Bagno Vignoni

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After visiting San Quirico d’Orcia and Montalcino we headed south looking for Bagno Vignoni, a spa since Roman times, but we got distracted along the way by the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo, a beautiful Benedictine monastery set in a lovely landscape of wooded hills and olive groves.

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Tradition ascribes the foundation of the abbey to Charlemagne, who, while returning with his army from Rome in 781, halted in the nearby Starcia valley. Here he prayed to God, asking for relief from the disease which was crippling his troops, and offering to found a church if his prayers were answered. An angel appeared, showing the emperor a herb which he was instructed to give to his men with wine. The cure worked as promised, and Charlemagne duly founded Sant’Antimo.

The Rough Guide to Tuscany & Umbria

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The bell-tower is protected by a sentinel cypress growing alongside like a green guardian.

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In the interior the luminous honey-coloured stone and the numerous windows combine to create a wonderful, tranquil atmosphere. There is great harmony in the play of light and some of the stones often take on a translucent glow. The light changes according to the season and the time of day, and the effect at sunset is particularly beautiful.

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The sculptural decoration is of exceptionally high quality: the capitals of the nave present a variety of geometric and leaf motifs. The finest is that of the second column on the right, representing Daniel in the lions’ den, which is now attributed to the Master of Cabestany, an itinerant 12th-century Pyrenean sculptor of French or Spanish origin (his works are found in northern Catalonia, in Languedoc-Roussillon, as well as in Tuscany).

Alta Macadam: Blue Guide Tuscany

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A beautiful collection of stones: travertine, marble, onyx and alabaster.

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One of the most important examples of monastic architecture of the 13th century and by far the most important Romanesque building in southern Tuscany. The church we see today was built around 1100 and took the place of an older 9th century abbey, of which little is left.

Until the 14th century it was an important spiritual, economic and cultural centre, often in conflict with the Republic of Siena. The refined architectural elements recall a decorative richness with French influences.

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From Sant’Antimo we continued via Rocca d’Orcia, a tiny hilltop village dominated by a massive fortress, the spectacular Rocca di Tentennano, keeping a lookout over the Val d’Orcia down below.

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Then at Bagno Vignoni we explored the Parco dei Mulini, a curious precinct of ruined buildings and cisterns linked by water channels, flowing from the main piazza and cascading down into the valley.

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The source of all this water is a hot spring in the centre of the village. It bubbles up into a large piscina, constructed by the Medici, but nowadays no longer used as a bathing pool.

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Water from here now feeds a couple of thermal pools in nearby hotels.

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I was intrigued to know what happened to the rest of the water. Where did it go after it tumbled over the edge of the Parco dei Mulini? As we left the village I noticed a rough track leading off the main road into the bamboo thickets below. I dived in and hoped for the best.

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After a bumpy ride we arrived at a clearing with a view of the water spout above us on the clifftop.

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The face of the cliff appeared calcified, veiled by salt deposits from the overflowing thermal spring.

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Beneath the cliff a clear and tranquil millpond.

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It was only later when we returned to our apartment that I read in the guide book, “Bagno Vignoni was the setting in 1983 for Andrei Tarkovsky’s famous film Nostalghia.” Of course it was! Suddenly it seemed a more mystical place and it explained why it felt so familiar. We had to return another day.

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We came back a week later. We had coffee at Albergo Le Terme, lunch at Trattoria la Parata, and ice cream from a gelateria beside the Bagno di Santa Caterina. Between courses we explored further.

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At the Art House we found a photography exhibition, Longing Gray/Nostalgia di Grigio. I took this photo as we left, and as I did so I heard a voice call out from inside – No photographs!

I apologised, saying – I’m only photographing the poster, then added – It reminds me of Tarkovsky.

A reply came back – Tarkovsky polaroids, Bonhams, London, October.

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I remembered Instant Light: Tarkovsky Polaroids, a beautiful book of real size facsimile prints published in 2006, twenty years after his death. There are lots of images of Italy, many of them taken in Bagno Vignoni whilst he was staying at Albergo Le Terme, the hotel beside the thermal pool.

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Many of the scenes in Nostalghia were filmed at Bagno Vignoni. Perhaps the most famous is the single long unedited take of a man attempting to carry a candle from one end of the empty pool to the other. He tries repeatedly to keep the flame alive until finally he succeeds, but he expires in doing so. This clip shows just the last five minutes of the epic nine minute take.

According to Yankovsky, when he first met Tarkovsky to discuss the filming, the director asked the actor to help him fulfill a grand idea to “display an entire human life in one shot, without any editing, from beginning to end, from birth to the very moment of death.” Tarkovsky visualized life in the form of a candle. “Remember the candles in Orthodox churches, how they flicker. The very essence of things, the spirit, the spirit of fire.” And so the act of carrying the candle across the stagnant pool was nothing less than the effort of an entire lifetime encapsulated in one gesture. “If you can do that,” Tarkovsky challenged Yankovsky, “if it really happens and you carry the candle to the end, in one shot, straight, without cinematic conjuring tricks and cut-in editing, then maybe this act will be the true meaning of my life. It will certainly be the finest shot I ever took, if you can do it, if you can endure to the end.”

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I heard later that it was Federico Fellini, the Italian film director, who recommended Bagno Vignoni to Tarkovsky as the place where visitors sit with their feet in the hot water and chat to each other.

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Lottie was delighted by the free foot spa treatment.

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This time round we came closer to the edge and we looked over, and we flew!

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Well, better say we walked, but we came down by the winding path to the ancient Roman baths.

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The hot water collects in a basin of slippery white mud, with which the bathers were keen to paint themselves. The milky water smells sulphurous like rotten eggs, but it is said to cure everything from colds to arthritis and it also softens the skin. Here you can sit beneath a waterfall of healing spa water.

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Then back up the hill, shade hopping under acacia trees, careful to avoid hornets’ nests, threading our way through tangles of bamboo, juniper and young oak trees, and a deafening chorus of cicadas, for a last look at the village built around the pool enclosing the ancient thermal spring of Bagno Vignoni.

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But I wasn’t aiming at yet another screen account of the beauties of Italy which amaze the tourists and are sent all over the world in the form of mass-produced postcards… Ultimately I wanted ‘Nostalghia’ to be free of anything irrelevant or incidental that would stand in the way of my principal objective: the portrayal of someone in a state of profound alienation from the world and himself, unable to find a balance between reality and the harmony for which he longs, in a state of nostalgia provoked not only by his remoteness from his country but also by a global yearning for the wholeness of existence. I was not satisfied with the scenario until it came together at last into a kind of metaphysical whole.

Andrei Tarkovsky: Sculpting In Time

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Six weeks later, back in London, there was an exhibition at Bonhams of A Collection of Unique Polaroids, just like the disembodied voice at the Art House in Bagno Vignoni had predicted.

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Nostalgia: Before and After was comprised of 257 ephemeral photographs taken by Tarkovsky between 1979 and 1984. These temporary mementoes were being sold as eternal diamonds.

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In this age of digital photography, Polaroids have become a neglected medium as well as one of extreme originality: no negative exists and therefore each shot is unique. Imbued with their own aesthetic flavour, the Polaroids possess a sort of nostalgic, almost vulnerable quality. The image cannot be reproduced, imparting a quality of preciousness.

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Mark Le Fanu, author of The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, in conversation with the film director’s son, Andrey Tarkovsky, on the occasion of the sale of his father’s Polaroid photographs at Bonhams.

Abbazia di Sant’Antima / Bagno Vignoni / Nostalgia.com / Bonhams

PS: A couple of months later we were asked to frame this beautiful signed photograph of Tarkovsky.

Frames of reference
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4 Responses to Bagno Vignoni

  1. Hank Frankel says:

    Chris, you’ve outdone yourself with 4 in 1. Seeing the bathers was a great way to spend a cold and early morning in Kansas. The photographs of the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo are magnificent. So too are the huge Italian thistles that have captured sunlight.

  2. Bill says:

    A stunningly beautiful place. Thanks for sharing your vacation with us.

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