It’s a strange way to begin a tour, and our guide’s question gives me pause. I would like to think I am—aside from issues about which no moral adult could have any flexibility, like the appalling pairing of french fries with mayonnaise—but exactly how elastic does one have to be to appreciate the surreal, allegorical, esoteric “Ideal City” of 20th century Milanese architect Tomaso Buzzi, La Scarzuola?
Quite a bit, it turns out, as a visit to this mind-bending “theatrical complex”—as Buzzi defined it—with its adjoining sacred and profane “cities” which together form a vast architectural allegory for the physical and existential journey through life is a trip down a rabbit hole, transporting visitors from the bucolic hills on the Umbrian-Tuscan border to a parallel universe; both dream and nightmare, both whimsical and forbidding.
An oasis for gathering, for study, for work, for music and silence, for Greatness and Misery, for a social life and a hermitic life of contemplation in solitude, reign of Fantasy, of Fairy Tales, of Myths, of Echoes and Reflections outside of time and space so that each can find here echoes of the past and hints of the future
–Tomaso Buzzi on La Scarzuola
As do so many spots in Umbria, La Scarzuola has roots in Franciscan history and lore. The Saint is said to have built himself a humble hut on this remote hillside using a indigenous marsh plant called la scarza, from which derives Scarzuola. In 1218, Francis planted a rose and laurel bush near his shelter and a spring miraculously began to flow (still considered sacred by the locals); slowly a Franciscan community grew and a monastery was eventually built in the early 1400s—the surviving fresco in the apse is one of the few which pictures Francis levitating—which remained a property of of the Franciscan Order until the end of the 19th century.
Buzzi, an eminent architect, artist, and influential cultural figure in Italy since the 1920s and 1930s, purchased the monastery in 1957 and soon after began his most visionary project to date: the transformation of the site into his “Ideal City”. Beginning with the restoration of the existing monastery and the trasformation of the convent gardens into an intricate series of hedge mazes, dotted with statuary, fountains, and exotic plants—what he regarded as the Sacred City—Buzzi moved on to build the more fantastical (and impenetrable) “Profane City”.
The architect viewed his opus as an autobiographical work—his Città Buzziana–and to visit this theatrical mash-up of Classical, Gothic, Renaissance, and Mannerist structures built around a natural amphitheater in the hillside and adorned with bizarre and fantastical reliefs, astronomical symbols, and quotations is like a stroll through his right-brain stream of consciousness sketchbook. Seven theaters, an Acropolis, the Tower of Babel, the Arch of Triumph, meditation grottoes, pagan temples, and a monumental nude all vie for space in this Escher-esque cityscape, where staircases lead nowhere, proportion is warped, buildings are meticulously rendered outside yet a warren of empty chambers inside, and the apparent randomness masks layers of meaning and symbolism.
The site would be a mere curiosity were it not for the quirky yet fascinating guide, Buzzi’s nephew Marco Solari. Solari inherited the site from his uncle upon the latter’s death in 1981 and has devoted his life to completing the work based on prints left by Buzzi. Who better to lead visitors through this convoluted and complicated monument, with its decadent jumble of contrasting architecture and philosophies?
Solari has put his soul into La Scarzuola and his joy at peeling back the layers of allegory and symbolism which permeate every stone pillar, grotesque relief, and geometrical calculation–and adding his own colorful interpretation, full of energetic forces and third eyes and mysticism—is what brings this jarring yet somehow harmonious jumble to life. Peppering his rapid-fire, eccentric-at-times-bordering-on-bizarre presentation with his contagious cackle, Solari weaves a story of art and architecture with one of magic and miracle…leaving some incredulous, and some—like myself—simply charmed.
The difference, I suspect, is in how elastic you are.
They say that there are certain places on earth which somehow speak to the spirit. The molecules there vibrate at a certain frequency, or the auras become more defined, or the souls of those who have left their bodies on that spot continue to abide.
I’m not sure what I think about this (one area which is considered intensely spiritual is Assisi, but since I live here and spend my days distracted by electric bills and dentist appointments and work deadlines, I might not be tuned in enough to pick up on all the molecular vibration going on), but it is true that Umbria has produced an inordinate number of saints in its long history, many of whom passed at least part of their life in spiritual contemplation as hermits.
The Sant’Eutizio Abbey in the lush Val Castoriana as seen from the hiking path above.
The lush Nera River Valley (known as the Valnerina, and hands down one of my favorite areas of this region) is a veritable saint and hermit factory. This breathtaking area, with its winding river gorge lined on both sides with towering, craggy mountain slopes, has churned out an impressive number of holy figures over the past millenium and continues to host—in a manner almost inconceivably anacronistic—about ten monastic hermits today.
I recently spent a day hiking in the hills above the tiny town of Preci on the Campiano river (one of the tributaries of the Nera which has carved out a branch of the Valnerina: the pastoral Val Castoriana), where I was able to revisit the origins of a thousand years of hermitic life.
The Benedictine abbey of Sant’Eutizio–or, to be more precise, the caves in the rock wall above the abbey itself–mark the beginning of this long and rich history. Here I wandered through what remains of the living quarters of Saint Eutizio, disciple of Saint Spes (Latin for “hope”), one of the first wave of converts to Christianity who chose the cliffs above the Val Castoriana (known locally as the “Sponga” for the rock’s sponge-like texture) to search for God in solitude.
The pretty rose window in the church’s simple Romanesque facade.
The mountains attracted a number of disciples of Spes over the following decades, who followed in his contemplatory footsteps and formed a vast, loose spiritual community (Benedict from the nearby town of Norcia was also inspired by Spes’ asceticism, leading him to found a small community with an oratory on this spot). Legend holds that Spes, who had spent forty years in complete blindness, regained his sight shortly before his death and spent his final days visiting and ministering to his disciples in the surrounding woods and caves.
After Spes’ death, his disciple Eutizio was appointed abbot of the fledgling Benedictine community but maintained a hermitic lifestyle by carving out a home in these rock caves (now accessible through the abbey courtyard). Eutizio was widely loved and revered for his spiritual integrity, and the valley was soon populated with both religious and lay followers who became the founders of many of the hamlets which still dot these hillsides today (don’t miss delightful Campi, by the way…especially the church portico at sunset).
Eutizio was buried under the primitive Benedictine oratory upon his death in 540, and it took another 500 years for the monastic community to slowly transform itself from hermitic to cenobitic, gradually moving out of solitary caves and huts and organizing around the abbey, built in the 1200s on the spot where the Saints Spes and Eutizio were buried centuries before.
The bell tower rests on the craggy cliffs above the church.
The Abbazia di Sant’Eutizio’s simple stone Romanesque church and rustic cloister remains one of the prettiest spots to visit in the upper Valnerina. The remains of the saints are kept in the carved marble urn behind the church’s altar, and the delicate rose window in the spare facade and ornate 17th century belltower on the rough cliff above make for some beautiful pictures.
Sant’Eutizio continues to be a central figure in local spiritual lore, and his mantle is said to have rain-producing properties. As the monk told me when I visited, during times of drought the mantle is displayed in a religious procession. If rain doesn’t come within a week, it’s taken out again. And again. And—miracle!—sooner or later it always rains.
The ivy-covered, silent courtyard. Where just a little vibration may be felt.
And maybe the miracle of molecular vibration is like the miracle of rain. It’s not so much about the laws of physics as it is about the the depth of faith and the gift of patience. Sooner or later, with a little of both, something is bound to resonate.
These photos were taken by friend and hiking partner-in-crime Armando Lanoce, whom I thank for his generous use of them.