Questions of the Heart

A workshop of the Italian landscape. Green. The word, as in a psychological game, goes with the territory. Almost a conditioned reflex from which a famous successful slogan was coined: “Umbria, the green heart of Italy”. More than 30 percent of the area consists of woods. Only 6 percent consists of small, almost hidden plains. Small mountains. And a series of gentle hills: an undulating terrain that man has cultivated for centuries. Fields, gentle slopes, pastures, orchards and woods. Seven regional parks. Lots of greenery. Varied. Everywhere. Almost a workshop of the Italian landscape, designed by crops spread over thousands of years, vines and olive trees.

Then, the blue of the sky and water. Fountains, lakes, hot springs, streams and rivers. Lake Trasimeno is the fourth largest in Italy: the famous battle between Hannibal and the Romans was fought on its banks 217 years after Christ. Lake Piediluco, small, flat and deep, is the home of rowing. Nearby, the Marmore waterfall, the highest and most spectacular in Europe, that has bewitched travellers of the Grand Tour from Goethe to Byron, stunned by the roar of its imposing beauty. Umbria is also the area of the peninsula richest in mineral waters: bottled at the source, they quench the thirst of millions of Italians every day. They gurgle discreetly on woody hills, blue veins in the greenery. Its flat spaces are crossed by the Tiber, the legendary river that has wended its way for centuries: it passes through the region for 210 km, determining not only its destiny but also the climate.

Prehistory is still alive in the Bottaccione Gorge, near Gubbio. About forty years ago in this place, which is rich in iridium, proof was found for Alvarez’s theory that the dinosaurs went extinct due to an environmental disaster caused by meteorites hitting the earth. At Dunarobba, near Terni, you can visit the Fossil Forest, a charming place, unique in the world, with petrified trees dating from 2 million years ago. An exceptional palaeontological discovery on Mount Peglia confirmed that Umbria is also one of the places of Italy most inhabited by man over time.

The oldest people were the ”Gens antiquissima Italiae”: Pliny spoke of the Umbrians as the oldest people of the peninsula. The Greeks called them “Ombrikoi”, the fabulous people who survived the flood. At the time of the Trojan War, there were at least 30 prosperous cities in Umbria. Two thousand years before Christ, a single Indo-European language was spoken in almost all the Italian peninsula: Umbrian, which is different from Latin, Celtic and German. All the other Italic peoples gradually developed from the ancient Umbrians.

Overshadowed by the Etruscans and subdued and absorbed by the force of Roman arms, today they re-emerge from the darkness of history through a fascinating trail composed only of words. Hundreds of terms, over the centuries, have passed unscathed from the Indo-European to the Romance languages. These words are still used today in various languages: arbiter, space, Pope, wine, vase, family, authority, way, alley, food, people, house, threshold, brick, beef, truffles, and many other more.

The signs and sounds emerge from the Iguvine Tablets, seven bronze tablets, discovered by accident in 1444 and now preserved in the town of Gubbio. The tablets are the oldest document of Western civilization and the most important ritual text of classical antiquity.

The Umbrians lived on the left bank of the Tiber. Another fascinating and mysterious people lived on the right bank of the great river that splits the region with its slow and meandering gait, the Etruscans. Beautiful Orvieto was their religious capital, the holy place where the confederated cities held games and made they most important political decisions. The Etruscans have left countless works of art: tombs, statues, wells, walls, engineering works, jewellery and craft masterpieces.

Umbelicus Italiae. Precious artefacts. Just like the temples, amphitheatres, sculptures and the relics of the rich Roman period. In 299 BC, the legions began the invasion of ancient Umbria occupying Narnia, the current Narni, famous for a recent great literary and film success: the Chronicles of Narnia. A bridge nearby was called “Umbelicus Italiae” (the navel of Italy), a reference to Umbria as the geographic centre of the peninsula. At every step, bridges, roads, cisterns and theatres recall the immortal glory of Rome. Walking in the region is like reading a book under the open sky: the wooded Valnerina was the cradle of monasticism and the home of St. Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine order. The Ostrogoths, the Byzantines, the Lombards. The Duchy of Spoleto, the first kingdom of Italy. Saints, poets, condottiere and soldiers of fortune. A land that has always been a crossroads of cultures. Today, it boasts two prestigious universities: the University of Perugia, one of the oldest in Europe with more than 700 years of tradition and the University for Foreigners, where people come from all over the world to study Italian language and literature.

Middle Ages and the future. Art to see and enjoy. In a country that contains 60 percent of the works of art in the world, this small “city region” holds the record for museums per square kilometre: 150 art treasures spread throughout its old town centres. Even the smallest towns have a treasure, testament of civilization, to reveal. From the chariot of Monteleone di Spoleto, exceptional artistic testimony from the Iron Age, kept at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, to the inestimable cultural legacy of Etruscan civilization. From the Renaissance to Futurism. Through to Alberto Burri, the father of informal art, commemorated by Città di Castello, his hometown, with a large exhibition space for contemporary art.

Ancient and modern. Middle Ages and the future. Intertwined. Like the stone lacework of the rosettes of hundreds of churches. From the cathedral of Orvieto, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, the cathedral of Spoleto, and the Basilica of Assisi, the meeting place of the world’s religions, to the temples of Perugia and Terni. Hundreds of bell towers rise along the narrow streets of every village. At every step, they remind us of the long list of immortal artists who were born in Umbria or lived and worked there: Cimabue, Giotto, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Arnolfo di Cambio, Simone Martini, Pietro Lorenzetti, Gentile da Fabriano, Fra Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli, Piero della Francesca and Agostino di Duccio, Perugino, Pintoricchio, Pier Matteo d’Amelia, Luca Signorelli, the great Raphael …

Moreover, Federico da Montefeltro, Lord of Urbino, humanist, patron, statesman and leader, the man who, thanks to the famous portrait by Piero della Francesca, embodies the image of the Italian Renaissance, was born in the castle of Petroia, near Gubbio.

Crops and Culture. Almost a sign of destiny for a land in which you can touch art at every step, like grass and flowers, also thanks to products of high craftsmanship: the precious ceramics from Deruta, Gualdo Tadino, Orvieto and Gubbio. Embroidery and lace. Terracottas and old books. Fine wood inlays. Wrought iron. The restoration and the production of furniture. The stone and gates of the hundred castles and period residences in which it is still possible to stay, surrounded by beauty. Such as that of knits, silk and textiles. It’s cashmere, a regional centre of excellent craftsmanship that accounts for 40 percent of Italian production.

Culture and crops. In Umbria, even the food comes from far off. The cuisine is simple but extraordinary. Starting with extra-virgin olive oil.

A DOP region. Umbria is the only Italian region that has achieved the DOP mark of excellence over all its territory: the high-quality oil has a bitter aftertaste and excellent organoleptic properties. The prized black truffle, one of the most popular varieties in the Italian cookbook, is a gastronomic glory of the region. But there are other glories as well, such as saffron, bread and the small lentils of Castelluccio di Norcia; the famous white wine of Orvieto; and that of Montefalco, Sagrantino: a structured, full bodied red wine, recently chosen as the best wine in Italy.

Umbria is also a land of tasty meat, a culinary tradition that is the name of a trade: In Italy, high-quality butchers are called “norcini”, just like the residents of Norcia, the small Valnerina town famous for processing meat and deli products. Then, there are the desserts. And the savoury cakes and flatbreads, made with cheese or cooked “al testo”, under the ashes. The ingredients are the same, all natural: water and flour, salt and pecorino cheese, eggs and yeast. But processing times and methods vary, kilometre by kilometre and from town to town. Thus, the “torta al testo” is made thick in Perugia and then, along the way, becomes slimmer until, in northern Umbria, it turns into the famous thin Romagnola piadina.

With the Buitoni family, Umbria also became the hometown of pasta and chocolate. A legendary company, Perugina, now owned by the multinational Nestlé, is based in Perugia. The company’s flagship product, the famous Baci chocolates, are exchanged by lovers all over the world. Perugia is still the hometown of chocolate, thanks to Eurochocolate, a great event that, for a few days, attracts more than a million choco-philes to Perugia every October.

Colourful crowds also follow the numerous town festivals and celebrations that, in so many ways, are unique on the rich panorama of popular Italian traditions: the exciting Gubbio Candle Race, which has remote pagan origins; the Quintana in Foligno; the ring race in Narni or the suggestive Cantamaggio of Assisi.

The Discovery of Time. On a trip to Umbria you can rediscover the true, great treasure lost in the frenzy of everyday life: that of Time. Lost and then found again, every evening when, at dusk, small lights are lit on the hills while you wait to sit down to dinner with your friends and loved ones.

One word defines Umbria more than any other: quality. Umbria is home to many companies that have achieved excellence in the fields of green economy, advanced technologies, fashion, gastronomy, and art. But it also offers a superior quality of daily life. It is no coincidence that, according to a survey by the University of Kentucky, Todi is the place in the world where people live best. This is why Umbria has become the second home and “secret kingdom” of so many movie stars, politicians, artists and managers. From George Lucas, creator of “Star Wars” and Indiana Jones to Oscar-winner Colin Firth. From director Luca Ronconi to Dario Fo. Through to ECB president Mario Draghi and Gae Aulenti, the great architect who also designed the sleek new San Francesco d’Assisi international airport of Perugia. Monica Belluci, the icon of Italian beauty throughout the world, returns to the house she was born in, in Umbria, every chance she gets.

Umbria is also a land of sounds. Not only of the bells that still regulate community life in the small villages that dot the hills, but also the joyful music of bands, orchestras and choirs. Small and large concerts in the squares and narrow streets and inside historic buildings. With Umbria Jazz in July, Perugia becomes the world capital of jazz and hosts the greatest musicians of the world. Then, there’s the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, the Festival of Nations in the upper Tiber valley and the Sagra Musicale Umbra classical music festival.

The cities of silence. Then, suddenly, these music cities also become cities of silence. In the small silent villages, in the hidden countryside and the small churches on the hills, the noises of the world seem muffled and distant. Umbria, for centuries a mystical land, returns to be a place to seek God and the tranquillity of one’s own soul. It is another journey that, this time, begins within ourselves. This is the land of Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” and the Canticle of the Creatures. Of St. Benedict’s “ora et labora”, of Rita of Cascia, “the saint of the impossibles”. And of St. Valentine, the patron saint of lovers, whose feast is celebrated in Terni, and everywhere else on the earth, on 14th February.

Thinking of his land, a great 20th-century Perugian poet, Sandro Penna, wrote: “I would like to live lulled to sleep in the sweet sound of life”.

This is Umbria. A place where life is sweeter.

Federico Fioravanti

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9 July 2017 Federico Fioravanti

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