Fields of maize on the plain, silvery splashes of olive trees on the hills and ordered rows of vines contribute to the landscape of Lunigiana, sheltered from the cold northern winds by the south-eastern fin of the Ligurian Apennines and by the Emilio-Tuscan Appenines. This well-defined geographic space lies east of the last northern reaches of the Apuan Alps.
At the centre of this frame of mountains runs the Magra river, on a course that ends in the Ligurian sea and begins 62 kilometres away at the spectacular drop of Piscio di Pràcchiola. This gate of fertile land is rich in history and tradition, and the towering monuments of the Malaspina lords do not eclipse the holy houses, where pilgrims would seek refuge and shelter.
Driven by strong religious motivations, the wayfarers walked along the Via Francigena or the via del Volto Santo, facing a thousand difficulties, dangers and privations, seeking comfort in the hospices that offered a warm bed and in the churches that offered an altar at which to pray. One of the best-preserved parish churches is located in east Lunigiana and it is surely the church of Santi Cornelio e Cipriano e Codiponte. Sirens, monsters and disembodied heads adorn the capitals of the columns, and a 15th-century triptych shows the Madonna enthroned with the Child, on whom she places a rose, flanked on one side by an image of the Volto Santo venerated at Lucca, and on the other by Saints Cornelio and Cipriano. This itinerary, in fact, follows a stage of the ancient pilgrimage route that leads to the worship of the 'Volto Santo', a wooden crucifixion held in the Church of San Martino in Lucca.
'The pearl lost in the mountains' is how Giosuè Carducci described Fivizzano, once nicknamed 'a corner of Florence' for the fact that it flourished in the Renaissance. The central piazza Medicea is beautiful, and here we find the parish church dedicated to Saints Jacopo and Antonio, originally facing in the opposite direction but rebuilt in the 16th century so as to look onto the piazza. The square also contains palazzo Cojari and palazzo Gargiolli, home to the 16th-century Accademia degli Imperfetti, where the humanist tradition had a new lease of life.
At the centre of the piazza stands the luminous fountain erected in 1683 by order of Cosimo III de' Medici. All Lunigiana is represented in this monumental sculpture, which loses nothing in comparison with those of Florence and Rome: marble dolphins and pietra serena in the decorative and supporting structures, protected at the base by a thin wrought-iron railing.
Fivizzano was one of the first towns in the world to have a printing press with moveable characters of the kind invented by Johannes Gutenberg. Here, between 1471 and 1475, a certain Jacopo da Fivizzano used the first moveable Italian type to print works of Juvenal, Virgil, Cicero and Sallust, and, astonishingly, he did it before many of the capitals and great cities of Europe. Thus it was that from the rocky folds of east Lunigiana came, incredibly, some of the first printed books. The Jacopo da Fivizzano Print Museum in the Palazzo Fantoni Bononi is, unfortunately, closed after the 2013 earthquake. The oratory of San Carlo is not far away, in the precincts of the Sarzanese gate. It was designed and built with the aim of constructing a work of art to beautify the place that the Grand Duchy of Tuscany considered a 'little Firenze'.
The ideal destination along the road that connects Lunigiana with the Garfagnana is the Passo Tea (950 metres), where you find the Hospice of San Nicolao, a silent witness to the flocks of pilgrims and travellers who have crossed these parts for centuries.
From the Church of Santi Jacopo e Antonio, facing onto Fivizzano's delightful piazza Medicea, we cross state road no.63 and begin walking along the SP 16 in the direction of Vigna di Sotto. The Convent of Carmine di Cerignano (its cloister with mural paintings completely restored) and the beautiful Church of San Venanzio Abate di Cerignano deserve a brief mention.
Following the civic road we meet two images of the Madonna and Children, the second in a stone niche of the first house in Vasoli, in Spicciano. We continue to gain height on the way to Turlago (565 metres), a village in a beautiful panoramic position on the Apuan Alps. At the top of the hill the medieval castle of Montechiaro once surveyed the valley of Rosaro and Aulella; today only the ruins remain. We start to lose height on the way towards Reusa, along the 'comunale del monte' that goes down a slight slope into the shadow of chestnut woods.
Passing the trench of Canalaccio we meet a forest road named after the Novaglia (a stone cross a metre and a half high), which gradually loses height on the way to Palazzo Grappolo, a small hamlet of Reusa. In 1965 this village saw the rediscovery of a monolithic statue with a rounded head and chest, dating to the 6th or 7th century B.C.E. The Apuan Ligurians put faith in anthropomorphic divinities like this, whose role was to protect the community and keep illness away. It can happen that in the thick vegetation of Lunigiana one stumbles upon a warrior armed with sword and spear, over 5,000 years old.
From Palazzo Grappolo we take the communal road for Vedriano, where there is a beautiful fountain with a large mask in white marble, and then descend among the olive trees. Having passed the Agritourism farmstead 'Lo Spino Fiorito' and the bar 'La Padula', we start to walk along an old road until we get to the hill of Castiglioncello di Offiano: the arrangement of the stone houses betray the defensive role desired by the Malaspina di Fosdinovo in the 15th century. Walking through the alleyways of the medieval town we will find a beautiful stone fountain, a wash house and interesting doors that reveal the decor of some houses once owned by the local élite. On a bas-relief we recognise the image of the pilgrim who carries the essentials: the sandals, a rough cloak (San Rocchino or schiavina), a bordone (a solid and knobbly stick with an iron tip), a scarsella (a leather bag slung over the shoulder), and a shell, symbol of pilgrimage.
The Parish Church of Offiano (515 metres) is now close. Originally Romanesque (11th-13th centuries), it underwent reconstruction over the years and is now baroque in style; it is, sadly, inaccessible on account of an earthquake. This sacred building stands in a place of meditation on the fifth stage of the via del Volto Santo, which has the hospice of San Nicolao di Tea as the destination for the night. Here too, a certain marble sculpture in the facade shows the pilgrim, a recurrent image in Lunigiana and Garfagana. Heading into the woods, we lose height until we reach the old village of Regnano Chiesa and eventually the Passo Tea, where archaeological excavations have brought to life the 12th-century hospice of San Nicolao di Tea, on the old pilgrimage route between Lucca and Parma.