28 October 2018


Nostalghia for the Medici, et alios.....

October in Tuscany.  It's cold.  In Volterra the wind is high, shivering down the deep, narrow, stone streets.  The Medici (Masters of Florence) have taken over the Piazza dei Priori to film the second series of their selfie fest [a political family drama set in Florence in the early fifteenth century. Cosimo de Medici finds himself at the helm of his banking dynasty when his father, Giovanni, dies suddenly.....  Starring Richard Madden.]

We came from Pisa, where a combination of one-way streets, road closures, pedestrianisation and general impassibility set me up me to accumulate around 100 florins in taxable offences.....  A small price, perhaps, for a view like this.....

As dusk falls the streets are busy with visitors hurrying away.....

And then, in the dark, the university, where Galileo - and his feathers - studied the nights, the city is quiet....

And the Campo dei Miracoli is silent and deserted.

The Medici rose to power in the early fifteenth century.  They came from a region north of Florence, initially were doctors (hence the name), then they became wool merchants, then, deftly employing double entry book-keeping, they became the most powerful bankers in Europe.  Having gained wealth, and prominence, they trumped Florence and ruled the Grand Duchy of Tuscany until the death of Gian Gastone de' Medici in 1737.  In the meantime, they produced three popes and two queens of France.  Their intermarriages with other rich families, and their sponsorship of the arts, meant that for centuries they shaped the development of Tuscany and beyond.

Not that they ruled everywhere....  Siena, fiercely Ghibelline (supporting the Holy Roman Emperor) as opposed to Florence's Guelf stance (on the side of the Pope) was a rival, partly also because of the difference in the sources of their wealth - Florence being a mercantile trading city, while Siena relied on agriculture for its economy.  They weren't friends, anyway, and in September 1260, at Montaperti, ten thousand Florentines perished at the hands of the Senese and a further fifteen thousand were taken prisoner.

Today, Siena is peaceful, and an Aperol Spritz in the Campo is a pleasure that neither Guelfs nor Ghibellines can diminish, though we are only days after the horse of the Giraffe contrada died in agony after a fall during a special run of the Palio to commemorate the centenary of the end of WWI.

Not far away, dominating the val d'Elsa, is San Gimignano, famous for its towers, but also a renowned spot on the via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome.  Like Pisa, Volterra and Siena, there are tides of visitors, washing through the streets and sights in the chilly October sun, admiring themselves against the stone walls, and leaving a little of their wealth behind.

San Gimignano produces a lovely white wine, known as Vernaccia, and the town has installed a fine tasting bar in the ruins of the Castle here, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano Wine Experience.  The centre was created by Consorzio del Vino Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a consortium which brings together all winegrowers producing Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG, the first Italian wine to obtain the Appellation of Origin in 1966....  The world, almost suddenly, seems a better place.

As night falls the day trippers fade away, bussed back to their cruise ships or modern hotels, and I wander the cool dark streets, silence cloaking my footsteps,

As the moon rises above the medieval towers.

In the morning, it is still October, and though the Italian sun shines there is a cold wind.  We head for Monte Amiata, at 1,738 metres (5,702 feet) the highest mountain in Southern Tuscany, a volcanic cone far mightier than any Medici.  I pay my respects to Andrei Tarkovsky at the ruins of San Galgano, one of the great Cistercian monasteries of Italy.  Scenes from his 1983 film Nostalghia were filmed here and I breathe the air of yesterday.... 

Further on down the road we pass the Abbazia di S. Antimo, a Romanesque gem said to have been founded by Charlemagne at the end of the ninth century.  Once this was so quiet and little visited that a Roller nested in the campanile, but now it is cared for and practised in and visited by many.

We approach the mountain, its twin peaks looming behind the restored Castello di Velona Resort Thermal SPA & Winery (where you could have B & B for about £300) which was a roofless ruin when I first explored this region....

This is the Tuscany, the Italy, that I love most.  I arrived here to stay with friends in August 1976, carrying a suitcase up the road from the railway station at Monte Amiata Scalo.  It was hot then, and somehow I lost the instructions of how to find my friends on the way up the hill.  But eventually I got there, first to meet Corrado, now in his nineties, and his wife Concetta,

And then to sit by the fire in an isolated farmhouse, dining on fegatelli (little intestine wrapped parcels of pig's liver flavoured with fennel) and drinking dark red wine.  

The area is dotted with villages, their church towers aspiring heavenwards.  Things have changed since I first came, but it is still a harmonious landscape that shows how man and nature can coexist.  There is no longer the braying of the donkeys first and last thing in the day, and there is less wood smoke drifting up from kitchen chimneys now, but wine and olives and bread and sheep's cheese are still the main products here.....  There are good things in life.... 

And the sun still goes down with a golden glow, leaving the world in the purity of darkness, filling me with Nostalghia

Nostalgia which circles round and round, like the coloured bricks and stones in the ceiling of the chiesetta di S Galgano.....

It is October.  It is cold, and the Medici are still filming their power struggles in Volterra.  

But nonetheless my heart warms with love for Tuscany.

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