By NEIL WAUGHSan Piero a Sieve, TUSCANY – There’s no disputing that Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni – known to most simply as Michelangelo – is considered one of the world’s primo artists by those who make these calls.The painstaking detail of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling in the Vatican, the Last Judgement fresco on the altar wall.And, of course, his magnificent masterpiece in Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, the 14-foot high chunk of Carrara marble he chiseled into the statue of David. It only took three years.He became the go-to artist for several 16th century Popes.Which, considering the times and circumstances, was quite an accomplishment.Because, as my Vatican tour-guide painstaking explained, Michelangelo was openly gay and didn’t care who knew it.This goes a long way to explaining all those muscular, buck-naked men and saved souls kissing in the Last Judgement extravaganza.Or the big snake biting in perpetuity at the genitals of the hell-bound Vatican bureaucrat, Biagio da Cesena, who wanted the Pope to crack down on Michelangelo and his lifestyle.But it was the inclusion of the image of an aristocrat called Tommaso dei Cavalieri in the kissing and hugging part of the great fresco that’s most intriguing.Tommaso was Michelangelo’s long time boytoy and the subject of his love sonnets.Come to think about it, the David statue looks uncannily like him.While the great artist confined his own personal appearance in the fresco to a sad-looking face on St. Bartholomew’s saggy skin.Confirming there would be no fast-track to Heaven for him.The reason Michelangelo was able to survive and thrive was because he was a fan favorite of Florence’s powerful Medici dynasty, who made a fortune financing European vanity wars and powerful and rich enough to have a say in the selection of popes.Where the Sieve River makes a bent toward Publiacqua’s power dam at Lago di Bilancino there’s famous Medici hunting villa called Cafaggiolo.While Cosimo Medici’s fortress of San Martino still stands guard over the Sieve valley from a hilltop above the village of San Piero.In Michelangelo’s time no brown trout swam in the Sieve. But thanks to the cold-water flows coming from the bottom of the Bilancino they do now and the local association controls 9 km. of catch-and-release water below it.Wild boar tracks imprinted the mud on the trail to the river where the cinghiale come down from the hills at night to feed in the fava bean fields.It was a beautiful late spring day in central Italy but my Tuscan fly-fishing guide Francesco was stressed.There has been much rain in the hills and the Dam Man was releasing water.
Neil with his Michelangelo brown trout. Neil Waugh/Edmonton Sun
The first pool was beside garden plots and plump Livorno chickens clucked contentedly in the undergrowth.Fly fishing has come quite recently to Italy so they are not weighed down with the cultural baggage of English chalk streams or Catskill mountain rivers.So bead-head nymphs and a San Juan Worm knock-off called “Squirmy Wormy” were perfectly and ethically acceptable.But the river was full and off-colour and the trout closed-mouthed.Francesco drove upriver nearer the dam where the Sieve spilled over three ledges of Tuscan basalt forming a pretty waterfall.Long ago a mill had been built to exploit the drop but it now stood derelict.I got in position where a tongue of water formed below the outcrop and roll-casted the Squirmy.The putty indicator had hardly traveled a metre before hesitating.I was still messing with the fly-line slack and nearly missed the hook-set.“Big fish,” hissed Francesco when he saw the broad, square tail.But I already knew that.There were a couple of close calls when the trout bolted for the next waterfall down.But luck was with me and side pressure on my 5-weight rod held it.Francesco made a heroic stab with his too-small trout net and it was mine.A gorgeous buttery, bright-spotted Apennine brownie as only Michelangelo himself could have painted it.