May 2021. A Look over the Fence.

A Look over the Fence

Given the tragedy of Covid, still sitting like Sirens on their rock, while fanciful ideas of “this years’ holiday” are massively curtailed and international travel a ping pong matter, Boris is, understandably, vacillating over those countries considered safe. Therefore, it is perhaps not quite the moment for me to venture into the normal eulogies on jewel like spots in Tuscany. As a proxy excursion, I’ve decided instead to cast an eye over Umbria, though I can’t claim my knowledge of the region is very wide. Nonetheless, something of a diversion while we’re considering normality, or something like.

Historically, pre-B.C., this whole region, almost down to Rome, was part of a loosely organised Etruscan Federation. At that time, you would not really be going anywhere so very different, as these neighbours were ethnically and culturally the same, despite today the region having something of a dissimilar atmosphere – Umbria being cut off from the Mediterranean Sea, represents the only ‘modern’ landlocked region in Italy. It certainly has a different topography now; a landscape that is more revealing and which commences as you reach the very southern part of Tuscany. Here, gently slipping away, are those impenetrably dense hardwood forests and tangled jungle of macchia mediterranea, home to the deer and wild boar that appear ever present in Tuscany. Also, something of a paradise for any botanist buff. However, for compensation, the area has lakes. Big ones! Lago di Trasimeno is 50 square miles, with just over the border back in Tuscany, Lago di Bolsena at c.40 square miles.

It’s true that when we arrived in Italy all those years ago with the idea of finding a house of our own, we had a fairly wide choice in central Italy, including the Marche, over the mountain on the Adriatic, but I have to admit the allure of Tuscany finally made its mark and we turned North, away from Umbria.  Not so the television presenter, the late Peter Hobday who wrote an interesting and humorous book on the travails of restoring his home, “In the Valley of the Fireflies”. It reminded me that ‘doing up’ a house in Italy is an up and down roller coaster of tears and laughter, and providing you don’t want to swizzle the system, and you legally cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, your plans will generally reach a positive conclusion. Anyway, Hobday, proves the point. If you come across his book, it is definitely worth a read.

Many years later, having friends who lived near Bolsena, we were able to get a closer glimpse of famous sites such as Assisi, Orvieto, and Viterbo, but for some reason, though attracted by the hint of a calm emptiness in parts of the region, I never managed to fully catch the essence of its spirit, perhaps because, having been born by the sea, there remains a mild claustrophobic reaction to places that aren’t. And yes, in my part of Tuscany if I walk along the lane on a crisp clear sunny day, I can indeed catch a glimmering glimpse of the sea.

But enough of that. We mustn’t forget we’re only here for a little light relief from our present misfortunes.  So, one interesting place that cannot fail to catch your attention if you are passing south to Rome and beyond, on what used to be known as the “Autostrada del Sole” – before the EU insisted on welding Europe together with road numbers – is a sight of Orvieto, which by a long stretch of the imagination, is Italy’s version of Table Mountain in South Africa, though obviously not quite so iconic. On top of what appear to be sheer cliffs, sits the medieval city. In fact, its precipice like shape has been formed from volcanic tuff, so the city is actually perched on the debris from an extinct volcano! One doesn’t have to possess much imagination to consider that logically this a splendid place for defensive reasons, and you would not be wrong. Orvieto Duomo, or cathedral, must rank as one of the most beautiful in Italy with the highly decorated frontal edifice. It’s in sharp contrast to the huge frescoes inside by Luca Signorelli depicting the end of the world. Very disturbing. Perhaps because of its solitary height it suffered little war damage, and thus a splendid place to study mediaeval architecture. Also, a place of very pleasant restaurants.

However, if you take the parallel trunk road from Siena you pass Bolsena and arrive at Viterbo, a somewhat similar city to Orvieto, though it sadly suffered from considerable war damage. Still, the walls were strong enough, and even the emperor, Frederick the Second, in 1243 failing miserably to invest the place, retired in disgust. The effort must have had much the same effect on that poor man as those on foot reaching the point of turning out of the Era valley, and seeing an approach to Volterra, breathe a sigh of relief, not realising their Purgatory is just about to begin. Perhaps because of the exalted eyrie, Pope Alexander the Fourth chose Viterbo as his residence in what is now known as the Palace of the Popes. His successor, Gregory X, had a little trouble getting himself elected. Two years passed, until in frustration the Captain of the People locked the doors of the palace, took the roof off the hall, and reduced them to a starvation diet, which rapidly obtained a result. Five of the following Popes were elected there, and so it may have continued in Papal importance, except for the far from small matter, of the Popes removing themselves to Avignon.  It never really recovered, which seems to have been something of a tragedy, for it had been known as ‘the town of fair women and fine fountains.’ Of the women I have no recollection, except for the story of a Roman sarcophagus that contained the body of Galiana, whose beauty caused a war between Viterbo and Rome, apparently because her beauty was so fair that when she drank wine you could see it passing down her throat! No. I don’t believe that either! However, the exceptionally beautiful Fontana Grande, in the Piazza of that name, is older than Viterbo’s Popes, and somehow escaped the fierce bombardment during the Second World war that laid swathes of the town to waste. You may still though, pass into the small restored Romanesque church of San Silvestro without knowing it has a strong connection with England. Not exactly a happy one! In March 1271 Prince Henry of Cornwall, nephew of Henry the Third, and son of Richard Plantagenet, was murdered at the altar by Simon and Guy de Montfort in revenge for the death of their father during the battle of Evesham in 1265. Poor old Henry of Cornwall is long forgotten, and indeed, Guy along with him, but his brother Simon has been made immortal by a no lesser personality than Dante who, quite rightly, confined him to Hell – though there is no explanation why he exonerated Guy from this punishment. You will find this gory story in Canto XII of “The Vision”, and as an appendix somewhere by Giovani Villani, that Henry’s heart was placed in a golden cup and suspended from a pillar of a bridge over the River Thames so the drips of blood could fall into the water. This whole story demonstrates an entertaining example of imagination. The Montfort family were apparently not a pleasant lot. Simon, the elder, defeated Henry III at the Battle of Lewes and ruled for a year before being killed at the Battle of Evesham that restored King Henry to his throne. In that interval, as ruler, he was responsible for the death of hundreds of Jews, perhaps because his associate Barons owed them a great deal of money, and what better way existed for them to redeem their debts. In Simon’s favour he conversely, it is said, introduced the idea of political representation. Come si com sa. There is a fine statue of him on The Clock Tower, Leicester.

From there we must turn our sights to the east. Assisi balances on a spur of Monte Subasio at a little under 1700 feet and is, as everyone probably knows, where St. Francis was born and died. However, his burial is slightly confusing for though his body is considered to be within a stone coffin in the centre of the Crypt of the Basilica of San Francesco, some historic accounts suggest he was surrounded by the coffins of his four faithful companions, of which there is no sign today.  According to another narrative, the truly faithful must descend back down onto the plain below the city to visit the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. There, in a church within a church, can be found the Capella della Porziuncola founded by the hermit followers of the saint, and just before the chancel, the Cappella del Transito where he is said to have died in a small cave reputed to contain his heart. Well, in nearly eight hundred years things can become very confusing as momentous incidents have a habit of being heavily embroidered over time. Being a very devout traditional environment, ladies must be suitably covered – policed by a Franciscan brother at the entrance.

Assisi appears full of churches, as a wander round the town will show. They seemed to be crammed in everywhere, and occasionally produce some odd spectacles like the church of Santa Chiara where its flying buttresses are so large, they span the road that runs alongside. They are also visible in some very second-hand edifices, albeit, slightly more interesting. The church of Santa Maria in the main square was once the Roman ‘Tempio di Minerva’ and boasts an entrance with six Corinthian columns and travertine steps all dating back to Augustus. A largesse of priests become very evident. Some of them extremely smart, and far too good looking for their own good, ogling the hidden fruits that saunter by. A friend’s wife, on passing one such libertine, was given a smiling ‘once over’ which she laughingly thought a little undignified for a priest, while I tried to convince her that such saintly compliments, given past Papal inclinations, were as old as the church.

One day I must visit Perugia, which is virtually the only province in the Umbria region, and an important city of the twelve in the Etruscan Confederation. Like Volterra it has that very rare attribute of an Etruscan gateway, though photographs seem to indicate considerable remodelling and additions to the original. It is also the focus of a scheme I had for a novel on the notorious Baglioni family, but the copious notes I accrued seem to have gone temporarily astray!  Briefly, it centres round the attempted assassination of Gian Paolo Baglioni by Grifoni Baglioni, and the reaction of the latter’s mother, Atlanta. Believed to have been one of the most beautiful women of her day, Atlanta commissioned Raphael to paint the ‘Deposition’, now in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, in contrition for her son’s crime, who had been killed in the assassination attempt. As in the best Hollywood movies, Atlanta plays the grieving Mary and Grifoni gets a ‘bit part’ supporting the legs of Jesus. Or so tradition tells us. The whole Baglioni period in Perugia is extraordinarily and historically momentous, in the manner of the Medici or the Visconti families, so when the Covid era has finally passed, I must venture forth to acquire a flavour of this city. One story has it that the Pope, having finally outwitted Gian Paolo sealed the whole Baglioni quarters underground, where apparently you can still visit this subterranean place, palaces, shops, and all. Seeing will be believing.

But naturally, concerning travel, I’m not holding my breath just yet.


Meanwhile, interesting armchair visits continue to be possible. Including a modern replica of the San Francesco Shrine of Porziuncola in San Francisco U.S.A. (NATIONAL SHRINE OF SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI – La Porziuncola Nuova), in addition, a remarkable achievement of modern craftsmen, including Italian.


Inside the Cave of St. Francis with Vic Stefano (English commentary).

A visit to Eremo delle Carceri – situated high in the forest above Porziuncola, an isolate mountain oratory where Saint Francis often retired for his meditations.