In pursuit of presepi

A Casole Christmas

Jennifer Young
December 9, 2010

December is the month of Italy's most important holiday, one that many towns commemorate with live nativity scenes, or presepi viventi. Therefore, my idea for this issue's travel feature was to showcase a Tuscan village with a presepio worthy of a daytrip. I cast a wide net, contacting friends all over the region, only to discover that the charming medieval hilltop town I lived in before moving to Florence has the most highly regarded live nativity scene in Tuscany. In fact, last year the town of Casole d'Elsa was recognized as having the best presepio vivente in all of Italy.

 

Casole d'Elsa sits gracefully atop a hill approximately 25 kilometers due west of Siena, the imposing medieval tower, La Rocca, accentuating its storybook skyline. Some of Tuscany's best views are along the footpath that skirts its northwest border, with the verdant valley below and Volterra and the towers of San Gimignano in the distance.

 

Casole d'Elsa is Etruscan in origin and was an important site along the legendary Salt Road, which originated in Volterra, passed through Siena and ended in Chiusi. Over 40 Etruscan tombs have been discovered in the region, including a necropolis of 22 tombs, three of which you can actually enter at the Hotel Gemini, on the outskirts of town.

 

During the Middle Ages, Casole was highly valued for its strategic central location between Pisa, Siena and Florence. Unfortunately, this meant that the town was almost constantly under siege and much of it was destroyed and rebuilt over time. It was also an important religious center throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and the best artists of the area were commissioned to create works of art for local churches and wealthy noble families.

 

The Museo Civico, which I toured with president of the Archaeological Society, Marco Bezzini, has a small but impressive collection of Etruscan artifacts from the area. The oldest is an etched bronze wrestler's belt from 1,000 BC. The most recent discovery is a set of well-preserved relics from the tomb of what must have been a very important, beautiful woman. Take a close look at her lovely face sculpted in alabaster where bits of red paint still linger on her lips. Bezzini, who has personally discovered more than 20 tombs around Casole since 1979 and has a palpable passion for Etruscan culture and history, is an animated, highly knowledgeable guide. Consider scheduling an appointment with him before you visit, and make sure he takes you into the studio where restoration work on the museum's artifacts is underway (0577/948705).

 

Inside the twelfth-century cathedral next door, a marble monument honoring a bishop by medieval sculptor Marco Romano adorns its left wall. Through the door on the left is small chapel of a noble family, discovered just 10 years ago. Several drawings of profiles hidden behind the fresco that was moved to its front wall are likely the work of thirteenth-century Sienese painter Simone Martini.

Art continues to play an important role in the cultural life of Casole d'Elsa today. In the piazzas and along streets and alleys, playful sculptures and colorful mosaics crafted by artists and children from the community delight passersby. Look for amusing surprises like one awaiting you at the well in the piazza adjacent to the cathedral.

 

The town is home to several talented artists, including Rembrandt scholar and humanist sculptor Nigel Konstam, who moved to Casole from London more than 30 years ago. Several of his pieces, emerging quietly and powerfully from the rock, decorate the town. Two are in piazza della Libertà and three, including one commissioned for the millennium, are at the lovely Romanesque church of San Niccolò on the hill across from the town's entrance. You can visit Nigel at work in his home studio, which is also a museum and art school, at via Roma, 10. On the town's two main streets, via Casolani and via San Niccolò, are the studios of talented local artists Francesco Chimienti, Anna Morandi and Linda Leupold.

 

During the four days of the live nativity (December 26, January 2 and 6, from 3:30 to 7:30pm; January 1, from 8:30 to 11:30pm), the entire town will be completely transformed. Visitors encounter a bustling Roman village just as it would have appeared 2,000 years ago. Throughout streets and piazzas and tucked inside its cellars, more than 250 men, women and children from the area dressed in original garb brave the winter weather for hours at a time to reenact scenes from daily Roman life. In one scene, an elaborately cloaked king and queen hold court while a musician strums a lute. In another, burlap-clad peasants at a straw-covered campsite boil soup in a massive iron cauldron and grill meat on a huge spit over a roaring fire. Men tan hides and forge metal into tools, and in the cellars families dye wool, women spin yarn, grind grains into flour and make bread and cheese.

 

At the lively Roman market vendors hawk fruits, vegetable, grains, dyes, soaps, handmade leather goods and even geese and chickens in makeshift wooden cages. Livestock roams around town and Roman sentries watch out for enemies from the parapets. The nativity scene in the manger is the main attraction, especially on the last day, January 6, when the three wise men arrive bearing gifts with live camels in tow.

 

Typically held every other year, the live nativity in Casole d'Elsa is an intensely emotional moment for the townspeople and they take great pride in its preparation and presentation. According to Luciana Calamassi, who has organized the event since it began 10 years ago and personally designed and stitched all 250 costumes, what is extraordinary about this presepio is the fact that the entire town becomes a theater set at the time of the birth of Christ with no trace of modernity-even the drain pipes are covered. This year, the event is expected to draw more than 20,000 spectators over the course of its four days.

 

 

GETTING THERE

 

The easiest way to get to Casole d'Elsa is by car: Take the Florence-Siena highway, exit at Colle Val d'Elsa Sud. Go straight through three roundabouts, bear right over a little bridge and follow the SP 541 for about 9 km. At the Total gas station, turn right. At the end of that road take a right and climb the hill. Enter the town between two columns on the left, turning left at the first intersection and another left immediately into a parking lot with an elevator up to town.

 

 

EATING THERE

 

Caffé Casolani is a warm, inviting osteria on via Casolani. Surrounded by a backdrop of terracotta-hued walls and a great collection of local wines, the locale makes you feel right at home. There is no menu: Niccola or Sirio simply recite the offerings of that particular day or evening. You then have the pleasure of enjoying whatever seasonal wonders chef Cristina is whipping up in the kitchen. Winter favorites include pappa al pomodoro, hand-cut square pasta with zolfino beans and slow-cooked beef cheek with a touch of chocolate (0577/963911; no credit cards; closed Thursdays).

 

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