'The Galilee of Italy'
|By Roderick Conway Morris|
'Umbria verde!' (Green Umbria!), as the poet Carducci greeted it, is not so fashionable as Tuscany, but may be in danger of becoming so. Much of its countryside is less spoiled than Tuscany's, and it does not suffer so acutely from the summer tourist hordes. Nineteenth-century travellers saw in Umbria 'the Galilee of Italy', a vision influenced by the atmospheric background landscapes of the native 15th-16th-century painter Perugino, as Ian Campbell Ross, our perceptive and knowledgeable guide to this still charming region, points out.
The author, who teaches English literature at Trinity College, Dublin, has clearly spent much time and energy investigating the region, and written a book which is readable and replete with useful facts and interesting observations. The main text is a more or less chronological account of Umbria's history, firmly anchored to its varied topography, with good additional chapters on 'Umbrian Painting and Painting in Umbria' and 'Food and Wine'. The last third of the book consists of a first-class place-by-place 'Gazetteer', calculated to help visitors get the most out of the principal sites and stimulate more adventurous travellers to seek out some of the region's less-frequented paths and hidden treasures.
Umbria produced two of the most influential saints in Christian history: St Benedict and St Francis. Many of its towns enjoyed their heyday as early as the 13th century, leaving not only its larger and better-known cities, such as Perugia (now the region's capital), Orvieto and Assisi, but also smaller places, like Todi and Bevagna, with extremely attractive medieval centres. This was the period when the Communes held sway and the region was dotted with independent city states. They were often at war with one another, but art and architecture flourished all the while.
Later Umbria became part of the Papal States and went into decline, with the bulk of the population living in dire poverty. In 1861, on the eve of the Vatican's ceasing to be a temporal power, 84 per cent of Umbrians were illiterate. Since then the quality of life for most has improved immeasurably and the University of Perugia has become one of the most popular and successful Italy.
While telling us just about everything we need know about the mainstream story of Umbria and its cultural development, Campbell Ross also reveals a sharp eye for significant curiosities - such as the Renaissance micro-states within the region that miraculously managed to preserve their independence, Monte Santa Maria Tiberina surviving till the French invasion of 1798, and Cospaia, 'an unprepossessing village on the Umbrian Border with Tuscany', 'as a tax-free haven and bandit hideout', until 1826. The book is a labour of love, but the author's obvious affection for his subject is not slavishly uncritical, as revealed, for example, by his remarks on Umbria's undrinkable truffle liqueurs, 'which, to the surprise of no one except the locals, have made little progress beyond the region'.
UMBRIA: A Cultural History
by Ian Campbell Ross
430pp. Penguin. 1996
First published: Traveller 1996
© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022