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Destination Santa Fiora?

Destination tourism: how do you attract tourists to places that have genuine history and natural wonders, yet lie off the beaten track? Numerous small-town mayors in Italy have asked me this question? Bitterly conscious of cruel demographics, fewer young citizens, and many emigrating, they want quick-fit solutions.

The simplest is to get regional or national government to provide a capital sum for a museum. Their motives are purely political, and the objective and daily operational costs of the comune museum are somehow lost.

My latest comune thanks to a friend was the Tuscan comune of Santa Fiora on the southern rim of Monte Amiata. Surrounded by chestnut forests, with vast views over the hills rising up north of Lake Bolsena. This is glorious country, especially on a clear late autumnal day.

Santa Fiora has a long narrow piazza dominated by a pencil-thin 12th-century tower, and an immense baroque palazzo. These were the homes of the Aldobrandescini family, a later 8th-century Lombard household whose 10th-century remains we are excavating at Vetricella near Scarlino. As such it became the capital of a miniature state of Lillipudlian proportions. The family married the Sforza Cesarinis, who bequeathed the palace after the Second World War to the comune. So, the grandiose dark building is now the mayor’s office.

Santa Fiora piazza

The mayor - Federico Balocchi - is astonishingly young. Barely out of university, he is into his second term winning 70% of the vote last year. He has also won a sizeable grant to turn the Romanesque tower into a museum. In recent times a prison with appropriate graffiti, he is nonetheless well aware that this is not the magical solution to making Santa Fiora into a destination.

We traipse through the well-appointed streets down to the end of the Via Carolina to see the Pieve di Santa Fiora e Lucilla. It is a barn-like building, light and airy on this sunny day. It is then that the chatty mayor points out the huge glazed terracotta friezes placed in the aisle walls, as well as the priest’s pulpit. They only indication of their significance is a notice to say they are alarmed. None is described for the visitor, possibly for good reason.

Pieve di S. Fiore e Lucilla

These are Renaissance icons by Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525) from 1480-90. They are breath-taking sculptures and I pinched myself, astonished.

“Oh” I murmur, “no wonder Santa Fiora is in the Rough Guide to Tuscany!”

Federico looks puzzled. This, I explain, is possibly the most popular guidebook for international tourists. He still looks puzzled.

Over lunch I ask him why these great sculptured works are in Santa Fiora. Surely these could be a destination. His answer makes perfect sense: the Sforza Cesarini family commissioned them. What went unsaid was because there was no sign to tell you about these sculptures, few visitors amble down the 50 yards of the Via Carolina to see these masterpieces.

Andrea di Robbia's pulpit

That leads me to frivolously imaging some Camilleri story featuring Salvo Montalbano, his storied detective and a theft of artworks.

The mayor’s eyes light up: Andrea Camilleri used to spend his summers here. He was an honorary citizen of the village. He told Federico, his first Montalbano, The Shape of Water was based on a story he heard at Santa Fiora.

Far from Montalbano’s Sicilian setting, we muse on a Camilleri museum with walks in millennial-old Tuscan chestnut woods after paying homage to a true renaissance master, Andrea della Robbia, all thanks to a Lombard family that survive to this today through the Sforza lineage. Santa Fiora has all the elements. Most of all it has the energy and drive of a young, educated mayor to be a destination.

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