ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
Tuscany has a long coastline. If you tramp along the Via Aurelia, as the Roman Legions used to do, you will pass from the Marina di Carrara to Chiarone Scalo – not places that stand out in your mind with much emphasis. In fact, to the visitor, nowhere on this stretch of the Mediterranean stands out with any degree of familiarity. That’s the problem with Tuscany, its fame, undeniable beauty and magnificent cities lie in the hinterland. Possibly only two places may strike a note of familiarity, and then not for their topography. Livorno and Viareggio. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, sailing from Livorno to Lerici, drowned in a storm and was washed ashore at Viareggio, giving vent to more romantic fantasy than is good for the soul. Anyone who in their schooldays had to struggle through “The Revolt of Islam” will shudder at the thought, and give the place a very wide berth. Pisa, only a step up the road, was once a seaport, but the silting of ages from the Arno now places it inland, so no one’s going to go there for the sea view. St Peter on the other hand, with a price on his head, turned right at Marina di Pisa landing surreptitiously at what is now known as San Piero a Grado. He didn’t stop long, but the pious raised an interesting Romanesque basilica dedicated somewhat belatedly to the first vicar of Christ: Basilica di San Pietro Apostolo. Inside some suggestive much earlier constructions, including what appears to be an altar, have come to light. Due to the aforesaid alluvium the church is now about five kilometres inland, only half way to Pisa, which goes to show what will happen if you don’t clean your drains!
However, Livorno, only a glimmer of a twinkle in the saint’s eye at the time, has more going for it than meets the eye. To begin with it’s a proper seaside resort in the breezy, gargantuan fashion of Brighton, complete with a perfect Ottocento stop over, the vast ‘Grand Hotel Palazzo’, which reflects the grandeur of a forgotten age, having been a favourite of King Umberto and sundry notables. Marconi also carried out some experiments on telegraphy here, which turned out to be somewhat more useful than nobles ‘in the pink’. Anyway, I was lucky enough to have had a peep into its past. More than a decade ago, wandering into what was then an abandoned hulk, covered in the grime of ages and discarded, grim moquette covered sofas; I felt just a touch of déjà vu. Despite all this dilapidation and neglect the abandoned fixtures and fittings all still seemed to be in restorable condition. Even the chandeliers covered in inches of dust looked as though they could light up at the flick of a switch if it wasn’t for its pre war 9-volt wiring. In a way it was a sad, yet remarkable tribute to the quality of another age, given the building had been badly bombed during the Second WW. Sixty years after the apocalypse, still undisturbed, the developers got hold of the remains, and given the louche behaviour of modern enterprise, returned it to a caricature of its former glory. It’s a pity no one told them you can’t conjure up the ethos of another age just like that. Not without the King of Italy you can’t! But full marks for trying.
Stepping out from its portals, across the way on the promenade, one characteristic will strike you immediately. Livorno seems to be a city of keep-fit fanatics. If they’re not swimming, then they’re running. At any time of day they can be seen shedding their excesses on the flat highway of the extravagant esplanade. Indeed, its 6km length might be the whole front of Livorno. In which case, running its extent every day for a week is good for losing a kilogram. Depends on how many ‘primi piatti’ they’ve managed to put away afterwards, of course! It’s all a quite different world to that of the belle époque when slim ladies in long dresses and parasols strolled this way on the arm of their striped blazer beaus.
Unlike England’s southern shores one distinctive difference is immediately apparent. A small matter of sand. Or rather, in Livorno’s case, the absence of any such toe curling luxury. Being a non-renewable resource, and given the ancients have been in the construction business for some thousands of years, one might still expect a ribbon of the golden stuff somewhere. I mean, how can you have a seaside resort without sand? Well, not to a Cornishman you can’t. No sight of the cornet brigade here, or the serried ranks of sunshades that spread like a Rimini rash along the Adriatic. That’s half the business rubbished for a start. And no bad thing given an apparent return to sanity, as people, mostly the locals, come here to swim, which is what God made the sea for. He slipped up when he overlooked the fact that wood is buoyant, and people took to floating instead of swimming. Anyway, Livorno has rocks. And not sticks of the Brighton sort with the name printed neatly round the edge. Getting it to stay there to the last bite would be beyond Latin ingenuity. No. We are referring to large flat black or brown slabs that are linked in complete abandon along the seashore, making tidy islands where locals can soak up the Mediterranean sun, and swim between the reefs in quiet pools. But that’s an acquired taste, which gives you a pain in the back if you’re in for a bit of sunbathing, or blisters on the soles of your feet by mid afternoon. But let’s not dwell on that. Pumps and an exercise mat are all you’ll need to join a Riviera of sun-oiled babes soaking up the ozone that’s delightfully stretched very thin on a shore that’s narrow in extremis.
The bright eyed among you will have noticed the confusion of names, and know that Livorno is Leghorn, or vice versa. This dualism is not new; references as far back as the sixteenth century refer to Ligorno and Legorno, a matter not particularly helped by being derived from the Genoan name for the area – a very feminine Ligorna! Orthography is apparently not a strong suit with the Italians. English sailors are said to have struggled with the word, and settled for Leghorn. So did the locals, giving the name to a breed of white chickens raised hereabouts.
Much is made of the Medici influence on the place given that they certainly put Livorno on the map, but in the manner of everywhere in Italy, dig a little deeper and someone’s been there before you. The Arno alluvium deposits run out where Livorno begins, allowing those inveterate builders, the Romans, to construct the first castrum, or castle. Over these foundations the medieval castle, including the spuriously named Matilda’s tower, was built. Finally, those inveterate architects, Sangallo, the Elder and Younger, built the Renaissance stronghold called the Fortezza Vecchia as distinct from the Fortezza Nuova round the corner.
You can never have too many castles, and with these colossal, bastion ringed forts, Livorno was on its way. Galileo, it seems, borrowed the Fortezza Vecchia canon to prove his principle on the independence of motion with no great success. It’s not very clear if the castle made the town, or the town made the castle. But as the middle ages represent a period of insistent war it was probably the former. No doubt a garrison town until Florence took over the place, and most of Tuscany during the Renaissance. Thereafter it became a successful commercial port. Ferdinand the First, Grand Duke of Tuscany, further assisted its expansion by declaring Livorno a ‘free port’, meaning a level playing field for trade. In an age of continual European secular violence such a benevolent, philanthropic spirit, saw an increase in foreign inhabitants, though perhaps not so much by the motivation of Christian kindness! Hapless Jews thought they really had finally reached the Holy Land, and for many perhaps they had, for their activity provided a large chunk of Livorno’s future prosperity. Even dusky Moors only had to be baptised to gain entrance. Well, they did, until some spoilsport told them about the circumcision. Despite all this, Catholic Livorno took off, even looking the other way to diehard Protestants who became their most important traders. Apparently they still are. (All that red stuff has to pass through somewhere on its way to England.) A bit of an impasse took place when these dissenters wanted their own patch of soil to be buried in. Money must have changed hands for no one breathed a word to the Vatican, and the English Cemetery near the Via Verdi, once called the Anglican Church of St, George (naturally), was founded c.1609. The earliest dated grave is 1640, and is the oldest non-Catholic cemetery in Italy. Expatriates would have a job gaining entry these days even if they popped their clogs. Though one could apply for a visit by E-mail etc. if they’ve a passion for sepulchres and spooks. Tobias Smollet, who I hope is also remembered for his wonderful story ‘The Expedition of Humphry Clinker’, resides here among other lustrous inmates. He finished the novel only a few months before he died at Montenero, on a hill overlooking the city. Shelley, on the other hand, had a funeral pyre on the beach; as such abandoned bodies were subject to strict quarantine laws with only the ashes allowed overland passage. The attendant mourners then gathered up his pile of dust and took it off to the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where not satisfied with his position among the hoi polloi, had him moved to a more secluded spot. Thackeray, in perhaps an oversight, hardly deigned to utilize such an exemplar of hubristic vanity for his famous 'Book of Snobs'.
Montenero seems to have drawn the interest of other English scribblers, for besides Smollet the scandalous Byron took up residence on the lower slopes for a short period. It appears he was present at the cremation of Shelley, and then took off for Greece to take part in the civil insurrection. Bad move, dying of fever before he could get a shot in. Montenero has little going for it except its most interesting church which can be reached by a funicular from the Piazza della Carrozze, given that parking can be difficult at the top. The ‘Sanctury of Montenero’, home to the Valumbrosan monks, seems to have developed a strange role, being the centre of the ex-voto tradition in Tuscany. Many catholic churches have such items on display, but not one where the whole church is a gallery of strange physical offerings to the saint. Six hundred items consisting of sundry newspaper cuttings, paintings and drawings depicting bodies falling out of windows, hanging on for dear life in run away carriages, tossed out of boats on a stormy sea, etc., etc.. A veritable catalogue of near death experiences. Compulsive viewing, I can tell you. So is the view over the whole of Livorno.
Wandering along by Livorno’s small tidy fishing port, happily quite separate from the almost invisible vastness of the commercial docks, one can’t but help spot the ‘Monument of the Four Moors’ and might be tempted to join the ‘Me Too’s’, interpreting this as a statement on the iniquity of slavery. They’d be wrong in substance, if not in concept, as the boot was on the other foot. Ferdinand the First, he of the before mentioned ‘Free Port’ enterprise, besides being one of the most enlightened rulers in an age of despots, created the first publisher, introduced opera to Europe, instigated the irrigation of the swamp like Val di Chiana, using that specialist clearer of marshes, Sir Robert Dudley, just then in hiding from belligerent wives, and the wrath of Oliver Cromwell. Ferdinand also displayed a genuine concern for his subjects, defeated a more powerful Ottoman fleet, and more to the point, took his gloves off against the plague of Moorish/Barbary pirates and cleared the Mediterranean of their scourge. At this point, freeing yourself from modern sympathies, you will find that the historical reality of the sixteenth century was one of justifiable relief from their vicious violence. The monument was, and is, a dedication to this benign ruler, created by the sculptor Giovanni Bandini, and thirty years later completed with the bronze addition of defeated pirates by Piero Tacca. Time had allowed a measure of distortion to creep in, for Tacca seems to have had a problem visualising what the Moors looked like, being a fair skinned mixed Berber and Arabic people. He has awkwardly incorporated some distinct negroid features, perhaps mistakenly gleaned from other sculptures, therefore blending more modern concepts with quite different sentiments that hardly applied in the Sixteenth century. Imagery is everything it seems, even when its motive is doubtful, and historical realism creates a false impression.
But times were a changing. Nothing lasts forever given all the meddling. First there was the would be nabob, Napoleon, a stalwart ‘European Union’ supporter, so when he’d been seen off having ruined the place, the powers to be created the Kingdom of Italy, scrapping the free port, whereupon a thriving metropolis declined even further in importance. Livorno went into a slump. As Savonarola aptly said before they added him to the bonfire: Government has ever stolen the Sovereignty from the people. A contemporary point that has not yet reached its apogee. But when the bunglers finally looked round they realized that Livorno was the only stepping off point between Genoa and Naples, so they rolled out the carpet once more and built a nice new dock after the allies had blown up the old one. They’d also blown up the Cathedral designed by Inigo Jones in 1605, but little of the original has been retained during the rebuilding, leaving a dour creation of very little architectural interest. On the other hand they have made a determined attempt on the historical centre by a sympathetic restoration that maintains its hardly apparent Venetian atmosphere among the myriad canals that Livorno was once famous for. It doesn’t stop the Livornese though from referring to the area as ‘Little Venice’. As barges were the juggernauts of their day linking the city to Pisa, and then on to Florence, perhaps one can visualize the makings of an interesting, if lengthy tourist outing, for an enthusiastic entrepreneur. Extremely good at building canals they were also extremely proficient at covering them up. The ‘Piazza della Repubblica’ is a vast paved square 240 metres in length forming a huge vault over the ‘Fosse Reale’ the name given to the cities network of canals. The locals refer to this span as ‘il Voltone’ – ‘volteggio’ being the Italian for vault – forming what is, in this case, a very, very large bridge.
We’ll cross it next month. LEGHORN. Part Two: The Art of other things.