzo on the second level of the Monastery. I was fortunate to discover this treasured display in May of that same year. Michelozzo’s Library is a perfect example of Renaissance symmetry and balance. Columns and arches support a space that has three aisles.

Library after MichelozzoMonastery of San Marco

Library after Michelozzo
Monastery of San Marco

On the particular day I visited (and I returned numerous times as well) there was not one other person on the second level of the building. At the far end of the dark columned space was the brightly lit Tabernacle. The effect was unforgettable. There, for the world to see was a freshly and perfectly restored masterpiece of the 15th Century. The wonder of this piece was not only the incredible brilliance of the paint. Around the back of the three panels was a large X-ray of the actual internal construction of the wood upon which Angelico painted. What struck me most about the internal structure of the work was that it had been strengthened and reinforced, it had been lovingly cared for. As I have believed for many years, if anyone in the world can successfully restore art it is the Italians.

Tabernacolo dei Linaioli, 1432 - 1433Fra AngelicoPilgrim's Hospice San Marco Florence

Tabernacolo dei Linaioli, 1432 – 1433
Fra Angelico
Pilgrim’s Hospice San Marco Florence

Perhaps, as you study this photo, you can imagine what it was like to come upon this spectacular and especially moving work all alone.

The restored work is back in its original location, the Pilgrim’s Hospice in the Monastery.

If you find yourself in Florence, get up and going early. Visit  before of the city is even awake and listen to the whispers of Dominican monks, study the shimmer of light on terracotta, the reflection from frescoes of incredible beauty while surrounded by a glorious Renaissance Monastery.

IF YOU GO:

Museum and Monastery of San Marco

Piazza San Marco, 3 Florence

Tel: 055.238.86.08

Note the very unusual hours of this Museum and Church!

Monday to Friday, 8:15Am to 1:50PM, Saturday and Sunday 8:15AM to 4:50PM.

Closed the 1st, 3rd, 5th Sunday and 2nd and 4th Monday of every month, New year’s Day, May 1, Christmas Day. These hours are subject to change so it is best to check at your hotel and or with the Museum directly if you have any questions.

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Sunset San Mineato

Sunset Illumination San Miniato al Monte – Florence

Late afternoon. Sunlight from the western sun strikes the facade of the Basilica of San Miniato high above Florence. The clock moves steadily toward 5:30PM. Light reflected from 13th Century windows shimmers against intricately patterned floors in the nave of the church. A soft wind breathes from the western entrance of the church and brushes past Taddeo Gaddi’s 14th Century frescoes. The breeze finds its way to a window in the sacristy where it leaves the interior and fans out over the Monumental Cemetery.

This is the Basilica of San Mineato al Monte. Legend has it that Saint Mineas was the first christian martyr of Florence. He was beheaded for this faith and in keeping with the miraculous story, picked up his head, placed it back on this neck and climbed back to his hermitage, a cave, above the city. The Mount of the Cross, as it is now called, became the chosen site for a basilica to house the bones of the sainted Mineas.

Benedictine monks were intimately involved in the construction of the basilica after the first stones were laid in 1018 A.D. In 1373, long after the basilica was complete, the responsibility for the care and upkeep of the Basilica came into the hands of the Olivetan order.

mass-with-gregorian-chants

Watercolor Shadows
Gregorian Chant – Evening Vespers
San Miniato al Monte

The crypt (1063) contains seven narrow aisles and more than thirty-five columns. When Taddeo Gaddi was commissioned, in the 14th Century, to decorate the interior of the crypt, he covered those columns in gold leaf. None of that work remains today. It is still a beautiful space, reverent in both its structure and atmosphere.

The Crypt San Miniato al Monte Florence Italy

Crypt-San Miniato al Monte

At 6:30PM (18:30) , Cistercian monks who support and maintain the basilica slowly enter the crypt for Vespers. A few curious visitors along with a few faithful who wish to participate , enter and take seats on wooden pews or on the deep marble steps in the rear of the crypt.To the intonations of a monk, they begin to sing Gregorian chant.

April 18, 2018 Update: Your best plan to hear the Gregorian Chant is to check the schedule for evening Mass on SUNDAYS. If you wish to only hear the Gregorian Chant, and not attend mass, you should plan on arriving at San Miniato around 6:15PM. Please be seated in the main Nave of the Basilica, as Mass will conclude in the Crypt at around 6:30PM. The Gregorian Chant follows the evening mass. 

I have had many clients, during my small group tours in Tuscany, complain ” . . . not ABC-another bloody church!” Even those so skeptical cannot help but be moved by the beauty and the sense of history as the textured voices of monks fill the crypt, rise to the nave and echo against the mosaic of Christ above the main altar.

Time slows. Candlelight shimmers in a far corner of the crypt. I enjoy walking around the basilica when Vespers are being chanted. The reflection of light from the nearly 1000 year old floor shimmers with a sheen of blue. Markers of those buried under the floor of the nave as well as those memorialized are stark reminders that, indeed, time is fleeting.

Summer afternoon light San Miniato

Summer Evening Light
Floor of San Miniato al Monte

No one ever fails to be deeply moved by such a place and such a service. I cannot recommend any early evening activity in Florence more than this.

Candlelight in the Crypt of San Miniato

Candlelight in the Crypt of San Miniato

IF YOU GO:

San Miniato al Monte

Via delle Porte Sante, 34  50125 Firenze, Italy

Tel: 055.234.2731

You are advised to call ahead, particularly in the winter months (November – March) to confirm times for the Sunday evening Mass Vespers service at the basilica.

The climb to San Mineato al Monte from the river level of the city is strenuous. Unless you are in very good health, I recommend using either a city bus or a private taxi. The walk back down to the city, after the service, is easy and enjoyable with spectacular views over the ancient city center.

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Cinque Terre Sunset from the High Road

As sunset settles upon the Cinque Terre, the sky becomes a curtain of gold, the sea an undulating sapphire veil.

This is a place of poetry.

Visually stunning, breathtaking in its scope, musical in its winds, poetic to the soul. Cinque Terre, the Five Lands, have long captured the imaginations of artists and travelers alike.

In his poem about a Sunday morning in a village along the coast, Edoardo Firpo captures all that is magical about the coast and villages in his Cinque Terre.

The slope rises rapidly
in the shadow of the houses;
amid the eaves and gutters
appears a limpid sky…

The mule clambers up the hill
in the tinkle of harness bells;
two or three jingling together
make a slow melody
but one with a lower tone
gives a ring every now and then.

The hens scamper down and peck
at pebbles along the ground.

Today is Sunday, and
all of the women stand
before their half-open doors,
all dressed in black because
of vespers still to come.

Withered by years and sun
they chat softly now and then,
saying things already said upon those ancient steps.

Sometimes there comes the hum
from behind the quiet houses
of the young ones in the sun.

Today’s the first day of autumn
and the heat of summer lingers;
the grapes are still on the vine
and not one cloud in the sky.

And I who am passing by
pause on the height, all alone,
in the midst of the sunny vines
close by the silvery veins
that warble as they run down
to lose themselves in the sea.

Edoardo Firpo – Cinque Terre

Along this stretch of Ligurian coastline (the Cinque Terre is within the political boundaries of the Province of Liguria) is a photographers and romantics playground. From the early morning mists that wrap the cliffs above the sea, to the long rays of sunset that shimmer the surface of the sea, the views are ever changing, the memories imparted unforgettable.

In my next five posts, I will focus on each of the villages that encompass the Cinque Terre with information about hotels and restaurants, along with recommendations for a day’s visit in each.

The area now known as the Five Lands encompass a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1998 and 1999, the Italian Government passed legislation to protect the natural environment and to further encourage ecological balance in the water and on the land.

Hiking trails, in all manner of upkeep, crisscross the land. From paved walkways suspended above the sea to rough steep gravel pathways, there is something for everyone who wishes to experience fresh air and views above and along the coast.

IF YOU GO:

Most visitors arrive by train. Between Genoa and Pisa, and easily reached from Florence, this is truly the preferred way to arrive. For those with cars, you might consider parking at the lot at the train station in La Spezia and taking the train from there. Driving into the villages is impossible for some of them. Monterosso al Mare, on the northern end of the Cinque Terre is the most easily reached by car, and that proves difficult with very narrow roads and precipitous drops to the sea. Parking can also be a challenge even in Monterosso, often requiring a good 1/4 mile descent (and ascent!) to walk from the garage or road side parking to the village.

Train passes for travel between all five villages are available at the train station in La Spezia, and in each village’s train station. Here are prices and information about the passes. For most current information, visit: Cinque Terre Train Passes

  • One day, adults: 10 euro
  • Two day, adults: 19 euro
  • Children under 12: 6 euro
  • Over age 70: 8 euro
  • Family Card (2 adults and 2 under 12): 26 euro

For those of you not familiar with ticket validation, you will need to locate a yellow box in the station before you leave, place the ticket in the slot and print a validation stamp on your ticket. Failure to do so will result, if you are asked to produce a non-validated ticket, of a fine from the conductor.

For summer excursions along the coast, click on this link: Gulf of Poets Cinque Terre

Hotels:

This is one of the most popular places to visit in Italy. If you arrive with no hotel reservation, you will probably discover how busy it is! I recommend reserving at least sixty days in advance of your visit. It is always possible to find last-minute accommodations in one of the villages, yet it is always best to book early.

In the next five posts on our blog, I include details about hotels and B&B’s in each of the five villages along the coast.

Hiking Map:

Map, Cinque Terre

This map provides general orientation to the Cinque Terre. For those interested in hiking the trails in the park, or along the coast, maps and detailed information are available at hotels, train stations and at Tourist Information offices in each village. Please note that you should wear very comfortable walking shoes or boots if you intend to attempt any of the trails and walkways in the area.

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Livorno Panorama, Piazza XX Settembre

Livorno. For most travelers, it is only the final destination for trains that connect Florence with Montecatini Terme, Lucca and Pisa. However, for those with a curiosity about renaissance history, those who wish to visit a less crowded city and those interested in seeing unique canals, add Livorno to your list of places you must visit while in Tuscany.

Bernardo Buontalenti, (Bernardo Delle Girandolea) a highly respected architect, military engineer and artist of the 16th Century, designed the fortifications that stand to this day at the port entrance. The port’s geographic proximity to Pisa and Florence (over land and by transport on the River Arno) created the need for the port’s protection.

Leggi Livornine 1587

It was the laws of trade, in the latter part of the 16th Century, that created Livorno’s nickname of “Venice of Tuscany”. Ferdinand I di Medici,

Grand Duke of Tuscany, created what was called the Leggi Livornine in 1587. The law created a ‘porto Franco’, or tax free port for goods that moved through the city. This law motivated merchants from across Europe, who sought the advantages of location and cost savings, to establish branches of their businesses in the city.

To help move goods to warehouses and to facilitate ease of transportation, these new companies supported the creation of canals which connected the places of business to the main port and sea. Thus was born “Veneiza Nuova” or “New Venice” as that area of the city came to be called.

The new trade  laws also created a city politic that became a welcome safe haven for those who sought refuge from both religious and political persecution. One of the little-known effects of the Thirty-Years War was that the economy of Livorno particularly, and Italy in General, experienced a serious and long-lasting downturn.

In early 1921, Livorno was the birthplace of the Italian Communist Party and to this day is known as a very left-leaning city. Politics and intrigue aside, this is a lovely city and absolutely worth your time to visit while in Tuscany.

Livorno “Venezia Nuova”

The city today is a major departure point for ferry services that connect Livorno to Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and other Med ports. If you have the time, taking the ferry between locations during your trip can be both helpful and enjoyable.

Livorno is famous, as well, for its being home to the Italian Naval Academy.

Ferry Services from Livorno:

IF YOU GO:

Trains to Livorno run nearly every hour to Florence. You can also head north toward Genoa and the “Cinque Terre”, or direct to Rome. For schedules and costs, go to  http://www.trenitalia.it. If you are driving into the city, my recommendation is to park close to the port at the Parcheggio Custodito al Porto (the secure parking area near the port). If you have a choice of taking the train or driving, take the train!

Driving in Livorno is complicated by security systems which limit the access of cars to the city center – much like most cities in Tuscany.

If your schedule allows, you can take a ferry from Livorno to some major locations in the Mediterranean, including Sicily, from the port. For further information, here are some links to review:

Direct Ferries Schedules and Information

Moby Lines Ferry Service Information

Private Guides for city tours – Livorno

Private Guides, Livorno

Tourist Information, Livorno

Restaurants in Livorno

This list is focused on restaurants in the Venetian quarter of the city. There are certainly others. However this the neighborhood with the most picturesque places to enjoy a meal. There are many excellent restaurants in the city. The short list, below, are places I have enjoyed dinners and/or lunches over the years.

Al Fosso Reale

Rated very highly on several web sites, this lovely small restaurant is located near the Fortezza Nuova in the city center. Well worth going-I’ve only eaten here once for dinner, and highly recommend this place to all. Order the “Zuppa di Pesce di Livorno” – Local seafood soup. Outstanding!

Al Fosso Reale

Scali delle Cantine 52/54, Livorno

Tel: +39.0586.888.474

Trattoria L’Antica Venezia

I’ve had the privilege of eating in this small delightful place several times. The food is outstanding, fairly priced and the service reliable and friendly. GO!

Trattoria L’Antica Venezia

Piazza dei Domenicani,  15 Livorno

Tel: +39.0586.887.353

ttp://www.livornonow.com/lantica_venezia_trattoria_in_livorno_tuscany_italy

Chez Ugo Pizzeria

Don’t expect fancy in any way, yet this place serves exceptional pizza – of more kinds that you can count – in a clean and busy atmosphere. For lunch its great, for a light dinner even better.

Scali Monte Pio, 35, 57123 Livorno

Tel: +39.0586.219.230

Hotels in Livorno

Hotel Gennarino

This lovely hotel is located directly across the Via Italia, along the waterfront across from the Naval Academy. The rooms are clean and the rates are very good-between

Hotel Gennarino

Viale Italia, 301 – 57127 livorno (LI)

Hotel Teatro

Located in the heart of the city, this hotel was recently fully updated and modernized. Excellent location, great rooms and fair prices. A wonderful hotel base while in Livorno.

Hotel Teatro

Via Mayer, 42/57

Tel: +39.0586.89.8705

Hotel Stazione

Located an easy walk from the train station, this is a very nice property in the city center. If you are planning on an overnight for an early train or ferry, this would be a great place for an inexpensive evening. Lots of cafes and trattorias in the neighborhood. I do not recommend this hotel if you are hoping to be close to the canal neighborhood of the city, though.

Hotel Stazione

Viale Carducci, 301 – Livorno (LI)

Tel: +39.0586.429.504

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Charterhouse of Pisa
Calci, Tuscany, Italy

Few tourists know of the road that connects Lucca with the small village of Calci. Nor do many visitors know of the monumental surprise that awaits them – the Charterhouse of Pisa.

My recommendation is to not take the A-11 autostrada from Lucca to Pisa. Rather, as you arrive at the Lucca Ovest (West) interchange follow signs to the SS-12 (Strada Statale-State Road) toward San Giuliano Terme.

As you drive toward San Giuliano Terme, you will pass through the village of Santa Maria del Giudici then enter a tunnel. After you leave the tunnel and drive into San Giuliano Terme, watch for a turn to the left ttoward the town of Calci. Once you are on the road to Calci, the signs directing you to the Certosa (Charterhouse) of Pisa make the rest of the trip very easy.

Why go?

Charterhouse of Pisa
(Monumentale Certosa di Calci)
Tuscany, Italy

This is an enormous complex of buildings, many of them restored after World War II. The remote and beautiful setting, once referred to as the “Valle Graziosa” or “Pretty Valley,” allows visitors the opportunity to enjoy a visit to a beautiful church without the crowds that are found below in the city of Pisa proper. Though the charterhouse is located only about six miles from Pisa, you may as well be a hundred miles from such a large population center.

History

It was in 1366 that Carthusian Monks established their hermitage near Calci. The Carthusian order derives its name from the location of the first heritage established by Saint Bruno. The Chartreuse Mountains, located east southeast of the French city of Lyon is where Bruno began his religious life.

Gorgona, a small island located about twenty miles off the port of Livorno, is part of the Tuscan Archipelago. (On very clear days,you can see the island from a few of the small seaside villages north of Livorno – Tirrenia and Marina di Pisa). In 1369, Pope Gregory XI expelled a group of Benedictine monks  from the island. Some of the monks from Calci were sent to repopulate the island, even as their population grew at the Charterhouse. In the mid-15th Century, due to threats of possible attack by Saracens, the monks on the island brought all of their valuable documents to the Charterhouse.

Cloister, Charterhouse of Pisa

The current architectural style of the buildings is owed to Baroque work of the 17th and 18th Centuries.

After Napoleon’s suppression of religious orders, in 1808, the Carthusian order at Calci was forced to disband. The majority of the monks moved to the Vallombrosian Monastery in Pisa. Most of the silver and gold pieces collected from the religious community were sent to Florence to be melted and used for other purposes. Contents of the library, records, archives and many valuable paintings were sold.

In 1814 when the Grand Dukes of Lorraine permitted the return of the order the Charterhouse, their financial support assisted in the purchase of items that had previously been sold.

A few years after the unification of Italy, in 1866, the government decreed that all works of art, the library and other important documents were to be removed. The buildings and land, then, were assigned to the new Ministry of Education.

From 1946 until 1963, a group of Carthusian monks from the Netherlands attempted to establish a group of monks at the Charterhouse, with the hope of reestablishing their order in their home country. Their efforts yielded no success. When the last of the two Carthusian monks were moved from the monastery in 1972, the state took over responsibility for the maintenance and care of the buildings.

In 1981  the Natural History Museum of the University of Pisa was moved into one wing of the Charterhouse. The collections, started in the mid-16th Century, primarily include paleontological and mineral specimens collected over the centuries.

Choir Stalls, Charterhouse of Pisa

Interior

The major construction work on the buildings occurred after the monks returned from the Island of Gorgona (1425) and during the 17th and 18th Century. Monk’s cells, the main chapel and other parts of the building, to include a natural pharmacy based upon the research of herbs grown in the Charterhouse’s “Giardino dei Semplici,” were completed in the early part of the 16th Century. The garden, similar in purpose to one established in 1545 by Grand Duck Cosimo di Medici in Florence, was intended to investigate and research plants that might be used for the cure of disease and infection.

The interior of the church contains some of the finest hand carved choir stalls in Italy. Giovan Francesco Bergamini began, and his son Alessandro (1665-1686) completed, work on a beautiful altar made from Carrara marble. One of the few remaining original works is one of San Bruno (founder of the Carthusean order)

Baldasarre Franceschini (Il Volterrano)

offering the Charterhouse to Our Lady (1681) by Baldassarre Franceschini, called Il Volterrano. An interesting note about the work is that San Bruno holds a model of the Monastery as it appeared before Baroque era changes.

This is an incredibly beautiful building, little known by the millions of tourists who flock to a certain tower in the city of Pisa. If you are in Lucca, or Pisa, and seek the opportunity to explore an historic and beautifully preserved site, visit the Charterhouse of Pisa.

IF YOU GO:

Here are some on-line resources for your information before a visit.

Charterhouse of Pisa

Opening Times
• Tuesday to Saturday: from 8.30am to 6.30pm
• Sundays and public holidays: from 8.30am to 12.30pm
• Closed Mondays and 1/1, 1/5 and 25/12.

Admission
• Full Euro 5.00
• For 18 to 25 year old visitors Euro 2.50

Natural history Museum of the University of Pisa

NOTE: This is a very popular place for school visits, so you may be a bit surprised to see so many children crowded at the entrance to the Charterhouse. Those groups usually only visit the Museum and do not enter the main religious structures for a tour.

Information about the collections

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Hillside near Lucca

Wealth, born of the silk trade between merchants in Lucca and the Far East, provided the means for a fortunate few families to build spectacular country estates in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains. Lucca is a city famous for its incredible wide wall, the understated elegance of its palazzi, city villas and churches.

The city was founded by Roman settlers in the first century B.C. From that time onward, the town grew in importance.  In a future post, I will provide more detailed information about the city, its history and culture.

I first met Wanda Martinelli, now a dear friend and guide from Lucca, during a visit with another friend from Florence. She is a true Lucchese, born and raised in the area of these lovely villas. She is a passionate and appropriately proud guide whose level of knowledge about the city and the country villas near Lucca is unmatched. Wanda is available for private tours of both the city of Lucca as well as any of the country estates in the area.

See “If You Go” below for information about how to contact Wanda directly.

Head to the countryside

When you leave the walled city, through one six gates, you can easily visit any number of incredibly beautiful, well maintained, villa estates. There is an exquisite balance of nature and architectural beauty in the villas near Lucca.

The area has been enormously popular with European tourists and property seekers for decades. It has only been in the last thirty years that Americans began to ‘discover’ a lovely city, its country homes and gardens.

My post includes my four favorite country villas, though there are many more.

Villa Oliva, Facade

Villa Oliva:

Of the four villas included in this article, Villa Oliva presents the smallest scale in terms of the home. It was commissioned by the Buonvisi family toward the end of the 15th Century based on a design by Matteo Civitali. Civitali, who studied at the Accademia in Florence, also designed numerous other properties across Tuscany.  Civitali included the use of a loggia, an arch supported covered porch, on the northern facing (private) wall of the villa.

The grounds of Villa Oliva, referred to as ‘the park’, were created to make use of abundant water supplies from nearby mountain aquifers. To underscore the use of water in the garden the “Fontana della Sirena,” which clings to a high wall on the northern edge of the garden, was built.

As was true of many villas in this area of Italy, the villa was damaged during World War II. The restorations have been completed so that you would never know that such was the case.

Villa Grabau

Villa Grabau, Facade

The origins of the Villa Grabau are unique among the country villas near Lucca. Evidence indicates that, unlike other villas, this property was built on the foundations of an early 15th Century building. At the start of the 16th Century, the property came into the hands of the Diodati family from Lucca. The family’s enormous fortune, built on the design and sale of silk cloth, provided the family with ample resources for a country home.

The Cittadella family purchased the villa from the Diodati in the latter part of the 16th Century. It remained in their hands until the latter part of the 19th Century when a family from Hamburg, the Grabau’s, purchased it. That family still own and manage the property.

The 18th Century Limonaia is famous for both its architectural style as well as its size. (Photo below)

This is an extraordinarily beautiful home and well worth a leisurely visit.

Villa Reale di Marlia

In 1805, when Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Baciocchi became sovereign over Lucca, she began a project to combine a number of smaller properties into one large estate. Not surprising as she had large blocks of central Lucca destroyed so that she would have ‘a view’ from her enormous home in the center of the city.

Villa Orsetti and other smaller estates were combined to create the Villa Reale di Marlia.

Several of the Orsetti property’s unique garden highlights, the open air theater and grotto to name just two, were retained in Baciocchi’s design.

Villa Reale di Marlia View

The villa’s history reflects that of its owners.

After Italy was united under King Vittorio Emmanuele II, the property was given to the brother of the last king of the Two Sicilies, Prince Charles of Capua. He and his wife died at the villa and are buried on the grounds.

Financial troubles followed their death, generated by the reckless behavior of the prince’s son. Trees on the property were sold for timber, the villa sold.  It was only due to the care of the current owners, and their heirs, that the park has been saved and restored.

Jacques Greber, a well-known French architect, was commissioned to complete the restoration of the grounds. The property is still privately held and is often the location of major events in support of the arts and music of Italy.

Villa Torrigiani

This is, by far, my favorite of all the villas near Lucca. When spring Camellias bloom or the colors of fall blaze in the hills above Lucca, my thoughts most often return to this villa. This was the first villa I ever visited with Wanda Martinelli and the impressions both she and the property made on me have never receded. Sabrina, who has for years guided small groups through the villa, adds a unique and passionate perspective to a place she clearly loves.

Villa Torrigiani Facade

The villa dates back to the Buonvisi family, from Lucca, in 1593.  The property was purchased by another wealthy family, the Santini. Santini became the ambassador to the Republic of Lucca from the Court of France. In deference to the Palace of Versailles, he rebuilt the façade and added two wings to the villa.

One of the things that differentiates this villa from all of the others in the area is the ornate and very Baroque façade and statues. He had the original front gardens replaced by a simple parterre with pools and he added a large pool to the grounds on the opposite side of the villa.

In 1816 Victoria Santini, granddaughter of the original owners, married into a wealthy and famous Italian family – the Torrigiani. That family still owns and maintains the property.

A gorgeous Limonaia, ‘Secret Garden’ designed by the Santini family in the mid -17th Century, ponds and lovely shaded garden walk await visitors. One of the uses of water in the grotto of the ‘Secret Garden’ are the use of “giochi d’acqua” or water games that were designed to entertain renaissance guests. Inside the villa, mementoes of a family’s long history are evident from photos of the recent marriage of the present prince to the wedding dress of his grandmother.

I have spent many pleasant moments talking with the owners over the years. Their love for, and care of, the villa and grounds is evident in every way.

If you have time to visit Lucca, be sure to add a day to explore the villas in the nearby hills above the city. The gracious beauty and style of the villas and gardens provide another surprising perspective on a stunning area of Tuscany.

IF YOU GO:

Note: You can reach Lucca by train from Florence in about an hour and ten minutes or from Pisa in about twenty minutes. You can walk into the walled city of Lucca very easily from the train station. However, visits to the country villas, if you do not have a car, should be prearranged with a private car service. Train schedules and details can be found on the Trenitalia web site.

Italian Rail System

For private car and driver services in Lucca, contact:

Lucca Limo

If you wish to enjoy the professional guide services of Wanda Martinelli while in Lucca, or while visiting the many country estates in the area, you can contact Wanda directly through her web site at:

 Wanda Martinelli

Click on map to enlarge

Villa Oliva:

Web Site: Villa Olivia

Villa Oliva

Via di Villa Oliva

55010 San Pancrazio, Italy

Tel: +39.0583.406.462

Entrance tickets are Euro 12.00 per person.

Villa Grabau:

Web Site: Villa Grabau

Villa Grabau Limonaia

Villa Grabau

Via di Matraia 269
55010 S.Pancrazio, Lucca, IT

Tel:  +39.0583.406.098

The opening hours and days vary according to seasons:

April 1 – June 30

10:00AM to 1:00PM and 2:00PM until 6:00PM

July 1 – August 31

10:00AM to 1:00PM and (note the long early afternoon closure) 3:00PM until 7:00PM

September 1 – November 1

10:00AM to 1:00PM and 2:00PM until 6:00PM

November 2 – March 31 (SUNDAY ONLY)

11:00AM to 1:00PM and 2:30PM until 5:30PM

Entrance tickets: Euro 15.00 per person

Villa Reale di Marlia:

Web Site:  Villa Reale di Marlia

Click on map to enlarge

Villa Reale di Marlia

Via Fraga Alta, 2

55014, Marlia, Lucca, IT

Tel: +39.0583.301.08

Visiting Hours:

1st of March to the 30th of November
Mornings from 10:00AM until 1:00PM and from 2:00PM until 6:00PM
Closed on Mondays, with the exception of holidays that fall on a Monday. Double check directly with the villa if you have any questions
All visits are scheduled and are led by a guide
In winter, guided visits are available only by pre-arranged appointment
Timetable of guided visits are on the hour from 10:00 until 12:00PM and again from 3:00PM until 6:00PM

Entrance tickets are Euro 7.00 per person

Villa Torrigiani:

Web Site: Villa Torrigiani

Villa Torrigiani

Via del Gomberaio, 3

55010 Camigliano, Santa Gemma, IT

Tel: +.39.0583.928.041

Visiting Hours:

March 5 – November 5

10:00AM to 1:00PM and 3:00PM to 7:00PM

NOTE:

Between February 1 and March 4 as well as 16 November and 7 January, the villa is only open to groups in excess of 10 people and by prearranged reservation only.

Entrance Tickets: Euro 10.00 per person

 

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My introduction to the Villa Garzoni and its gardens was during my childhood.  Our family lived in Tirrenia, a seaside village about midway between Pisa and the port city of Livorno. Those early impressions have been solidified over many years of subsequent visits to the village and the park named for its most famous son, author Carlo Lorenzini. There will be more on his impact on this tiny town later in this post.

Where, exactly, is Collodi?

Villa Garzoni and Collodi

Between Florence and Lucca, along the foothills of the Apennine mountains, is the city of Pescia. A bit north and west of that city, strung along a small ridge, is the village. The village’s main walkway is far too steep for cars or even the infamous “Vapi”, that noisy impossibly small three wheeled transport used by so many Italians. To walk along the cobbled steps and street through town is to encounter an increasingly rare Tuscany. It is a place, above the roads that approach the old city gate, that harkens to black and white photos, to grieving widows dressed in black, to less complicated eras.

In 1652, the Garzoni family began construction on a country villa. The site for this home was along a steep hillside near a 10th Century fortress. From the villa’s location, the family enjoyed a view over the valley below. The gardens were designed to complement the villa, while taking into consideration the very steep land upon which it would be built. The results of the design , completed in 1752, were gorgeous. In 1786, members of the family selected a local landscape architect, Ottavio Diodati, to design a water cascade that would run from the highest point of the garden to a grotto constructed at the point where the steep hills met the parterre.

When you enter the garden, the first impression is one of grandeur and beauty. Now known as one of only a few high Baroque gardens in Italy,

Garden View, Villa Garzoni

the centuries have proven the worth of both the Grazoni family’s and Diodati’s efforts.

Three flights of balustrade stairs lead to a Grotto. At each terrace, as visitors ascend the garden, there are long flat planting areas, almost like ribs, that splay out and away from the central axis of the garden. Yews, Eucalypti, palms and other local plants and trees provide welcome shade from the piercing Tuscan light.

At the top of the garden, and it is a steep climb, visitors arrive at a statue of Fame, Jove’s messenger. From the large sea shell that Fame holds to her mouth is a long arch of water that ends in a small pond at her feet. On the descent from this high point, visitors can walk to the Villa for a tour, descend through the lush Bamboo forest and return to the entrance gate of the property.

Pinocchio Park

Less than a five minute walk from the entrance to the Villa Garzoni and gardens is the entrance to the Pinocchio Park.

Parco Pinnochio
Statue by Emilio Greco, 1956

The park was named after a character created by author Carlo Collodi. Born Carlo Lorenzini in Florence (1826), he became a well-known political author. In the course of his journalistic career, he began to write political allegory. After many years of work, he took his mother’s home town as his pen name (Collodi) and wrote Pinocchio. The now famous marionette was used by Lorenzini as an allegorical figure who represented the liberating metamorphosis from strict forms of his creation, wood, to the freedom of being a truly human boy.

Lorenzini died in Florence in 1890, a mere seven years after Pinocchio was published. He did not live long enough to enjoy the spectacular success that his book created. Now translated in over 100 languages, it is one of the world’s best-selling books of all time.

You can read the entire book, on line, or download an e-book copy at this site. Special thanks to the Guttenberg project and the phenomenal work they do.

Adventures of Pinnochio by Carlo Collodi

The “Parco Pinocchio” was opened in 1956, the result of country-wide artistic collaboration. Artists from across Italy participated in the creation of sculptures and mosaics that appeal to child and adult alike. Scenes from Carlo’s fable are represented within the small confines of the park. A visit gives you the unique opportunity to enjoy yet another treasured corner of Tuscany.

It has been decades since my first visit to this tiny, magical, place. Every time I am in Tuscany, I return. Take time to enjoy this extraordinary and little-known village perched on a hill between Florence and Lucca.

IF YOU GO:

If you do not have the use of a car, you can take an inexpensive regional train from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station and, for Euro 10.40 per person, arrive in Pescia.Trains between Florence and Pisa leave nearly every hour between 6:00AM and 10:ooPM. The trip to Pescia takes about one hour.

Schedules and more information about train schedules can be found at: www.trenitalia.it

From the Pescia train station you can take either a local bus (VaiBus) or taxi. Their complete schedules for the Pistoia region, which includes both Pescia and Collodi, can be found at: VaiBus

Taxi fare between the Pescia station and the town of Collodi averages Euro 30 per taxi (not per person!)

Entrance tickets:

You have a choice of purchasing three different tickets, depending on your interests:

Pinocchio Park, Euro 11.00

Garzoni Gardens and Butterfly House, Euro 13.00

Pinocchio Park, Garzoni Gardens and Butterfly House, Euro 20.00

Official Web site of the Villa and Gardens

Villa Garzoni and Gardens

Official Web site of the Parco Pinocchio (Pinocchio Park)

Parco Pinocchio

Information for the Park.

Tel: Parco di Pinocchio TeL: +39.0572.429.342

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