A tiny Maremma church with a floor of glass and more.
Maremma never ceases to surprise: even when you walk through the front door of a parochial church. And the tiny Chiesa della Madonna delle Nevi - the Church of Our Lady of the Snows - in Santa Fiora will do just that. First, because it will strike you as somewhat odd that there are no pews. But the question as to why not, if it has time to materialise in your mind, will quickly evaporate when you realise that you are walking on glass.
Glass that beneath it has a stream flowing over rocks and, if you are lucky to be there when they are, large trout splashing in its confined channels.
But that is no ordinary stream. The Chiesa della Madonna della Nevi sits right on top of the spring that is the source of the most beautiful river in Maremma.
And they are no ordinary "rocks".
But there is more! Look up and you will catch faces, strange ones at that, staring down upon you and into space. Painted on the walls by a famous Italian Baroque artist, who fathered a dynasty of even more famous painters.
And then there is the story of why the church was built here at all. For it isn't a typical site for a House of God.
When you walk over the glass panels in the floor of the Chiesa della Madonna delle Nevi you are, literally, walking over time. For preserved under the glass are the sequential remains of the history of a medieval site that was covered-up when the church was built in the fifteenth century.
Peer down through the glass and what you will see is an intact stretch of medieval road: it ran alongside the fishery next door. On one side of which are the remains of two workshops of local artisans of the middle ages, most probably dyers and potters, and a "gualchiere" (fulling mill) that had need of the freshwater flowing past their front doors.
If you want to see the flowing waters and the remains lit-up, the machine on the left hand side as you walk in will do that for you, for one Euro.
TIP for mums with kids: the light doesn't last that long, so best have everyone on or near a glass panel before you drop your coin in.
If you happened to be alive in the fourteenth century you would have crossed the stream on foot via a small stone bridge: the stones of which are visible today in one of the load-bearing walls of Our Lady of the Snows.
When the church was built the stream was contained and regulated under its floors by a complicated hydraulic system of enclosed channels.
But why was the church built here at all? It isn't an ancient Pagan site. Nor the site of an older, earlier church. Well, the answer is because of a series of miracles.
Alongside the same medieval road there once stood a small altar to the Madonna and child, a painted figurine set in a small recess in a wall, exactly as you will see all around Italy today. The inhabitants of Santa Fiora's Terzieri of Montecatino and Borgo - the quarters of the city closest to the stream - began to testify that the Madonna was granting graces and performing miracles. So much so, that the then ruling noble family of Santa Fiora, the influencial Sforza, together with the Bishop of Chiusi and the Augustinian monks of a nearby monastery, raised the funds needed and built the church.
The "della robbia" glazed terracotta relief that you can see above the front door is of the Saints Flora and Lucilla. There are some exceptional, and large, examples of this technique - also known as "le Robbiane" - in the twelfth century church of the Pieve delle Sante Flora e Lucilla, just up the hill inside in Piazza Arcipretura, within Santa Fiora's Terziere di Castello (the castle quarter).
Seventeenth century Baroque artist Francesco Nasini was a talented religious painter, but it is his son, Giuseppe Nicolo Nasini - whom he taught until he was eighteen years old and then sent him to to the care of painter and sculptor Ciro Ferri at the Grand-Ducal Academy of Arts in Rome - who rose to the greatest of fame in the Nasini family of distinguished painters.
Francesco died in 1695 at the age of 84 years or 74 years, down the road in Castel del Piano. No one knows for sure as his birth in Piancastagnaio could either have been in 1611 or 1621.
The frescoes he painted here in this church in Santa Fiora around 1640, are of the Augustinian Saints. As you walk into the church, on the right wall you can see those of San Girolamo and San Rocco.
In the presbytery and altar, Santa Monica and San Guglielmo di Malavalle, Sant'Agostino and San Nicolo da Tolentino.
And on the left wall, those of Sant'Antonio, San Bartolomeo, Sant'Agata, and Sant'Apollonia.
Above the door he painted a fresco of paradise, with the Madonna, Christ, St. John the Baptist, and angels and saints. But is almost impossible to make out.
What fascinates me is that Francesco painted his frescoes on top of others. In fact there are layer upon layer of other painters works on the walls of this church. I just wonder whose and what treasures might one day be revealed beneath those of Francesco Nasini's.
You will find his work elsewhere in Maremma, particularly in the Monte Amiata area. But one ceiling in particular, that he painted with his brother, Antonio, is worthy of finding in Grosseto if you happen to be visiting Maremma's walled city of salt. Most people don't know it is there.
The church of Our Lady of the Snows is open every day. In spring, autumn, and winter, from 09:30 to 17:30, and from 09:00 to 19:30 during the summer months.
If you have children with you, once your Euro has timed-out and the lights go out under the floor, they will want to move on rather than look-up at the frescoes. And the perfect place to take them is just next door - it shares the ancient walls - to Santa Fiora's fifteenth century "Peschiera". Where they can see huge hungry fish and feed them too! (You'll need another Euro for the ball of fish food, but as children's entertainment goes, it is money well spent, trust me.)
Even if you don't have much interest in fish, even big ones, visit here. Santa Fiora's fourteenth century fishery, "La Peschiera".
It is a really lovely location, with large gardens (with toilet facilities and a bar) that are perfect for a picnic.
Kids love it. Put it this way, my daughter doesn't travel well, but will eagerly and happily jump in our car for a long drive just to come here :)
To explore the town of Santa Fiora from the church and Peschiera, walk up the lane directly opposite. Go through Saint Michael's gate, and start with the Terziere di Borgo on your right, beneath the imposing rest of the town on top of the hill. It is here that you will find the old Jewish ghetto.
But don't do that until you have walked around the Terziere di Montecatini that you are already in. This ancient artisan part of Santa Fiora together with Terziere di Borgo, I found to be the most fascinating part of Santa Fiora. That and the steep walk up into town and the view back down.
Alternatively, if you have parked your car alongside the Peschiera and having visited both it and the church are now keen on finding refreshments like we always seem to be whenever we visit, head up into town and take a stroll around Montecatini when you come back down. If you have children with you and/or a husband who has a passion for fish, you will probably find them sneeking a return visit in to feed the fish, rather than wonder around yet more medieval alleyways!
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