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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Umbria Santa

Corrado Ricci

Faber & Gwyer
London, n. d. (1926 or 1927)

The text is in the public domain, except for my notes.
Black-and‑white photographs are in the public domain;
color photographs are © William P. Thayer.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2

 p17  Chapter I
Umbria Santa

The gifts of Italy to the world have seldom been adequately acknowledged, though there has been admiration, discussion, and, if we remember Dante and Columbus,a even envy. Yet perhaps no other nation has done so much for civilization, since the day in which Rome gave to Humanity the rules of life which have been translated into eternal laws, laws whose light has never been extinguished, even in the Dark Ages, but has shone more brightly in each epoch of vigour and revival. In later days too, the gratitude of the human race is due to Gallileo Ferraris1 who transmitted light and force, and to Guglielmo Marconi who gave to words, even to thoughts, free flight over land and water.

The whole of Italy joined in this great work of civilization, but it is interesting to see how each region developed its tendencies and maintained its characteristics, as though to assume its special mission in the complex design of elevating Humanity. Italy south of the Liri and the Tronto contributes to this solemn conclave the spirit of speculative thought; Latium juridical sense and justice; Tuscany fervent love of Art; the Marches equable temperament; Emilia the joy of poetical expression; Lombardy laborious austerity; Venice the vigorous union of mind and magnificence; Liguria commercial boldness; Piedmont political and military discipline. It must be understood  p18 that these special tendencies were not confined by arbitrary boundaries, but the prevailing feeling which gave character to the region and variety to the Nation, without disturbing its moral unity, helped to raise the great and complete work of its civilization to an unsurpassed splendour.

Art developed accordingly. Realistic research corresponded to Southern thought; Roman austerity and greatness found its expression in the noble works of Michael Angelo and of Raffael. Then in Florence we come to the sublime genius of Dante and of Leonardo; in Emilia the happy art of Ariosto, analogous to that of Correggio. In Venice, so full of opulent and heroic life, there is the wonder of Titian and of Paul Veronese. And what of Umbria? Umbria is the Holy Province — saintly its countenance, saintly its great men, saintly its art and its mission to the whole of Italy and to the World.

. . . . . . . . . .

We are in the early years of the sixth century, the barbaric invasions have laid desert the country and impoverished the people. The happiness and security of the individual family has disappeared. The dignity of life, of persons, of house, is left unprotected; civil ordinances confused and disregarded; books of ancient learning despised and neglected; the schools, reduced in number, existing only for the privileged few; the buildings of former religions suffered to fall into decay; the aqueducts dried and ruined. And amongst such squalor and misery of life, there appears a still more fearful darkness of conscience, a loss of every  p19 active ideal, a superabundance of leisure, a numbness of the best faculties; a terrible fall from greatness for a country till now in the forefront of civilization through the great power of Rome!

To arrest this ruin there appears an Umbrian of noble birth who had given himself to meditation and self-denial as a hermit in the Cave of Subiaco.

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St. Benedict: detail from the fresco by Perugino in St. Maria dei Pazzi, in Florence
(Photo. Alinari)

Treachery had made him leave Vicovaro for 'that mountain on whose slope Cassino stands',b and it was the glory of Benedict to have been the first to carry there

The name of Him who brought upon the earth

The truth that so much sublimateth us,

and to have drawn the surrounding towns

From the impious worship that subdued the world.

But for us his glory is of another sort.

Oriental monasticism (saving the Basilians), even when free from vanity and imposture, was exclusively contemplative. Every life of asceticism could be considered complete in itself. Each monastery, each cell, so asserts Cassianus, had a different rule. From them issued heroes of useless self-mortification but not of civil reconstruction. To approach heaven, they felt it necessary to abandon humanity; thus they gave no man counsel, offered no man charity, and saved no man by their example.

Even the most learned, thinking by their writings to steep themselves in the mysteries of God, left the earth to  p20 its sins and its terrors. To them it seemed that the Divine Power manifested itself better in a sterile solitude than in the fruitful activity of life, and therefore they condemned life and eulogized death!

Benedict repudiated these insane ideas, as also he disapproved of the Roman clergy, who adhered too much to earth and its pleasures by their dissolute and egoistic lives.

His brain, his heart, his character held our country on the slope whence she was on the brink of ruin, and in this way his influence was for the good of humanity. And he did this in one of the crises of the world's history (that in which Christianity succeeded to Paganism), struggling to save whatever was best and noblest in the ancient learning without sacrificing it to the blind faith of fanaticism.

By his labours he awakened study, art, agriculture. As the custodian and propagator of civilization in the days in which it lay in peril, he has no equal in the world. From every seed which he sowed grew not one tree, but a forest! The monasteries that he founded, from one became a thousand, not silent hermitages, but busy centres of activity, both manual and intellectual, round which all trades congregated. For this reason men thirsting for peace, anxious for work, longing for material welfare, flocked round, and houses were built, — became villages, and villages developed into towns.

. . . . . . . . . .

The Rule of Benedict orders his disciples to cultivate the ground, to promote learning, to enlarge the mind; and because  p21 the Rule insists on Writing, it creates a number of painters of miniatures and of copyists of manuscripts, — both sacred and profane, — who transcribe and illuminate ancient works, thus preserving for us many treasures of art, both of writing and of painting. And when the Renaissance will awaken both mind and spirit, and when Humanists and the early Printers seek for books to study and publish them, it is to the Benedictine monasteries that they will turn. Again, the Rule orders Reading and this is developed through the works slowly collected and transcribed; from Reading it is but natural to pass to Teaching, from the monastic Stall to the professorial Chair, seed of the future University. Every Monastery is a school, from which issue theologians, essayists, chroniclers, some of whom are known to fame as great Pontiffs. With his marvellous genius St. Benedict comprehends that it is necessary to inculcate actions, and then leave them free to manifest themselves unfettered. Therefore his Rule does not say 'Drain the marsh, plough the fields, deepen the canals, tend the forests'. He merely says, 'Work the land, render it fertile and productive', consequently the ploughing and draining follow. Each disciple thus has the joy of using his own talent, and does not realize that he is obeying the will of the Saint.

Neither does he order his monks to transcribe Virgil or the Bible, Augustine or Cicero: all he says is that each day they should pass from Reading to Writing. Each monk will copy what he wishes. He will be free and at the same  p22 time obedient: the eternal rule of civilization, the foundation of every healthy State. The multiplicity of works chosen will be instrumental in saving an intellectual patrimony, and thus connect ancient and modern learning.

. . . . . . . . . .

The work of the Benedictines continues to advance with vigilance and dignity, widening its sphere with good works, and bringing new arts to life. Music is the budding flower which rises amongst the slender columns of the cloister.

Guido Monaco2 establishes the theory of music and after giving names to the notes, he teaches his companions in the abbey of Pomposa the musical scale, and a new method of singing which, beginning in the silent Paduan valleys, wending its way through North Italy, soon reaches Cluny, where Abelard, torn from the loving arms of Héloïse, comes to a peaceful haven in those of the Abbot Peter.

But the outside world is agitated and tumultuous. The Communes have won Liberty but not Peace. The Crusades have reanimated Christian heroism but have also awakened a lively desire for adventure with its consequent corruption, a thirst for dominion with its consequent ferocity. Between the cities there are sanguinary conflicts, while within them, notwithstanding a newly awakened love of life and beauty, there is persistent feudal fighting. And behold, once more in Umbria, arises the mystic saint who opposes humility to boastfulness, poverty to the vaunting of riches, love to  p23 hate; love not for man alone, but for everything in Nature; that love of all, which although losing its natal purity, was the precursor of the Renaissance.

He laments the horror of war, the crimes of the people, the violence of the great, the corruption of the clergy; does not fear the taint of heretic, for like Dante, he feels in his soul the firm and life-giving faith of a Christian.

In opposition to simony, usury, and the carnal pleasures to which the clergy are addicted, he insists on the complete renunciation of all worldly goods, and his fruitful work saves the Church from being torn in pieces by the rebellions and heresies rampant in many parts of Europe.

And all this, not amid the sadness of a lamenting and inert asceticism, but in a life of joyful poverty, uniting happiness and charity with work, to reach which it is necessary to follow his example and cast away the tyranny of temporal riches.

Riches for him are to be found in everything around; in the air, in the sun, in water, in fire, in the woods, in flowers.

. . . . . . . . . .

The need that ancient learning should not perish, drew round St. Benedict hundreds of elect spirits: the need that vanity, cruelty, excess should not triumph, drew round St. Francis hundreds of simple souls. And his word had so vast a moral effect, an influence so revolutionary, that even he himself did not realize it.

It is written in the Fioretti that 'He preached so marvellously that it seemed as though it were an angel rather than  p24 a man, and his words were like celestial arrows piercing the hearts of those who heard them'.

And there in Holy Umbria, he had his being, his apostles; there developed the most wonderful part of his life, and there he died, blessing his beloved Assisi, so that all parts breathe forth his spirit, from the humble Porziuncola to the wooded Carcere and the caves of the Subasio; from the islands of the melancholy lake to the hills of Rieti;c from the gorge of the Nera to the sunlit knoll of Fonte Colombo; from the bare defile of Poggio Bustone to 'the hill elect of blessed Ubald'.

Everything seems filled with peace in this enchanting Umbria! Holy is the silence of its lakes, islands, pastures; holy the quietude of its rocks and forests; holy the little towns with houses rising on the hill towards the church, like sheep at the call of the shepherd, like the godly at the prayer of the pastor.

In the larger cities Art and Faith tend to obliterate the remembrance of the discord and signs of violence which persist in the grim fortresses of the feudal lords:

Assisi with its triple temple in which Giotto depicts the life drama of Francis; Spoleto with its cathedral, where Fra Filippo, while celebrating the vision of the Virgin, closes his eyes in death; Perugia with the story of Bernardino of Siena woven in the delicate marble tracery of the sculpture of Agostino; Todi where the marbles in the church of the Consolation seem like a sacred song; Orvieto, the golden pinnacles of whose cathedral are seen flaming against the  p25 mountain background: an altar shining for ever with the Divine Blood of the miracle of Bolsena.

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The Cathedral of

Church of the Consolazione, Todi

(Photo. Alinari)

From this humble, prayerful Umbria came forth great minds of classic tendencies, whose imagination and skill would have transformed the art of their country, had their steps not turned where their work was more needed, as that of Piermarini in the stately city of Milan, or Galeazzo Alessi in Genoa the proud!

. . . . . . . . . .

In that marvellous and enchanted land, we feel the anger and turmoil of souls is soothed when contrasted with the splendour of fantasy and the hopes and delusions of real life. Dante, who invests with his wrath cities and citizens of so many parts of Italy, contemplates with adoration Assisi between its hills and its streams.

Therefore let him who speaketh of that place,

Say not Ascesi, for he would say little,

But Orient, would he name it right.

There, amid vain dreams of liberty and love, the disdainful soul of Byron finds calm, there the unhappy poet of Recanati rejoices in seeing the beauty of Trevi with its aërial roofs, and there the bard of New Italy launches forth his love song.

The story of Umbria has, however, frightful pages of fraternal strife, of furious wars: it has fierce stories of 'Captains of Adventure', but the saintly troubadour encourages her people at the same time as the forceful  p26 oratory of Simone of Cascia heartens her; and Tragedy sleeps!

Listen to the terrifying story of the Baglioni. Atalanta, worthy to be compared with Hecuba for the depth of her sorrow, widowed at the age of twenty, thrusts from her, in her incomparable beauty, all flattery of heart and senses, — wishing to devote herself wholly to her son Grifone. But he is little different from the rest of his family; and one night black with horror, he becomes infuriated with passion against his own people. However, returning to his mother when stained with blood, she sends him from her with such frightful maledictions, 'that it would seem as though the earth would swallow the youth'.

Such is the account of Matarazzo, the chronicler from Perugia, who can write pages sweet enough to describe the glories of Fra Angelico and others powerful enough to vie with the Novissimi of Luca Signorelli. But when Grifone lies wounded and dying, she goes amongst the tumult and the fighting: 'Then her son' (it is the chronicler speaking) 'fixes his eyes on his mother, and his mother, good and wise, abstains from her bitter weeping, comforting and exhorting her dear son to pardon those who had done him to death, and begging him to make a sign of forgiveness. Then the noble youth puts his right hand in that of his youthful mother, pressing her white hand and immediately the soul passes from the beautiful body with the blessings and not the curses of his mother.'

Ah! that word mother (matre), so often repeated in the  p27 rhythm of a simple prose, seems like a palpitation of the heart!

But who invisibly supported Atalanta we must realize are the sisters of the two great Umbrians, St. Benedict and St. Francis, Scholastica the real sister of Benedict, and Clare the spiritual one of Francis; and it was the spirit of this latter saint that joined the pallid hands of mother and son, as he had before this appeared to comfort the dying bed of Guido of Montefeltro.

Atalanta, enfolded in the blackest grief, appeals to the art of Raffael to express his anguish in Christian Tragedy, but her sorrow is beyond representation.

. . . . . . . . . .

Thus Art is suffused with religious goodness and gentleness. We have not yet arrived at the moment in which it becomes mystic and the Umbrian masters work under the influence of the Sienese, but as regards Umbrian painting it manifests its own qualities and knowledge, discovering its character in the Blessed Angelico and in Benozzo; and soon after them we see Nicolo di Liberatore, called l' Alunno, a contrast to Carlo Crivelli who was working in the neighbouring Province of the Marches. Thus although having a superficial resemblance, the Venetian being imbued with a decorative art of gorgeous stuffs, of jewels, of marbles, of coloured glass, thinks little or nothing of expression; whilst the other, born in Central Umbria, filled with pious mysticism and Franciscan simplicity, attaches no influence to external luxury, but adds the charm of landscape, because  p28 the country which he depicts has the spirit so closely allied to enchantment of the soul.

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St. Francis kissing the feet of the Crucified:
from a painting by Nicolo di Liberatore da Foligno, called l' Alunno,
in the Museum of Terni

(Photo. Alinari)

But the marvel is that the religious sentiment of Umbrian painting grows simultaneously with the Pagan influence in other parts of Italy, in art, literature, and life as a whole, and when this culminates, the religious feeling begins to decline.

Architects obey the Vitruvian canons, and copy ancient buildings; painters and sculptors fill their studios with Greek and Roman statues and with sketches in chalk. Ancient and mythological stories are always to the fore as subjects for Art, desired just as much by Cardinals and even by Popes, as by the temporal princes, such as the Gonzaga, Bentivoglio, Feltreschi, the Este and the Medici. Art in most parts of Italy is already classified in form while the painters Bonfigli, Mesastris, l' Alunno, Melanzio, Caporali, Matteo da Gualdo are working in Umbria; it is already established in form and in subject in the works of Perugino, Pintoricchio, Giovanni di Spagna, Fiorenzo di Lorenzo. It is settled in form, subject and in feeling when the disciples discard the remaining memory of their evanescent prayer and depict the last figures of their visions of art delicate and diaphanous as Diana of Foligno, in whose transparent throat, says the chronicler, one could see the red wine descending as she drank!

[image ALT: missingALT. It is the zzz in Umbria (central Italy).]

Madonna and Saints:
from a painting by Matteo da Gualdo,
in the picture gallery
of Gualdo Tadino

(Photo. Arti Grafiche di Bergamo)

. . . . . . . . . .

The hero of religious painting is therefore Umbrian. Born in the ruddy-towered Città della Pieve, he betakes  p29 himself to Perugia to be in the heart of Umbria where the actual essence of religion is centred. There he is able to gather elements of artistic passion from the great Pier della Francesca, afterwards descending to Florence where Art is both Science and Poetry. But he is always the pilgrim and the apostle of religious art. He will be moved by the terrible prophecies of Savonarola against the moral and artistic errors of society, but he will be the only artist to feel himself immune from the threats and anathemas of the ardent monk.

In the school of Verrocchio, companion of Leonardo and of Lorenzo di Credi, he will learn what is necessary for his work of technical and formal values, but he will cede nothing of his own feeling; he will leave to the Madonna of Leonardo the smile, to her of Lorenzo the placid goodness, for he would that the Virgin he depicts should be 'humble and high beyond all other creature'; thus he will exercise a softening influence on the somewhat severe gravity and temper the realism of the Florentine school.

The harmonic force of colour, the calm of composition, the delicacy of the attitudes, the innocence, tenderness, resignation of the faces; the simple yet wise perspective, the vast silence of his landscapes below skies of dawn or of sunset, will not be without their effect in the half-pagan atmosphere now spread over most of Italy. It will be sufficient for some painting of his to be shown in a village to awaken vibrations of sweetness and of peace. The pictures painted for Pavia and Cremona will not be without  p30 influence on Lombard art, nor the one for Bologna without impression on Francia and his fellow Emilians, and the benefit of other works will pervade the distant provinces of Romagna, the Marches, and Latium, diffusing everywhere a sense of serene calm and of growing devotion.

And even when far on in the years, he will see the young men desert his studio, and will hear Michael Angelo proclaim his manner 'absurd and antiquated', and in the Vatican he will vacate his post in favour of his great disciple; even he himself will acknowledge that his imagination has vanished, his design weakened, the talent of his drawing and colouring has diminished; even then the splendour of his youthful works will continue to exercise a beneficent effect on such artists as Raffael, and Bartolomeo della Porta; specially on the former, who drew from Perugino his divine simplicity and that incomparable tender sweetness which saved him from being overcome by the power and boastfulness of Michael Angelo, and enabled him to complete such masterpieces of spirituality as the 'Disputa del Sacramento' and the 'Miracolo di Bolsena'.

Another artist to benefit by the teaching of Perugino will be Pintoricchio, who although led by his temperament to a decorative style without equal, will never forget the tranquil goodness he had learned in the capital of his country. But there was too much cruelty in the hearts of his patrons for the gentle beauty of his saints to evoke the spirit of tenderness and resignation. Thus those of the Vatican were without effect on the bloody proposals and meditated  p31 treachery of the Borgias, as the sweet saints of Lo Spagna awoke no sense of moderation and decorum at the immoral gatherings of the Magliana.

And now a humble religious feeling permeates the land. When Perugino died of the plague in Fontignano, Correggio had already begun his work in the Convent of San Paolo of Parma; painting there in the room of the Abbess, Diana hunting with a leash of hounds and a galaxy of cherubs; Adonis, Juno and the Muses with the Graces and Fortune!

Paganism was triumphing, but once again Umbria was fighting for Christian holiness!

. . . . . . . . . .

This is the glory of Umbria — this her unique place in Italian civilization.

In the early Middle Ages she saves the ancient learning through St. Benedict and diffuses rules of life, of work, of culture, of human dignity. In the period of fratricidal strife and of the basest corruption, St. Francis soothes the souls with piety, with poverty, with sacrifice; and when later, Italian art seems to lose every true expression of Christ faith, Perugino welds together the power of his land (the faculty of religious mystery dating from the Etruscan era) and almost repeating the words of St. Francis in his pictures he counsels simplicity, goodness and tenderness.

The poet of our own day has thus addressed this land: 'Hail, verdant Umbria!' But Umbria, in her great and varied beauty, in the continuous alternations of fertile plain  p32 and solitary gorge; of mountains, some deeply wooded, others sterile and open, of waters now in rivers, now lakes, now cascades; of rocks arid and bare, may contend with other provinces of Italy for the simple attribute of colour.

But none other can deny her that divine and spiritual title of Holy.

Hail, Holy Umbria!

The Author's Notes:

1 Gallileo Ferraris, b. Leghorn 1847, d. Turin 1897. Scientist, worked specially at electricity and improvement of dioptric instruments.

2 Guido Monaco, commonly called Guido d' Arezzo, 995‑1050.

Thayer's Notes:

a Notwithstanding huge resistance from the Italian and Italian-American community, scholars are slowly moving toward agreement that Columbus was not the Italian weaver by that name from Genoa in Italy, but a man from Catalonia. A good overview of the question is provided at ChristopherColumbus.Eu.

b The details are sketched by Gregorovius in his chapter on Benedict's monastery at Subiaco in Wanderjahre in Italien (as translated by Roberts), p9.

c Rieti is not now in Umbria: the entire province of Rieti, including the Franciscan shrine of Fonte Colombo at S. Elia Reatino and the Franciscan convent of S. Giacomo at Poggio Bustone, was transferred to the Lazio in 1927.

The "melancholy lake" is Lake Trasimeno; the hill of the blessed Ubald is the sanctuary of S. Ubaldo overhanging Gubbio.

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Page updated: 13 Jan 13