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A Priest, his Museum, a Saint, and a Village in Tuscany

All about the largely unknown San Pellegrino in Alpe area of the Garfagnana zone of Tuscany in Italy.

I like museums, but sometimes find their sheer size, and the number of exhibits, daunting; not the Don Luigi Pellegrini Ethnography Museum in this little village though. It’s an absolute delight, and certainly leaves me wanting to return again and again. It well deserves its reputation of being one of the most important ethnography museums in Central Italy.

The museum is found in the small village of San Pellegrino in Alpe; the highest village (at c1524m) in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines.

On top of the world in San Pellegrino in Alpe. Photo Jenny Mead
On top of the world in San Pellegrino in Alpe.
Photo Jenny Mead

The Man and his Museum

It was gifted to the Province of Lucca in 1987 by Don Luigi Pellegrini (1922-1990) and is run by the Popular Traditions Centre of Lucca Province. It is open throughout the year, although not every day, and, for a modest entrance fee, you can wander round to your heart’s content armed with a little guidebook in English, which is included in the entry fee.

If you visit during the winter months, you may well find the museum closed, but don’t worry. Provided it’s an actual opening day, pop into the nearby bar and have a coffee, while someone goes to find the custodian. The museum is only one of his roles; he multitasks!

Don Luigi Pellegrini came to San Pellegrino in Alpe (he just had to go there with that name!) as its spiritual steward. He saw how social and economic changes were erasing the history and culture of the area. He set about trying to preserve a record of the people of this part of the Apennines; their way of life, their work, their religious practices and their traditions.

With the help of some young people, he began collecting objects which had become obsolete and useless; objects that would tell future generations about this area’s past. Most of this collecting took place in the 1960s, and the displays made from them began to be housed in the old Hospice, which was undergoing restoration at the time.

Scaling the wall! Photo Jenny Mead
Scaling the wall!
Photo Jenny Mead

There are fourteen themed rooms; a kitchen, bedrooms, one with utensils for agricultural and domestic use. There is a room full of spinning wheels and weaving looms. There are collections of copper pots, mortars, scales, glassware, tools of the cobbler and candlemaker, and much, much more.

Not sure about the bed! Photo Jenny Mead
Not sure about the bed!
Photo Jenny Mead

Until my first visit here, I had thought that a collection of keys and rusty nails was just that. No longer, after seeing how creatively these seemingly innocuous articles can be displayed.

Spare keys? Photo Jenny Mead
Spare keys?
Photo Jenny Mead
Novel use of nails. Photo Jenny Mead
Novel use of nails.
Photo Jenny Mead

Ancient Theatre

There is a small collection of old costumes worn by actors during the “maggio” plays; an ancient form of epic theatre, which survives in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines to this day. Its format is usually based on an encounter between two opposing forces (often the Turks v. the Christians). A performance starts with a procession of the “Maggianti” (the name given to the actors). The acting itself is very stylised and uses many symbolic gestures. The various parts are usually sung, and the format and plots derive from traditional Italian poetry and literature.

Entry to the museum is along part of an old mule track, under a large vault which leads to the church. Here you can see the mummified bodies of San Pellegrino and San Bianco.  Personally I found them rather gruesome, but not the legends associated with San Pellegrino.

San Pellegrino:  The man and the legends

One of the legends shows just how long the Garfagnana has had connections with Scotland. San Pellegrino was, supposedly, the son of the King of Scotland, and his childhood was spent doing penance and performing miracles. He renounced his claim to the throne and set off on a pilgrimage through Europe and to the Holy Land. On returning to Italy, he withdrew into the Apennines to lead the life of a hermit. It is said that, as he felt death approach, he sheltered in a hollow beech tree and carved his life story into its bark.

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He died at the age of 97. The news was given to a couple from Modena by an angel. They searched for, and found, his body; wonderfully preserved and protected by wild animals. News spread and many people came to see for themselves. The inevitable disputes arose, between Emilia and Tuscany, as to where his body should lay. God, through the actions of two bullocks pulling a cart containing the old hermit’s body, was to be the final arbiter.  The cart came to rest at San Pellegrini in Alpe, and work was begun to build a church to house San Pellegrino’s body.

Historical uncertainties exclude official recognition of the saint by the Church, but he still has a following. Many miracles and legends associated with San Pellegrino have been claimed and told throughout the centuries.

The Devil’s Ring, for example, relates to piles of stones, left by pilgrims, found in a field near the church. According to tradition, pilgrims had to go round the field three times, on their knees, before leaving their stones. This was because of the legend which tells of the slap San Pellegrino gave to the Devil; a slap so hard that the Devil spun round three times!

San Pellegrino is also linked to the legends surrounding Monte Forato (see previous article “Living With An Italian Legend”). Seemingly the Saint was tempted and tormented by the Devil, to the point of being slapped by him. In a rare outburst of temper, the Saint struck the Devil so hard that he hit the mountain on the other side of the Serchio Valley, thus creating that mountain’s hole!

A tradition, still celebrated annually, is that of the cross made from two large beech tree branches. On August 1st the old cross is removed and a new one put in its place after a service of blessing and a procession. It is placed just outside the Sanctuary and, even today, pilgrims will cut a little piece of bark from it to take home.

The beech branch cross. Photo Jenny Mead
The beech branch cross.
Photo Jenny Mead

A Hospice was set up centuries ago to assist travellers and pilgrims in those dangerous times. The oldest documentation goes back to 1110. Better roads reduced the importance of the Hospice, but this was offset by the increasing number of pilgrims coming to see the bones of San Pellegrino and San Bianco. The buildings were enlarged, more lavishly decorated and  became more like they are today.

The Village

The village of San Pellegrino in Alpe is very small and, although not too far from major roads, has an air of isolation, and in winter it can be cut off by snow. Its distinctive buildings have been constructed to withstand heavy snowfalls.

There is a bar and a couple of shops and restaurants where you can sample local produce, and buy (in due season) locally foraged porcini mushrooms and blueberries.

Modena or Tuscany? Photo Jenny Mead
Modena or Tuscany?
Photo Jenny Mead

There appears to be a strange anomaly regarding “ownership” of the village. An unresolved, historical dispute between the Dukedom of Modena and the Republic of Lucca leaves part of the village as a “Modenese island” in Tuscany. This “island” includes part of the village’s piazza, as well as part of the Sanctuary and the bodies of the two saints.

By Jenny M Want

Jenny M Want
Jenny M Want

For Jenny, living in Italy is a dream come true. A retired teacher, she now lives in scenic Barga in Tuscany with her partner David.

Immersed in Barga life, Jenny passes her time writing, researching, observing and learning.

Jenny has written a fun book for children set in Barga, Tuscany – The Bat of Barga.

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