This is the eighth 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 charcuterie, and join in on the conversation.
There is an invasion afoot in Umbria, there’s no denying it. And it ain’t a stealth invasion, either. It’s a full-on, in-your-face, landscape-be-damned advance of the Big Box Stores.
I wish I could say that I have taken on a nom de guerre, gone underground, and organized a grassroots uprising against this disheartening trend which has turned much of the vista along Umbria’s main artery highway 75 into something akin to the blight in the far western suburbs of Chicago, but the fact of the matter is that I have found myself a customer more often than I would like to admit. Call it the convenience, the selection, the heavy weight of this current economic insecurity, but sometimes it’s hard to ignore the siren song of the one-stop-discount-shop, even though you know in your heart of hearts that you are just hammering one more nail in the coffin of a local economy which has survived for centuries—if not millenia—on the small and medium-sized family business.
I was pleased that the Roundtable topic chosen for this month was “crafts”, so I could talk up some of the amazing artisan wares—none of which are to be found in sprawling, low-overhead superstores–which come out of this region and bring my moral credit bottom line back into the black.
If you can only stuff one thing in your suitcase to bring back from a trip to Umbria, it’s gotta be something to eat. Unfortunately, given the array of things that—tragically–can’t be taken overseas (I have managed to smuggle a salame or two over the border, but that was in the heady pre-9/11 days), you will have to strike the amazing local charcuterie, cheese, and produce from your list. There does remain, however, the incredible olive oil (Umbria produces some of the highest quality and most sought after oils on the market) and wine, truffles, honey, and heirloom legumes. Nothing brings back fond memories of your trip months later than being able to recreate some of the same dishes that were such an epiphany when you first ate them here.
Budget buy: Pick up some Perugina Baci chocolates at a local grocery store. A fun, easy gift for folks back home.
Ceramics are everywhere in Umbria, but the vast majority of them all come from the same town: Deruta. The name has become synonymous with high-quality hand-painted majolica over the past roughly seven centuries of artisan production, and if you’re looking for cheap factory-spat tchotchkes you will be sorely disappointed. The heartfelt ceramic tradition is still very much alive in the dozens of workshops large and small that line the highway and the winding roads up to the top of the hilltown itself and you can find anything from majolica tops for table seating twelve or contemporary ceramic sculpture running in the thousands of euros, to tiny painted beads made into unique earrings or pendants. Gubbio has its own unique history of ceramic production, the apex of which was the famed lusterware of Mastro Giorgio in the 1500s, and you can still find a flourishing tradition of majolica workshops in the center of town.
Tight fit: If you need to pick up something for your neighbor who has been watering your plants while you’re away, but are down to your last ounce of baggage weight, slip in a painted ceramic wine cork (or two). The fit perfectly in the toes of packed shoes.
I have waxed poetic about Umbria’s traditional damask and jacquard hand-loomed at the Brozzetti workshop in Perugia repeatedly, so I won’t bore you with it again. Or, on second thought…hands down one of my favorite places to visit in Umbria, both for the dramatic workshop (housed in a 13th century church in the center of Perugia) and for the breathtaking cloth Marta and her assistants are still weaving by hand today. Ok, I’m done. If you can’t make it to Brozzetti, excellent quality cloth is also to be had in specialty boutiques across Umbria, principally in Montefalco and Spello.
In a strange historic quirk, a bit of Ireland lives on Isola Maggiore (the largest of Lake Trasimeno’s islands) in Pizzo di Irlanda—Irish lace. At the beginning of the 1900s a local noblewoman asked a few Irish maids in her service to teach their lace-making craft to local women, and generations later you can still find these delicate crocheted pieces in shops on the island and in towns around the lake shore. One of the towns near the Lake, Panicale, has its own rich tradition of embroidered tulle –known as Ars Panicalensis—which has been producing intricate flower, medallion, bird of paradise, and baroque scroll patterns for convents and bridal veils for over a century.
I love to walk the backstreets in Assisi, where sooner or later you inevitably come across a Signora sitting in the afternoon shade busy stitching a motif of griffins, birds, or stylized flora on a piece of rough, unbleached linen in bright blue, brick red, or soft brown silk. Ubiquitous in the souvenir shops around town, this traditional embroidery—a mix of cross and Holbein stitches—was first produced from around the 1200s through the 1500s, when it seems to have become a lost art. Revived again by local women artisans in the 1800s, there is nary a home in the entire greater Assisi area which does not boast at least one hand-embroidered runner. I have two.
Hard core: If you are passionate about textile history, there are a number of small but excellent museums in Umbria, including Tela Umbra in Città di Castello, the Museo del Tulle in Panicale, and the textile collection in Palazzo Sorbello in Perugia.
If you think that only Venice does glass—well, you may be right. That said, in the late 13th century glass artisans migrated from the famed Venetian glass-making island of Murano to Piegaro in Umbria and continued making exquisite pieces in their new outpost. Piegaro is now home to one of Europe’s largest industrial glass factories, but more compellingly a glass museum located in the restored historic glass factory. For a look into a glass museum that continues to actively produce, stop in the fabulous Studio Moretti Caselli, a family atelier which has been producing hand-painted stained glass windows for cathedrals and monuments world-wide since its founding in 1860. Now in the fifth generation, the studio is still an active workshop and offers guided visits and a small gift-shop (just in case you don’t have room in your luggage for an entire window).
Really cool: Ok, if you want to know how to be the absolutely positively hippest cat in town, get yourself a pair of bespoke eyeglass frames from Ozona in Perugia. It doesn’t get any craftier than this.
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.