In 1499, Tuscan artist Luca Signorelli signed a contract to paint two remaining sections of the Cappella Nuova (new chapel) of the Duomo in the Umbrian town of Orvieto. By 1502 (or 1504, depending on which documentation you read), he had completed his “End of the World” fresco cycle in what is now known as the San Brizio Chapel.
The apocalyptic scenes, some “with their winged devils diving and rolling in the sky, and death-rays devastating terrified crowds on the ground below, uncannily prefigure 20th-century science fiction.” His dramatic, muscular human figures also look familiar. Signorelli, who was born in 1445, is seen as an influence on both Raphael and Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel seems to borrow some of the ideas and techniques from Signorelli’s fresco cycle.
I’ve long admired Orvieto’s cathedral, which sits on the top of its hill like a glimmering, gold-and-white mirage. Inside, the church is even more impressive, especially because of Signorelli’s fantastical frescoes. But the one story that I have always remembered and enjoyed with regards to Signorelli and what is considered his masterpiece is that he was partially paid in wine.
Living in a new place, especially for an extended period of time, fills me with a sense of duty that I have to write everything down, commit every moment to memory, take a photo every day if not every hour. But eventually, that initial motivation turns to dread and an overwhelming feeling that I should be more mindful of my surroundings rather than living behind a lens or a computer screen.
The latter reason is why I have not written as much as I should have over this past year in Italy. Plus, I’ve just done so much in these 12 months! I’ve traveled all over Rome and its region Lazio, from the beaches to the lakes to hill towns in between, and have visited six other regions (with a goal of getting to all 20 before my time here comes to and end). Over the past year, I have also taken more than 7,000 photos — so much for not living behind a lens!
Despite that photo stat, I have been paying attention with my other senses: smelling the roasting chestnuts in winter, the jasmine bushes in spring, and the cool, damp aroma of underground spaces; listening to the rumble of trams, the clinking of cups and saucers, the fleeting bits of Italian conversations overheard in the markets and shops; and tasting the foods of each season. Touch has been more elusive, as Italy is full of things you want to touch but cannot — smooth marbles and mosaics and frescoes, tufts of moss growing out of crevices high on a Roman wall.
Of course, readers visit this blog to see Italy as much as learn about it. So, I wanted to share 12 photos over this past year, one for each month, to mark my transition from year one to year two. These are simple photos — most taken with an iPhone 5 — but they are special reminders for me. Read below for details.
Last month, UNESCO inscribed Italy’s newest World Heritage sites: The Longobards in Italy. Places of the Power (568-774 A.D.). Treated as one entity, these seven sites stretch from as far north as Castelseprio, a small village in Lombardy where is located Santa Maria Fortis Portas and the castrum with the Torba Tower, to as far south as Benevento and its Santa Sofia church complex. All of these sites represent, according to UNESCO, “the high achievement of the Lombards, who migrated from northern Europe and developed their own specific culture in Italy where they ruled over vast territories in the 6th to 8th centuries.”
While the Longobard sites are the newest ones to be recognized by UNESCO, they are among the least well known of the many UNESCO buildings and sites in Italy, which now leads the world with 45. To learn more about each of the “Longobards in Italy” sites, including where they are, how to visit them, and the treasures they contain, visit Italia Longobardorum, the website of the group responsible for formally submitting these sites for UNESCO World Heritage consideration. You can also click on the links below for the individual sites:
In my first round-up of the Hill Towns of Umbria, I discussed the towns of Assisi, Gubbio, Montefalco, and Orvieto. The list of hill towns in Umbria is, in fact, exhaustive, and also includes the region’s capital Perugia. In this post, I wanted to focus on a few more worth visiting. They are Spello, Spoleto, Todi, and Trevi.
Spello: Walls, Flowers, and Frescoes
Situated a few miles south of Assisi, this little walled town with a serene air overlooking the Valle Umbra reminds me of a miniature Assisi. Although it’s well-known for its medieval walls and Roman gates (built when the town was known as Hispellum), Spello has a softer, artistic side. The annual event Infiorate di Spello brings visitors from all over the region and Italy to view gorgeous, sweet-smelling portraits and dioramas made only of flowers. If you can’t be in Spello in early June (the typical date of the flower fair), it is still worth going on a side trip here to enjoy the astounding Pinturicchio frescoes in the Baglioni Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore. These frescoes are considered some of the artist’s best work, prompting many to call the Cappella Baglioni the “Cappella Bella.”
Spoleto: Roman Past, Artsy Present
Right along the Via Flaminia (yes, that same Via Flaminia that leads from Rome right outside Piazza del Popolo) is Spoleto, a strategic city for the Romans (then called Spoletium) and even site of a battle with Hannibal during the Second Punic War. Spoleto has tremendous Roman, medieval, and Renaissance roots, boasting a Roman amphitheater, the six-towered Rocca Albornoz citadel, and the Ponte delle Torri, the massive “towers bridge” that was an impressive feat of engineering in the 14C.
While the city has lots of the typical central Italian attractions, it is today known chiefly for the Festival dei Due Mondi, or the Festival of Two Worlds. The comprehensive arts festival goes on for two weeks each summer (usually from mid-June to July) and includes opera, theater, dance, and other performances. The festival was begun in 1958 by Spoleto native Gian Carlo Menotti, but is now run by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs resulting in quite a controversy in Spoleto and certain arts circles. You can learn more about the Menotti’s side of the controversy here or just visit the Festival dei Due Mondi’s official website. Let’s hope that this conflict over intellectual property rights and a family legacy will not spill over to end what has been one of Italy’s longest running and best known arts festivals.
Todi: “World’s Most Livable City”
A town that’s been billed as the “world’s most livable” must be a nice place to visit, right? Absolutely! Spread on a hill overlooking the Tiber Valley, Todi has what some consider the most beautiful square in Italy. Three medieval palaces – the Palazzo dei Priori, the Palazzo del Capitano, and the Palazzo del Popolo – front the Piazza del Popolo, producing a scene so picturesque that the square has been used multiple times as a film set. Todi’s compact city center has also earned it accolades from a University of Kentucky architecture professor who, in the 1990s, proclaimed Todi as an ideal city because of its human scale. For better or for worse, that proclamation set off a real estate frenzy among buyers from all over Europe and the United States. But there are still plenty of Tudertini to keep the local traditions alive. Though Todi is charmer, the best reasons to visit are its antique fairs – the Rassegna Antiquaria d’Italia (in April) and the Mostra Nazionale dell’Artigianato (in August and September) and the spectacular temple of Santa Maria della Consolazione, a masterpiece by Bramante and one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in Umbria.
Trevi: Ancient Temple, Fountains, and Olive Oil
Unmistakable Trevi and its medieval buildings flower on the Umbrian hillside like clusters of edelweiss on a mountain. Some visitors even compare Trevi to an Umbrian Positano (the famous town on the Amalfi Coast) because its appearance from a distance resembles the practically vertical nature of the cliff-side village. Trevi was yet another outpost during Roman times because it was at the crossroads of three roads (“tre vie”), including the Via Flaminia. Trevi boasts dozens of churches, including the church of Sant’Emiliano, whose belltower crowns the hill upon which Trevi sits.
Two of Trevi’s most famous attractions, however, aren’t in Trevi at all; they lie just below the town by the Clitunno River. The Fonti del Clitunno, a series of lagoons, islands, and springs, is an oasis in landlocked Umbria. The tranquil spot was lauded by Byron, Italian poet Giosué Carducci, and Roman poet Virgil. The other sight near the River Clitunno is the Tempietto del Clitunno (Little Temple of Clitunno), long thought to be a Roman construction but it actually dates from sometime between the 6-8C. It’s a beautiful example of classical architecture that’s unusual to find in these environs. Finally, Trevi, which is surrounded by gorgeous, silvery olive trees (including the olive tree of Saint Emiliano, dated at about 1,700 years old) is known throughout Italy for its fine olive oil. That is some accolade given that the region as a whole is known for its oil! If you are passing through Trevi, stop by and pick up a bottle of its delicious, artisanal oil. Two good places to try are Frantoio Gaudenzi and Gradassi, located in the hamlet of Campello sul Clitunno. Gradassi also runs its own trattoria which features typical Umbrian fare.
A video of pure tranquility: The Fountains of Clitunno
If you are planning to visit any of Umbria’s hill towns, don’t just do it on a day trip from Tuscany. Consider renting a villa in Umbria to enjoy the slower pace of life and (relatively) smaller crowds.
Perugia has been in the news a lot lately but for all the wrong reasons. The picturesque capital of the region of Umbria has been the location of the media circus that has been the Amanda Knox/Raffaele Sollecito trial. And with the two having been convicted for the murder of Meredith Kercher, Perugia will certainly be in the spotlight as the appeals process begins.
It pains me that many people are getting their first look at Perugia through the lens of a sensational murder case because Perugia is a destination I like to recommend to travelers looking for a new place to explore in Central Italy. Perugia is an austere, university town – indeed, its one of Umbria’s hill towns – with several unique characteristics that make it ideal for discovery. Here’s my brief list of its charms:
A History of Rebellion
While Perugia’s early history as a member of the Etruscan League is noteworthy, it is the city’s rankling of Rome that give it a reputation of rebellion. You could even say that Perugia has a “salty” past, as a large part of the town’s character was formed due to a battle with Rome in the so-called Salt War. From the early days of the Papal States, the people of Perugia were often at odds with the church. In 1540, things really came to a head when Rome doubled the tax of salt in 1540. The Perugians rebelled by drastically reducing their consumption of salt, resulting in pane sciapo, a bread made with little or no salt that is still consumed in Perugia today. Pope Paul III was the pontiff responsible for levying the high taxes during this time and made sure to punish Perugia when papal troops (led by his son) captured the city. The Rocca Paolina, a massive fortress built by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, bears the inscription “ad coercendam Perusinorum audaciam” (to curb the audacity of the Perugian people). This is the only fortress I know of that was built to keep its citizenry in rather than thwart outside invaders.
An Artistic Pedigree
A few of the aesthetic pleasures of Perugia include the stark caverns of Rocca Paolina, which has been retrofitted with escalators that run from between the upper and lower parts of town; the Etruscan walls; the Fontana Maggiore, a curious, round fountain built by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano; and the Piazza Italia, the lovely, tree-lined square overlooking the Umbrian valley where many Perugians take their evening passegiata. But Perugia is known in particular for the artist Pietro Vannucci (Perugino). You may also know of Perugino from his frescoes on the walls of the Sistine Chapel and for being a mentor to Raphael. Perugino’s works decorate the Collegio di Cambio in the Palazzo dei Priori and are also featured in the National Gallery of Umbria. Both of these places lie, aptly, on the Corso Vannucci – Perugia’s main street.
City of Chocolate
Finally, one of the best reasons to visit Perugia is because it is a mecca for chocolate lovers. Perugina Chocolate, creator of the Bacio, the hazelnut and chocolate confection that comes wrapped in a love poem, is headquartered in Perugia. Long since purchased by Nestle, Perugina still maintains the Bacio brand, as well as a few others, and has a chocolate boutique on – you guessed it – Corso Vannucci. In addition to Perugina, the city is also site to a chocolate festival each October called Eurochocolate. The festival is a chance for artisanal chocolatiers to show off their products and for guests to learn about chocolate based on a particular theme. If you’re so inclined, you can even stay in the Etruscan Chocohotel (how’s that for combining brands?). This hotel is in the lower town of Perugia, so not among the old, medieval treasures of the upper town. But, they do give you a bar of chocolate upon check-in and have a restaurant that features several dishes made with chocolate.
Rockefeller Center has nothing on this tree. The largest Christmas tree in the world is, in fact, in Gubbio, Umbria. But this is not any tree. No, this is not a tree at all. Gubbio’s Albero di Natale is a dazzling neon feat – and Guinness Book of World Records holder – that has been lighting up the hills of Umbria since 1981.
In order to get the tree ready for its annual December 7 lighting, local volunteers work for three months stringing lights and electrical equipment up the slope of Mount Ingino. (Yes, that is the same mountain that Eugubini scale each May for the celebration of the Corsa dei Ceri.) And, the numbers are astounding:
The surface area of the star is 1,000 square meters
The length of the connecting cables is 8,500 meters
The tree has more than 700 lights each of which requires 35 kilowatts of power to light
The tree has a height of 650 meters.
If you’re in some parts of Umbria, such as Perugia or Umbertide, from December 7 until approximately January 10, you should be able to see the bright lights from Gubbio’s Christmas tree. If you want to get a better look, head to Gubbio. For more information on Gubbio, visit the Comune of Gubbio website.
No matter where you go in Italy, if you find the highest point in a particular city or region you will likely find some interesting history. Umbria, the region right in the heart of central Italy, is particularly blessed with beautiful hill towns. Etruscans, Romans, and subsequent civilizations built many of their cities on hills in Umbria so as to defend from foreign invaders. Today, the foreign invaders to these elevated areas are tourists who are rewarded with magnificent views. Here is part 1 of several posts about Umbria’s hill towns:
Assisi: Home of Saint Francis
One of Italy’s most visited towns because of its ties to St. Francis, Italy’s patron saint, Assisi (see large photo above) always appears to be bathed in a pale golden-pink light. Even when it’s cloudy, the massive church of Saint Francis, seems to have a spotlight on it – a heavenly glow, even. Assisi is located in the heights of Monte Subasio. The best place in Assisi to enjoy the views of the valley below is from the Rocca Maggiore, the commanding 12C fortress that would, were it not for the Basilica San Francesco, dominate the Assisi skyline.
Gubbio: Windswept, With a Famous Festival
Gubbio sits on the lowest slope of Mount Ingino, a mountain that is the site of a famous medieval festival – the Corsa dei Ceri – which takes place each year on May 15. The Corsa dei Ceri features three teams carrying giant candles (ceri) up the hill to the Saint Ubaldo church. The rest of the year, Gubbio’s charms lie in its stern, medieval facades, such as the Palazzo dei Consoli, which houses the Eugubine Tablets, bronze tablets engraved with the earliest known example of the ancient Umbrii language.
Montefalco: The Balcony of Umbria The town that gets the title as the “Balcony of Umbria” is Montefalco, a small town about 20 miles from Perugia (the regional capital). Surrounded by medieval walls, Montefalco has, in addition to its 360-degree panoramas of the Umbrian countryside, several claims to fame. Approximately eight saints were born in Umbria, including Saint Clare. A different saint – Saint Francis – is depicted in a lovely fresco cycle by Benozzo Gozzoli in the town’s Chiesa San Francesca. Finally, Montefalco, which lies in the middle of Umbria’s wine-growing region, is best known for its delicious Sagrantino.
Orvieto: Just Plain Gorgeous
This is one of my favorite towns in all of Italy. An easy day trip from Rome, Orvieto stands atop a high, impregnable, volcanic plateau and is perhaps more impressive from the ground looking up than for the views of the valley that it affords. Known as Velzna when it was part of the Etruscan League, Orvieto is on the religious map because it was near the site of the Miracle of Transubstantiation (or, Corpus Christi), and, as a result, has a magnificent Gothic cathedral with frescoes by Luca Signorelli.
I know that I’ve left out a ton of other lovely Umbrian hill towns, such as Spoleto, Spello, Todi, and Trevi. I will cover those in a future post. In the meantime, tell me about your favorite Umbrian hill towns in the comments below.
One of the best ways to enjoy the region’s many beautiful hill towns is to rent a villa in Umbria. The area has all types of accommodation options, including farm stay agriturismo inns to private luxury villas with pools.
Want to know about some great views in Tuscany? Stay tuned for that, too! In the meantime, Jessica at the WhyGo Italy blog recently wrote about Rooms With A View in Florence.
Carnevale 2009: Carnival celebrations will run for approximately 2 weeks, from February 13 to 24, with big events, parades, and fairs. The biggest of these, of course, will be in Venice and Viareggio. Other Carnival festivals, according to the Italy Guide on About.com, can be found in Sardinia and Sicily.
Valentine’s Day: If you want to spend lovers’ day in the home of St. Valentine, head to the town of Terni in Umbria. Another ideal spot for you and your valentine on the 14th is in Verona, which holds the Verona in Love festival each year in honor of young lovers Romeo and Juliet. Stagings of Shakespeare’s play, as well as art exhibitions and sweet markets, complete the love fest.
For Record Lovers:Vinilmania (vinyl mania), a huge fair for the buying and selling of LPs, 45s, and other records, is held three times a year at Milan’s Parco Esposizione Novegro. The first fair of 2009 will be held February 7-8; the other two – May 16-17 and October 17-18.
Here are just a few notable articles on Italy that I’ve come across in the past month or so. I need to get them off my plate, as it were, so I can move on to more tips, hotels, and news that has come my way…
One Fish, Two Fish – This article my Mimi Sheraton in the New Yorker looks at the origins of brodetto, a fish soup that is most prized in Abruzzo and Le Marche. This link is to an abstract, but if you have a New Yorker subscription you can plug in your account info and read it online (if you haven’t already).
Italy Against Itself – Another abstract, this article by regular Italy columnist Alexander Stille looks at recent politics in the country.
An Italy Variety Plate from Gourmet.com – Last month, the food magazine had articles on Christmas pandoro from Verona and Chicken Liver Crostini from Central Italy. This month is Gourmet’s Italian-American issue, which explores recipes inspiration from Lucca to Lecce. Also, it seems that gourmet.com has a more searchable archive now. So, just go to their search engine, type in “Italy,” and you can find articles going all the way back to 1954!
Sometimes I’m not always sure if anyone is actually reading Italofile. As I’ve said, it is a true labor of love. Still I like to imagine that there are regular readers out there who enjoy discovering with me the destinations, hotels, art, schools, churches, etc., that make traveling in Italy so rewarding.
Lo and behold, this weekend I found that I have at least one reader! Maribel wrote in to tell me that last year I missed a New York Times article on “Tortellini Lessons at the Source” in Bologna. Thanks, Maribel! And, with that, I thought I’d provide another round-up of recent articles, from the NYT and elsewhere:
Yes, this is an exhaustive list. But I’m sure I didn’t find everything. So, I’m depending on all you Maribel’s out there to help me out by sending me links to articles and other tips you think would be worthy of posting on Italofile. Thanks again!