• Dawn Cumming

I would like to share with you some simple Tuscan pleasures that I enjoy during the summer months. First and foremost is of course just the privilege to be in Tuscany and to stay at our little Tuscan abode up in the hills above Bagni di Lucca. There is nothing more satisfying than throwing open the shutters and flooding the house with some well deserved light and air after the cooler days of spring. It is quite impossible to describe the views from the windows but trust me when I say that they are so incredibly beautiful with verdant green enveloping the hills all around and a sliver of silver river to be seen at their foot. Days begin with the crowing of a cockerel at Dawn and end with majestic sunsets.

In the month of June the intoxicating scent of jasmine carries heavily in the light summer breeze and even finds its way inside our house. It is a delight to savour its fragrance.

In July bright yellow sunflowers make me feel happy and I long to stay here forever.

On those days when the heat from the sun becomes too intense it is a relief to walk in the shade of the ancient chestnut woods. It is even more of a relief to visit somewhere such as San Pellegrino in Alpe where it is possible to enjoy cooler temperatures.

It is always wonderful to see our kind-hearted Tuscan neighbours and friends. Our neighbour Giuseppina always treats us to some of her delicious home cooking. No-one makes torta di riso as good as she does!

I become quite a domestic goddess myself when I am in Tuscany and really make the most of using all the fresh fruits that grow abundantly during the summer months. Jam making is the order of the day.

A welcome sight in August are the cardboard boxes and crates of bright red tomatoes that line the doorsteps of houses in the village in readiness for the annual passata making.

If like me, you are forever losing your keys then did you know that there is a Saint you can call upon to help you. Saint Zita of Lucca (1212-1272) is the protectress of the city and patron Saint of domestic servants, she can also be invoked to help find lost keys. Zita was born in the village of Monsagrati near Lucca. At the age of 12 Zita became a servant in the household of the Fatinelli family in Lucca where she worked until her death in 1272. During her working life Zita helped to provide food for the poor by stealing leftover bread from her employer and many miracles are associated with her. Legend has it that one day her master stopped her and asked to look at what she had hidden in her apron (which was of course, was the bread she was taking to the poor). Miraculously the bread she had been carrying in her apron had been transformed into flowers.

Today her mummified remains lie within a glass coffin in the church of San Frediano in Lucca. In April every year the piazza in front of this church and that of the nearby amphitheatre are filled with flowers in honour of the feast day of Santa Zita on the 27th April.

Although Santa Zita was a Saint of Lucca, her cult actually spread to England from the early 14th century until the mid 16th century where she was known as Saint Sitha. The cult of Santa Zita was brought to England by merchants, pilgrims, travellers and via immigration. Many images of Saint Sitha can be found in England and include some wonderful 15th century wall paintings in Oxfordshire (see photo from St.Etheldreda, Horley). Saint Sita is usually represented in art with her attributes of keys and household utensils.

  • Dawn Cumming

The year 2021 marks the 700th anniversary of the death of the great Florentine medieval poet, writer and philosopher Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). Italy has established a National day to be dedicated to Dante who is known as the Father of the Italian language, to be held annually on March 25. This date was chosen since it is the date recognised by scholars for the start of the journey to the after-life in Dante’s most famous work La Divina Commedia (the Divine Comedy).

This has been a strange and difficult year for all of us and since travel is currently out of bounds I have had to be grateful for my reliance on memories, virtual lectures and virtual events in celebration of this date.

Things were very different back in 2015 however, when I was fortunate enough to be in Florence for the 750th anniversary of Dante’s birth (see photos). Oh such fond memories; the city was alive with pageantry and colour which was made even more marvellous with the special appearance of the great poet himself. Okay it wasn’t the real Dante but he was a good lookalike!

One of the most memorable moments of the celebrations was when crowds of people congregated on and near the steps in front of the majestic Franciscan church of Santa Croce to recite in unison from the Divine Comedy. This experience was absolutely incredible and one which will remain with me for always.

I remember the very first time I read the Divine Comedy, like many I navigated through Inferno with relative ease; buffeted forward and onward by its vivid imagery of the suffering and agony of Hell. I was captivated by the descriptions of the tortured and tormented souls and their respective atrocious punishments. Inferno with all of its sadness, was like entering into some horrific nightmare but the vivid storytelling of Dante kept me desirous to read on. Dante’s Inferno is just a point of departure through Purgatory and Paradise, it is a journey.

It was a somewhat different story (excuse the pun) however, when I began to read Purgatorio where souls are purged or cleansed in order that they can begin to make their ascent into Paradiso. I struggled in my comprehension of this and when I finally began reading Paradiso I was disappointed to discover even more complexities.

I have returned to the Divine Comedy several times since and each time my appreciation of the genius of Dante is enhanced even more.

With patience , persistence and study both the Purgatorio and Paradiso may be understood and enjoyed as much as the Inferno. Interesting characters also appear in Paradiso. Paradiso is the land of peace and joy, we have singing and rapture, no-one sings in Hell.

Dante Alighieri was an intellectual who cherished ideas. In his writings it is possible to determine how Dante’s mind developed over time; how he worked out tensions etc.

I have been grateful for the guidance from Dante scholars to further my understanding of his writings and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of those scholars all around the world who have delivered lectures and, or staged cultural events to celebrate Dante Alighieri this year. I have been loyally and excitedly signing into Zoom lectures on Dante’s life and work since January. I have welcomed the opportunity to study not only Dante’s Divine Comedy but several other works by him including La Vita Nuova, De Monarchia, Convivio and De Vulgari Eloquentia.

I would quite happily take Dante’s Divine Comedy with me to a desert island since there would be enough in it to last me a lifetime. With its exploration of the very height and depth of human experience the Divine Comedy is about this world and about us now, enjoy!