The Location Hunters: Stalking horses in Tuscany: The landscape of Tarkovsky's film, Nostalgia, is not what it was. And, Jonathan Glancey finds, it never has been

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The Independent Travel
Autumn. A moonlit field near Bagno Vignoni, a spa in southern Tuscany. Rain falls while steam rises from sulphurous water. Inexplicably, a white horse breaks into a silent midnight gallop. As I stared into that ghostly Italian night a month ago, I thought of Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-86), the great Russian director, speaking in St James's, Piccadilly, nearly 10 years ago. His film Nostalgia had recently been released.

Tarkovsky's theme that day was neither his impeccable craft nor anything ostensibly concerned with self, celluloid or cinema. Typically, he elected to speak on the Apocalypse and the Revelation of St John. A small, consumptive figure with hawkish features and fierce eyes, he paused on the words, 'And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat upon him was Death'. He cut the end of St John's diabolic sentence, 'and Hell followed with him.'

It was an appropriate cut. A very different director, Clint Eastwood, had drawn on the same text for two enigmatic westerns, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider. Both films brought an avenging American angel on horseback to combat past evil with hell incarnate. Tarkovsky's white horses - they appear throughout the eight magisterial films he made in his 25-year career - represent both death and the freedom, rather than hell, it brings to those who believe that the home we sicken for is not to be found in this life.

Nostalgia (1983) is a slow-moving, painterly and apocalyptic two-hour film about homesickness, the vagaries of faith and death set in a mysterious and misty Tuscan landscape that manages to look both Italian and Russian.

The taut, semi-autobiographical screenplay - written with Tonino Guerra - tells the story of a Russian poet, Andrei Gorchakov who journeys to Italy to research the life of Maxim Beryozovsky. Beryozovsky was a Ukranian serf who, in the 18th century, became an important composer in Bologna. Stricken by nostalgia and unable to write the music that had brought him sudden fame, he returned home to serfdom, drink, humiliation and suicide.

Tarkovsky left the Soviet Union for Italy to make Nostalgia. Like Beryozovsky he felt less and less able to work the more time he spent away from home, despite the freedom and beauty his new life offered. Separated from wife, son, dog and his modest farmhouse, Tarkovsky was subsumed with homesickness, fell ill and died in exile three years after the release of the critically acclaimed Nostalgia.

Tarkovsky's vision of Italy in the film is very much his own, and hard to find. Uncover the locations he chose for this film, however, and you will see Tuscany - which seems so thoroughly mapped, measured and tracked by the British tourist - through fresh and foreign eyes.

A homesick Tarkovsky brought Russia with him every step of the way to Bagno Vignoni, a hamlet off the old road that links Siena with Lago Bolsena. Bagno Vignoni broods at the heart of Nostalgia. Instead of a paved piazza dominated by the Baroque facade of a church closed for restoration, this ramshackle hamlet is centred on what looks like a giant village pond surrounded by ancient stone walls.

This steams with sulphurous water, the smell of rotten eggs insinuating its way into the rooms of the overlooking Hotel Terme where Tarkovsky stayed during the filming.

The pool is, in fact, the thermal bath made famous by St Catherine of Siena and after whom it is named. St Catherine bathed here in the 14th century on her way to sainthood. Romans had preceded her; Montaigne, De Sade, Dickens and D'Annunzio followed. Modern Romans still come to Bagno Vignoni on weekends to plunge into the hot, healing waters.

In St Catherine's day, these were said to be laced with gold and silver. They were particularly good, it was thought, for ailments of the liver, spleen, stomach and skin. They also 'threw out melancholy with the urine'. Now, sadly, the miraculous pool, made magnificent by the Medicis, is closed to the public (although you can take a dip at L10,000 a time in the blissfully hot sulphur pool of the smart Hotel Posta Marcucci, nearby, or at the eccentric Hotel Terme at Bagni San Filippo, 10kms to the south).

Tarkovsky was taken to see Bagno Vignoni by Tonino Guerra in 1979. Entranced by its mystical properties, sacred legends and the romantic decay of its architecture, he made it the focal point of his new film. At the end of Nostalgia - the director had this scene in mind long before he found Bagno Vignoni - the poet Gorchakov attempts to carry a lighted candle from one end of the pool to the other.

This strange act is inspired by the madman Domenico, a Christ-like figure with whom Gorchakov holds long talks in a ruined farmhouse high above Bagno Vignoni (the once abandoned and now restored hilltop hamlet of Vignoni, located 1km above Bagno Vignoni by footpath or 12kms by twisting road). Should Gorchakov succeed, he might find the faith he needs and the home his soul longs for. St Catherine does not short change the faithful poet; at the third attempt he succeeds and dies.

St Catherine's pool and Bagno Vignoni dissolve into a still in which the poet sits, dog alongside him, in a rain-swept field outside the director's farmhouse, surrounded by the ruins of the medieval church at San Galgano (30kms to the west of Bagno Vignoni). Gorchakov has come home at last.

The poet's is a hard act to follow. When Tarkovsky filmed the candle scene, he had the hot waters all but drained. To carry a candle across takes genuine faith and determination. You must lower yourself into the thigh-high water in the middle of the night, so as not to be seen; the bath is 85 slippery paces from one end to the other. A breath of wind will extinguish the flame. You need at least three takes to get home.

You need much more faith - as well as a good map and the mind of Miss Marple - to plot other locations in Nostalgia. These are worth finding, because, like Bagno Vignoni, they will surprise you with an Italy that you might not have discovered for yourself. Tarkovsky's is not the Tuscany of 'Chiantishire', but a spiritual landscape of haunting beauty. What you find are lyrical places that - cut, pasted and heavily edited - are transformed into the ethereal sets of Nostalgia.

The beginning of the film, for example, has Gorchakov being driven to an ancient church in a rolling mist. Having trekked 'half-way across Italy' to see it, he refuses to go in. He waits instead while Eugenia, his Italian translator - a Botticelli angel in modern couture - explores the church by herself. Inside she watches women lighting candles and praying for children in front of Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto. Eugenia also watches a procession of women carrying a seated statue of the Virgin through the Romanesque nave.

The folds of the Virgin's embroidered robe part as the procession reaches her and scores of sparrows fly out and fill the church with their song. Eugenia, representing a certain type of fashionable career woman for whom love is transitory, religious faith irrelevant and pregnancy something to be feared is deeply confused by what she sees.

Watching the film afresh, I was confused as to the location of this glorious church. Having successfully located the pool in Bagno Vignoni some while ago, I was confounded by these Romanesque arches. None of my architecture books and no guide would reveal its identity. Finally, the lira dropped. Tarkovsky's church is a composite, a trinity of buildings.

The exterior is the Abbazia di Sant'Antimo in the hamlet of Castelnuovo Dell'Abate, some 20kms south-west and across the hills from Bagno Vignoni. You can only guess this by reading the entries in the guide books and deciding which description best matches what you have seen on screen. I arrived just before lunch, in time for Latin Mass sung by white-robed Cistercians.

The path that leads to Sant'Antimo - now a horrid, newly laid gash in the landscape - is the one you see Gorchakov and Eugenia driving along in an old Volkswagen Beetle at the beginning of the film. The abbey church, dating from the 12th century, is built of creamy white stone; it glows with candles, smells of incense and echoes to the other-wordly sound of a Gregorian chant. No wonder Tarkovsky liked it.

I wonder if the film crew lunched at the superb 'Bar-Trattoria Bassomondo' at the top of the lane leading to the church? Unbeatable peasant cooking, white paper table- cloths, farm dogs under your feet, a decorous chant of gossip and red wine from the local co-operativo.

For all its beauty, Sant'Antimo lacks a Piero della Francesca. This glorifies the wall of a cemetery chapel about 80kms east of Sant'Antimo outside Monterchi. It is the only representation of the pregnant Virgin in Italian renaissance art. Lost for generations, this revered image was rediscovered in 1889. It was removed temporarily for safekeeping to a museum in Sansepolcro after an earthquake in 1917; but its devotees demanded its return and so Piero's masterpiece beatifies a tiny chapel far from anywhere and once again performs the role for which it was painted.

With his love of icons, Tarkovsky was deeply moved by the story and incorporated it in Nostalgia. The third church is elsewhere again, on the coast a short ride from Rome, and I ran out of time before I managed to track it down.

The ruined village where Domenico the madman lives is the exquisite hamlet of Vignoni and the ruined church that frames the final shots is, I think, the one at San Galgano, a long cross- country ride through vineyards and rollercoaster farmland, some 30kms due west of Bagno Vignoni.

False clues and incompetence took me to other wonderful places that Tarkovsky passed through looking for locations: to the medieval abbey of Sant'Anna, high and lonely above Pienza; to Pienza itself with its magnificently overblown central piazza (the astonishing core of what was to be a Utopian city commissioned by Pope Pius II - the money ran out), to Montalcino, the perfect Tuscan hill town with its even more perfect local wine, Brunello, and to the forbidding Benedictine Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore.

This vast red-brick complex is hidden away in a deep forest of oak, cypress and pine. The reason to visit it - aside from the stunning setting and the fact that Tarkovsky stopped here - is to gawp at the soap opera-like frescos of the life of Saint Benedict painted by Lucia Signorelli and Antonio Bazzi, the latter better known as 'Il Sodoma' (for reasons best unknown to celibate monks). If you want your religion laced with bosomy whores, bottomy boys and entertaining animals, Monte Oliveto Maggiore is your kind of church.

Tarkovsky was overwhelmed by these Tuscan haunts. In his diary he scribbled, 'breathtaking places, astounding; my perception is becoming blurred'. Yet, not long afterwards, he wrote, 'Terrible thoughts. I'm frightened. I am lost. I cannot live in Russia, nor can I live here'. He was, as always, true to his words. Nostalgia is his momento mori to the Italy he revelled in, yet could never come to terms with except by representing it as an idealised and forever out-of-reach Russia. You might truly say that the Italy he saw was to die for.

The Location Hunters will return in the New Year.

(Photograph omitted)

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