Francesco’s Italy – Top To Toe Review

Les Anderson takes a look at this BBC documentary series in which Francesco da Mosto celebrates the art and beauty of Italy…

Of all the nations in Europe, Italy is by far the most documented on British television and continues to exert an endless fascination for the British TV audience and programme-makers alike. Over the years we’ve been treated (or subjected, depending on your viewpoint) to many factual series ranging from the highest-brow arts documentaries to the most populist Moving Abroad And How To Get The Best From It type of series. The personal travelogue genre has been dominated in recent years by TV chefs travelling through the peninsula offering their own ‘insights’ into Italy’s incredibly varied regional cuisine.

While most of these series are presented from an outsider’s point of view, there have been occasions when the presenting duties have been handed over to a native Italian, the last that springs to mind being the chef Antonio Carluccio about 10 years ago. It is very rare indeed to have a more general travelogue presented by a local but that is what we have here in Francesco’s Italy. First transmitted in 2006, this series cashes in on the popularity of the presenter Francesco da Mosto following his history of Venice shown in 2005. Of noble Venetian and Sicilian origins, da Mosto, with his mane of silver hair, Cinerama smile and easy charm is an urbane and cultured (and most importantly telegenic) host. He is an aristocrat, an architect, a historian and well-connected internationally as we shall see later. His first appearance on British screens proved an instant success, particularly with female viewers (can’t see it myself) and has presented two further factual series since.

This particular series is a hotch-potch of themes and subjects and is very much a personal view of his native country, which he reminds us initially is a patchwork of formerly independent and warring nation states united by Garibaldi in the 1860s. The series takes in art history, social history, town planning, politics, religion, cookery (of course), winemaking, tourism and Old Uncle Tommaso Cobley and all. He casts his net wide and trawls in some surprising subjects.

He states at the top of the first part that ‘I have decided to leave home and see Italy from top to toe’ and stresses his family connections throughout the country with particular reference to Sicily, where his mother comes from. He carefully omits all mention of his noble origins – his father was a Venetian Count and his mother a Sicilian Contessa – but we do get a glimpse of his opulent home in Venice as he bids farewell to his family. And it becomes clear very quickly that his connections grant him access to places that no ordinary citizen could get into. As with all modern travelogues, he settles for a quirky form of transport, his aged red Alfa Romeo Spider which allows him to be filmed driving through Italy with the top down (in winter!) which, of course, gives his trademark silver mane freedom to flutter in the breeze. As with most shows of this genre, he’s accompanied by an invisible camera crew and addresses the camera directly as if the audience were his travelling companion. As a result of this the show does suffer occasionally from the staged ‘chance encounter’ syndrome that afflicts this type of factual programme. ‘I wonder if this ferry will take us to Ferrara?’ he muses at one point while driving down a rural back road. Of course it does – the researcher made sure of that months ago and he has to cross more than once to get all the necessary shots in the bag. Unfortunately, da Mosto has a rather cheesy over-sincere manner when playing these shots to camera. He isn’t quite as effortless at this as say, Michael Palin.

The series is split into four one-hour segments which follow his progress down the peninsula. It is strongly suggested that he makes one unbroken journey over the course of several days but, as always with the magic of television, that may well not be the case. Right at the beginning he’s seen loading unwieldy suitcases into the tiny boot of his car which magically disappear further down the line to make way for cases of wine. Each episode is split further into 6 chapters which can be accessed from menus.

Part 1: The Romantic North (56m 40s)

In which our hero sets off on his odyssey on a dark Venetian winter night bidding an emotional farewell to his extended family. His journey takes him along remarkably deserted roads with not even the merest hint of the grim industrial hinterland that surrounds Venice. Instead his bright red Alfa magically transports him straight into the remarkably traffic-free piazzas of the various wealthy towns of the region such as Vicenza and Verona. He manages to gain access to a remarkably tourist-free Scrovegni chapel to gaze in awe at the frescoes by Giotto, the father of modern Western Art. His peregrinations through remarkably empty A-roads are accompanied by numerous picturesque shots of sunrises and sunsets (every episode opens with a sunrise, ahhh) and da Mosto’s car winding along wintry country roads with his silver hair whipping in the breeze.

His aristocratic connections are brought to the fore when visiting the Villa Rotonda and he explains it’s normally closed to tourists but his father knew the owner and he is allowed a private tour of the interior. Similarly he is filmed in Milan viewing da Vinci’s Last Supper in a deserted Santa Maria delle Grazie. Aye, right. I tried to see it in January last year and couldn’t get anywhere near the place for coach-loads of tourists.

Part 2: A British Love Affair (58m 44s)

In which our hero explores Umbria and Tuscany, the two areas of Italy closest to the British heart and home of the Renaissance. And just to prove how much the Brits love Tuscany he meets up with his ‘mother-in-law’s best friend’ in Florence who just happens to be Dame Maggie Smith.

Part 3: The Heart of Italy (57m 56s)

In which our hero travels from Rome to Naples taking in the gardens at the Villa d’Este and Caserta Palace. The generally breezy tone of the series so far starts to take on a more chilling note as he begins to delve into murky political waters with a trip to an old fascist-era underground bunker in which monumental heads of Mussolini are stored, originally destined for huge statues of Il Duce. He mentions briefly that in certain parts of Italy, neo-fascism is bubbling under just waiting to re-emerge. The symbolism of this visit is quite clear. To illustrate his point further he travels to Sabaudia, one of the new towns built in the 1930s by Mussolini, where the mayor proudly shows him various public art works from the fascist era depicting Mussolini as the beneficent father figure, still lovingly maintained…

Part 4: The Land of My Mother (56m 47s)

In which our hero travels via rural Puglia to sun-drenched Sicily taking in many tourist-friendly destinations and a few not quite so tourist-friendly sights. The most striking and probably least known is a Catholic ritual which takes place in the small town of Nocera. During religious processions, some of the local men, in order to demonstrate their piety, draw blood from their bare legs with small plates studded with shards of glass. They allow the blood to flow freely and run down the town streets in rivulets. Da Mosto can barely hide his horror but gamely interviews one of the men, later seen with his small and visibly distressed son in tow as attendant and apprentice.

The latter part of this episode deals with the now-faded glories of once-imperial Sicily and the modern influence of the Mafia is mentioned briefly. And finally he meets his mother off the plane from Venice in another cheesily staged encounter. In one unbroken shot he manages to drive right up to the door of the arrivals terminal (clearly closed to traffic as there isn’t another vehicle around for miles, not even taxis) and gets out of the car just as his mother emerges from the terminal (as if on cue, strangely enough) for an emotional reunion. I wish it were that easy at Glasgow airport… And it is at this point that he finally gets round to telling us that Mother just happens to come from an old aristocratic family who used to own half of the town. Like you do.

I was prepared to dislike this series – I had only caught glimpses when it was first transmitted and da Mosto as a host is not to everyone’s taste. He has a little too much of the Professional Italian about him but he does appear to be popular with female viewers – something he explicitly acknowledges in part 2 when he says, direct to camera, that it is an English dream to win some money, buy a house in Tuscany and ‘if you are lucky find yourself a Latin lover, like me.’ Tongue in cheek perhaps but delivered straight. He’s knowledgeable; he’s charming and above all connected. He just happens to be fitted for a suit in Milan by Giorgio Armani himself (who does look quite bemused by the whole thing), interviews the owner of FIAT on the roof of the Lingotto building (think Italian Job) and wanders around Florence arm in arm with Dame Maggie.

As mentioned before this series is a real hotch-potch of subjects and is an educated liberal aristocrat’s view of the country but its very variety is its USP. It is a personal view by a native Italian who is half Venetian, half Sicilian which, by Italian standards, is practically dual nationality. Most average Italians are intensely parochial and have little or no interest in anything that happens outside their hometown off the football pitch. But this series has not been made by or for an average Italian. At no time does he deal with substantial contemporary issues such as the fate of immigrant workers or the political abuses of that clown Berlusconi or the resurgence of the far-right in his home region or even organised crime. He does touch briefly on aspects of such issues but if you want to see the real everyday Italy, this series is not for you. However if you want a kaleidoscope of Italy old and new that touches on numerous diverse themes and subjects, wrapped in calendar-style photography and which is specifically made for us Brits, then you could do a lot worse than this.


As with all such factual programmes, photography takes place in a huge variety of weather and lighting conditions from the dreary urban smog of Northern Italy to the bright Mediterranean sunlight of Sicily. Overall the quality is up to the high standard of all recent 2entertain releases for the BBC. This was, after all, made and promoted as a quality series. However, on occasion there’s a noticeable granular look to the image rather like a poor Freeview transmission. It was most noticeable in some sunset shots with concentric rings of various shades around the sun rather than a smooth glow but this may just be peculiar to the review copy I had. Otherwise image quality is excellent.


Just a bog standard stereo soundtrack but clear and clean, particularly necessary when you have a non-native speaker of English doing the presenting. Da Mosto’s English is fluent (with the occasional quirky and charming bit of foreign grammar) but his accent is strong and his diction not the clearest. But if you have any trouble understanding him you can always switch on the excellent subtitles (in English only) which are an exact transcription, even down to his grammatical errors. For the numerous exchanges in Italian, forced English subtitles appear onscreen. However these are the annoying BIG SUBTITLES in the middle of the image that the BBC favours these days. Fortunately the optional subtitles are more discreet and tucked away neatly at the bottom of the image. And you’ll be pleased to know that, for once, no censorship takes place and we get a true account of what’s being said even down to the occasional swearword.


There are no extras.

Les Anderson

Updated: May 22, 2009

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