Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.
Browsing category: Italy Blogging Roundtable, Off the beaten path in Umbria, Rebecca's Ruminations
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Italy Roundtable: Sliding Doors, What-ifs, and the Cross of San Damiano

This is the third 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 Cracker Jacks, and join in on the conversation.

My Favorite Work of Art in Italy

If I were to name my favorite work of art in Umbria purely on merit of aesthetic beauty, technical skill, or creative mastery, I would be hard-pressed. From Etruscan stonework dating two hundred years before Christ to the twentieth century avant-garde artist Alberto Burri—this region has been producing breathtaking art for millenia.

Now, if I were to name my favorite piece of art in Umbria purely in its ability to inspire my imagination, give flight to my fancy, move and amuse me, and make me want to sit my butt down in front of the computer on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in July when everyone else is out swimming in the creek to share it with you, there is one piece of artwork that immediately comes to mind.

Surprise! Betcha didn't see this coming.

I like to imagine that there are tens, hundreds, thousands of parallel universes out there, populated with the anti-versions of myself. Every time I find myself at a crossroads in life where I have had to make a choice about which path to take, I like to think that a separate reality splinters off and continues on a different trajectory, spinning out a version of what my life would have been like had I taken that other, rejected road. Each time I’ve been courageous or cowardly, kind or cruel, thoughtful or hasty, a new world has spun away, carrying on it a slightly altered cast of characters and plot line. I step off the walkway, tread on a butterfly, and set off unpredictable chain reactions.

These alternate realities present a fun-house mirror of my world and myself, just distorted enough to be new but just similar enough to be recognizable. And when I’m in line at the post office, or in the dentist’s waiting room, or up in the wee hours of the morning wandering the dark rooms of my house, I like to wonder about these anti-Rebeccas in these parallel universes, and conjecture about their lives there.

In the beginning of the 13th century, young Francesco Bernardone–son of a wealthy merchant in Assisi—decided to abandon his life of luxury and war-mongering for spiritual pursuits. He took to praying in the semi-abandoned country churches around his hometown, and in 1206 knelt before an unremarkeable Romanesque rood cross in the small, humble chapel of San Damiano outside Assisi’s city walls. This icon crucifix, with its 12th century cartoonish Byzantine-style decoration based on the Gospel of Saint John (probably painted by an anonymous Syrian monk), would surely have faded into obscurity had not an extraordinary event taken place. Or, I should say, two extraordinary events:

  1. The cross spoke to Francis.
  2. Francis listened.

A copy now hangs in the church of San Damiano; the original is in the Basilica of Saint Claire

Tradition holds that Francis heard the cross say to him, “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin,” three times. Francis did just that…first interpreting the message as a call to restore the neglected San Damiano and Porziuncola chapels and later taking it to mean a tweaking of the Roman Catholic Church itself. In this vein, he founded the Franciscan Order and the Order of Saint Claire and—many hold—became one of the most influential figures in religious history, pioneering virtues of poverty, brotherhood, respect for animals and the environment. He is the patron saint of Italy and his hometown of Assisi is one of the most visited in the country, primarily because of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Basilica di San Francesco.

But it could have gone differently.

Francis could have never heard the voice, or never listened. He could have heeded the message, but become demoralized and given up.  He could have stuck to restoring churches (perhaps becoming the patron saint of general contractors) and never founded an Order. He could have continued ministering to the poor and sick and died in obscurity, as so many devout did over the centuries, or simply joined one of the many rich and corrupt orders already thriving in medieval Italy. Catholicism would be fundamentally different (as would many other religions, as Francis–with his spirit of humility and fraternity–is a figure almost universally admired), Italy would be fundamentally different, Assisi would be fundamentally different, and my life (and most likely yours, my friend) would probably be fundamentally different. All this the legacy of one young man and the choices made in one moment of his life.

This is why I—a proud Secular Humanist and largely Non-Lover of Byzantine Art—have always been drawn to San Damiano’s cross which, were it to have a less compelling backstory, wouldn’t draw a second glance. Because when I look at it (it now hangs in the the Cappella del Crocifisso in the Basilica di Santa Chiara here in Assisi), more than making me pause to reflect on beauty, or skill, or genius, I find myself pausing to reflect on choices and consequences, on caution and risk, on sliding doors and what-ifs.

And when I do, I say a little secular prayer to Il Poverello:

Francis, may I have the courage to listen to voices speaking, to walk through doors opening, to take paths beckoning. May I have the wisdom to choose the right voices, the right doors, and the right paths. May I have the serenity to one day stand on this spinning Earth, look at all those countless other planets hurtling past with all those countless anti-Rebeccas standing on them and know that of them all, I would choose to be on this crazy planet living the life of this–at times, crazy–Rebecca.

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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Rebecca as Guest rather than Hostess: Roman Assisi

I don’t often write about Assisi per se, as it seems that rivers of ink have been spilled in describing the town’s beauty and mystique. So it was a unique pleasure not only to be able to contribute to one of my favorite blogs about Italy (Madeline Clarke Jhawar’s excellent Italy: Beyond the Obvious) but to be able to explore some of the lesser known Roman monuments and sites in my adopted hometown.

If you have a passion for Roman history (or just want an excuse to check in to a fabulous five star spa), take a look here for some tips!

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Heart of Glass: Studio Moretti Caselli

Sometimes I discover something so amazing, so unique, so share-worthy, that it immediately plunges me into a schizophrenic episode.  Yes, because I have had two women warring inside my head for the past, oh, 39 years and nine months.

One of them wears her hair loose and flowing, dresses in organic cotton flower-print yoga pants, has tantric sex, and urges me to eat according to my dosha and do my daily affirmations.  The other pulls her hair in a tight bun at the nape of her neck, wears Hillary pantsuits, hasn’t gotten it on since, oh, forever, and tisks about fat content and carbohydrates with her lips pursed like a cat’s butt.

The first says, “Look at you, aren’t you a star!  You found a hidden gem, you.  Go, go and shout it from the mountain tops!  You are fabulous!”  The other says, “Well, it certainly took you long enough.  Seventeen years in Umbria and you’re only blumbering on it now.  Humiliating, really.  Always the last to know. Keep it quiet so you won’t make a fool out of yourself again.  And put that cupcake down.”

They slug it out for awhile, but the first woman always ends up coming out on top.  Because, as we all know, tantric sex always kicks pantsuit’s ass.

So, here I am, a couple of weeks later, telling you all about one of the best kept secrets in Perugia.  And I really do mean best kept, because, despite it being just steps from both the Corso and the main parking garage in the provincial capital and despite me having passed directly in front of the nondescript sign probably a thousand times over the years, I had no idea what was in store for me when I stopped by their open house a few Sundays ago.

Studio Moretti Caselli has been producing hand-painted stained glass windows for cathedrals and monuments all over the world since its founding in 1860 by Francesco Moretti, who began by studying chemistry and glass art texts from the 12th and 13th centuries (glass art had declined to the point of becoming almost extinct after the 1400s) to become one of the greatest modern restorers of stained glass windows.  Now in the fifth generation of the same family of artists, the studio is still an active artelier and offers guided visits through its museum-workshop.

This rendering of Perugino's Incoronation of the Virgin rivals the original. Loaned for a museum exhibit, it was returned with four cracks in the delicate glass.

The studio is housed in a 15th century palazzo originally belonging to the once powerful Baglioni family; the modest plaque near the heavy wooden front door belies the soaring and lightfilled vaulted rooms with their immense windows inside.  A visit begins in the archive, where instead of computers and file drawers, the shelves are filled with cracked leather volumes containing more than 150 years of commissions, sketches, and family documents.

The Moretti Caselli archive, with its historic ledgers of commissions, collections of sketches, and family documents.

From there, the charming Maddalena Forenza—the last of the Moretti Caselli family, who continues to run the workshop with help of her sister, Elizabetta—leads you to the historic laboratory, where tiny glass jars of powdered pigment line the walls and 19th century chemistry equipment used to prepare the paints (now subsituted by modern pigments which are much less toxic) are still on display.

The founder of the Moretti Caselli Studio died relatively young, quite probably from the effects of toxins commonly added to pigments at the time.

The Moretti Caselli Studio's founder died relatively young, quite probably from the effect of toxins commonly found in pigments at the time.

The highlight of the workship is without a doubt the two main halls; the first was used to recieve clients and is covered in pretty period frescoes restored by Moretti at the beginning of the 1900s.  From here, visitors pass into the captivating second hall, with monumental life-sized displays of pencil sketches and final drawings of many of the finished works still mounted in windows across Italy and the world.  Two of the most precious works produced by the Moretti Caselli Studio are on permanent display here: a full sized portrait of the Queen Margherita and a tondo copied from a Perugino painting.  I never knew how enchanting a stained glass window could be until I found myself utterly entranced by the delicate and flawless brushwork and the luminous effect created as the light passes through layers of pigment applied and fired repeatedly.  These are truly works of art.

It's hard to capture the breathtaking luminosity of these works in photographs. Stained glass is meant to be seen with the light behind, not in front.

The visit ends in the workrooms of the studio, where I was aghast at the time and effort involved in producing each piece.  From the initial drawings and sketches, to the selection and cutting of glass, to the actual painting (which can only be done by daylight, as the secret to a masterpiece is the alchemy of correctly mixing colours and light), the pieces then begin the baking process to fix the colour. Often pieces pass through the kiln—the studio uses a modern electric kiln now, but until just a few years ago was still using the original wood-burning kiln which takes up an entire room–three or four times, applying a new delicate coating of color between each firing. Finally, the glass pieces are assembled on their lead mountings to create the stained glass window.

This wood-fired kiln, which required two to three people to bake glass pieces, was used until 1993.

Have I mentioned how often pieces break?  Often.  Incredibly often.  So often I begin to think that the Moretti Caselli clan is either extraordinarily patient or slightly off.  I, for example, dropped one stitch on my son’s baby blanket and disgustedly stuffed it unfinished into the back of the closet, where it remains nine years later.  But the pride this family has for their work, and the passion with which they still talk about both their windows and their history, explains it all.  They put their whole hearts into their work, and those hearts are made of glass.

Now that I've seen the workshop, my next quest is to travel across Umbria to see some of their masterpieces in situ.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see one of the most fascinating historical artisan workshops in Umbria, which is open to visitors upon appointment.  The Studio continues to produce hand painted glass windows and panels, hand etched glass, and Tiffany glass, and also offers day workshops and longer courses in the art of painted and stained glass.

These photographs were used with kind permission of the Studio Moretti Caselli, who hold the copyrights.

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Dust to Dust (or, maybe not): The Mummies of Ferentillo

I am actually okay with death.  By death I mean, of course, Death…not death.  In fact, the absence of any conviction regarding the existence of an afterlife has freed me up to fully appreciate Mother Nature’s warped sense of humor, as she seeds the universe with our molecules to produce the next generation of stars and aardvarks, sequoias and spores, saints and Republicans.  On the other hand, becoming a parent has made death all the more terrorizing.  Though I have always admired Ayelet Waldman’s sentiments, they also somewhat perplex me.  If I imagine the film of my life, my husband’s death would be followed a period of muted colors which would, over time, return to their former brilliance.  The death of one of my children would mark the place where the film suddenly becomes black and white, and there would never be color again.

But the abstract concept of Death doesn’t freak me out.  I don’t get the heebies at the cemetary, have any particular aversion to blood and gore, and the few times I have seen bodies have been struck more with a clinical fascination than a sense of horror.  So when I headed to the Valnerina to see the mummies in the 12th century church of Santo Stefano–now the crypt of the 15th century church built on top of the original–that I had been hearing about for years, it was with the lighthearted mood of adventure (and playing hooky from the office).

The tiny village of Ferentillo tucked into a crag between two looming peaks.

As I neared Ferentillo, however, the fluffy white clouds overhead were suddenly run out of town by a black, ominous storm front.  The temperature plunged several degrees in a matter of minutes, daylight faded, and the dramatic craggy peaks which loom over the town on all sides began to seem ominuous and windswept in a way that made me think of Jane Eyre and crazy ex-wives locked in attics.  By the time I had parked, rain was pelting the tiny village pitilessly and the rolling thunder had become deafening.  I ran to the entrance of the crypt, which is now a museum, and darted past the massive wooden door into the vaulted stone entry just as lightening struck close by and its blinding flash lit up this welcoming inscription:

This warm and fuzzy inscription welcomes all visitors to the museum.

Oggi a me, domani a te.

Io fui quel che tu sei

tu sarai quel che io sono.

Pensa mortal che il tuo fine è questo,

e pensa pur che ciò sarà ben presto.

Today me, tomorrow you.

I was what you are

and you will be what I am.

Consider, mortal, that your end is this

and consider also that it will be quite soon.


Huh.

When the cheerful young guide suddenly popped out from around the corner to sell me our tickets and take us through the crypt, she pretty much scared the bejeezus out of me.  My nine year old son was, by this time, trembling like a Labrador puppy at the prospect of 1) seeing mummies and 2) seeing his otherwise unflappable mother visibly rattled, so we stepped inside.

This process of mummification only takes about a year. There are two mummified birds on display, the result of more recent test runs by skeptical locals.

The crypt-turned-museum is quite small and there are probably no more than twenty mummies on display, so the visit didn’t take long.  Our guide explained how the combination of a microfungus and mineral salts in the soil and a unique air flow (there are openings along one wall where the cold storm air was gusting in) resulted in the natural mummification of many of the bodies buried here over the centuries.  The mummified remains were discovered at the beginning of the 19th century, when a Napoleanic edict ordered the emptying of crypts and the trasfer of remains to cemetaries outside of the town walls.  This being the Valnerina—an impenetrable area which held out against Christianity, Napoleon, and a united Italy long after the rest of Umbria—they continued to inter their dead here until 1871, when the last coffin was placed in the crypt (it’s still on display, though the surviving relatives have forbidden its opening).

Some of the most intact of these mummified corpses are displayed behind glass, and the guide’s chirpy commentary—with gruesome backstories of torture and hangings (You can still see where his neck is broken!), disease and plague (Notice how the sores are still visible on her skin!), human tragedy (The baby looks as if he is merely sleeping!), and grim details (If you step closely enough you can see the whiskers, teeth, eyeballs, and hair!)—was both surreal and compelling in a Tim Burton-esque sort of way.  Add to this the muffled sound of thunder and flashes of lightening that periodically made the lights flicker, and you pretty much had the making of a nine-year-old boy’s perfect excursion.

There are also neatly shelved skulls and bones on display in the dimly lit crypt.

Is it macabre?  Sure, but in a fascinating way.  Unlike the Egyptian mummies we are so used to viewing, these are recent enough that the details surrounding their lives and deaths resonate more and make them more human and less monstrous curiosities.  Their stories are told matter-of-factly, yet with great decorum and respect.  Death is, after all, a part of life.

That said, is it a little spooky?  You bet.

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Buried Treasure: Truffle Hunting in Umbria

I recently spent a day with the delightful Saverio and Gabriella from Tartufi Bianconi in Città di Castello.

Saverio took us along on a truffle hunt (with real truffle dogs and real truffle hunters) and showed us his fascinating private collection of truffle related memorabilia and curiosities.  His wife, Gabriella, welcomed us into her kitchen for a tasting of the precious local tubers and a truffle-themed home-cooked lunch.

To read a more detailed article about truffles in Umbria and my day spent with the Bianconis, check out the November 2010 Destinations Travel Magazine–but in the meantime here are some outtakes from our absolutely perfect day.

Meeting our pooches (and their pets) at the edge of the woods.

Asia The Truffle Dog gets right down to bizniz.

Score! Showing the humans how it's done.

And now she wants her Scooby Snack!

Sandy doesn't want to be outdone...she's on the chase now!

Giving us the goods...

Mmmm. That's what we're talking about.

Gabriella and I look over our haul, about to be sorted and weighed at the Tartufi Bianconi processing rooms.

Saverio shows me his unique private collection of truffle-related memorabilia

While we were preparing lunch, some local truffle hunters brought in some precious white truffles.

Gabriella prepares our tasting of the four different kinds of truffles found locally.

The perfect day ended with a perfect truffle-infused meal!

A special thanks to photographer Carlo Franchi for his wonderful shots of our adventure.

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The Uber-Sagra: La Festa della Cipolla (Cannara)

If I only had one summer left to live and had to choose a single last sagra to attend, (Yes, I realize it’s an unlikely scenario.  Humor me.) I would choose Cannara’s over-the-top-out-of-control-mother-of-all-sagras Festa della Cipolla at the beginning of September.  Hands down.

There's a big sign. Just in case the smell of cooking onions doesn't clue you in.

This year I went on a Saturday night at 8 pm.  If there is a night that one should not attempt to eat at the Onion Festival, it’s Saturday night.  If there’s a time one should not attempt to eat at the Onion Festival, it’s 8 pm.  But there are days—stretches of days, sometimes—out here in the Umbrian hills during which I do not see another human being who is not a blood relation, so I get a little starved for human contact.  And if there is a place to be in Umbria if you are looking for human contact, that place is the sagra in Cannara on a Saturday night at 8 pm.

As I parked my car (so far away that the guys directing traffic spoke with Roman accents), I thought Wouldn’t it be funny to say in my blog that despite parking roughly 25 kilometers from the sagra, the smell of cooking onion hit me as soon as I opened my car door for comic effect. Then I opened my car door, and the smell of cooking onion hit me.  These folks are serious about onion, and their onion gravitas stays with you for days.  I speak from experience.

This is what I'm talking about.

The reason I love the onion festival so (aside from the fact that it is one of the few sagre where a vegetarian can eat to her little piggy heart’s content) it that it embodies the essence of all that a sagra should be:

History

At a time where sagre are multiplying like mushrooms, and disappearing with the same speed, La Festa della Cipolla is in its 30th year and still going strong.  From a tiny little block party-esque communal dinner, this annual event now feeds around 60,000 people during its two week run.  Just to put that in perspective, keep in mind that the population of the entire region of Umbria hovers around 900,000.  This festa has put Cannara on the map, and it’s fun to be a part of it.

Sorry this picture is a little blurry. I was being jostled by roughly ten percent of the population of Umbria.

Tradition

Nothing bugs me more than these young whippersnapper sagre serving foods that have absolutely no cultural value whatsoever.  The Beer Sagra.  The Nutella Sagra.  The Seafood Sagra.  In Cannara, the main food celebrated is a genuine local delicacy.  Cannara’s red, yellow, and flat onions are unique to this area (their flavor influenced by the type and humidity of Cannara’s marshy soil) and have been noted by Slow Food and various famous chefs.

Onions. Consume them on site, or purchase for home. Either way, you'll be sleeping alone.

How much of the real stuff is actually used in the menu is debatable (that would be a heck of a lot of onions to serve 60,000 people for a tiny area like Cannara), but you can buy rustic braids of onions from the stands set up along the streets of the town and taste them for yourself.

The onions go like hotcakes.

Community

I love a sagra where I get the feeling everyone and their brother (and sister, mother, father, cousin, and car mechanic) is involved…and that is definitely the vibe for two weeks in Cannara every fall.  There are six “stands” set up in various courtyards and squares in the town–by stands, they mean entire piazzas crowded with long tables and benches under canvas tents—which can serve a total of 2,500 people at a sitting.  Given that Cannara is home to less than 4,000 residents, to keep an event going of that size–between the planning, cooking, serving, cleaning, organizing, and entertaining—it’s pretty much a whole town affair.  And then some.

The stands are hopping on a Saturday night. Or any night, for that matter.

Venue

At one end of the spectrum, there are sagre set up underneath anonymous tents in the middle of some wheatfield, then come the ones set up in a gravel and concrete paved community park, then come the ones which are in the main piazza of a town, then comes Cannara, where the town and festa exist in perfect symbiosis.  Every courtyard is occupied with tables, the streets are crowded with booths hawking wares, the larger squares have main stages set up with band playing music or clowns entertaining the kids, local shops are open until after midnight.  This is Cannara’s moment to shine, and it goes all out.

Onions, spices, mushrooming baskets, art, crafts, disco lights, jewelry, antiques, pet rocks. I saw them all on sale in Cannara.

Food

There are doubtless naysayers who do not love the Onion Festival.  It’s crowded (though if you hit it at 7:00ish on a weeknight the crowds are much more manageable), overblown (lots of people attend the festival.  See above.), overpriced (expect to pay pretty much trattoria prices for your food), slow (hey, they’ve only got 4,000 people working there) and leaves you gassy (no denying that).  But the food is delicious.  Some stands are better than others (for the record, I’m a Giardino Fiorito abituè), some years are better than others.  But I have never been disappointed by my dinner, and that’s a big plug for a meal that is being prepared inside camp kitchens by volunteers.  Don’t miss the onion desserts.  I’m not kidding.

Il Giardino Fiorito is the oldest stand and housed in the cloister of an ex-convent. It is also my stand of choice.

If you have a rare onion intollerance and have to choose just one thing to eat, get the onion pizza. Trust me.

La Festa della Cipolla is held the first two weeks of September every year in Cannara.  For a complete program, list of stands and their menus, and map please see their official website.

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Amazing Grace: La Madonna del Bagno

There are places on earth that somehow get to you, and sometimes it’s not easy to put your finger on exactly why.  The tiny church of La Madonna del Bagno near Deruta is one of those places for me.  I am charmed and moved every time I have the opportunity to visit, though at first glance you, too, may be scratching your head.

This country sanctuary, just meters from the roar of traffic on the four lane E45 highway (in fact, if you are arriving from Rome this is a great place to stop off for a few minutes and stretch your legs.  Take the Casalina exit and follow the signs; you will be there in roughly 30 seconds.) with its neat yet nondescript brick exterior, seems like a place you could easily pass by in a region saturated with architecturally imposing cathedrals and basilicas.

The simple brick facade of La Madonna del Bagno

What makes La Madonna del Bagno special is on the inside—hundreds of majolica votive tiles adorn the walls of the church, each inscribed with the letters PGR (Per Grazia Ricevuta or for grace received) and a scene depicting various misfortunes and illnesses that have been resolved due to La Madonna’s intervention.

The historic oak and original piece of painted majolica are behind the altar; the walls covered with centuries of votive tiles.

First a brief history of this quaint and fascinating tradition.  In the mid 1600s, a Franciscan friar found a broken fragment of crockery on the ground, the base of which was painted with an image of the Madonna and infant Jesus.  To avoid it being trodden on by passersby, he wedged it between the branches of a small oak tree along the path.  Later, a merchant from nearby Casalina noticed the fragment had fallen again, so nailed it back to the tree.  This merchant—Cristoforo di Filippo—returned to the tree just a few years later to pray to the image of the Madonna and ask for her grace to save his dying wife—whom he found in perfect health upon his return home.  The couple then commissioned the first votive plaque to give thanks to Maria for her intervention, a tile now almost 400 years old that can still be seen behind the altar of the church.

This glass case behind the altar holds the first votive tile from 1657; behind you can see the famous oak tree.

Just months later the first stone was laid to build the church around the site where the oak grew, which can now be viewed behind glass above the altar of the church, with the fragment of painted crockery still attached to its trunk.  Once the church was completed, local citizens began commissioning their own tiles to give thanks to the Madonna for her various interventions.  Over the succeeding 4 centuries, these tiles gradually began covering the walls and corridors of the sanctuary.  Looking closely, you can even see some affixed around the ring at the base of the cupola’s interior.

The base of the cupola is ringed with tiles

I suppose some of the charm of this church is its unique history—and the romantic aspect of a desperate and grieving husband whose love for his wife is so intense that it spawns a miracle.  But I can’t deny that my fascination revolves mostly around the votive plaques themselves.

From a historical point of view, it is interesting to see the progression as the scenes move from medieval misfortunes like demonic possession, highway robbery, and females bedridden for undisclosed maladies and rural accidents that involve horses, agricultural tools, and falls from trees to sons returning from war and open-heart surgery and industrialized accidents involving cars and trains.  I wander through and watch Umbria’s 400 year modernization take place in a 20 minute majolica slide show.

Demonic possession

Highway robbery

Trampled by a horse

Falling from a tree

A wartime detention camp

Modern surgery

Yikes. No explanation needed.

From an artistic point of view, I find the progression of artistic styles—from the simple two-dimensional rendering in the earliest tiles, to the more decorative and elaborate paintings from the 1700s, to the straightforward journalistic style of post-war Italy—as complete and self-explanatory as any local museum.  The color pallet has changed over the centuries, the tiles range from barely more than a sketch to legitimate works of art, the faces have gone from mask-like to hyperrealistic, but the basic iconography has remained intact.

An example of the simple two dimensional early tiles

An elaborate later tile

These portraits are so realistic that they look like photographs

From a human point of view, one of the most disturbing images I have ever seen is a photo of the destruction wrought over two nights in 1980 when thieves broke into the church (at the time it was left unguarded.  Currently, it is attended to by a foundation which provides housing and work to adults in need.  The women clean the church and the men tend the garden; I have never seen the church and grounds so immaculate.  If you stop by, give them your compliments…they beam with pride.)  and stole over 200 tiles—including the original tile from Cristoforo di Filippo.  Even more tragic were the dozens left abandoned on the floor after being broken by clumsy hands trying to chip them out of the walls.  Many were later recoved, others were replicated from photos (you can pick these out, as their colors are discordantly bright despite the dates from the 1600s), but the fact that these intimate tokens of devotion were stolen and sold is heartbreaking.

This large plaque commemorates the post-1980 restoration after thieves damaged the church

From a spiritual point of view, I have always been attracted to simple manfestations of faith more than elaborate religious ceremony.  I find these unpretentious tiles so representative of the Umbrians’ pragmatic spirituality and so poignant in their straightforward depictions of life’s most painful moments that it is deeply moving.  That I can get teared up over the rough rendered painting of a toddler falling into the flames of an open fire 300 years after it happened, and feel relieved knowing that the child survived, is a testament to the spirituality of this humble place.

The child is saved from the flames

I suppose what it comes down to is that in these humble squares of terracotta I find embodied all I have come to love about Umbria:  its rich history and sense of tradition, its humble yet steely faith, its artistic eye and ability to render even the simplest thing beautiful, and, ultimately, its overwhelming—and, at times, it can be just that—sense of family.  The first tile, painted in 1657, gives thanks to Maria from a family.  The last tile, painted in 2010, gives thanks to Maria for exactly the same thing.  Here’s to the di Filippo family.  Here’s to the Natalizi family.  Per Grazia Ricevuta, we give thanks.

The latest tile hung

Note:  The sanctuary was historically known as La Madonna del Bagno, but in contemporary times has also come to be called La Madonna dei Bagni.  It’s the same place.

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My New Heartthrobs: The Mysterious, Enigmatic–and Underestimated–Etruscans

So remember that boyfriend you briefly dated your sophomore year at college, the one who seemed to drop out of nowhere one day, spent a few months listening to you pine after the campus heartthrob, and then seemed to vanish into the ether again?  And all these years later you stumble upon some love notes he wrote you during those months and you realize that you probably should have paid a little more attention to the guy, because he was actually really interesting and funny and smart and it’s not really that fair that the campus heartthrob was always getting all the attention.

Well, my friends, that’s pretty much the story of the Etruscans.  This mysterious ancient people surfaced in central Italy sometime after about 800 BC, from whence we still don’t really know, stuck around for a few centuries building a far flung and mighty confederation of city states spanning from near modern Venice to south of modern Naples dotted with walled towns and rich necropolises and trading with most of the Mediterranean, left us with with some of the most astoundingly beautiful bronze and goldwork, terracotta sculpture, and frescoes produced in the history of Italy and then, during the first century AD, vanished—completely absorbed by their conquering neighbors.  And what do they get for it?  Millenia of being ignored and underrated, and having to hear everyone harp on constantly about the Romans, whom, as history has taught us, have quite a bit to thank the Etruscans for, including laying the foundations for the city of Rome itself.

IN TVSCORVM IVRE PENE OMNIS ITALIA FVERAT (Nearly the whole of Italy was once under Etruscan Rule) – Cato 2nd century BC

Ipogeo dei Volumni

A visit to the Hypogeum of the Volumnii (Ipogeo dei Volumni) inside the Palazzone necropolis right outside of Perugia is to see all this in the microcosm of one archaeological site.  This ancient subterranean burial chamber—one of the most significant examples of Etruscan funerary architecture–was discovered by construction workers in 1840 who were building a road cutting right through the necropolis which is thickly covered with almost 200 modest chamber tombs…and, in keeping with a long and proud history of distain towards this ancient populace, just kept right on building the road.  In fact, a visit to the site now is punctuated with noise of traffic from the highway running above it and the trains passing on the railroad tracks adjacent.

The 19th century entrance to the archaeological site...note the highway overhead and the railway crossing to the right. No respect. (Photo by Cantalamessa)

The tomb itself is accessed through a 19th century “antiquarium”, crowded with row upon row of ornately carved travertine urns inside of which the ashes of the deceased were laid, wrapped in cloth.  These stone boxes with roof-shaped lids show how strongly Etruscan art and architecture were influenced by Greece in this period; the sculptures of the reclining deceased on the lids look like they could have come straight from Athens.  The front faces of the urns are often decorated with ornate reliefs depicting mythical scenes, referencing Greek mythology, or sea monsters, recalling one of the more dominant theories as to the origins of this people: a sea crossing from Troy.

An elegant reclining image of the deceased

A mythological sea monster relief

From there, the steep descent into the cool and dark tomb is captivating.  The burial site dates back to 3rd century BC and imitates the architecture and layout of a house, with faux wooden roof beams carved into the stone, an entrance hall, and bedrooms and antechambers.  At the end of the entrance hall is the “tablinum”, or chamber where urns containing the remains of members of the Velimna family remain still.  The urn from the last member of the family, from the 1st century AD, is the only example in marble, in the shape of a Roman temple, and inscribed in both Etruscan and Latin.  By this point, the ruling classes in Perugia were integrated into Roman culture, and the Etruscan culture which had dominated the area for centuries had disappeared completely.

The house-shaped tomb preserving ornately decorated family urns

There is a small museum on the necropolis grounds which displays some of the artifacts found in the surrounding tombs and burial chambers, but if you’ve caught the Etruscan bug (which I certainly did after a visit to the hypogeum) it’s more than worth your time to stop in at the newly renovated National Archaeological Museum in Perugia.

Museo Archeologico Nazionale dell’Umbria

The entrance to the museum through the San Domenico cloister (Photo by G. Dall'Orto)

Housed in the former convent of San Domenico—the entrance is through the elegant cloister—the museum has on display a variety of Etruscan artifacts found in excavations in the necropolises in and around Perugia.  Two of the most interesting of these are a travertine block used as a boundary marker and incribed with one of the longest examples of the Etruscan language, and the remains of a bronze chariot.  There are also breathtaking examples of glass and gold-work from the Etruscan period.

The Cippo Perugino, example of the Etruscan language (Photo by Louis Garden)

Etruscan bronzework taken from a chariot (Photo by G. Dall'Orto)

My only beef with the museum is that the incredibly interesting printed explanations of the displays still haven’t been translated into English, which is a crying shame.  They said they’re working on it…and they had better be.  After all these years, it’s time the Etruscans get the attention and respect they deserve.

For more information about Etruscan history and culture, you can take a look here.