Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The parish church of Santa Maria and San Leonardo in Artimino, Carmignano, Tuscany

Today I want to return to one of my obsessions, the abbeys, monasteries and churches of Tuscany, in this case, specifically, the parish church of Santa Maria and San Leonardo in Artimino, at Carmignano in the Province of Prato (in Italian, La pieve di S. Maria e S. Leonardo ad Artimino, Comune di Carmignano, Prato). We are lucky in Tuscany that stone is readily available (ref. my husband's fields) and consequently almost every building in Tuscany is, in essence, a skilfully assembled pile of stones that lasts for millennia. Some of these structures are aesthetically indifferent - some are works of genius, even when they are pure vernacular art - meaning erected by now anonymous workmen with no special skills other than a miraculous feeling for beauty. The Pieve di S. Maria e S. Leonardo ad Artimino is one of these works of genius. It's located deep in the countryside and consequently rarely visited by visitors to Tuscany. This church has miraculously remained embedded in a pristine natural environment. If you're in the area, on no account miss paying it a visit.

La pieve di S. Maria e S. Leonardo ad Artimino, Comune di Carmignano, Prato
The parish church of S. Maria e S. Leonardo ad Artimino
This pieve is referred to in the famous decree of Emperor Otto III, dating from 998, which lists the privileges of the Bishop of Pistoia, also noting "plebs ... in Artimino", which is perhaps referring to a time before the existence of the inhabited settlement of Artimino. The latter was a walled town, documented, however, as "castle" since the 11 C. The then church of San Leonardo was located outside the walls of the castle. This was commonplace during that period, because territorial organisation was characterised by scattered settlements and distinct power centres: the castle and the pieve. The Rinaldeschi of Prato and then the Frescobaldi were the patrons for a long time.

The church was first devoted to the Virgin only during the 16 C and from then onwards was co-dedicated to the Virgin and San Leonardo. In its role as a parish church, the pieve of Santa Maria and San Leonardo in Artimino was the headquarters of several suffragan churches. In the 19 C, it had as its dependencies Santo Stefano alle Brusche at Poggio alla Malva, San Michele in Comeana and San Martino in Campo.

Interior of the Pieve di S. Maria e S. Leonardo ad Artimino
Interior of the Pieve di S. Maria e S. Leonardo ad Artimino

The pieve as a structure is one of the most complete, evocative and early examples of Romanesque architecture of the 11 C in Tuscany. The original buildings have remained intact over the centuries, apart from the construction of the vault cover in the 14 C and the construction of the canonical and "della Compagnia" buildings. The impression formed by the Romanesque elements has been enormously enhanced by the radical restoration of 1971 that eliminated additions of little value and also resulted in the removal of interior decorations of the 17 C and 18 C.

More about the Basilicas, Pievi, Abbeys, Monasteries and Hermitages of Tuscany.


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Up-to-date news on what to see and where to stay in Chianti and all of Tuscany.

Tuscany Travel Guide

vacation accommodations in Tuscany


Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Barack and Michelle Obama will be relaxing in the Val d'Orcia of Tuscany next week.

Barack and Michelle Obama are currently in Milan for a conference on climate change. They are expected to be relaxing in the Val d'Orcia of Tuscany next week, the third week of May, 2017.


Barack and Michelle Obama on vacation in Tuscany during May 2017

The Obamas will very likely to stay at Borgo Finocchieto near Buonconvento in the Val d'Orcia of Tuscany. Borgo Finocchieto is the property of John Phillips who ended his term as US Ambassador to Italy a few days ago. John Phillips is an American of Italian ancestry who purchased the property in 2001 and spent the next eight years renovating. I think we can safely assume that President and Mrs Obama will have a very comfortable time there in one of the most beautiful areas of Tuscany, especially since the weather forecast is extremely favorable.

If we (meaning your humble blogger, Anna Maria Baldini) can obtain some photos, we'll post them here. (Why have I lapsed into the royal "we" as soon as the presidency comes up?)

Buonconvento, Tuscany
Buonconvento

Michelle Obama visiting Montalcino in Tuscany, Italy
Michelle Obama enjoying Montalcino in Tuscany

The Obamas visit the Duomo of Siena
The Obamas visit the Duomo of Siena

We wish President and Mrs Obama a wonderful stay in Tuscany!

More about the Val d'Orcia, Tuscany.


Tuscany Toscana
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Tuscany Travel Guide

vacation accommodations in Tuscany


Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Friday, 14 April 2017

Italian lessons in Tuscany, Italy

Taking Italian lessons in Tuscany can and should be both practical and fun. There are multiple approaches, all of which have strong positive points. One approach to learning Italian is to use an online Italian language beginners' course or CD course and then to follow that up with intensive Italian lessons with a professional Italian language teacher, either in a group or one-to-one. Another approach to learning Italian is to start from the beginning with your professional Italian language teacher, taking your lessons at an easy pace, and backing them up with taped or CD lessons. Both of these approaches are enormously enhanced if you have the chance to take your Italian lessons in Italy so that you hear the language all day long and, of course, have the opportunity or the necessity to use your Italian language skills, rudimentary as they might be at the start.

Italian lessons in Tuscany
Lorella Federico, certified Italian teacher
If you have the chance to study Italian in Italy, I can strongly recommend Lorella Federico who is a professional Italian language teacher who gained her qualification at the University of Siena and who is based in Panzano in Chianti. Lorella is a skilled teacher - no doubt about that - and Panzano and its environs are a great base for your vacation in Tuscany. And they say that Siennese is the purest and most beautiful dialect of Italian.

Italian lessons via Skype
Italian lessons via Skype

If you're coming here on vacation, you can even take a single lesson with her so that you can pronounce places names correctly and apply a few useful phrases. Those are her beginner-level Italian lessons. She also offers a highly popular programme where you can continue your Italian lessons back home via Skype. And she also offers an intensive Italian course for those who, for one reason or another, must or wish to acquire good Italian conversational and reading skills in a short time.

More about Lorella's Italian lessons in Tuscany.

Tuscany Toscana
Don't forget to visit Elena Spolaor's
Travel Guide!

Up-to-date news on what to see and where to stay in Chianti and all of Tuscany & Umbria.

Chianti Travel Guide


Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Wednesday, 15 March 2017

How to get from the airport to central Florence

Many first time visitors to Tuscany ask me how to get from the airport to central Florence. And of course I have to ask them to specify which airport. Florence is served mainly by Pisa Airport (Aeroporto Galileo Galilei - code PSA) and to a lesser extent by its own small Florence Airport (Aeroporto Amerigo Vespucci, often known as Peretola - code FLR). I have heard but cannot confirm that sometimes long distance passengers have tickets specifying Florence as the destination when in fact they will land at Pisa. Be sure to check that and to check whether subsequent ground transport is included.

The Pisamover light railway from Pisa Airport to Pisa central railway station.
The Pisamover light railway from Pisa Airport to Pisa central railway station.

There are three different ways to travel from Pisa Airport to Florence - by train, by bus or by taxi


By train: The new, fast and fully automatic PisaMover light rail runs from Pisa Airport to Pisa Central Railway Station every 5/8 minutes every day, from 6 a.m. to midnight, and the journey takes 5 mins. The airport stop is in via Pier Giorgio Ballini, 40 m from the Passenger Terminal, and it arrives at platform 14 in the Pisa railway station. It has an intermediate stop at San Giusto/Aurelia station, where you’ll find two parking areas with about 1,400 spaces, open 24 hours a day, every day.

By bus: the notoriously unreliable Terravision bus is apparently still running and when there is no issue with traffic it is slightly faster than by train (around 70 minutes) and a ticket costs about 5 - 10 euros. Return and children's tickets cost less. Terravision bus timetables here. [Note March 2017 - Terravision is not running currently and their booking form yields "Not available". It is unclear whether or not this is permanent.]

Other bus services from Pisa Airport to Florence are Autostradale and Sky Bus Lines Caronna (the latter with multiple stops en route).

The choice between train and bus will very likely depend on the next train departure time but, taking traffic problems and comfort into account, along with the new PisaMover, my recommendation is to take the train.

There are other bus services from Pisa Airport to Lucca, Siena, Montecatini, Pistoia and Prato.

Beware of gypsy and other pickpockets when there is a scrum during boarding of the Terravision bus.

By taxi: A metered taxi will cost you about 150 euros or more because you have to pay the driver to return empty (that's included in the meter reading - the driver doesn't double the displayed price). There are also fixed-fare NCC minibuses that can be reserved in advance. This latter option costs about the same as a taxi base rate but the drivers are usually more familiar with country accommodations and so provide a good option if your have several people, a lot of luggage and will be staying in the country. Both people and baggage will cost extra with a taxi. NCC drivers can be booked for times when trains, buses and rental car offices are not active. Finally, you can rent a car, but do not try to drive it into central Florence (or Pisa, for that matter) where there are camera-patrolled limited traffic zones and fines aplenty.

Florence airport
Florence airport

There are two different ways to travel from Florence airport to central Florence.


By bus: Florence airport is only 4 km from the Florence city centre and the orange ATAF Volainbus bus shuttle takes about 20 minutes, runs every half an hour and costs about 5 euros. It leaves from the SITA bus station near the SMN railway station and from near the taxi rank at the station itself. Departures from city centre are every 30 min from 5.30 am to 8.00 pm, then after every hour up until 11.00 pm. Check timetable details on the ATAF website. New buses with large rack space inside the passenger compartment have been purchased in mid-2014.

By taxi: A metered taxi has a fixed price for trips to the airport (currently 20 euros), takes 15 minutes and is obviously a good choice if you are 3 or 4 people and/or want to leave directly from your hotel. Picking up and dropping off your rental car at the airport is generally a good idea because you avoid the limited traffic zones in the city centre.

A taxi will cost 20 Euros, plus 1 Euro for each piece of luggage (maximum 5 Euros). There is also a 2 Euro supplement for Sunday service and a 3.20 Euro supplement for night service (22:00 to 6:00). Consequently, the "break-even" point for using the airport bus is 3 or 4 passengers traveling together.

Secure travel accessories

Some recommended fixed-fare NCC minibus drivers.

Getting around in Tuscany.

Warnings regarding limited traffic zones in Tuscany.

Recommended vacation accommodation in Chianti towns, villages and countryside.



vacation accommodations in Tuscany

Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Wednesday, 1 February 2017

I've been to Tuscany before. What should I see this time?

Today I want to try to provide some hints on the amazing diversity of Tuscany. More than once, readers have written to me to say "I've been to Tuscany before. What should I see this time?" To research your next trip to Tuscany, you basically need to list the aspects that you've already experienced and then to expand your options. Here are some ideas.

Art, yes, done that - then what about architecture as such? Renaissance architecture, yes, done that - then what about vernacular architecture? Head out into the Tuscan countryside and follow some of those quiet, narrow roads - they all lead somewhere, as often as not to farmhouses and hamlets that have grown over the centuries from mediaeval watch towers. It's this almost random agglomeration that gives much of Tuscan vernacular architecture its charm. Tuscany is also dotted with ancient monasteries and parish churches created in the same spontaneous manner. Because they are all invariably built of stone, you'll have no trouble finding inhabited structures documented as dating back to before the year 1000. Settle down in an ancient courtyard for a picnic and enjoy the atmosphere as well as the architecture!

Vernacular architecture in Tuscany
Vernacular architecture in Tuscany
Wine tasting at a winery, yes, done that. But was it at some industrial scale place with several minibuses (or touring buses) parked about the place? From about April onwards, the grape vines begin to sprout and the Tuscan countryside takes on a deep green colour. Right up until the vendemmia in September, it becomes a real pleasure to stroll along the strade bianche that traverse the vineyards and visit one of the many small, traditional wineries of Chianti and elsewhere in Tuscany. You don't need to book in advance - if someone is available, you'll be able to look around and taste the two or three wines that they make. Look for the roses planted at the ends of the rows of grape vines - like canaries in a mine, they warn of imminent danger, in this case mildew. Some wineries still grow crops between the rows of vines, among them irises (giaggioli), the roots of which are harvested for extraction of a stabiliser used in perfumery. Mixed cultivation like this is a reflection of the old coltura promiscua common even in the early 20 C.

Irises planted between rows of grape vines in Tuscany
Irises planted between rows of grape vines in Tuscany

Walking tour, yes, done that. A walking tour of Florence, maybe, but what about the numerous walking paths from one village to another. Some are hilly, that's true, but there are others that are no more than a bucolic stroll. These are popular among Tuscans too, especially if there's a chance to dress up in ancient costumes like the group of pilgrims below on their way to Monteriggioni. There are several excellent guide books describing the most popular routes plus the villages and wineries that you will encounter along them. This is really a great way to get to know the real Tuscany and real Tuscans!

A country stroll under the walls of Monteriggioni,Tuscany
A country stroll under the walls of Monteriggioni.
Go to the seaside, yes, done that. To Forte dei Marmi? Many people, including a very large number of Italians, enjoy nothing better than lying in a deck chair under a sun umbrella in neat rows with hundreds of other like-minded sun worshippers at Tuscan beaches. But Tuscany has numerous stretches of truly beautiful coastline and charming fishing villages, especially in its off-the-beaten-track southwest, around Monte Argentario and Talamone. Here you can swim, go boating or diving around interesting rocky promontories and dine in excellent fish restaurants. Also see my post of the delightful beaches and old town of Castiglione della Pescaia.
Talomone port on the Tuscan coastline
Talomone port on the Tuscan coastline

Take a horse and wagon ride through the Chianti countryside - OK, well, that's something really different. Luca Perrotta who works from Montespertoli, fairly near to Florence, does regular private and shared horse and wagon excursions through the Chianti countryside. He also does excursions that last three days through the unjustly-neglected area of south-western Tuscany known as The Maremma. These excursions are absolute magic for families with children.

See my post on taking a horse-drawn wagon tour through Chianti.

Horse and wagon excursion in Tuscany
Horse and wagon excursion in Tuscany
In future posts, I will have more suggestions on how to refresh yourselves with new and interesting sights in Tuscany. For now, don't forget: one of the objects of a vacation is to relax, and there is no place that offers a greater variety of tranquil locations combined with wonderful weather and views than Tuscany. See you here soon!

Relax in Tuscany
Relax in Tuscany.

Sights, activities, events and places to stay in Tuscany.

Vernacular art of Tuscany.

Vacation accommodation in Tuscany
www.bella-toscana.com


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Sunday, 29 January 2017

Where to rent an e-bike in Tuscany?

As more and better models of e-bike (electric bike) become widely available in Tuscany, we are lucky enough to have access to a new and wonderful way to explore the Tuscan countryside. Standard bikes are already hugely popular in Tuscany, especially among male Tuscans of all ages as well as with many visitors. On weekends from Spring through Autumn, you can see them zooming along in their thousands over the scenic routes, especially the Chiantigiana highway that traverses Chianti between Florence and Sienna. The one adjective that applies to all of these riders is "fit".

cycling in Tuscany
White road cycling in Tuscany

Then there are the rest of us . . . keen on enjoying the outdoors and getting a bit of exercise but not quite up to tackling the Tuscan hills on racing bikes. Fear not, Dear Reader, the answer is nigh. The electric or assisted bicycle, commonly known as the e-bike or ebike, is a bicycle with pedals like an ordinary bike but with, in addition, a generator and an electric motor powered by accumulators (rechargeable batteries) which are recharged by the generator on downhill or easy, flat stretches. I tested one of these recently during a brief warmish spell and I can say that they're incredible. You can tackle the Chianti hill roads, including the unpaved strade bianche without breaking into a sweat (or perspiring, in the case of ladies). This really puts at your disposal the most attractive way to explore Tuscany outside the big art cities. Very little sound, fresh air blowing through your hair and the option to stop for a "photo opp" or a rest or lunch whenever the spirit moves you. Riding an e-bike really does bring you effortlessly into close contact with rural Tuscany.

Where to rent an e-bike in Tuscany?
E-bike in Tuscany

This brings us to the question of where to rent an e-bike in Tuscany. I have personal experience so far of just one e-bike rental agency in Chianti, namely Tuscany Limousine who are located in the pretty village of Gaiole in Chianti and can be recommended for anyone staying in the Chianti Classico wine area between Florence and Sienna. Tuscany e-Bike Rental snce rent e-bikes and you can arrange a guided e-bike tour with them. For a small fee, they will also bring your e-bikes to any location within a reasonable distance of Gaiole. Their service is very friendly and helpful, and you can rent or buy things like gloves, helmets, GPS systems etc. from them.

Their sister company, Tuscany Limousine, rent cars, with and without driver - one of the few car rental places outside of the big cities.

More about Tuscany e-bike rentals.

My post about self-guided bike tours in Tuscany.

Tuscany e-bike rentals


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Travel Guide!

Up-to-date news on what to see and where to stay in Chianti and all of Tuscany.

Tuscany Travel Guide

Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Thursday, 5 January 2017

Chiocchio, the castle of Mugnana and the Cintoia valley in Chianti, Tuscany

Chiocchio is a village on the Via Chiantigiana that wanders from one villa and farm to another along the ridges of Chianti, Italy between Florence and Siena. In early times, Chiocchio was a fairly important crossroads with a road running to the Castle of Mugnana which was probably built on the remains of Ad Aquileia, a Roman way-station on the Via Cassia. The castle represents a typical case of the 14 C transformation of a castle into a single-family, private residence. It belonged to the Bardi family of Florence during Renaissance times and later.

The Castello di Mugnana near Chiocchio in Chianti, Tuscany
The Castello di Mugnana near Chiocchio in Chianti, Tuscany
The Pieve (Parish church) of San Donato a Mugnana is located nearby and was for long a dependency of the Castle of Mugnana. Although much reconstructed over the centuries, the Pieve di San Donato a Mugnana is a Romanesque foundation.

The Pieve of San Donato a Mugnana near Chiocchio
The Pieve of San Donato a Mugnana near Chiocchio
From the via Chiantigiana, I recommend making an excursion by taking the turn to the east a short distance to the south of Strada in Chianti, to explore the beautiful Valley of Cintoia by driving to La Panca and then rejoining the via Chiantigiana at Greve in Chianti.

The Castle of Cintoia might take its name from the Roman expression "centuria", an area of ground of about 50 hectares but it is more ttle of the original castle remains, having been replaced by some large farm houses.
Castle of Cintoia in Chianti, Tuscany
Castle of Cintoia in Chianti, Tuscany




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Thursday, 29 December 2016

Is it possible to visit a privately-owned Tuscan Renaissance villa?

While some of the most famous Tuscan villas, especially the Medicean villas of Tuscany, are now publicly owned, there are large numbers of Tuscan villas, some with spectacular gardens, that are still in private hands. Not surprisingly, readers ask me whether it is possible to visit a privately-owned Tuscan Renaissance villa. The answer is that a number of them are accessible and I'll be providing details here and in later posts.

Villa Poggio Torselli


Villa Poggion Torselli in Tuascany, Italy
Villa Poggio Torselli in Tuscany, Italy

Villa Poggio Torselli is a magnificent Tuscan villa located near San Casciano in Val di Pesa just a few km from Florence, and the location of one of the finest italianate gardens in Tuscany, if not the whole of Italy. This villa belonged to the Machiavelli family and later to a long line of Tuscan aristocrats. They also owned the nearby Castello di Bibbione. Niccolò Machiavelli, Renaissance historian, politician, diplomat and writer, and the most famous member of his family, did not live in this villa. When not in disgrace, he lived in Florence except when abroad (meaning away from Florentine territory) on diplomatic missions. When banished from Florence, he lived in his country retreat, Albergaccio Machiavelli, which is to be found at Sant'Andrea in Percussina, not far away from Villa Poggio Torselli.

Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò Machiavelli
Villa Poggio Torselli is particularly famous for its gardens. These gardens probably date from the late 17 C, and consists of an italianate garden divided into two terraces to the south and an English park area in to the north. In the upper terrace on the south side, the original arrangement with flower beds has been preserved along with a very ingenious irrigation system, one of the best preserved of Tuscany. It was designed with stone basins positioned to favour the flow of water from the highest point to the lowest. The parterre was transformed in mid 19 C according to the English style, but was restored first around 1925 when the box hedging was renewed and then by the present owners, who uncovered one of the original flowerbeds with its irrigation basins.

The conservative restoration called for a renewal of the planting typical of late 18 C gardens. Dwarf fruit trees, old-fashioned roses, aromatic herbs and flowers were planted and act as a frame for the baroque chapel and the architecture of the three-storey villa. When the weather is warm, the potted citrus trees are carried out from the splendid limonaia into the open air.

In addition, the beautiful landscape offers sweeping views of lush greenery extending over about 42 hectares, 25 of which are given over to vineyards and 13 to olive groves.

The giardino all'italiana of Villa Poggio Torselli
The giardino all'italiana of Villa Poggio Torselli
The Poggio Torselli villa itself is one of the largest, most prestigious and elegant villas found in the hills of San Casciano in Val di Pesa, in the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany. It was once known as the “queen of the villas”. The villa was built on the site of an earlier structure between the late 1600s and early 1700s by Lorenzo Merlini, an architect who was very popular with the Florentine nobility of the day.

The villa consists of a central block and two L-shaped wings which house apartments and offices, a chapel and winter garden. To the south, the wings enclose the giardino all'italiana. The interiors are characterised by colour, tromp l’oeil and allegorical paintings, created at the end of the 17 C by Pier Dandini, Matteo Bonechi and their students. Don't miss the ceilings of the two rooms adjacent to the main hall on the ground floor. You can reach the luxurious rooms and parlours on the upper levels via an astoundingly beautiful staircase.

The salotto of Villa Poggio Torselli
The salotto of Villa Poggio Torselli

  
Villa Poggio Torselli is a private villa that can be visited exclusively as part of a wine tour offered by Angela Saltafuori. More about the wine tour of the Machiavelli family's Chianti villa.

Information on visiting the gardens of Villa Gamberaia in Settignano near Florence are given in my post on Villa Gamberaia.

More about the villas of Tuscany

More about Tuscan villa gardens

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Up-to-date news on what to see and where to stay in Chianti and all of Tuscany.

Tuscany Travel Guide



vacation accommodations in Tuscany

Author: Anna Maria Baldini


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Friday, 4 November 2016

Wine tasting of wines aged in terracotta amphorae taking place in Impruneta, Tuscany 19 - 20 November 2016

Terracotta and wine Impruneta, Tuscany 19 - 20 November 2016

In 2014, I provided details of an event hosted by Terracotta Artenova in Impruneta - a conference on making wine in terracotta containers.

wine-making in terracotta jars from Terracotta Artenova
Wine-making in terracotta jars from Terracotta Artenova
Leonardo Parigi of Terracotta Artenova and his family pioneered the manufacture in Tuscany of large terracotta giare for wine-making and the conference that they organised in 2014 was a huge success. So much so, indeed, that this month they have organised a follow-up conference that includes massive wine tasting sessions of wines that have since been produced and/or aged in terracotta vessels.

Wine tasting of wines aged in terracotta amphorae taking place in Impruneta, Tuscany 19 - 20 November 2016

This wine tasting of wines aged in terracotta amphorae will take place in Impruneta, Tuscany, on the 19th and 20th of November 2016.
Entry costs 15 euros, including your wine glass and holder.

It is not mandatory to pre-register for this terracotta wine tasting event,
but pre-registered attendees will have a fast line at the entrance.

Programme 2016

This was a great event!

Here's a picture of the wonderful concluding dinner prepared by Filippo Saporito
followed by Champagne from Henri Giraud.

Watch for the next conference, probably in two years from now.



The 2nd International Convention "Terracotta and wine 2016" will be held in the atmospheric ambiance of the 18 C terracotta workshop, Fornace Agresti, in Impruneta. The town is just a few km from Florence, with good bus connections. The event is all about winemaking in amphora and, as last time, it is open to the general public and offers the unique opportunity to taste and compare these unusual and extraordinary wines from all over the world. The number of exhibitors has grown from 29 in 2014 to 40 this year, as more and more wine producers are making some of their wine in terracotta containers - champagne and beer too! An Enoteca (wine shop) will be available for those who wish to buy the wines on show. There will be talks and debates on a technical level, where wine makers specialised in the production of amphora wine will share their experiences. There will be several guided wine tasting sessions, as well as various musical performances and tours of the Artenova terracotta workshop.

Wine tasting at the 2014 event in Impruneta
Wine tasting at the 2014 event in Impruneta

Terracotta Artenova.

Wine making in terracotta jars.

Terracotta jars used in wine-making.


Tuscany Toscana
Don't forget to visit my Tuscany
Travel Guide!

Up-to-date news on what to see and where to stay in Chianti and all of Tuscany.

Tuscany Travel Guide



vacation accommodations in Tuscany

Author: Anna Maria Baldini


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Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Castello di Montegufoni and the Sitwell family

Of all the castles in Tuscany, the one to which I am most attracted is the Castello di Montegufoni which is situated near Montespertoli, 20 km south of Florence.

Castello di Montegufoni
Castello di Montegufoni

This attraction is evoked both by the castle itself, as it was when owned by the Sitwells, and its literary associations, the first of which is Sir George Sitwell himself. Sir George was an English aristocratic eccentric on the grand scale who bought Montegufoni in 1909 and spent the rest of his life - he died in 1943 - restoring and decorating it. He, like I, was a garden nut whose finest book was On the Making of Gardens, a product of his extensive knowledge of gardens, and of Italian gardens in particular. Its style is lush and over-romantic, even by Victorian standards, but I don't find that to be especially a problem. His reflections are valuable and the book can still be read for both pleasure and profit.

The Sitwell family
The Sitwell family

Sir George's wife, Lady Ida, was beautiful, charming (in a vapid, prattling sort of way) and monumentally extravagant. Alas, she was also a stupid woman, "slightly mentally retarded" according to Harold Acton, and she was neither able nor willing to accompany her husband on his intellectual adventures. Her main claim to fame was to fall into debt and into the hands of a blackmailer, with a consequent sentence of three months in prison for fraud in 1915 - not easily accomplished by a member of the aristocracy of that period.

Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell
Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell at the height of their fame as a "team"

The second literary association is with Sir George's children, Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell who dominated literary London between the wars, during the period of roughly 1916 to 1930. It was during WW I that the Sitwell siblings began to operate as a team: to be precise, at a poetry reading in the drawing room of Lady Colefax (known by her rivals - and some of her guests - as Coalbox) in December, 1917. The cultivation of a group identity turned out to be a brilliant ploy. Each Sitwell in his own way was striking, but together they made an indelible impression. For many at the time (and later), they were more entertaining and influential than the Bloomsberries and their hangers-on. Their lecture tours and performances in America after WW II were hugely successful.

All three collectively and individually ridiculed their father for his eccentricities while inexplicably sparing their mother - well, Edith disliked her mother intensely and with good reason. In fact, Sir George was clever and alarmingly energetic. Both his Derbyshire home at Renishaw and his Tuscan palace at Montegufoni were rendered immeasurably more beautiful by his activities. His only significant error was to turn down an arrangement made by Sacheverell for Picasso to paint the frescoes at Montegufoni. Sir George chose Severini instead and the work was carried out in that annus mirabilis of Modernism, 1922. The results are not too bad!

Severini fresco at Montegufoni
A Severini fresco at Montegufoni

Edith, the eldest of Sir George's offspring, has been the most celebrated with her many volumes of poetry and the perennial success of Façade, an entertainment in verse with music by William Walton. However, as memories of her public readings fade, so too does her claim to fame outside the diminishing world of poetry aficionados.

Osbert was a homosexual of a masculine, repressed type. In youth, as an eligible bachelor, he had had a "nasty fright" when he was briefly pursued by the predominantly lesbian Violet Keppel, later Violet Trefusis: "By Jove, I wish he'd accepted her!" her husband, Denis Trefusis, remarked when told of this incident many years later. In 1924, Mrs Keppel, Violet's mother, bought Villa L'Ombrellino, a large and beautiful villa overlooking Florence and where Galileo once lived. After her parents' death in 1947, Violet Trefusis lived in Villa L'Ombrellino until the end of her life in 1972. Osbert reigned over Montegufoni from his father's death in 1943 until his own death in 1969.

Osbert's literary output has, in my opinion, become rather neglected since his death, and been poorly rated by members of the chattering classes who haven't actually read much or any of it. I've read most of his non-poetry books with great enjoyment, especially his five volume autobiography and the collection of essays published under the very appropriate name of "Winters of Content". I recommend them.

Sacheverell, the youngest of the three, single-handedly rescued baroque art and architecture from undeserved oblivion, most notably with his 1924 book, Southern Baroque Art: a Study of Painting, Architecture and Music in Italy and Spain of the 17th & 18th Centuries. He turned out over 100 books during his life.

Formal garden at Castello di Montefugoni
A formal garden at Castello di Montefugoni

The History of Castello di Montegufoni

Originally, Montegufoni belonged to the Ormanni, a family mentioned in Dante's Divine Comedy. In 1135, the Florentines attacked the castle and it was left in ruins until the 13 C, when it became the property of Gugliarello Acciaioli. His descendants enriched themselves enormously thanks to their bank and extensive landholdings, and towards the end of the 13 C, Montegufoni had become a complex composed of the main building and seven smaller buildings, surrounded by walls.

In 1310, Niccolò Acciaiuoli was born there, in a room that was later converted into a chapel. He later became the Grand Seneschal of the Kingdom of Naples and a close friend of Boccaccio and Petrarch. In 1348, the King of Naples, Luigi Taranto, away from his kingdom following the conflict with the King of Hungary, took refuge in Montegufoni with his prime minister. He made a habit of feasting with Bishop Angelo Acciaiuoli in the Banquet hall (now the room called the "Theatre").

In 1386 by Donato Acciaioli, possessor of the titles of Duke of Athens, Roman Senator and Gonfaloniere of the Republic of Florence, built the tower that still dominates the castle. In 1396, Donato was banished from Florence, but his assets (including Montegufoni) were saved from confiscation by the cardinal's brother. The three sons of Donato resided to the Court of Athens until one of them, Agnolo di Jacopo, returned to Montegufoni with his son (Duke Francesco) and a cousin. It was at that time that Montegufoni acquired the nickname "the court of dukes ".

the tower of Montegufoni castle
The tower of Montegufoni castle

In 1546 another Donato restored the tower of Montegufoni in the style of the Arnolfo tower of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence and built the armory (the hall known today as the "Gallery") and during this period Montegufoni became the meeting place of many Florentine artists. In 1612, Cosimo II de 'Medici was invited to Montegufoni. Around 1650 Donato, with his wife, Anna Maria Altoviti, restored the castle, giving it the appearance it still retains today, by connecting the seven hitherto distinct buildings together. The castle continued to be one of the most famous gathering places for high Florentine society throughout the 17 C and during the 18 C, until the economic decline of the Acciaioli family caused it to be sold to the Baracchi family.

As we have seen, in 1909 Sir George Sitwell fell in love with the beautiful castle and bought it.

During World War II, more than two hundred very important works of art from the Uffizi were hidden in the cellars of Montegufoni to save then from damage and theft. Among them were Ghirlandaio's Adoration of the Magi, Botticello's Primavera and the Madonna of Ogni Santo by Giotto.These were stumbled upon by Eric Linklater while the castle was still occupied the Mahratta Light Infantry, the roar of battle only a mile away. It was Major Linklater who shortly afterwards drove a youthful Lieutenant Frederick Hartt in his jeep to check the paintings as soon as the Germans were out of the way.

The Sitwells made the castle an important cultural centre by inviting artists, especially Americans and British, to work there. In 1946, Sir Osbert settled at the castle. He developed Parkinson's disease and died there in 1969. In 1972, Sacheverell's son, Reresby Sitwell, pressed for estate taxes in the UK, sold the castle for a song to the current owner, Sergio Posarelli, who converted it into luxury vacation accommodation.

More about the castles of Tuscany.

Gardens of Tuscany.

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Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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