When in Umbria: Spoleto, Part 1

Spoleto Duomo bell tower

Chiesa San Gregorio Maggiore bell tower

After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, we decided on Spoleto as the base for a week in Umbria. We found what looked to be (and was indeed) a comfortable, reasonably-priced apartment with lots of light and even a terrace with a view. The owners, British expats Norma and Laurie, were bursting with excellent information and, where needed, gratefully appreciated assistance in getting around. But it was more than that: they truly made us feel we’d arrived at a home away from home.

I was aware of Spoleto because composer Gian Carlo Menotti (he of Amahl and the Night Visitors) started a performing arts festival there in 1958. The festival appears to have put Spoleto back on the map for the first time since the 13th century:

During the emergence of the city states it became “the magnificent city, defended by a hundred towers”. Its fall from grace came in the shape of Barbarossa, who flattened the city in 1155 . . . . This cleared the way for rebuilding, rapid growth and the powerful re-emergence of a quasi-democratic regime . . . that saw Spoleto at the height of its powers during much of the thirteenth century. Decline and deliverance into the hands of the Church followed a century later, and thereafter, Spoleto fell into obscurity until the arrival of Giancarlo Menotti’s performing arts festival seventy years ago. [The Rough Guide to Tuscany & Umbria]

We weren’t there for the festival, but in a shoulder season, so we could go any place we wanted and have it pretty much to ourselves.

Ponte delle Torri

Ponte delle Torri

One thing we couldn’t do was walk along the Ponte delle Torri, closed to walkers since the 2016 earthquake. It still stands though, grandly magnificent, and we could view it from above. Here’s what Goethe had to say about it:

I ascended to Spoleto, and went along the aqueduct which serves also for a bridge from one mountain to another. The ten brick arches which span the valley have quietly stood there through centuries; and the water still flows into Spoleto, and reaches its remotest quarters. This is the third great work of the ancients that I have seen, and still the same grandeur of conception. A second nature made to work for social objects,—such was their architecture. . . . Now at last I can understand the justice of my hatred for all arbitrary caprices, as for instance, the winter casts on white stone—a nothing about nothing—a monstrous piece of confectionery ornament; and so also with a thousand other things. But all that is now dead; for whatever does not possess a true intrinsic vitality cannot live long, and can neither be nor ever become great. [Letters from Italy, Part V, From Ferrara to Rome, pp. 217-18]

The Learned and Reverend Bernard de Montfaucon, from a century earlier, also had a tale to tell about the Ponte delle Torri:

A Man of Spoleto, taken with an Indifference to his Wife, and an Inclination to another’s, form’d a Design to cast his own Wife, and the other’s Husband, into this Stream, and then to marry the Widow. On this Plot, he deceitfully brings him, with both the Women, to this Bridge: they suspected nothing; at a second Push the Man fell. Then he makes the Attempt on his Wife, but she was rescu’d, by the Assistance of the other, and the Murderer escap’d by an immediate Flight. de Montfaucon, p. 266]


Speaking of walking, Spoleto, which is of course a hill town, has a thing called a Travelator. It’s a bit space age for a hill town, to say the least, but also handy. We’re suspecting it was built to handle the Festival crowds, so that folks would be encouraged to park their cars below and take the Travelator up to the concert sites. There is a downside, which is that you don’t experience the hill town in full. But then, like Norma and Laurie, you’re not forced to take it—you can always walk above ground all the way up.


Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta (the Duomo)

I don’t know what Goethe thought of the Duomo, but I doubt, given his predilections, that he’d have approved—and most assuredly not of the “great dollops of Baroque” added in the 17th century. [Rough Guide]

Duomo, Solsternus mosaic “Christ giving a Benediction” (1207)

The Duomo was one of the buildings erected after Barbarossa flattened a seventh century church on the site. A grand mosaic graces its façade, complete with the proclamation “hac summus in arte modernus” by its creator, one Doctor Solsternus, about whom nothing else seems to be known.

The first artist to call himself “modern” was (as far as I know) Solsternus: “This rather pleasing picture was made by doctor Solsternus, supremely modern in his art [hac summus in arte modernus]” was how he signed the mosaic high on the facade of the cathedral of Spoleto in central Italy, and he dated it 1207–in letters large enough to read from the ground–though we know nothing else about him. Nor do we know if this boasted modernity had been a problem to him–though it has been something of a problem to others ever since. In antiquity, even if it comes from the Latin modo, it was not known anyway. Modo meant “just now” or “at this moment,” but when Solsternus created his very Byzantine-hieratic mosaic, it may well have looked startling to his contemporaries because it was done half a century before the splendid Roman mosaics, that would outshine it. [“The End of Enchantment”]

Filippo Lippi, Annunciazione

The Duomo houses the Storie della Vergine, a cycle of frescoes by Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), left unfinished at his death and completed by members of his workshop. As one late 19th/early 20th C source relates,

only the “Coronation” and the “Annunciation” are, so far as one can judge in their much restored condition, from the master’s own hand. “The Death of the Virgin” and the “Nativity,” though undoubtedly designed by him, are vastly inferior in execution, and are almost entirely the work of his assistant, Fra Diamante, who accompanied him to Spoleto, and stayed there several months after his master’s death to complete the unfinished work. [cite]

Though Giorgio Vasari’s scabrous tale of Fra Filippo’s end—that he was poisoned by the family of a spurned lover—appears to have been debunked, the presumably fact-regarding National Gallery has this to say:

As an orphan Filippo was sent to the Carmelite friary in Florence. But he was not temperamentally suited to be a friar. His life is a tale of lawsuits, complaints, broken promises and scandal. Fra Filippo’s fame as a painter spread beyond his native Florence and he spent long periods painting fresco cycles in Prato and Spoleto, where he died. In 1456 he abducted a nun, Lucrezia Buti, from the convent in Prato where he was chaplain. He was finally permitted to marry her. [cite]

Filippo Lippi, Dormizione della Vergine

The frescoes in Spoleto are not said to be his greatest, but I’ll have to say I had no complaints, and I thought Fra Diamante’s were pretty darn good, too. To say that, on seeing them, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven would not be a big stretch.

Except that I was still alive and therefore able to have mid-morning cappuccinos at La Cioccolateria, and, when we decided it was time not to cook at the apartment and eat out, head to a Norma and Laurie recommendation, Osteria del Trivio. It was there I had my most favorite dish of our whole trip—strangozzi (an Umbrian pasta) with fava beans, pancetta, and pecorino. I only felt bad I couldn’t handle more than one course, but we addressed that, at least partially, by coming back a second night (I had the rabbit dish, and it was delicious, too).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Listening List

Hector Berlioz, Harold en Italie (1834)

This is a wonderful piece of music, worth posting more than once  (as I am now doing). All the more so upon recently hearing the piece performed by French violist Antoine Tamestit, with the Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting, at Carnegie Hall.


Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. As always on the blog, the photographs, unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

11 thoughts on “When in Umbria: Spoleto, Part 1

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Lowell, how nice to hear from you! I’m really enjoying going back through the photographs of this trip, as it is reminding me of all the beautiful places we visited–and of course the treasure trove of art.

  1. larrymuffin

    We have been several times to Spoleto for concerts and other cultural events and even a bit of shopping. Always enjoyed that city and all the beauty it has to offer.

  2. Steve Schwartzman

    What a great mix of history, travel, art, and scandal. I only recently heard (I can’t remember where) of Fra Filippo’s abduction of the nun and their eventual marriage. The tale of murder and attempted murder on the bridge was new to me, as was the bridge itself.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Wasn’t it, though? And I had no idea of any of it until I was back stateside sorting through photographs and poking around for stories to tell.

  3. hilarymb

    Hi Susan – well if I ever get down to Italy again … I’ll be going to the places you recommend – Spoleto looks to be so interesting. Berlioz was my father’s favourite composer – so this brought back memories … cheers Hilary

Comments are closed.