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Italy Roundtable: The Fall Museum Crawl

This is the fifth installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some fruit rollups, and join in on the conversation.

My favorite season has always been autumn, because I am a nerd. And the favorite season of nerds the world over is fall, because it marks the end of the nerd’s least favorite season:  summer.

Summer is the season of endless, aimless frolicking, frolicking usually involving sports and bikinis, (or–most often–sports in bikinis). Summer is the season of the beach read, the blockbuster movie, the pop anthem. It is the season made for drinking the hottest drink and driving the hottest car and hanging with the hottest crowd. It is, in short, the season which celebrates everything the nerd is not very good at.

Fall—fall, my friends—is the season when order and routine return. It is the season when schools (or–for the older nerd–night courses) begin, the season of baggy sweaters and long walks in the arboretum (nerds like their nature tagged in Latin). Fall is the season of the Nobel prize for literature, the art-house film festival, the symphonic season opener. It is a season made for quiet, contemplative, indoor pursuits during which one is fully clothed and speaking in complete, grammatically correct sentences. It is, in short, the season during which the nerd positively shines.

Fall

And one of the nerd’s favorite activities during those rainy, Sunday afternoons in late fall is visiting museums. I love museums. Love them. I grew up in Chicago, which is a city saturated with sprawling, monumental museums. I cut my teeth at the Museum of Science and Industry, with its coal mine and walk-through heart and giant model train, and the Field Museum, with its towering dinosaur skeletons filling the main hall and life-size dusty paleolithic dioramas. (I love the Field Museum so much I actually toyed with the idea of holding my wedding reception there. Alas, nerds are poor. Geeks are the rich ones. They understand computer programming.)

Umbria, of course, can’t hold a candle to Chicago’s museums size-wise; the average Windy City museum covers more square acres than most Umbrian towns. That said, a number of bite-sized local museums have popped up in this region over the past few years that are excellently curated, accessible to English speakers, and well worth the hour or so it will take to visit their singular collections…even for you cool summer people out there.

 

Casa Museo di Palazzo Sorbello (Perugia)

http://www.casamuseosorbello.org/en/

Palazzo Sorbello

There is something about human nature that draws us to the past. We trawl antique stores, hike the Mayan ruins, pore over archives searching out familiar surnames. We are constantly peering through windows into history, hoping to find some connection between our brief years on earth and the millenia that have come before.

This is especially true about the home-cum-museum. Who doesn’t love to wander through these domestic archaeological sites and learn about the quotidian routines of their occupants, so similar—or, at times, so incredibly removed—from our own?

When I visited the recently opened (and winningly named) Palazzo Sorbello “House Museum” in Perugia, I was fully expecting to be charmed. I envisioned richly furnished rooms (it is a noble family’s Palazzo, after all) arranged in artful domestic tableaux, mannequins posed in period garb, dark corners, a slight musty odor, and lots of dust. I envisioned, in short, the typical small, private, off-the-beaten-track museum.

I was not expecting to be wowed. But I was, and completely enthralled during my two hour tour (the standard visit lasts about half an hour, but I got to talking with their marketing director, Enrico Speranza, who has encyclopedic knowledge of the Sorbello family and their Palazzo and before we knew it….). If a visit to the Palazzo Sorbello is a window into the past, the view from here is one of a family with a long history–uniquely interwoven with that of Italy from the Middle Ages to the 20th century–and with an enduring passion for art and culture.

We began in the extensive library, includes a rare original Encyclopedie Française from the mid-1700s.  From there we spent the better part of the morning viewing their carefully curated selection of landscape paintings and portraits, breathtaking European and Chinese porcelain, a priceless handblown Murano chandelier, and various objects d’epoque.

Perhaps most fascinating was the collection of intricate embroidery produced at the beginning of the 20th century by the Embroidery School founded by the American wife of one of the noble family’s descendants. This enterprising Dame, Romeyne Robert, left her mark on the local economy by enrolling rural Umbrian women in the school, teaching them this disappearing craft, and giving them their first taste of economic independence.

More than a simple time-capsule, Palazzo Sorbello is a living lesson in Italy’s social and economic history and one of the most fascinating museums in Umbria.

 

Museo della Memoria (Assisi)

Palazzo Vallemani
Via San Francesco, 12
Phone: 075 8197021
Hours: Nov-Feb: 10:30–1:00/2:00–5:00 March, April, May/Sept, Oct: 10:00–1:00/2:30–6:00; June-Aug 10:00–1:00/1:30–7:00

Museo della Memoria

It’s easy to forget, in this religiously homogeneous land where politics, education, holidays, foods, given names, and kitschy tchotkes all seem to revolve around the Catholic church (the fact that I can use a yiddish phrase to describe things like holy water key chains and friar salt and pepper shakers gives me no end of etymological joy), that there are, indeed, other religious communities in Italy.

Jews in Italy have have had a tough time of it for the past two millenia, and the tiny remaining community of 45,000 which still live in the Bel Paese would have been even smaller had it not been for the work of a network of citizens—lay and ordained, private and official—who secretly collaborated under the direction of Catholic Bishop Giuseppe Placido Nicolini and priests Father Rufino Niccacci and Don Aldo Brunacci to harbor and ultimately save more than 300 Jews (most from northern Italy) and other war refugees in the early 1940s.

I, like most local residents, had heard bits and pieces of this story through word of mouth and buzz created with the publication of The Assisi Underground, a 1978 novel built around the true story of this clandestine network. That said, for years the only remaining tangible evidence was the vintage printing press, still bolted to the floor of the typographer workshop-turned-souvenir shop in Piazza Santa Chiara, which had been used by the Brizi family to secretly print false identity cards and other documents, making it possible for Jews both in Assisi and across Italy avoid deportation and imprisonment.

When the building was sold in 2009, the new owners asked the press be removed, which spurred a grassroots movement by locals to create some sort of official display rather than let the last vestige of the Underground be packed away in storage. After a few calls to action in the local paper, I hadn’t heard much else, so figured the momentum had died away and the living memory along with it.

Luckily, I was wrong. Through private and public donations, the Museo della Memoria (Memory Museum) opened in the spring of 2011, and it is startlingly excellent. The four halls are packed with excellently displayed (and translated) letters, documents, photographs, and historical artifacts (many of which revolve around the Brizi’s typography workshop), an in-depth biography of the main characters in the story (including the German Colonel Valentin Müller, Commandant of the city and Catholic, who showed humanity in an inhumane situation), and a video loop of interviews with some of the surviving activists and refugees.

Moving, compelling, and perfectly curated, this jewel of a museum merits a visit. A final note: No Assisan betrayed the Underground and no refugee passing through was captured during its activity. So, the Jews have a debt to the city. And yet…and yet. It was the letter forged by the hand of one of these refugees, fluent in German,  purportedly from Kesselring declaring Assisi an open city, which began the evacuation of German troops under Colonel Müller and quite probably saved Assisi from destruction.

So, who owes whom, really, in the end?

 

Museo della Canapa (Sant’Anatolia di Narco)

Phone: 0743. 613149 (if you arrive and no one is there, call this number or ask around…the office is down the street)
Hours: Mon closed, Tues-Fri: 9:00-1:00, Tues/Thurs: 3:00-6:00, Sat: 2:30-6:00, Sun: must reserve.

Museo della Canapa

If you think that just one person can’t make much of a difference in this crazy world, listen to the story of a five foot tall, red haired, tinkly-bracelet-and-flowered-poncho-clad dynamo named Glenda Giampaoli. Yep, just like that bad ass of a Good Witch Glenda, who might disarm you with her ready smile and sweet voice but don’t get between her wand and whatever she’s aiming it at.

A textile archaeologist with a soft spot for her home region, Glenda had a dream: to bring to light the rich history of hemp farming and textile production in the Valnerina. And before you start pigeonholing her in with Woody Harrelson and patchouli-scented aging hippies in Berkeley, let me just tell you that hemp was once mainstream in Italy. Extremely mainstream. So mainstream, in fact, that Italy was the second largest industrial hemp producer in the world at the beginning of the 20th century. The staid women’s fashion magazine, Grazia, put out an entire issue in 1940 entitled “The Triumph of Hemp” dedicated to the latest in hemp fabrics and styles. (The lead story begins thus: “Hemp, like a woman, must be treated roughly to render it soft and pliable.” Ahem. Yes, well. We’ve come a long way, baby.)

Then, as Glenda so succinctly puts it, Italy lost the war. History is written by the victors, who also determine the course of the future. As the Allies had huge economic stakes in the success of nylon and other synthetic fibers developed during World War II, hemp was demonized. Polyester was in, hemp was out…and with it a micro-culture and economy dependent upon its production. With an admirable amount of patience and tenacity, Glenda has been working for the past few years to re-introduce hemp farming in the Valnerina and other areas of Umbria (recent EU legislation has begun legalizing the crop) and sensitize the population to the benefits of bringing back this lost product.

Part of her campaign—the most important part, perhaps —has been the establishment of the nano-sized Hemp Museum in the fetching village of Sant’Anatolia di Narco. With a bit of negotiation, flavored with diplomacy, grovelling, determination, and (one can only imagine, in this country where just renewing your driver’s license can seem more complicated than an establishing an international commission on CO2 emissions) quite a bit of luck and goodwill, Glenda was able to retrofit a section of the village’s former city hall to hold an eclectic collection of antique textile and weaving tools and looms and examples of hemp cloth donated by local families and dating from the 1800s.

The museum’s information panels are all excellently translated, but if you’re lucky you may get a tour by Glenda herself, who flavours the visit with local lore and cultural nuance (hemp weaving, for example, was key to the economic independence of women—particularly widows and single women—at the turn of the century, as it was one of the few occupations available which could be pursued without leaving the home). The pride she has in her tiny yet huge triumph of a museum is palpable…and contagious. As I watched her punctuate her impassioned explanations with grand gesticulations while she insisted on showing us “just one more thing…this is really special!” I realized that only a tiny yet huge personality like Glenda could have waved her wand at the disheartening Italian bureaucracy and conjured up this most special museum.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.

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