5 May 2013


Mist and rain in our valley.

Wet, dry, dry, wet. It’s a proper springy spring where you don’t quite know what to expect from day to day. C was here for a few days. To compensate somewhat for her dire winter (still on-going, temperature-wise) in the UK, she got in some sun-bathing. But she was forced to do some sitting in front of a wood-bring stove too.

The only steady thing, really, seems to be the onwards gallop of the weeds. And wildflowers. And marvellously sweet-flavoured peas swelling in their pods. Why have my peas not grown up their supports this year? They are crouched near the ground – happily, and hugely productively, but oh dear, the picking-backache! Next year, they’re going straight back in the raised beds of Orto Number One. I’ve suddenly realised the extent to which even that 30cm above the ground makes a difference when you’re scouring, day after day, through plants practised in concealment, for plump pods.

In fact, though, I have no right whatsoever to moan about pea-picking-pain: the only person to have sifted patiently through the pea row so far is my friend Annabelle, who came to stay for a weekend to renew a friendship begun 19 years ago, since when we haven’t seen each other. We met across a Rome street, from facing roof terraces. I was hanging the washing on the lines on top of our Testaccio apartment; she was surveying the antenna-filled view. It was intriguing, hearing English spoken in that unlikely place, so we struck up a shouted conversation, after which her six-month stay in Rome included much time pooling our children, then both aged three.

Now she restores churches and other historic buildings in America’s north east which made it feel particularly serendipitous this morning when we found a gaggle of locals in front of the town’s medieval fortifications, setting out for a guided tour of churches, some of which are rarely opened and many of which are badly in need of restoration.

I’ve been trying to find population statistics for CdP, but can only go as far back as the 1861 census, when the town (or rather the area administered from the town) sheltered 6630 souls (as against 7803 in 2011). Seeing as most of these were brow-beaten tenant farmers desperately trying to scrape enough together to keep their families from starving, why did the town need quite so many churches? And how, indeed, could it afford them? Just off the top of my head now, I’m counting… 12. But I’m sure I’ve missed lots. Most are now closed up and gently crumbling, their art works – admittedly, not always of the highest standard but important testimonials nonetheless – mouldering with the fabric.

I won’t bother listing all the churches we traipsed through this morning (and the tour, lengthened/hampered by interventions from people in the various venues with far too much to say about them, resumed after lunch… without us) but some were particularly fascinating.

Way down the other end of town, almost out the northern gate, is Santa Maria Maddalena, with its curvaceous high-baroque belltower in the town’s usual warm red brick (Annabelle was particularly enamoured of the curving bricks used to make columns.) The door – always locked – opened today for us and we were hit by a wall of humidity, and the clammy smell of serious damp. On the ceiling and high walls, clear signs of running water. And half way along one wall, a small piece – less than a metre by a metre – of a much larger fresco, hacked off a wall somewhere else in town, probably by Nicola di Bonifazio. This late 14th-century Sienese painter did a number of frescoes around this area, including the extraordinary Giotto-esque Crucifixion in the oratorio di San Bartolomeo here. This fragment (also a Crucifixion) certainly resembles that larger work: serenely, movingly lovely in an almost icon-like way, with pensive angels hovering on amazingly aerodynamic-looking wings. The fragment has a swing glass door to ‘protect’ it. Some wise soul had, thankfully, left it open so that the damp was not trapped behind it, but it still wasn’t in a great state and the lapis lazuli pigment had crumbled and/or oxydised (can lapis oxydise?) towards the lower edge.

The guided talk was one stage in an effort by the laudable and hyper-active new local pressure group Pieve Vivibile to raise enough money, if not to restore it then at least to stabilise it. How much do they need? Six or seven thousand euros. What a pittance. One summer benefit party and they could get it from the town’s Great & Good. But they’re too unsure of themselves, I think, to appear to go cap in hand.

Sant’Agostino, where I had been only once before, to listen to a wonderful summer concert in the most uncomfortable seats imaginable, also proved to be a gem. In the sacristy, two huge pieces of furniture made specially for that room in walnut, with fine marquetry inlay, filled with secret drawers and odd places for arcane bits of priestly garb and equipment. Above the little altar in that room hangs the oddest painting of, if I remember correctly, a St Jerome praying in the wilderness. It’s dirty and in need of a bit of a clean, but the strangely twisted feet and almost Leonardesque rocky background really make it stand out from other works around here. Very strange.

Beneath Sant’Agostino, in a room which started life as the chapter house but which – pievesi on the tour testified – has in more recent times been the gym and music room of the local school and is now where the town flag-throwers keep their drums and banners and awards, are two wall paintings, probably 14th to 15th century, which have had more than just footballs bounced against them over the ages. One, a Noli mi tangere – the most damaged one – may never have been a fresco because the paint is peeling off in the most un-fresco-like way and there’s no sign of firm base or preparatory sketches on the underlying layers. And it has clearly been cack-handedly painted over many times. But hacking a channel through the abutting wall to insert a plastic plumbing pipe then filling the hole in with lashings of concrete certainly hasn’t done the state of the thing any good.

Opposite, a lovely Virgin sits surrounded by saints, including a fantastic Mary Magdalene in her hairy cape. This, too, has been over-painted badly. But it’s plain to see that these are very different faces, with wide-set eyes and pale complexions with rouged cheeks, graceful and ethereal.

We didn’t return for the afternoon part of the tour. Annabelle had a train to catch and anyway, it was all a bit much. But what enthusiasm from townspeople who were somewhere between taking it all for granted (after all, they had played games around these things) and gazing in reverential awe. There’s so much more visceral engagement with the past in a country where it’s part of the fabric of everyday life, rather than only to be viewed through the thick glass of a case in a museum.


About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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