28th September 2014
A Bird’s Eye View of Some Treasures of Tuscany
Montecatini Alto is two hundred and seventy nine metres above Montecatini Terme – I know as I have ascended every one of them to look down on this spa town. It derives its name from the word Monte (mountain) and the Latin word Catinus that means dell. Terme refers to the thermal waters of the area. The history of the town goes back to the Middle Ages when it was ruled by the bishops of Lucca. During the fourteenth century it was conquered by Florence and became one of its domains. It was during this period that the thermal waters were discovered and the first spas were built. Siena conquered the town in the mid-sixteenth century but its domination was short as the Florentines returned a few years later and subsequently restored the thermal baths.
The origins of the present town go back to the eighteenth century when the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo of Lorena drained the swamps and established new spa buildings. At the end of that century the baths were given to the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Florence who built an inn where foreigners could stay. After the Napoleonic invasion at the beginning of the nineteenth century the baths became the property of the Tuscan Grand Dukedom and later, following the unity of Italy, they became state property. Although some of the baths have now been converted to diverse uses some still operate as thermal baths and in particular Terme Tettuccio which is set in beautiful parkland and a pleasant diversion for the many visitors who stay in the numerous hotels as a base for visiting the larger towns of Tuscany.
Of course I could have used the funicular but that would not have been in the spirit of this adventure. The original little red carriages run regularly between the two settlements and it is thrilling to think that famous visitors to the area such as Giuseppe Verdi would have ridden in them. When it opened in 1898 the trains were operated by a large steam boiler located in the uphill station. In 1921 this was replaced by a powerful electric motor. The railway was damaged during the Second World War and ceased to operate in 1944 but it was restored in 1949. As the thermal resort of Montecatini became more popular so did the funicular as the tourists liked to go up to the “castle”. It had to be upgraded in 1977 and re-opened in 1982.
Montecatini Alto, a typical medieval village founded as a castle, is the original Montecatini settlement and offers splendid views of the surrounding countryside and a chance to savour a meal in one of the bars and restaurants that fringe the delightful Piazza Giusti. This small town has been the subject of some bitter conflicts and came near to total destruction. Today some of the twenty-five remaining towers have been incorporated into the built up area but other interesting buildings have survived including several churches and one, dedicated to Saint Barbara the patron saint of attendants in charge of explosives, preparation and storage and more generally, she is invoked against lightening, fire, sudden and violent death and danger. She is the protector of the Italian Military Navy, the Fire Brigade, the Army (Artillery and Civil Engineers) as well as of the miners and oil workers, geologist, mountain men, architects, bell ringers, towers and fortresses. To honour this saint the churchyard houses a canon and other accoutrements of war in its churchyard.
Next stop Siena and the twenty short flights of very narrow staircases to the top of the Torre Mangia an imposing tower to the left of the Palazzo Pubblico in the main piazza, Il Campo. The passageways are so narrow that visitors are only allowed to take a camera and a mobile phone with them and all other possessions have to be stowed in lockers at the top of the first one hundred steps. The strange name of this tower (mangia means eat in Italian) derives from the nickname of its first bell ringer, Giovanni di Duccio who was commissioned to ring the bell every hour in 1347. He was called the money eater because his wages were so high. He was subsequently replaced by mechanical methods of ringing the bell.
It was worth climbing 400 steps for the views over the city and the surrounding countryside and in particular the Fonte Gaia in il Campo immediately below us. This fountain, the joyful fountain, was so called because the Sienese were so happy when water was finally piped into the Piazza del Campo around 1342 following 8 years’ work. The original fountain was replaced in 1419 by that of Jacopo della Quercia and then again in 1858 by a copy by Tito Sarrocchi. Quercia’s fountain is one of the most important works of fourteenth century Italy and is both Gothic and Renaissance in style and its marble panels can now be seen in a room of the museum Santa Maria della Scala , the old hospital building looking onto the Piazza del Duomo. This building is the oldest in Florence and was the first example of a hospital for the public. It functioned as a hospital until the 1970s and when it closed down some wonderful frescoes were discovered behind the whitewash on the walls.
During the Middle Ages Siena had great ambitions to build a cathedral larger than the cathedral in Florence, their arch rivals, but after the exterior walls had been constructed they discovered that the weight of the building could not be supported by the ground beneath it. At the same time an outbreak of the Black Death seriously depleted the workforce available and the project was abandoned so they concentrated instead on the elaborate decoration of the interior of the original cathedral. The partially completed building now houses a museum through which access is obtained to the Panorama del Facciatone at the top of the façade of the Nuovo Duomo. Access is strictly controlled because the narrow corkscrew stairway of 131 steps does not allow the passage of visitors going in different directions. It was worth the wait to spend a few minutes looking out over the cathedral below me, il Campo and the city beyond.
Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, is famous for both its bell tower (campanile) and its dome (cupola) both of which offer a challenge to visitors. Construction of the bell tower was begun by Giotto in 1334, carried on after his death by Andrea Pisano, and finished in 1359 by Francesco Talenti. Decorated with white, red and green marble it is considered to be the most beautiful in Italy and was probably created to complement the exterior of the cathedral which it mirrors rather than to perform the function of a bell tower. The 417 steps are punctuated by four platforms and there is plenty of time to stop and enjoy the views from each one before finally emerging on to the large terrace at the top which projects outwards forming a panoramic roof with a splendid view of the cupola nearby.
Half way up the dome I emerged onto a walkway above the cathedral where I joined a queue waiting to continue to the top. I had a good view of the comparatively simple interior decoration (compared to the cathedral in Siena) but it was difficult to get good images through the smeared Perspex that enclosed us. The octagonal dome, built between 1418 and 1434, was made of two inter-connected shells from an award winning but controversial design by Filippo Brunelleschi which satisfied the desire of the Florentinians to build the biggest dome of their time. A masterpiece that has withstood extremes of weather and the passage of time it continues to fascinate visitors to the city and there is always a queue of people ready to tackle the 463 steps to the top.
Lucca offers three viewpoints over the city and the first is from the famous walls that surround it. Elisa Bonaparte (Napoleon’s sister) was once a princess here and she had wanted boulevards lined with trees but as this was not possible within the city itself the walls became a boulevard with trees on either side – a legacy enjoyed by locals and visitors.
Torre Guinigi was built by the Guinigi family, rich merchants and leading personages of the town. A typical example of Romanesque-Gothic Lucca architecture the tower is unusually crowned by holm oaks probably to allow them to exceed the statutory height of private towers during a period when numerous towers, emblems of prestige, were springing up within the walls of Lucca. It was an easy climb up 230 steps to the top where I was rewarded by a sojourn in the garden enjoying the cool breeze as I peered through the trees at the town below me.
Torre d’Ore (clock tower) at fifty metres tall (207 wooden steps) is the highest of the city’s 130 medieval towers many of which have since been destroyed. The ghost of Lucchese girl, Lucida Mansi, is said to inhabit this tower. She sold her soul to the devil in exchange for three decades of youth and beauty. When the devil came to collect his due on 14 August 1623 Lucida climbed up the clock tower in an attempt to stop time but the devil caught her and took her soul. Fortunately I did not meet her, or anyone else, on my way up to the top where I had a splendid view of the empty façade of the Chiesa di S. Michele in Foro. It was built like this to save money and because pilgrims passing through the town would enter the piazza facing the church it was considered acceptable to construct it this way.
My final conquest was the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the most famous tower in the world. It is one of the four buildings in the Piazza dei Miracoli on the outskirts of Pisa. The first building was the cathedral which rests on a white marble pavement and is an impressive example of Romanesque architecture. Next came the baptistery just west of the dome and then work on the bell tower began – completing the most impressive collection of Romanesque architecture in Italy.
The construction of the tower began in 1173 and it stood upright for over five years but after the completion of the third floor in 1178 it began to lean. The foundations, only 3 metres deep, were built on dense clay that was not strong enough to hold the tower upright. Building stopped for 100 years in the hope that the soil would settle and give it sufficient strength to take the weight of the tower. But when four more floors were added to the tower in 1272 it began to lean even more and there was another long pause until 1319 when the seventh floor was finished. The bell-chamber was added in 1372, and then the tower was left alone until the 19th century.
In 1838 a pathway was dug out near the base of the tower so that people could see the intricately crafted base but this made the tower lean even more. It was a matter of luck that the tower survived the advance of the Allied forces through Italy during the Second World War and in 1964 the Italians sought help to prevent the Leaning Tower from toppling over. It was important for tourism in Pisa that the lean was retained. After various attempts to stabilise the tower it was closed in 1990, the bells were removed and the tower was anchored and then, now sturdy and safe, it was re-opened to tourists in 2001. Despite several visits to Pisa I had never climbed the tower but on a tour organised by Solos Holidays I was swept away by the enthusiasm of my companions. It was strange rising and slanting at the same time. We were on a strict timetable but I did have time to glimpse the side of the cathedral through a window – it was leaning.
So that’s it, a bird’s eye view of some treasures of Tuscany, this bird.