When in Umbria: From Spoleto to Norcia

Vallo di Nera

For our next outing, though we knew the 2016 earthquake damage would truncate our journey, we headed east. The prospect of mountainous countryside, dotted with hill towns, was the key enticement. Frescoes, at least theoretically, were also on offer, but, as we suspected, issues of access foiled our attempts to see them.

Caso and Gavelli

Chiesa di Santa Cristina, Caso

Our route took us through the tiny towns of Caso (pop. 30) and Gavelli (pop. 18), in each of which 12 inhabitants are 65 or more years old. The towns were lovingly tended: though we rarely encountered anyone, one person we did see was on her hands and knees sweeping already immaculately clean steps.

Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo, Gavelli

Gavelli held the promise of frescoes by Lo Spagna in the Chiesa di san Michele Arcangelo. The Rough Guide advised, “Try the priest’s house next door for access if the church is shut.” We didn’t find the promised priest, but we heard voices echoing from within and followed the sound to an open door. Alas, a fellow strode up to explain we couldn’t enter, as it wasn’t safe. The reason may have been the 2016 earthquake, but I haven’t been able to track that down.

I later wondered what steps were being taken to support these tiny towns generally, and specifically to assure their artistic treasures survive. One answer came in the form of a UK walking group called ATG, which, it turns out, has undertaken a number of restoration projects, including of the Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo in Gavelli.  Frescoes or no, the day was excellent for strolling down the lanes and looking out at the beautiful countryside beyond.

Monteleone di Spoleto

Monteleone di Spoleto clock tower

Soon enough, it was time for lunch, so we looked for the nearest town that seemed sizeable enough to have a café. The town we tried was Monteleone di Spoleto (pop. 848), where a single open café on what seemed to be a single main street did indeed offer lunch. The Rough Guide gave the town the barest of mentions, stating it’s “best known . . . for faro (a softer version of spelt), which finds its way into soups—zuppa di faro—across the Valnerina.” [Rough Guide to Tuscany & Umbria]

Monteleone di Spoleto street with café

Turns out, though, that Monteleone may be best known for something it doesn’t have. Upon learning we were from New York, the fellow at the café became very excited about something he wanted to convey. This took some doing, as his English was only slightly better than my virtually nonexistent Italian, but with hand signals and the help of a set of post cards, we were able to discover what he wanted us to know. It had to do with an Etruscan chariot. Here’s the tale of the chariot, at least in one version:

In 1902, a landowner working on his property accidentally discovered a subterranean built tomb covered by a tumulus (mound). His investigations revealed the remains of a parade chariot as well as bronze, ceramic, and iron utensils together with other grave goods. Following the discovery, the finds passed through the hands of several Italian owners and dealers who were responsible for the appearance of the chariot and related material on the Paris art market. There they were purchased in 1903 by General Luigi Palma di Cesnola, the first director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Monteleone chariot is the best preserved example of its kind from ancient Italy before the Roman period. [cite]

So precious is the chariot to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that an entire volume of the Metropolitan Museum Journal was devoted to it.

The restoration and reconstruction of the Etruscan chariot from Monteleone di Spoleto . . . took place as part of the reinstallation of the galleries of Greek and Roman Art completed in 2007. . . . This article traces the circumstances of the discovery and acquisition of the Monteleone chariot, its first reconstruction, the typology of the vehicle, and the nature of its remarkable decoration from both the technical and iconographic points of view; further, this publication identifies the craftsman who created it and the patron who commissioned it. I conclude with a comparison between the original chariot, as I understand it, and the reconstruction. [cite]

At the same time, something is left out: the town of Monteleone di Spoleto wants the chariot back.

A mountain village in Umbria is caught up in a tug of war with the Metropolitan Museum of Art over the 2,600-year-old Etruscan chariot that is a highlight of the museum’s new Greek and Roman galleries.

A local farmer stumbled upon the bronze chariot, considered one of the finest pieces of Etruscan art in the world, in 1902 as he was clearing land. By the next year it was in the possession of the Met. But the residents of Monteleone, population 680, say the chariot was illegally sold and should never have left the country.

“I’m very sorry for the Met because they’ve done a great job in making the most of the chariot,” said Mayor Nando Durastanti, who saw the chariot, which has been out of sight for years while being restored, this month during a private tour of the new Met galleries, which are to open April 20. “It’s clear they care a lot about it, but it’s ours. It’s part of our identity.” [cite]

The Italian government, however, did not support the claim, and thus, at least so far, the chariot remains in the possession of the Met.

Because the events in question took place so long ago, “the preconditions that have guided other negotiations don’t exist in this case,” said Maurizio Fiorilli, a state lawyer who heads the Ministry of Culture commission that has been negotiating with American museums and collectors for the restitution of antiquities. Mr. Fiorilli noted that the case predated a 1909 law on Italy’s cultural heritage and the 1970 United Nations convention on cultural property that addresses looting.

“This case actually jeopardizes other negotiations,” Mr. Fiorilli said, because if every municipality brought a similar claim, it would make it more difficult to resolve cases with a clearer legal grounding. [cite]

A full-size copy of the chariot is on display in Monteleone di Spoleto. We didn’t know to visit it, so on our return to New York, it became all the more essential to pay the original our respects, on behalf of the citizens of Monteleone di Spoleto.



From Monteleone di Spoleto, we headed for Norcia (pop. 4,937).  We knew the 2016 earthquake had done great damage, including to the Basilica of St. Benedict, but we also knew the town was working hard on restoration and otherwise “open for business.”

St. Benedict is Norcia’s patron saint. The Basilica is said to have been built on the site where St. Benedict and his twin sister, St. Scholastica, were born. Looking up the twins online, I ran across an appealing fresco of the two sharing a meal. It didn’t take long to realize the scene was portrayed repeatedly. So of course I had to find out what it was about. Turns out it had to do with the last supper between the two of them, though St. Benedict didn’t know it at the time.

They spent the whole day in the praises of God and spiritual talk, and when it was almost night, they dined together. As they were yet sitting at the table, talking of devout matters, it began to get dark. The holy Nun, his sister, entreated him to stay there all night that they might spend it in discoursing of the joys of heaven. By no persuasion, however, would he agree to that, saying that he might not by any means stay all night outside of his Abbey.

At that time, the sky was so clear that no cloud was to be seen. The Nun, hearing this denial of her brother, joined her hands together, laid them on the table, bowed her head on her hands, and prayed to almighty God. . . .

After the end of her devotions, that storm of rain followed; her prayer and the rain so met together, that as she lifted up her head from the table, the thunder began. So it was that in one and the very same instant that she lifted up her head, she brought down the rain.

The man of God, seeing that he could not, in the midst of such thunder and lightning and great abundance of rain return to his Abbey, began to be heavy and to complain to his sister, saying: “God forgive you, what have you done?”

For those who can’t stand the suspense and need to know what happened next, click here and scroll to Chapters 33 and 34.

Basilica of St. Benedict

Currently, a statue of St. Benedict points toward, and seems to bless, restoration of the church—a restoration that occasioned a controversy only recently resolved.

Archbishop Boccardo had in mind opening up the reconstruction project to an international competition and to rebuild the basilica “together with something of today.” The earthquake, he said in April, “leaves a mark, in people but also in architecture.”

He added that “to remake everything as before would be to erase history. Why do we have to erase the signs of this earthquake?” . . . .

However, a petition against the modern plans, which the locals described as “bizarre projects” of steel that appeared to wish to be “modern at all costs,” obtained over 2,000 signatures by May of [2018].

The signatories stated . . . they rejected “incomprehensible modern solutions” that were “especially unwanted.” They also said they rejected those “who do not recognize the place of tradition in the heart of the population.”

Some modern aspects will be incorporated into the new structure, but these will involve “the best techniques and contemporary materials, so as to ensure maximum safety” and make the basilica “earthquake-proof,” according to ANSA.

Reconstruction will be largely funded by a €10 million ($11.4 million) grant from the European Union, and overseen by Professor Antonio Paolucci, a former director of the Vatican Museums. [cite]

Despite the damage, Norcia is a pretty town and seems to be on the mend. The headline in a Guardian travel article offers a possible reason why: “After the earthquake: Umbria’s culinary magic is winning back visitors.”

Until last year, jolly and welcoming Giuseppe and Ada Fausti could probably have been called the planet’s happiest pig farmers: with very little hands-on work they produced lean, deeply flavoured pork prized even here in Norcia, south-east Umbria, a town that’s synonymous with pork (literally: in central Italy, the word for butcher or salami shop is norcineria).

But last autumn was a terrible one for them and this 2,500-year-old Appenine town. In August, an earthquake centred on Amatrice, several miles to the south, destroyed much of the farm where the Faustis live with their children. And then on 30 October, a further quake severely damaged, among other things, Norcia’s 13th-century basilica and the Faustis’ shop, slaughterhouse and the warehouse where legs of quality pork mature into finest prosciutto. (After the earthquake they put out an online appeal and managed to sell much of what they suddenly no longer had storage for.)

Today the couple have done lots of rebuilding and are keen to have tourists back.

The Guardian also notes that “vegetarians and pork-avoiders shouldn’t dismiss Norcia. As if some foodie force-field is in operation, this area is known for all manner of culinary treats: truffles, cheeses, EU-protected lentils and saffron.” [cite]

I regret we couldn’t stick around for dinner, but one can’t do everything, and it was time to get back to Spoleto, our home away from home.

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Listening List

Peter Sculthorpe, New Norcia (2000)

The Benedictine monks who established a mission in Australian named it after Norcia, Italy, the birthplace of St. Benedict. [cite]

Instrumentation: 4 trumpets in C, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone, tuba, percussion (2 players). [cite]

Peter Sculthorpe’s program notes:

In 1846, the Mission of New Norcia was founded in Western Australia by two Spanish Benedictine monks. A strong musical tradition developed there, originating with one of the founders, Dom Rosenda Salvado. Under him a choir, a string orchestra and a band were formed, the three groups eventually consisting almost entirely of Aboriginal performers. A compassionate man, Salvado was often in conflict with colonial officials over their mistreatment of Aboriginal people. During the second half of the nineteenth century, New Norcia was one of the few places in Australia where Gregorian chant was sung. In a letter to Spain, written in 1878, Salvado mentions that ‘our boys and girls sang in two parts the Laudate Dominum, as they do every time they come to High Mass’. Salvado regarded music in its every form as a gift from God. His diaries, in fact, demonstrate a considerable understanding of Aboriginal chant and ritual. They contain what are probably the first significant writings on the subject. Unlike much of my music, New Norcia makes no references to Aboriginal chant. It is, however, firmly based upon the plainchant melody Psalmus 150, a song of praise for the Lord through music. In New Norcia, the six verses of the plainchant are each stated twice, the verses separated by either a short episode or an interlude. The latter are in regular metres, forming a contrast to the irregular metres of the plainchant, which differ from verse to verse. It seems to me that the Aboriginal children of New Norcia might have made some contribution of their own to the liturgy, and I have no doubt that Dom Salvado would have enjoyed this. For them, I have added drumming to the two interludes, the final verse and the coda. [cite]

Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. The source for the “last supper” fresco image is here. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

9 thoughts on “When in Umbria: From Spoleto to Norcia

  1. Perpetua

    So sad for Italy, good for the Met to acquire the chariot. I did know that this part is famous for the Benedictines siblings. Always love the story.

  2. Steve Schwartzman

    Your reference to EU-protected lentils got me searching. I found that Italy has more EU-protected products than any other country. The relevant one appears to be #89 in the list at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Italian_products_with_protected_designation_of_origin, Lenticchia di Castelluccio di Norcia.

    I was puzzled by the m in the name of Dom Rosendo [not Rosenda] Salvado, who was identified as Spanish. The m made me think he would have been Portuguese. When I searched for information I found that he was from Galicia, which though now part of Spain speaks a native Romance language closer to Portuguese than to Spanish. There’s more about Dom Rosendo Salvado at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosendo_Salvado.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: two great bits of research, adding to the storehouse of information. I wondered myself about the EU-protected lentils, but didn’t follow through to see why, so now I know. Your language eagle eye on the “m” in Dom is something about which I wouldn’t have known to question.

  3. David Nice

    I always wanted to go to Norcia from the moment Riccardo Muti told me how unusual Sviatoslav Richter was in knowing about out-of-the-way Italian towns ‘like Norcia, per esempio’. When we finally got there we surmised that the Russian’s love of sausage might have something to do with it. Pretty town, though. It was our only excursion down from the Sibillini Mountains, where we stayed in Castelluccio on the Piano Grande. Lentilville indeed. I gather it was totally destroyed in the earthquake.

    I also remember a lovely abandoned dog whom we saw first in Castelluccio and then in Norcia, Apparently he would come down from the mountains once a week. People all fed him, but he attached himself to us and I would love to have taken him home.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I love your Muti anecdote and suspect your surmise about Richter/Norcia/sausage is exactly right. We would have liked to go Castelluccio, the Piano Grande and the Sibillini Mountains, but yes, it does seem Castelluccio was destroyed in the 2016 earthquake, and I find nothing concrete about plans to rebuild. I wonder what’s become of the dog–that’s the sort of thing that could well become an Umbrian legend!

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