Monthly Archives: April 2013

Blah, blah, blah

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In previous posts I have written about some of the artists of Spello and Umbria. These artists have one thing in common: they are all dead. Unsurprising, of course, as they painted largely in the medieval and Renaissance periods. You may think, therefore, that living artists have nothing to contribute, and maybe cannot compare with the sheer genius of those who have gone before. But there is an artist born in Spello in 1944 and still living and working here who creates works of art so beautiful that perhaps he really does bear comparison to past masters. The artist in question is Elvio Marchionni.

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Elvio Marchionni attended the Art Institute of Bernadino di Betto of Perugia (the “little painter”, Pinturicchio), where he explored medieval painting techniques, the classics and the great past masters. His palette is one of subdued colours, and many of his works resemble frescoes destroyed by the effects of time. He has exhibited all over Italy, including at the Venice Biennale of Sacred Arts, as well as in Paris, Madrid, Germany and the US.

His works can be seen in nearby Foligno, both in the Cathedral and in the apse of the church at Scopoli. In Spello there is a painting by Elvio Marchionni in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore and another of St Veronica on the facade of one of the buildings in the main street.

Spello town

We had seen numerous posters around town advertising an event on behalf of the Marchionni Foundation at the former church of Saint Michael Archangel. We were not entirely sure what the event entailed, but we had seen canvasses being prepared and chairs being set out, so not wanting to miss anything we decided to go along.

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The little church was full; all around were hung lovely art works, large and small. There were TV cameras and interviewers, photographers and local dignitaries. We managed to find seats and sat back to observe proceedings. We had thought that there might be a few words said about Signor Marchionni, then we would have a chance to view the paintings.

Well, the dignitaries stood up one by one and talked, and talked and talked…..An hour later they were still going strong, emphasising their points with lots of arm-waving and rousing finales.

We have been a bit smug about using our Italian and were proud of the fact that we can understand at least part of the conversations around us. But we came back to earth with a huge bump that evening when we could only extract something along the following lines. “Blah, blah Caravaggio. Blah, blah Perugino. British Museum, blah, blah. Pinturicchio blah, blah. Maestro Elvio Marchionni, blah, blah.” I exaggerate for effect, but not by much.

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At last, the artist himself stood up to speak. He is a quietly spoken man who clearly prefers to let his art do the talking. He is passionate about art and equally passionate about sharing his knowledge with others, particularly young people. Encouraging tourists, school children and artists alike to understand the creative process and how works of art are produced is part of the Foundation’s plan.

With an allusion to the past, through his Foundation he is also aiming to recreate the relationship between the artist and his disciples, moving from theory to practice, learning the trade, inspiring each other, exchanging ideas and creativity.

We never did get to see all of the beautiful art works on display, but judge for yourself from the small selection included here how stunning they are. Elvio Marchionni, you are an inspiration.

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Weather With You

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“On cable TV they have a weather channel – 24 hours of weather.  We had something like that where I grew up. We called it a window.”  Dan Spencer.

We British are genetically engineered to be obsessed with the weather. Luckily, travelling to Umbria by car had enabled us to pack a selection of clothing suitable for weather. Any weather, that is. Rain, hail, shine.

Because Umbria is a land-locked province, the Spring weather can be changeable. Spello is a hill town but is surrounded by mountains. When we arrived there were snow traces visible on the mountain tops, and indeed we reached the snow line in our trip over Monte Subasio (see “Stairway to Heaven”). Now those traces have all but melted and we have been extremely fortunate in having really good weather, fine and warm most days.

The mornings and evenings can still be a little chilly and, particularly in the morning, the mist can lie low in the valley before slowly unfurling to reveal a beautiful day. This is the view from our apartment on one of those misty mornings.

Spello, morning mist from apartment

“It was one of those hot, silent nights, when people sit at windows, listening for the thunder which they know will shortly break; when they recall dismal tales of hurricanes and earthquakes; and of lonely travellers on open plains, and lonely ships at sea, struck by lightning.”  Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit.

We have had a couple of storms that arrived, wind-whipped, with little warning. We have heard the most spectacular thunder and seen the sky riven with lightning; one lightning bolt was pink, which I am sure was a trick of the light, but it did look wonderful. As the worst storm cleared, we were lucky enough to capture these beautiful, fleeting pictures of the mountains lit in rainbow colours. These shots are not enhanced.

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Clear skies can quickly cloud over, then just as quickly the clouds depart. The cloud formations can be very interesting against the backdrop of hills and mountains, forests and streams. Perhaps I have watched the film “Truly, Madly, Deeply” too many times (if that were possible!) because I never tire of looking at clouds.

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“I am sure it is a great mistake always to know enough to go in when it rains.  One may keep snug and dry by such knowledge, but one misses a world of loveliness.” Adeline Knapp

We haven’t seen much rain, but showers can be almost tropical in their intensity, without the steamy aftermath. Not one single day has been blighted by wall-to-wall rain. And we do, of course, have waterproofs.


Rain Man

The majority of our days in this blissful first month have been sunny and warm. Chapel bells peal in azure skies; metal bluebells heralding the hour….

Collepino - view

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Grasses wave in the blue arena…..

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And statues gaze into the “wide palace of the sun” (Keats)…..

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“Weather forecast for tonight: dark.” George Carlin.

Maximum Consumption

Luca was very pleased when he saw Taking Care of Business. So pleased that he insisted we come to dinner at his house that very evening. We were very excited at the thought of experiencing a truly Italian family meal, so of course we said yes. The plan was to meet outside Luca’s shop at 8 o’clock that evening, then follow him in his car for about 5 kilometres. Easy, given that it was still daylight at that time, so I would be able to check out where we were going and simply reverse the journey in the dark.

What we had not taken account of was that Luca had invited a host of Italian friends, all of whom turned up late, so it was dark when we finally set off in a convoy of 5 cars. We just about managed to keep up, although there were a few scary moments as we raced down tiny, one-track (but two-way!) lanes with deep ditches either side. Eventually we turned into a gateway and parked between an elegant row of trees.

Friendly introductions were made all round, and we filed into the large farmhouse where a raging fire and a long table set for 15 awaited us. Luca’s brother, Emanuele, was the chef for the evening and he had the bread toasting on the open fire for a wonderful bruschetta appetiser with drizzled olive oil, salami and olive oil and rosemary crackers served with deliciously cold prosecco. You will note that the usual food photos are absent here; this seemed like too personal an evening to pull out the camera, so I hope my descriptions alone can do it justice.

We were invited into the kitchen where Emanuele was preparing the next dish, a mix of 4 grains including pearl barley and lentils, cooked for 2 hours in vegetable stock then drained and mixed with lots of olive oil (and then a lot more), chopped parsley and a little salt. It was delicious; the grains still had a bite to them and the flavour was superb. Yes, I know I am going to run out of superlatives before too long but bear with me…

The table was laid simply but elegantly, with colourful dishes produced locally, bottles of olive oil and vases of fresh rosemary and dried chilli peppers. Bottles of red and white Umbrian wine and chilled local filtered well-water were constantly refreshed. Our fellow diners included farmers, a doctor and a tractor driver and were a real mix of ages. They were chatty and friendly and the buzz of conversation got louder as the evening progressed. Luca was the perfect host and frequently turned to us to explain the conversation when it got fast and furious.

The next course was based on beans with florets of cauliflower and a tomato salsa, beautifully presented and very tasty. By now, the Calabrian contingent from the Italian south were arguing the benefits of cooking with fat rather than olive oil to enhance the flavour, whilst the Umbrians were strictly olive oil supporters from both health and taste perspectives.

Steaming bowls of pasta with tomatoes, broccoli florets and a hint of chilli arrived – a masterpiece of simple flavours, combining gloriously. This was followed by bruschetta with a chickpea puree with rosemary. The talk around the table had moved on to a debate about which town held the best festivals. Those from Bevagna extolled the glories of their annual Mercato delle Gaite festival held each June, celebrating medieval crafts with demonstrations of archery and crafts and a medieval market. The Assisi residents preferred their celebrations of Festa di Calendmaggio, marking the arrival of Spring with medieval costumed parades and theatre and the Festa di San Francesco, a major religious event. More wine, more chat, more buzz.

Luca took us out onto his terrace where we were able to see the hill towns of Assisi, Spello and Spoleto lit up and looking lovely. Assisi won that beauty contest as the basilica and the castle are so stunning when lit.

The final dish was a selection of warm cookies with jam made from the merlot grape. The grappa and coffee also made an appearance at this point, heralding various toasts to the hosts, the chef and the guests. We left shortly afterwards, following one of Luca’s lovely friends who pointed us in the right direction until we recognised something familiar. We arrived home at 1:45am tired but still buzzing about the brilliant night we had had. We felt truly honoured to be invited to share in such a wonderful evening.

Higher and Higher

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Sometimes someone gives you a bit of advice that changes your plans for the day for the better. “Take the scala mobile” he said; “saves all that walking”.

Spoleto, in common with other Umbrian hill towns, does not allow cars (other than residents’ vehicles) to be parked within the city walls. We drew to a halt close to the town gate, and asked a man at the tabaccaio if we were legally parked there; we were. Drawing himself up to his full height he welcomed us to Spoleto, exhibiting a pride in his town we have seen in so many places here. Then he added “Take the scala mobile (escalator) – saves all that walking.” We had intended to march straight through the main gate like a (very small) triumphant army and conquer the town piazza by piazza, hill by hill, but he pointed in the opposite direction so we took his advice; good move.

La Rocca, Spoleto

La Rocca, Spoleto

The town was built on the slopes of a steep hill, crowned by a military fortress, La Rocca D’Albornoziana, built in the 13th century to protect the Papal territory. A system of 8 huge escalators carried us to the foot of the Rocca’s walls from where there are impressive views.

To one side of the fortress is the 14th century Ponte delle Torri (Bridge of Towers), its ten arches spanning a deep gorge. It was likely to have been constructed over the foundations of a Roman aqueduct. Spoleto has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and its Roman remains can be spotted throughout the historic centre.

A little light lunch...

A little light lunch…

So much to explore, but first we stopped for lunch. This miniscule cafe had just 2 tables, but the food was local and freshly cooked on a tiny stove inside the adjoining shop. A delicious platter of Umbrian fare for me: bruschetta, cheese, salami and roasted vegetables, and a dish of pasta with truffle for mio marito, washed down with a glass of the local wine.

Such a beautifully designed menu.

Such a beautifully designed menu.

The view from our table was down a scenic stairway to the Duomo (Cathedral) square. Built and consecrated in the 12th century, the Romanesque facade was remodelled during the Renaissance; with its 8 rose windows and gold mosaics glinting in the sun it was an impressive sight.

The Duomo, Spoleto

The Duomo, Spoleto

Mosaic of Solsternus, 1207, Duomo facade, Spoleto

Mosaic of Solsternus, 1207, Duomo facade, Spoleto

The interior of the church is equally impressive and houses several important works of art. The Capella del Vescovo Constantino Eroli was built in 1497, and is entirely decorated with frescoes by Pintoricchio. Unlike the Pintoricchio frescoes in Spello’s Santa Maria Maggiore church, you are free to get close to the paintings and revel in their detail and colour.

Madonna and Child, Pintoricchio, Duomo Spoleto

Madonna and Child, Pintoricchio, Duomo Spoleto

Fresco detail, Pintoricchio, Duomo Spoleto

Fresco detail, Pintoricchio, Duomo Spoleto

There are other wonderful frescoes in the apse by the monk Filippo Lippi, painted in 1467-69 and portraying subjects including the Annunciation, Transition of the Virgin and Coronation of the Virgin.

Spoleto, Duomo, Filippo Lippi frescoes

Spoleto, Duomo, Filippo Lippi frescoes

Spoleto, Duomo, Filippo Lippi frescoes

Spoleto, Duomo, Filippo Lippi frescoes

The sarcophagus of Lippi is also in the cathedral, although the whereabouts of his remains is unknown. The story goes that shortly after he had completed the frescoes in the Duomo he was poisoned because he had seduced the daughter of a local nobleman. The people of Spoleto were delighted to have the body of the famous painter in their cathedral: the chronicler of the Italian Renaissance, Vasari, remarked that the cathedral was “poorly provided with ornaments, above all with distinguished men”, so he was interred in a tomb designed by his son. The corpse disappeared during restoration two centuries later, perhaps spirited away by the descendants of the unfortunate girl.

The cathedral’s facade provides the backdrop to the annual Festival of the Two Worlds where theatre, opera, painting, music and sculpture are featured. The Festival was initiated in 1958 in an attempt to bring together the new and old worlds of Europe and America, and it remains a huge draw for renowned artists and visitors.

The Roman theatre, constructed in 1AD, is still used as a venue for the Festival.

Spoleto, Roman Theatre,

Spoleto, Roman Theatre

The theatre is now part of the Archaeological Museum which houses Bronze age, Iron age and Roman exhibits, including some fascinating Roman gravestones. The museum is beautifully laid out, and gentle classical music accompanied our visit. It was a shame we were the only 2 visitors!

Roman busts, Archaeological Museum, Spoleto

Roman busts, Archaeological Museum, Spoleto

Fragment of mosaic from the  Roman baths. Archaeological Museum, Spoleto

Fragment of mosaic from the Roman baths. Archaeological Museum, Spoleto

A thoroughly enjoyable day, made even better by that little piece of advice!

Floral Dance

Nature wears her prettiest gowns….

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Spello to Collepino trek: flora

Sky-blue, can’t be blue….

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Unfolding, witholding….

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Sun is bright, virgin white….

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Butterflies flutter by….

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Coal black beetle, iridescent; dressed for dinner – most impressive!

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Wild herbs pungent in the heat, had to bring some home to eat.

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Cricket in the olive tree, what a perfect place to be….

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Silver Springs

Not far from Trevi, on the road to Spoleto, are to be found the Fonti del Clitunno, the series of springs that form the source of the River Clitunno. The River was named after Clitumnus, the Roman messenger god who was said to have the skills of a great orator. Drinking the spring’s waters is not said to improve a person’s oratory skills, but it is said to remove the desire for alcohol. We didn’t test that theory, though on reflection perhaps we should have….

Fonti del Clitunno

Fonti del Clitunno

The springs form a large pool; its crystal clear waters, full of aquatic plants, were sacred to the Romans and, prior to sacrifice, the Romans would plunge their animals into the waters to purify them. The fertile land and the abundant waters – which at one time were navigable – drew the Romans to build holiday villas, public baths and places of worship along the river banks. There is nothing left today, other than a small Temple (closed when we visited!) about a kilometre from the springs which was built around the 8th century and contains frescoes thought to be the oldest sacred paintings in Umbria.

Fonti del Clitunno

Fonti del Clitunno

The springs have also been an inspiration for many writers over the centuries. Indeed there is a sculpture dedicated to the poet Giosue Carducci, the first Italian poet to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Carducci visited the springs in 1876 and subsequently wrote Alle Fonti del Clitunno. Virgil (70BC-19BC), a Roman poet of the Augustan era described the purification ceremony “From here, Clitunno, the white flocks and the bull…repeatedly immersed in your holy water..”  Pliny the Younger (@61AD to 112AD), lawyer, author and magistrate in Ancient Rome wrote enthusiastically to one of his friends “There is a small hill all covered up with ancient and shady cyprus trees: at its feet lies a water spring with many and different veins that convey into a small lake that stretches so pure you could even count the coins people throw at the bottom and the shining stones.” Byron, following a visit in 1817, described Clitunno as “the most gracious river of all the poetry“, and included verses about the springs in his epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Sculpture dedicated to Giosue Carducci

Sculpture dedicated to Giosue Carducci

It was a tranquil, calm place bathed in Spring sunlight. We walked around the pool’s edge, accompanied only by birdsong, the splash of ducks hitting the water and the outraged honk of a lone goose. A swan glided gracefully across the pool, its reflection clear and diffused white. And we knew why this place was sacred and inspirational.

Taking Care of Business

When we took our first, tentative steps towards learning Italian, and before we had met our lovely, patient Italian teacher, Jill, we listened to “Earworms”. It’s a hard concept to explain but it uses repetition, memory hooks and music to teach some basic phrases. It is why we still sing our numbers:

uno, due, tre,

quattro, cinque, sei,

sette, otto, nove,

dieci!

And it’s also why we think of all seven of the seven dwarves sitting on a settee to help us remember that seven is sette. You get the idea?

One of the Earworms chapters was about shopping, and it was here that we learned that the Italians do not say “a shoe shop” but rather “a shop of shoes.” We haven’t yet seen a shop of shoes in Spello, but what we have found are several artisan food shops, and I thought it might be interesting to feature some of them during the course of our stay.

CasAntonini is one such shop. Today it is fronted by the effervescent Luca Antonini, whose passion for his family’s products is evident as he explains with pride the origin and health benefits of the range of items on sale.

Luca Antonini and colleague outside the family shop, Spello.

Luca Antonini and colleague outside the family shop, Spello.

in 1854 Francesco Antonini – Luca’s great-grandfather, moved from Abruzzo to Scopoli near Folignio where he began cultivation of cereal and vegetable crops, using the seeds he had brought with him. Francesco’s children came to Spello and continued cultivation in the local area. In 1976 the family began using its stoneground flour to make pasta using family recipes which do not contain any fats, just the family’s own virgin olive oil. The traditional artisan method of lento lavorazione (slow process) uses much lower temperatures than industrial, mechanised processes and results in pasta that holds its shape and texture and tastes extremely good. Luca’s sister is head of production, and his brother also works in the business.

CasAntonini artisan products

CasAntonini artisan products

Other best-sellers include chickpeas, tiny shiny lentils, grains, jams and delicious savoury and sweet biscuits.

CasAntonio products

CasAntonini artisan products

The whole philosophy of the business is to offer high quality products that are healthy and provide that authentic Italian taste. Luca emphasises the importance of the health aspects, and advertises it prominently in the shop.

What the products of CasAntonini do and don't contain.

What the products of CasAntonini do and don’t contain.

We pop in to see Luca regularly as he helps us with our Italian and we help him with his English. We rarely leave empty-handed, so have sampled several of Luca’s products already: Contadini Classici pasta, Chicchi Bronzi Classici pasta – which is a little like orzo and can be used in risotto dishes – and plum jam, together with savoury and sweet nibbles. All have been utterly delicious.

Find out more, and see the lovely, calm video clip, at http://www.casantonini1976.it/index.php