Crafts in Umbria, Rebecca's Ruminations


Bottega Michelangeli: Making Magic from Wood in Orvieto

It doesn’t hit you over the head, so much as sneak up on you from behind. You see a quirky bench adorned with the relief of a rooster or cat, a rustic Pinocchio with a nose so long that wooden birds are using it as a handy perch, a two-dimensional tree with leaves applied in layers three deep to give the foliage more depth and you slowly realize that these works of art these must have all been made by the same hand….or, at very least, the same woodworking shop.

Indeed, it takes just a few minutes of meandering the streets and shops of Orvieto to come upon the work of the Bottega Michelangeli wood atelier. Begun as a furniture-maker five generations ago, this workshop developed its now-famous two-dimensional, almost shadow puppet look under Gualverio Michelangeli in the mid-20th century, who departed from the stodgy furniture-making tradition begun by his family in 1789 to experiment with sculpture in pinewood. The style—a quirky yet pleasing blend of folk and contemporary art–is carried on in the work of his three daughters, Donatella, Simonetta e Raffaella, who were, like so many other children of artisans, raised in the shop and bred on family history and wood-shavings.

The atelier is housed in a former theater on the corner of Orvieto’s main Corso and Via Gualverio Michelangeli (thus is the pride the city has in one of its most famous local artists), in a former 19th century theater retrofitted to hold both the workshop and showrooms. Here there are samples of hand-finished furniture (the Bottega devotes much of its work to furnishing and décor), exquisite toys (dolls, marionettes, rocking horses), and what can only be described as art—linear angels, whimsical characters from mythology and fables, solemn birds and angels.

If you’re lucky, you may get a peek into the cavernous backroom, where their one-of-kind works are still hewn and assembled by hand. The dusty antique tools hanging on wall racks, the half-finished and abandoned projects leaning haphazardly in shadowy corners, the clean smell of fresh wood and sawdust, and the quiet concentration of the artisans bent over rough boards is evocative of the backstage that this theatrical space once was.

I prefer, however, to see Michelangeli’s pieces how they are meant to be seen: here and there about town. The odd shop sign, outdoor table, wall decoration…they pop out at you from the most unassuming corners of Orvieto (and some quite stately corners: the Town Hall and theater both are decorated with their pieces) and transform a walk through the streets into a treasure hunt of sorts.

Perhaps the best place to see the grandeur of Gualverio Michelangeli’s fantastical vision is the Montanucci Café on the main Corso. Step through the doors and into a fairy tale forest of trees and flowers, populated with woodland creatures and playful elves. Settle yourself at one of their tables and sample their signature sweet: bite-sized cones of smooth chocolate dubbed Pinocchio’s Nose. Between the chocolate and the whimsical surroundings, you’ll be hard-pressed to not feel somehow transported to a magical land.

A huge thank you to Toni DeBella of the fabulousOrvieto or Bust blog for her kind permission to use these photographs!


One Stop Wine Hop: Orvieto’s Enoteca Regionale

The enoteca is housed in the restored cellars of the convent, and charmingly decorated with works by Orvieto's historic Michelangeli workshop. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)

If you think the closest you’re going to get to heaven in Orvieto is gazing at the Signorelli frescoes in the magnificent Duomo’s San Brizio Chapel, keep walking uphill.

Yep, up the Corso, across the Piazza della Repubblica, and through a series of steep, narrow alleyways (if an older gent stops you with a “Psst, Signorina, do you want to see my Etruscan cave?” go ahead and take a look. He really does have an Etruscan cave under his floor.) until you finally reach the highest point on the dramatic cliff which has been home to Orvieto for the better part of humanity.

Take a peek in the Palazzo del Gusto's pretty cloister, but for the good stuff head downstairs to the cellars. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)

Here you will find the former convent of San Giovanni, which is now the headquarters of the “Palazzo del Gusto”, an umbrella enogastronomic and cultural association which hosts a series of workshops, courses, and thematic dinners and tastings aimed at promoting traditional cuisine, Slow Food, and local wines.

The entry to the Enoteca holds examples of local crafts...the approach to celebrating local products isn't limited to just food and wine. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)

Head downstairs to the restored cellars (the architectural history of which runs from the Etruscan era through the Middle Ages) underneath the convent, where you can take a guided tour of the “Enoteca Regionale”, a regional wine library which holds more than 120 different labels of the best DOCG, DOC, and IGT wines in Umbria.

The tasting rooms are tucked under medieval vaults and over Etruscan caves. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)

Different “packages” are available for wine tastings, or you can splurge for a prepaid “wine card” to sample up to 16 different wines from automatic dispensers. Between the dispensers and the handy information-laden touch-screens, you can almost throw together a DIY visit, but try to nab Graziella, Lucia, or Francesca, three walking local wine and food encyclopedias who have been involved in the Enoteca Regionale through its conception and expansion. Their passion for the gastronomic history and culture of the region is contagious, as they give a lively context to each wine, elevating it from the Enoteca’s evocative underground cellar to exalted heights.

For more information or to reserve a tasting, take a look at the Palazzo del Gusto‘s terrific website.


What Lies Below: The Orvieto Underground

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

Cities–like people–have a face they show the world and a hidden, intimate side, where the scars of time and trials are revealed to those who have the patience and sensitivity to look past the surface and discover all the fascinating complexity beneath.

In Orvieto, this metaphor comes to life in a poignantly literal way. This stately town—proud of its outstanding Cathedral, crisp Orvieto Classico wine, and general cosmopolitan vibe—dominates the surrounding undulating countryside from atop the dramatic volcanic stone outcropping it has inhabited on and off since the time of the Etruscans. But to really get a feel for Orvieto and its millenia-long history, more than wander its streets and piazze you need to head underground to visit its caves—more than 1,200 of which honeycomb the cliff below the historic center.

Almost all of these man-made underground caverns and passageways are private property and not open to the public, but the Orvieto Underground tour takes small groups to visit the two which are owned by the city. I had been hearing about this subterranean tour for years and had been curious to check it out, being especially partial to exploring the quirky side of Umbria and unearthing offbeat museums and tours like these. And Orvieto Underground didn’t disappoint.

One of the largest caverns has been used over the centuries as an olive oil mill.

During the hour-long visit, we saw the very first underground tunnelings by the Etruscans in search of water roughly seven centuries before Christ. The precisely cut rectangular wells (with incorporated hand and foot-holds for climbing in and out) and peaked cavern ceilings resembling rooftops (probably remnants of pagan temples) are testimony to the engineering skill and aesthetic sensibility of this still somewhat mysterious people.

After defeating the Etruscans, the Romans sacked the town and Velzna—as the Etruscans called their city–was abandoned until the early middle ages, when the next signs of human life appear underground, as well. As Orvieto began to rebuild at the strategic top of the cliff, its citizens once again found themselved digging out the soft rock beneath their homes in search of water, temperature-controlled storage (the caves maintain an average 12-13° C), and—most picturesquely—pigeon cotes. The walls of these square rooms are pocked by orderly, square pigeon holes and have a small window for the birds to fly in and out during the day. Thus began a tradition of roast pigeon in Orvieto, which you will still find on most menus today.

The pigeons raised in these cotes kept Orvieto fed for centuries.

In the late middle-ages, as the city began to stabilize and prosper, these underground caverns were expanded and converted to also house workshops for the local ceramic production (cooling cisterns and the remains of a kiln can still be found) and quarries to excavate the soft stone to mix as cement (which continued into the early 20th century). One of the biggest caverns was most recently used as an olive oil press, and the massive millstones and presses still on view make it easy to imagine the room crowded with pickers and workers pressing out one of Umbria’s most prized product each fall.

The final cavern of the tour was used as a WWII bomb shelter.

The final cavern of the tour brings visitors to modern Italy, as the bare room ringed with a low bench hewed from the stone was used as a bomb shelter during WWII. Orvieto proper was declared an Open City, thus spared from the most destructive raids, but the valley below was crisscrossed with rail- and road-ways and often the target of both the Allies and retreating Germans. I can’t fathom what it must have been like to sit for hours in the blackness of a cave meters below the ground, hearing the muffled sounds of explosions and the quiet rattle of tiny stones dislodging from the ceiling and walls…hoping desperately that the rock would hold.

Though the digging of further tunnels under modern Orvieto has been banned for years, almost all the palazzi in the center of town still use their private, undergound caverns–in most cases as a cantina—left for them by centuries—if not millenia—of previous inhabitants. Walking through Orvieto now, I know that the facades lining the streets are just the town’s game face…the true soul of the town lies in its secret labyrinth below.

A view over the surrounding countryside from the Orvieto Underground caves.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.


Easter Events and Food in Umbria


Easter comes exceptionally late in 2014, which means it’s a great year to take off for the week and head to Umbria where spring is in full swing.

If you are planning an Easter visit, I wrote a few tips about what to expect regarding events and food related to this important holiday for’s GoItaly this week.

Good Friday and Easter in UmbriaGood Friday Processions, Easter Food, and Pasquetta


torta di pasqua


Want more information on what to pig out on during your Easter break in Umbria? Say no more.

Food for the Soul: Torta di Pasqua


 What’s the funnest part of Easter in Umbria? Read on.

Falling Off the Wagon: Easter Eggs, Italian Style


Have any more tips for visiting Umbria at Eastertime? Leave a comment below!