Dwight Peck's personal website

Tuscany in the off-season

Arezzo and the neighborhood in February and early March, 2015

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

Arezzo was at the top of our list when we based ourselves in Lucca a few months ago, but we never made it this far south. So here we are now, based in Arezzo this time, with lots to see roundabout.

Poppi and the Castello dei Conti Guidi

Today's agenda calls for Poppi, but on the way out of Arezzo we're visiting the Museo Statale d'Arte Medievale e Moderna, or Civic Museum, which was closed when we've tried earlier.

It's an excellent museum with lots to see, but there was a biblical windstorm last night and the electricity in the neighborhood was blinking on and off. The unnerved staff, anxious to close the place up, graciously allowed us to sprint through the whole museum without pausing for breath.

Nonetheless, we've grabbed some hasty photos that give a sense of the place and its virtues, some of which especially caught our fancy, and some of which just weren't as blurry as the rest. Those are provided in a footnote here.

That done, we're on our way to the Pietra carpark to head up into the hills to famous . . .


Traveling upstream along the river Arno from Florence, one goes southward for a while and then, not far from Arezzo, turns northward up into the mountains and its headwaters in the Casentino valley; we've come past Bibbiena to here, the hilltop town of Poppi.

Despite the chilly rain, we're intending to get out of the car. In a while. This is downtown Poppi.

And so is this.

Poppi, apart from being a cute little hilltop town with a funny name on the upper Arno, is interesting for a number of other reasons, too, e.g., the presence of the Castle of the Counts Guidi, the presence in the forest above of the original hermitage of the Camaldolese branch of the Benedictine monastic order, and the view over the plain of Campaldino, site of the gruesome battle of the same name in 1289. And the children are all above average (as in Lake Woebegon).

So chilly rain or not, we proceed.

Evading raindrops up to the Castello di Poppi, or Castello dei Conti Guidi, or Poppi Castle if you wish

One of us detoured briefly, following signs for the public WC, and fetched up somehow in the castle moat.

The castle tower and gatehouse, from the moat

Emerging from the moat and preparing to attack the gatehouse

Enter through the Lion Gate. There was a fortification here in 1169, belonging to the Abbey of San Fidele de Strumi, but from the 1190s onward the Guidi family owned and improved the castle and, with the help of their other castles roundabout, controlled the Casentino valley for the next 350 years.

The courtyard. Much of the present structure was probably built in the mid- to late-13th century by Arnolfo di Cambio, who did a lot of work in Rome and was in charge of works on the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

Opening onto the courtyard, that is apparently the Judgment Seat, where the Counts Guidi met the local suppliants and warders to dispense justice in civil and criminal disputes.

That's the original part of the present castle, now housing archives and library materials, and the ticket shop, on the ground floor, built in the mid-13th century onto the pre-existing tower, at the same time as the then-Count Guidi built city walls around the whole village.

The Guidi family were originally Lombard nobles from Pistoia who rose to dominate much of the region, first supporting the Emperor, having been related somehow to Otto I, but later allied with the Gran Contessa, Matilda of Canossa, in the late 11th century, in support of Pope Gregory VII. They were with the Ghibellines at the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, but then a sibling rivalry split them off into Guelph and Ghibelline factions.

A fresco in the judgment alcove

A maquette in the basement of the Battle of Compaldino of 11 June 1289, when the Ghibelline army of Arezzo faced off against the Florentine consortium of Guelph cities, including Pistoia, Lucca, Siena, and Prato. The battlefield can be seen from the walls of Poppi.

The Florentine side (including a young Dante Alighieri) won the battle decisively and effectively brought Arezzo under the increasing influence of Florence in future years. Count Guido Novello of Poppi held his forces in reserve and, when he saw that the Aretines were in deep trouble, dashed back to this castle and pulled up the drawbridge. Within a few years, the Florentines destroyed 44 Guidi strongholds in the region and in 1293 paid off the then Count Guido da Battifolle to think Guelph and to rebuild this castle, with the assistance of Arnolfo di Cambio.

The fabulous internal staircase, built in 1470 to connect the upper stories of the original residence on the left and the new sections on the right. In 1440, after the Battle of Anghiari just over the mountain, the Guidi were forced into exile, Poppi and its castle passed into the Florentine Republic, and the castle premises were occupied by the Florentine vicar over the region until reunification in 1860.

At the base of the tower, here's the castle's prison . . .

. . . poignantly recreated with a mannequin representing a former prisoner with the surname of "Burglar".


The first floor balcony and grand staircase

The Rilliana Library houses some 25,000 books, including 600 incunabulae and 800 manuscripts from the 11th to the 15th centuries.

Coats of arms of Florentine families that administered Poppi and the Casentino in the 15th and 16th centuries

The staircase again, and the first and second floor internal balconies over the courtyard

The ballroom or former Great Hall. The torsos, like the folding chairs, are modern.

The base of the tower in the courtyard; the prison is beneath the stairs.

Now we're up to the second floor.

That's Guido da Battifolle, holding up the ceiling beam. He was the nephew of Count Guido Novello and son of the Guelph half of the sibling rivalry in 1273 mentioned above. He provided hospitality in the area to Dante, who was then in exile from Florence, regularly between 1307 and 1311, here in this castle for nearly a year in 1310. The lighted room down the hall is the little chapel.

All of the chapel's frescoes on peri-biblical themes are by Taddeo Gaddi (d.1366), described by Vasari as Giotto's most talented student.

That's The resurrection of Drusiana, a chaste wife in Ephesus who died of grief because she'd unwittingly been the occasion of a local bigwig, Callimachus, to think unclean thoughts about her, and who, when Callimachus tried to rape her anyway, was brought back to life by John the Evangelist. (Callimachus, caught in the attempt by a "beautiful youth" from heaven, was killed by said "youth" (later identified as Christ), but then was also resurrected by John to give him a chance to repent, which he did.) From the uncanonical Acts of John (just after the part where John talks a bunch of bedbugs into going outside just for the one night he'll be staying in the inn, on the grounds that God wills it).

We move now into the "Fireplace Room".

The balcony on the second floor, with Guido da Battifolle lurking at the end of it

It's time to go.

The well, such a useful thing to have in a castle during long sieges

The panorama appears to be looking along the Arno southeastwards from the castle, in the opposite direction from the battlefield of Campoldino, but it probably gives a good idea of the terrain.

That young man is a falconer, with his heavily gloved arm and binoculars, whose falcon seemed to have disappeared into the distance, but could later be spied circling high up some miles away over the valley ['Turning and turning in a widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold']. Somewhat later, though, higher up the hill, he seemed to be calling it in with some kind of radio device, and it was closing in on his head, or his gloved arm.

The Castello dei Conti Guidi gatehouse and keep in the rain.

It's time to go.

Awaiting stragglers

That's a bronze bust of Dante just outside the castle, because, well, why not? He was pleased to accept hospitality, as resident intellectual, from Count Guido in the Casentino area 1307-1311, and here in the castle in 1310, during his long exile from Florence (as a victim of the Black and White Guelph factional wars in that city).

The length of the hilltop town of Poppi, looking up the Casentino valley past Campoldino towards the village of Pratovecchio

The 13th-century church of the Abbey of San Fedele at the far end of the village

Leaving the castle, which seems now to be owned by the town and open for exhibitions and events.

In the central square, the church of Madonna del Morbo ('Madonna of the Illness'), built in 1659 by a local doctor

Very mid-17th century but cosy

Looking from the little church down the main street, Via Cavour, in the drizzly rain

Arcades all the way through the town

One way off the Via Cavour, down the hill

Kristin getting very chilly, seeking in vain for a little trattoria or buffet-express lunch wagon

Kristin giving up, and going back to get the car heater on

Poppi street scenes

The city gate at the northern end of the town, and the tower of the 13th-century Church of the abbey of San Fedele

It was up in those forests, in the local district of Camaldoli, that the Benedictine St Romuald set up a hermitage in ca. 1012, establishing the Camaldolese hermit branch of the Benedictine monastic order that presently has communities in Brazil, India, Tanzania, and the USA as well as, principally, in Italy.

The castello from the north end of town, blow-up tennis courts below

The Poppi high street

We've been saved: the Albergo Ristorante Casentino facing the castello, beautiful surroundings within and an excellent inexpensive light lunch

Now we're really leaving.

Now we're driving up into the mountains to the east of Poppi and Bibbieno, looking for an early refuge of St Francis and his merry men called Sanctuary of La Verna, an hermitage that Francis founded up here after a local lord donated the mountain of La Verna to him ("for my soul's safety") in 1213. It was here that Francis got his famous stigmata in 1224.

But as we go up and up, doubts begin to intervene.

Our recently-acquired little Volvo has not yet had an opportunity to prove his worth in the mountains, but, so far, we will not be dissuaded by a lack of faith.

Until we find that the last 3km up to La Verna, the road on the left, has been closed, and we are not the hardy souls to defy the well-meant prohibitions of those who know more than we do.

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 4 May 2015.

Arezzo trip,
Feb.-March 2015