A walk through Umbria with the Stanford University Alumni association.
The last two years have seen the central Italian summer end with a very warm spell of weather and although this year was not like the brutal September of 2011 our group of walkers was accompanied by strong sunshine and temperatures in the mid 80s at times. It was strange therefore to have both the start and end of the trip take place in the rain. This framing of the walk gave it a separateness of place that has marked it out strongly in my mind, like a grand old oil painting in a golden frame, rather than a modern abstract hung directly against a white wall. It also somehow lent a unity to ourselves as a group and our experiences together as we matched our pace against the changes that late summer brings as it turns into autumn.
The works of art that make up a large part of any visit to central Italy formed a constant current through the trip, although the most remarkable were perhaps the frescoes rather than the canvases of galleries. We spent time admiring Perugino, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca and Signorelli, all in their original spaces and all transmitting their original meanings across the centuries with little diminution of power. They are all, perhaps unusually for Tuscan and Umbrian artists, very fine colourists. Strong green and orange hues mark out Signorelli’s demons, Fra Angelico fills his works with the glorious gold and blue of celestial realms. Meanwhile Perugino dances across the eyes in a kaleidoscope of colour while Piero softens and smooths his most delicate red and blue cloths to form a mystical world of perfect balance where we see through mere form to an underlying structure and character. They are the geniuses of the late fifteenth century in this part of the world and they remain in our memories long after other aspects of our visit have been forgotten or clouded in time.
The accounts of the life of Saint Francis, as depicted by Giotto and Benozzo Gozzoli in their fresco cycles, seem to demand a more disciplined approach to form, but neither of these painters tells the facts of the story without also instructing us in the wonder that underlies this most beloved of all holy men of recent Christian times. They bring us to an understanding of just how important Francis is to the Christian legacy. His fight against loose religious values in an emerging consumerist society pre-figures issues of the Reformation and of our own time. Yet his own destiny was in doubt within the church during his lifetime. Such strict adherence to the ways of poverty could have caused much trouble to Francis had he not been such a vocal and unyielding supporter of the official Catholic church. The line between the heretical and the saintly was not easy to define among radical Christians of the time.
Umbria is known throughout Italy as a land of saints. The image many Italians have of the region is perhaps unusually sober as a result. Benedict, Francis and Clare are all natives of the area, as well as the fascinating Rita of Cascia, a fifteenth century woman with such devotion to the lost cause of her husband that she has become the patron saint of the impossible, and Margaret of Cortona who also suffered marital mistreatment for many years and revenged herself on the cruelty of the world by providing a source of tranquil beauty in her work. Having produced such long-serving supporters of suffering it may be imagined that the landscape must contain an unusual harshness or at the very least a lack of comfort that could account for their religious views. It is true that Umbria is wilder than neighbouring Tuscany and more mountainous and more wooded. But it has neither the dramatic peaks nor sparse population of the Abruzzo to the south nor the remoteness of the Marche further east. It is, today at least, an exceptionally pleasing place to spend some free time.
Our walk took us to Sansepolcro, to hike in the hills and see Piero’s famous Resurrection, to Arezzo where we also saw his great Legend of the True Cross. We saw Assisi from high on Monte Subasio as well as in detail in the basilicas of Saint Clare and Saint Francis. We were enthralled by Gubbio’s legends, pre-history and marvellous medieval engineering. In Perugia we went up and down, underground, and around and around and found good food, Grom, Peruginos and Peruginas. In Orvieto the secrets of Signorelli and the Etruscans melted in the light of expert scrutiny. In Norcia we went walking in the paths of Saints and sheep, sniffing for truffles and porcini and lentils and saffron. Montefalco, the mountain of Frederick’s falcon, stood above fields of vines of Grechetto (the little Greek) and Sagrantino (the little sacred one). The rolled, like us, down to the little village of Bevagna (a little drink?).
It is important not to lose the thrill that the generalist experiences through just an enjoyment of all that a less familiar place can give. The best things that these walks produce are the unexpected connections, the subtle designs that can form quite quickly and which illuminate so well. The taste of wine and the smell of funghi, the colour of landscapes in the sun and the burnt backdrops of Piero’s saints. We are lucky to be so well connected ourselves, our little group of hikers that every day makes the connection between movement and seeing .
Vespasia restaurant, Norcia
Wine Bartolo, via Bartolo, Perugia
A Priori, via dei Priori, Perugia
Osteria del Teatro, via Maffei, Cortona
Fufluns, via Ghibellina, Cortona
La Palomba, via Cipriano Manente, Orvieto
Gli eremi, via Santuario delle Carceri, Assisi
Onofri, Piazza Onofri, Bevagna
Trattoria La Dolce Vita, Piazza Grassi, Fiumicino
Palazzo Seneca, Norcia
Villa Zuccari, San Luca, Montefalco
Relais Nun, Assisi
Il Falconiere, Cortona
Hotel Tiferno, Citta di Castello
Relais Todini, Todi