Bringing in the New Year Under the Tuscan Snow
December 30th, 2014
We are in Tuscany with works of art and architecture and landscapes and food that enrich the body and soul – what an ending to a 2014 that still feels like a dream full of unexpected discoveries and what a way to begin a New Year.
After a very mild December, a Siberian cold front has brought icy winds and snow to most of Italy. The first stop on our 3 day tour has been postponed. The road to the Eremo (Hermitage) and the Monastery di Camaldoli, which are now part of the National Park of the Casentino Forests, is closed with 15 cm of freshly fallen snow. So the first stop is – lunch. We heartily enjoy the antipasto of house salamis and prosciutto, and penne with wild boar and mushrooms, potato and tomato ravioli, Chianina roast (the regional cattle famous for Bistecca Fiorentina),with peas, salad, a crème caramel for dessert. We were offered seconds of everything, and I actually ate everything including, I cannot believe it, a second portion of the penne! Right now a nap would feel really good because our day started at 5:00 this morning.
But luckily we are headed to the medieval town of Poppi. It is located on a hilltop and is dominated by the Castle of the Counts of the Guidi family. The castle, built in 1477, is one of Tuscany’s most significant works of mediaeval architecture.
At first Poppi seems a bit dark and cold – cold because there is an icy wind blowing and dark because all the doors of the buildings seem to be tightly closed. But as we walk under a covered arcade, porticos with a series of arched stone columns, we see there are businesses lit up and open. Each column is decorated with a fresh pine bough and a red bow. Then we see a sign that says Presepio. One of those closed wooden doors is open and there, in what might be the entrance to a home, is a nativity all lit up. There are a number of these nativities set up in what seems like little nooks and crannies and open doorways all the length of the street to the church. All of a sudden Poppi feels like Christmas should be – welcoming and peaceful with none of that shopping centre madness. It is all very simple and it feels so right for this place steeped in history.
I am sure there are works of art in the church but what I remember most is the series of miniature nativities set into niches at one end of the church. They are from a collection in Parma but they struck me because the figures seemed to be very similar in style to the nativity pieces my sister and I collect. So a significant proportion of the pictures attached are of the nativity sets. There was also a large nativity set with moving pieces in the main part of the church.
We wind our way up the narrow streets and reach the piazza in front of the castle. You are struck immediately by the strength of the tower and the stone walls of the castle. Our guide tells us the tower was designed by the same architect that later designed the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. There is a great view of the hills in the distance lightly covered with snow. That icy wind is blowing even stronger here!
We look up at the crenellated walls of the tower as we cross the drawbridge – the Lion Gate – and enter the inner courtyard of the castle. While it has been covered with a glass skylight the feeling of being in a medieval castle hits you full on. The courtyard is dominated by a large fifteenth-century stone staircase. You are surrounded by stone walls. Above are wooden balconies with remains of the original wood ceilings with rich dark brown beams. At the other end of the courtyard is a huge wooden door.
In 1289, the Battle of Campaldino took place at the foot of the town, in which Florence and other Guelfi towns fought against the Ghibelline troops of Arezzo. “Guelfi” and “Ghibelline” were taken to denote the two factions that kept Italy divided and devastated by civil war during the greater part of the later Middle Ages – the Guelfi loyal to the Church and the Ghibelline to the Empire. The Ghibelline’s were crushed, opening the way for Florentine domination in Tuscany. The battle is also noteworthy because Dante Alighieri was a participant and is said to have used that experience for one of the writings in his “Divine Comedy”. The castle has a model showing how the two armies of the Guelfi and the Ghibellini met each other on the battlefield.
We head back down to Poppi and stop into a bar-caffe warming ourselves with a pungent mandarin punch. It is a fine ending to our first day in Tuscany!