A Weekend in Umbria

We spent a weekend in Umbria, right on the other side of the mountains, visiting the lovely towns of Spoleto and Umbria.

Spoleto, founded as a Latin colony in the 3rd C BC, flourished in Roman times, and became part of the Papal States in the medieval era.

The Duomo of Santa Maria Assunta was begun in the 12th C and was significantly modified in the 17th C.  It is still possible to see the original stone floors and fragments of the original 13th C frescoes.

The cathedral is best known, however, for the magnificent 15th C frescoes by Filippo Lippi depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.

Filippo Lippi, although dedicated to the church while still a child, quickly decided he would rather be a painter than a priest.  The monks allowed him to learn to paint, and eventually young Lippi made an independent career as a painter, with the support of the Medici family.  He led a somewhat disreputable life, eventually running off with a nun, the beautiful Lucrezia Buti.  The couple had a son, Filippino, who also grew up to be a painter.  Had Filippo lived a century earlier, or a century later, his story might have ended badly.  But he flourished in the relevantly tolerant atmosphere of Renaissance Florence, where much was forgiven because he painted so well.

The frescoes in Spoleto were Lippi’s last major works – he died when the work was nearly finished, and is buried in the cathedral.  Lippi used Lucrezia’s features for the face of the Virgin, as he often did, and painted himself in the crowd attending Mary at her death – that’s him in the black hat and white cape standing at her feet.  The young boy in white standing in front of Lippi may be Filippino.

The cathedral also includes a rare letter written by St. Francis of Assisi to a fellow monk.

Letter from St. Francis

Following the afternoon in Spoleto, we spent a day and a half in Orvieto, an ancient city which has been populated since Etruscan times.  Orvieto has one of the most famous cathedrals in Italy, with a distinctive white facade and exterior sculptures of great beauty.

The church is most famous today for the San Brizio chapel, which contains frescoes of the Last Judgment.  The work was begun by Fra Angelico and completed by Luca Signorelli.

Fra Angelico is responsible for the depictions of the heavenly hosts, painted in typical masterly style.


I have always been more taken, though, with Signorelli’s imaginative contributions, depicting the Last Days as detailed in the Biblical book of Revelation

In one section, he shows us a preaching Antichrist that looks an awful lot like the real one.  Signorelli painted himself and Fra Angelico as two well-dressed gentlemen on the far left of the crowd listening to the false preacher.

One of the most fantastical sections depicts the Resurrection of the Dead, which under the Catholic doctrine of the day was interpreted as literal bodily resurrection.  We see the dead scrambling out of their coffins, some already with bodies, some just skeletons waiting for their bodies to be restored. It’s hard not to think of those skeletons, standing around and chatting while waiting for their tickets to paradise, as the genuinely Grateful Dead.


No Last Judgment cycle would be complete without a depiction of the torments of the damned, and Signorelli does not disappoint.  One poor woman, shown on the back of a demon going straight to hell, seems strangely familiar.  Indeed, her face often appeared in other works by Signorelli as the face of Mary Magdalen (an example of which is included in the museum next door).  This woman was Signorelli’s long-time girlfriend, who apparently got tired of waiting around in Orvieto for the artist to finish his masterwork, and left him.  Signorelli got his revenge, as only a painter for the ages could, by using her features to create a memorable portrait of a damned soul being carried off by a winged demon.

Many visitors to Orvieto come only to see the Cathedral, which is a shame, since Orvieto has many other interesting churches.

The church of San Domenico has a funerary monument by Arnolfo di Cambio, a gifted 13th C Florentine sculptor.  I was particularly taken by the little attendant on the side, carefully closing the drapes on the deceased, conveying a sense of vibrancy and motion unusual in this era.

Like many Dominican churches, this one features a dog carrying a torch.  In theory, this is because St. Dominic, a noted preacher, was sometimes known as “God’s torch.” But this is really a medieval play on words (God’s dogs, in Latin, is “Domini canes”).

We also visited the church of San Giovenale.  Begun in the 11th C, it is one of the oldest churches in Orvieto,  It contains frescoes from the 12th through 15th centuries, allowing you to view four centuries of Italian art history in a single space.

I was particularly intrigued by the late 13th C fresco depicting the conversion of St. Paul.  Many representations of this event focus on St. Paul falling from his horse, as though getting hit on the head is what made Paul see the light.   Here, we see only the heads of Jesus and the Saint, as though they were having a conversation – a conversion by reason, not by a show of force.


San Giovenale’s main altarpiece featured one of those wide-eyed supporters I always refer to as “wacky medievals.” I recently learned that the formal name for these guys is “telamon.” I like my name better.

St. Giovenale

Speaking of wacky, I have no idea what this guy is doing (found in the Duomo museum).


On Sunday afternoon, we had a group lunch organized by a gentleman in Ascoli who runs the Circolo Culinario Cuochi Pasticcioni.  The acronym, CCCP, recalls the name of the USSR in Cyrillic letters.  The group’s symbol is also strangely familiar, although the hammer and sickle have been replaced by a fist holding a fork.  The organizer studied in Russia as a young man and enjoys multilingual puns as much as his wacky medieval ancestors.  These days, he organizes group trips to restaurants, food festivals and other cultural events in central Italy.


This particular group lunch was held at Casa Vissani, a Michelin 2-star restaurant located on a country road between Orvieto and Todi.  The food was presented in a somewhat fanciful manner – check out those miniature veal chops – but still tasted like real food.  The room was spectacularly beautiful, and the wines were outstanding. There were only three English speakers in our group of 22, but as it well known and recently documented by scientific research (cites on request) your ability to speak a foreign language improves with your wine consumption – particularly if your listeners have been drinking too.  A good time was had by all.