By Edward Pentin
ROME, SEPT. 2, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Henry James described it as “the most beautiful garden in all the world.”
Others have labelled it the “Land of Saints,” the birthplace of some of the Church’s greatest leaders, an area rich in Christian history, dramatic mountain scenery and countless medieval hilltop towns.
But this isn’t Tuscany, Lazio or Lombardy, but rather Umbria, surprisingly less well known than its more publicized and glamorous neighbors.
Set in the very center of the country, it’s sometimes referred to as the “Great Heart of Italy,” or even the “Green Heart of Italy” because of its verdant landscape.
St. Francis and St. Benedict were both born and raised here, in the respective towns of Assisi and Norcia, whose medieval characteristics remain impressively intact. This has become very true of Norcia, located on a wide plain surrounded by a subrange of the Apennine Mountains.
Recently the monastic tradition returned to the town after the Benedictines there were driven out by Napoleonic laws in 1810. They’ve since returned thanks to a community of American Benedictines who re-founded the monastery in the town center during the Jubilee Year. The brothers live the Rule strictly and celebrate Mass in both the Extraordinary and Ordinary Forms. The community is flourishing, tripling in size in 10 years and attracting vocations from around the world.
Other very well preserved medieval Umbrian towns include Gubbio, Todi, Spello, Bevagna and Montefalco, most on hilltops with sweeping panoramic views over the gentle rolling countryside.
Impressive abbeys also remain in good condition: In the Umbrian capital Perugia is the Church and Abbey of St. Peter, built around 996, whose early patron was Pietro Vincioli, a Perugian noble, later canonized. There is Sassovivo Abbey near Foligno, Santa Maria of Valdiponte in Montelabbate near Perugia, St. Benedict at Monte Subasio close to Assisi, St. Salvatore of Monte Corona and the Abbey of Petroia, near Città di Castello.
It’s also possible in this “Land of Saints” to visit the basilica and monastery of St. Rita at Cascia — the patron saint of impossible cases — who was born in the Umbrian town of Spoleto. In Terni is the basilica dedicated to St. Valentine, patron saint of sweethearts who was said to be the town’s bishop (though Terni itself, being an industrial town, is not a pretty place). In Todi stands the large church of St. Fortunatus, which holds the relics of the sixth-century bishop who defended the town during the Gothic siege. It is also the burial place of Jacopone, a follower of St. Francis and one of the first poets to compose verse in the ancient Italian tongue.
Then there are the countless basilicas, from Assisi’s Basilica of San Francesco built in 1230 to Orvieto’s glorious Santa Maria Cathedral, which took centuries to construct.
Within many of Umbria’s Romanesque churches, Gothic cathedrals and basilicas are enduring masterpieces, created out of Christian religious fervor and generous patrons who drew artists from all over Italy to work here. Umbria is where Peter di Cristoforo Vannucci — “Perugino” — and Raphael started their famous schools, and Giotto and Cimabue painted evocative frescoes on the walls of the basilica in Assisi. It was also the home of Bernardino di Betto, better known as “Pinturicchio,” and of Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti, both inspired by Franciscan spirituality.
Umbria’s rich artwork also parallels its wealth of history. The region’s name dates back to the Umbri tribes who settled there in prehistoric times. Over the next two millennia, it was ruled by the Etruscans, the Romans, the Lombards, and Charles the Great, before becoming a papal state. After the French Revolution, the region became part of the Roman Republic, then part of the Napoleonic Empire, before finally being absorbed into the newly formed Kingdom of Italy in the 19th century.
But it still retains a certain autonomy and distinctiveness from the rest of the country. After spending some time in the region this year, I’ve found Umbrians to be mostly a hardy, industrious and reliable people. They are well known to be “testardaggine” — hard-headed — a quality which has marked them out to be natural leaders, and of course saints and popes. They also retain a pride for their region: They care for their buildings and culture, the streets are mostly clean and well maintained, and their cooking remains some of Italy’s finest.
The region’s main economy is agriculture and shops tend to be filled with oil, wines, truffles and the meat of wild boar. Umbria is well known for its wines, accounting for 15% of Italy’s wine production even though it’s the fourth smallest region in this country. Some of its most famous comes from Orvieto — known as the “wine of the popes” — where the town’s volcanic soil, wet winters and sun-filled summers contribute to the success of its grapes.
Yet Umbria is in many ways declining and since the early part of the 20th century a large number of its people have migrated or the population has declined because of low birth rates. Today, this region of just over 5,000 square miles has a population of slightly less than a million. The Church has just under 1,000 diocesan and religious priests serving in 591 parishes, but the vocations are falling.
In Todi, where I spent most of my time, citizens lament that young people are moving to cities to find jobs, leaving behind an increasingly elderly population. Community life is not what it was and although the locals mostly welcome the influx of foreigners who tend to buy up expensive villas, they resent that the properties are left empty for most of the year.
Since the post-war years when the population decline began, Umbrians leaned toward socialism, which many saw, and continue to see, as the solution to their region’s ills. Today the region remains a stronghold of the center-left parties and the leftist Democratic Party (Pd), successors to the Italian Communist Party.
Yet the people’s pride and enthusiasm in Umbria remains, witnessed through a wide variety of cultural events and traditions, the diversity and skills of its craftspeople, and Umbrians’ own love of their countryside and heritage.
God willing and with the prayers of its many saints, these will continue to be preserved in this lesser known but treasured region in the very heart of the bel paese.
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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: email@example.com