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The Virgin is Calling

When I decided to take up residence at ‘il Carmine’ it was because I felt it was beautiful and conducive to creativity. It is a charming little countryside hamlet in the south of Tuscany, consisting of church, ex-monastery and a little cluster of houses. It feels like a special place, like many places where churches have been constructed.

The Madonna appeared to a shepherdess here in 1536, and a few years after that the construction of the church began on the spot. The mother of Christ chose a beautiful place to appear. If we could imagine energies converging like winds, up from the valleys of the Tiber and the Sovara rivers and swirling around gently to land, it would be here at il Carmine, definitely.

il Carmine

After moving in I began to explore the nearby town called Anghiari, pronounced An-ghee (like the clarified butter)-ari, only three kilometres from il Carmine. I had heard of it because I knew the story of the famous lost fresco in Florence called 'The Battle of Anghiari', by Leonardo daVinci.

It turns out Anghiari is one of the most beautiful towns in Europe, according to a recent CNN report.

The town is perched on a mound overlooking the plains of the Tiber river. The old palaces rise up out of the rock along the winding medieval streets. There are inviting shops

and restaurants and so, so many pots if bright geraniums against the old stone. I have discovered that the town has two museums, a theatre, a philharmonic orchestra, a music school, and a

delightful old public library. There is an active cultural life with a

calendar of concerts, shows and writer’s seminars.


One of the first things I was told about Anghiari was that there is a fabulous old art school in the medieval quarter that is in danger of closing down due to lack of enrolment. I was of course curious. Walking up the tiny narrow streets towards the town hall one day, I passed the entrance to the art school. I was with a friend at the time, on my way to one of the largest public terraces of the town to take in the views and have a drink.

Standing on the terrace, overlooking the valley, I thought of the Master Piero della Francesca. This was his region, these were his views, (minus the Buitoni factory). The tradition of art and artisan skills in this region is noteworthy. I immediately felt the need to see inside this venerable art institution.

By happy combination, or the power of the aforementioned magical winds, a few days later during a concert at il Carmine I found myself sitting on a bench outside the church next to a man with a dog.

This man happened to be one of the school’s most passionate teachers, a wonderful musician of the viola da gamba, and luthier, Fabrizio Lepri, who introduced me to the town’s minister for tourism and education Ilaria Lorenzini. They both feel quite passionately that this school is a special place and would hate to see the doors close. I was invited to go and visit the school the coming week.

My visit allowed me to see that the school is very beautiful and well cared for. The ten or so remaining students were hard at work making musical instruments, finishing off their year-end projects. The school has a tradition of excellence teaching the specialised arts of decorative wood intarsia, carving and the restoration of fine wooden objects. Thus the walls are lined with intarsia panels and the doors of the offices are in themselves works of art.

There are some carefully restored antique tabernacles and some fragments of Christs hung high up on the walls of the offices, their crosses long gone, their bodies worm eaten, pathos in the delicate carved features of their faces.

A young woman was busy taking inventory lest some of these priceless pieces start to grow legs and walk out the door once there are no longer students and teachers around.

The rooms are bright with views as far as the eye can see over the valley of the Tiber river. The drawing studio on the top floor is lit from skylights and has views over the medieval rooftops of the old town and out over the valley. The woodcarving and intarsia workshop has drawers full of fine chisels and massive old solid wood workbenches. There is a library with an extensive collection of books on art and decoration.

I think it was in the gilding studio that my heart actually skipped a beat, though I had been gasping often throughout the tour. The gilding and restoration workshops are in the front rooms with windows that look over the oldest piazza, the heart of the town. There are antique candelabras, frames and glorious fragments lining the walls. I wanted to remain in this room.

Why, I asked, are we losing these things?

The truth of the matter is that art institutes like these can be found all over Italy. The Italian tradition of craftsmanship was so strong in the past that these art institutes were created to train young people in specialised artistic skills from the age of 14. They were a practical choice for budding craftspeople with young minds and muscle memory that was very receptive to being developed for highly skilled artistic work in a flourishing field.

Italy still has a high level of artistic production. Certainly the field of artisan craftwork has changed and some traditional crafts have disappeared almost entirely. These art institutions were almost all reformed by 2009 to conform with the national high school education standards, and so the curriculum changed. More academic subjects were introduced and less hours were dedicated to workshops. Teachers were no longer hired from the ranks of professional artisans; they were to be academics. I think the resulting hybrid, the ‘Liceo Artistico’ (art high school), has been allowing the artistic excellence to drain away slowly.

Meanwhile in towns all over Italy today’s confused teenagers are trying to make the right choice of which high school to attend. Most are influenced by their parents who generally guide them towards the maths and sciences if they can, or to schools that offer sure paths into the working world.

And so, the Liceo Artistico of Anghiari is to close down.

Of course I think these precious skills should be preserved and passed on. They are at the very base of what makes Italy such a uniquely beautiful place. We do need to rethink the way this is done. Happily, some of the good residents of Anghiari have been thinking on this quite creatively for some time now. I have joined their committee to see what can be done and will keep my readers updated regarding the mission to save such an important part of their heritage.

Perhaps you agree that it is not only Italy that is losing this vital heritage, it is the whole world.


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