Diary note 22: Quality

I wanted to show my Singaporean friend a few quality spots in Tuscany. So we went to Chiusi, Pienza and Bagni Filippo.

I will spare the reader the difficulty of reaching the first place: the ancient Etruscan contender for hegemony against Rome. Moreover the modern driver will rely on GPS. Anyway: tourism had not much changed the – thank God – sleepy town over the last quarter of a century.

The national museum of Etruscan Art and History is still rather enigmatic. But time invested in hunting for certain objects and comparing them, in short investing time in the museum, brings a rich harvest. My impatient partner declared he wants to revisit to see all these graves. And it was okay to see the vivid portrait of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus again.

Off to Pienza, very approachable by road from Siena. On arrival tourism was written all over the place and our hotel intake in a cloister was slowed down by young people getting free towels for the swimming pool. I meditated that this important cloister may have been made to suit bishops and cardinals visiting the pope in the fifteenth century, and so always had the vocation of a hotel in its nature.

We had chosen the upper floor and so had the full vision of the valley. I have nothing to add than that this basically Tuscan mixture of golden wheat-fields and Roman pines and the dreamlike Monte Amiata in the blue distance still merits the visit. From our monastic window I could also peep into the main focus of my interest: the balcony garden created by Pope Piccolomini. We had a subtle meal while seeing the sun set over the Val d’Orcia, next to this garden, downstairs.

People may come for the view but also because of the Pope. The humanist Aeneas Silvius, Pius II, had had this dream of lifting his birthplace to the level of an Ideal City, as theorized by the Florentine architect Alberti. Because of his Florentine dream in distant Pienza, tourists still come.

Initially my partner was not impressed. His theatrical mind saw only props, not the play. And indeed nowhere the voice of the dreamer was truly audible. His palazzo, with its famous library and the afore-mentioned balcony garden, was presented as the palazzo of the Piccolomini family. The ideal church was weighed down by recent problems of restoration etc. Only now and then the narrative of the ideal city came to life. I concluded that Pienza City Council needed my partner to make it dream again.

The most interesting Piccolomini garden overlooking the valley would merit a separate treatment. During my first visit in the eighties it was not yet included in the guided tour of the palace. Now it is, but in a deplorable state of maintenance, unlike before, when it was formally well-clipped and yearly provided with fresh roses from the Netherlands, as the gardener told me then. It is now included in the Guida Completa of Tuscan gardens by Marichiara Pozzana. A well-stocked bookshop in the palazzo made me notice a serious newcomer in garden history and buy several books of the publishing house of Angelo Pontecorboli in Florence.

Finally we went along the Via Cassia to bathe in the thermal springs of Bagni Filippo, not yet destroyed by international tourism. It took some effort to reach this natural flow of milky waters among the woods and join the locals in a nook among waterfalls and hot springs. The most imposing sediment is called the White Whale (balena bianca), and surrounded by notices not to risk one’s life in climbing its slippery slopes. This seemed a mere challenge to Italian youth. We paddled for a while in a distant pond under the interested gaze of some boys, sticking their cherub’s heads above the next waterfall.

Quality is worth a detour.