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Monday 12 May 2004

(First leg of train to Rome, still trying to catch up.)

Monday morning, that view wasn't much use: woke to a wall of dense white — which I'd also seen at 2 A.M. briefly; I'd slept in a cloud, and it didn't dissipate 'til 10. Ruscio down below even longer: this is quite normal, and after a day of rain, means good weather; and good weather I got.

I decided on a slow and easy day, just the 10 km or so to Poggiodomo: so had the luxury of wandering Monte­leone, actually a bit more systematic than that: the town is fairly large if not very populated — as with this whole area, people (usually originally from here) come back from Rome during the summer. Of the three terzieri, only S. Giacomo the lowest is completely inhabited, and the upper, S. Nicola, is pretty much a ghost town although I saw a hotel in the making and maybe even two. I was thorough though and went to the very end of the town, that gives it its rather striking profile from miles away, the little chapel of the Madonna della Quercia off the end of the 15c walls. Closed but you can see in: a few frescoes, nothing terribly much but pretty.

Having spent 2 hours, including some time photographing the door of S. Francesco, the finest piece of Gothic stone sculpture I know in Umbria, with beauti­ful detailed figures sometimes no larger than two or at most three inches, the only thing left was to drop in at the caffé Leone dell' Appennino (on the Corso towards the top) where Giuseppina'd told me I'd go to see the (copy of the) Etruscan chariot now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.​a1 Man behind the bar: oh, he went out for a spin on his bike; well I had a coffee and a pasta and looked thru the books on sale — an unusually good selection of books on Monte­leone, Umbria, fauna, flora, local history etc. (and I bought one) — then finally said well I gotta get to Poggiodomo before it rains, gathered myself up, and left. One very last bit of organizing at the playground — two modern concrete lions (neither here nor in Leonessa could anyone tell me where all this leoninity came from) — and ho, yellow and blue bicyclist zooming into town; me: "Scusi!" — and yes, it was Roberto, my bartender's brother (who recognized me: he'd been one of the two people doing the explanations for the group in S. Francesco, and I'd even exchanged some words with him about the baptismal font, the column of which he was calling Romanesque-Byzantine, me siding with him against Giuseppina who called it Lombard); in fact he'd been expecting me — Giuseppina'd told him I'd be by (she didn't know that, not being keen on copies of things, I almost decided not to), so when he saw me go up the hill at 10 he waited a bit but two hours later I wasn't back so he went for his ride. . . .

[image ALT: A detail of stone sculpture at the base of a wall next to a door. The carving, no more than about 17 cm long and 15 cm high, depicts a standing lion with a curly mane holding a small animal in its mouth. Under her, two much smaller animals recline; they do not look like they are sucking milk from her, though. The detail is incredible, individual hairs being carved.]

S. Francesco, a tiny sample of the door: the 14 cm-long pen gives us an idea of the detail.

The (copia della) Biga etrusca now housed in a piece of the lower floor of S. Francesco; an attractive, informative exhibit. The one thing that matters, though, Roberto couldn't tell me: how was the copy made? From plaster casts, but exactly of what and when? especially since done in the 70's. Anyway it looks like bronze although just conceivably might be plaster (I didn't touch it) and I took a few pictures just in case there are no good photos of the original online.

It turns out Roberto​1 is, along with Archeoambiente (to the lesser extent that they're usually not open), the main center of information for anything historical in town: and in fact it was Roberto who managed to have S. Francesco open the day before when he found out a tour bus was in town; although not the crypt — apparently only God has that kind of pull, and why the main church in town, with very little easily portable that I could see, should not be open on a regular schedule is another matter.

[image ALT: A semi-cylindrical metal sheet about 1 meter high and 50 cm wide, enough to protect most of a standing man, mounted on a circular base, in turn on an axle with an 8‑spoked metal wheel at either end From the front of the base, toward the camera, a sturdy pole about 2 meters long, ending in a carved animal head. It is (a copy of) an Etruscan bronze war chariot in Monteleone di Spoleto, Umbria (central Italy).]

The copy of the Etruscan chariot.​a2

And with this visit of the (copy of the) Biga, declining a drink on Roberto — running a bit scared of the weather and uncertain of the exact location of my quarters for the night — back out thru the Porta Spoletina once more, got organized in the playground, and off to Poggiodomo: an easy 9 km, going round the back of Monte­leone (I've walked almost a full circle around it now) visible behind me for several miles to the "fork for Usigni"; then a little excursion thru Usigni, maybe 600 m off the road: during which, despite poking around I thought everywhere in my usual way (church not open, of course: said to be some beauti­ful Baroque stucco inside), I managed to miss the town's pride and joy, an elegant 17c wellhead locally even attributed to Bernini. . . . Heard cuckoos again, just before Usigni, briefly.​a

Eventless and pretty much deserted road to Poggiodomo; which is very small, and not much. There's a small Romanesque church, S. Pietro, closed (and although I was directed to the parroco's house, he wasn't in); the large parish church of S. Carlo Borromeo, 16c and later, also closed; a piazza, a few houses, and that's it. My agriturismo, I Trocchi, outside the town, about 80 m from S. Pietro and maybe 200 m from the piazza: they're only a year in business and seem to be viewed as outsiders, one person in town telling me oh you don't want to eat there — and the Trocchi (word for the day: a trocco is a type of drinking trough — cognate?) told me that [. . .]

After my tour of town, consisting mostly of gossip with various people, maybe 10% of the population since I was told the town itself had only 60 people and two children, a figure that's quite believable, I went and prepared for the dinner I supposedly didn't want to eat; whatever was pork was very good — likely their own beasties — and the rest less so, but OK. To bed early and slept like a rock: I barely remember turning out the light.

Yesterday Tuesday was a curious day, which I thought it might be, but there was no preventing it. The solutions for getting out of Poggiodomo and to my train in Spoleto — the last train giving me the connections to PSG by 1943 was at 1750 — were:

(a) back 5 km to the Usigni fork, then 30 km to Spoleto via Gavelli: 35 km

(b) back to the fork, then 21 km to Cascia (26 km) and hope for a bus

(c) forward a bit then turn left across the mountains via Roccatamburo and Mucciafora then Vallo di Nera and hope for a bus

(d) forward down the valley of the Tissino to Cerreto Borgo, only 19 km total with the advantage of the beauti­ful church at Ponte (that until a few days before I'd not even been aware of!) then "frequent" bus service to Spoleto at Cerreto since, as I knew, it's the knot between Spoleto, Norcia, Cascia, Sellano and maybe even other places.

If I didn't get to Spoleto in time, my normal thing would have been to stay overnight wherever — but this option not open since today I had to be in Rome, and wearing clean clothes, so absolutely had to get home.

With all these choices, I took the most logical; with the further advantage, expected, of downhill all the way to Cerreto: in which I was quite disappointed, the road actually going up a good deal — towards Rocchetta I was at an altitude above Roccatamburo though below Mucciafora (about halfway in fact). Also, though the maps put the Eremo della Madonna della Stella​b more or less on the road, this is true only from the air: it's several hundred meters below, almost directly below the road, and you've got to take a side road, dirt, for 2 km right down into the valley next to the river (and back, adding 4 km to the walk).

The hermitage itself, in addition to its site, has 13c frescoes and is closed, but you never know, so I went. The road almost disappeared into a little picnic ground (one table, a garbage can, a water tap right next to the pure-looking torrent feeding into the Tissino, waterfalls just upstream, dropping from the cliff), and I nearly turned around, but investigation saved the day: at the end of the campground, a yellow sign, and steps in the rock, steep but not many (not even a hundred). The beginning of the walk up hardly encouraging mind you: the tomb of the last hermit who fell to his death — lovingly recorded, the "horrid steep cliff".

At the top of the steps, a church, partly carved out of the rock. Door, push, open: grillwork though thus no further, but could see most of the church quite well, and the altar with its frescoes on the live rock to my left. Frescoes rather good; amazing how very many good frescoes you find in the most out‑of-the‑way places, yet today almost nothing good being produced anywhere!

[image ALT: A frescoed wall, partly obscured by a tall bouquet of lilies and a lower bouquet of mixed lilies and roses. The frescoes visible form two panels. The one on the left is three times as wide as the other, and shows three haloed standing figures, from our left to right: a robed and cowled man of middle age with a beard, holding a book; a woman wearing a long shift, with a mantle thrown over her shoulders, hieratically holding in each of her raised hands what appear to be long tapers or possiblly very long sharp knives; a woman in a tunic holding a book in her left hand and in her right a wooden disk with a small hole in the center, meant to represent a wheel. The right-hand panel shows a standing male saint of early middle age, balding and with a thin beard, holding a long sword in his right hand and a stylized scroll in his left, with many lines of writing. These frescoes are a detail of the decoration of the Hermitage of the Madonna della Stella near Poggiodomo, Umbria (central Italy).]

Hermitage of the Madonna della Stella, fifteenth-century frescoes.​c

Back to the fork, then the paved road: up, and more up, with side views of Roccatamburo across the valley from which at one point I was maybe 400 m away had I been a bird. From the valley about 1 km before the Madonna della Stella, there is in fact a gravel road up to Roccatamburo, an extraordinarily straight road and at a perfectly even (steep) gradient almost all the way up: at the bottom you have to trespass on private property, but only one red metal gate to jump over then you're on the road up. Still, uncertain about everything I forwent the additional detour, and will, for now, have missed Roccatamburo.

The rest of the road pleasant if a bit dull; uninhabited — the other side of the coin is only 8 cars and 2 tractors in the first 14 km, and about the same I think afterwards. Rocchetta not much, I didn't explore past the road; and finally the road started to drop, slowly at first, then of course quite a lot into Ponte, rather dramatically sited at the base of an isolated sugarloaf, with my road coiling down to it.

The church at Ponte is wonder­ful. As I got to it, I hear a woman's voice "Of course it's closed, like all of them" — my feelings exactly, of course, but I told 'em (husband in tow, British-accented couple in their early 70's maybe) I think we can find the key. I collared an inhabitant, who told me the keys with Filippo Ergasti, who lives in the house with the fenced-in garden to the left after the arch; came back to tell good news to my couple, but no, "we're just here to see the rose" and true to their word, got in their car and off before I found Mr. Ergasti.​d Humans, especially sub-species touristicus, quite bizarre; why on earth would anyone complain about no keys but offered the chance to see the inside suddenly declare (a touch archly, too) that they had no time for the inside? Nor even for the side and back of the church — apse very handsome — I can understand that people might not be interested at all, and in that case not stop for Romanesque churches: that's quite normal. But being interested enough to find Ponte and stop and look and photograph, not to want to see the whole thing?

Anyway, the interior of the church at Ponte is every bit as attractive as the exterior — very handsome dome — and in addition contains a number of things of real interest: another three-headed Trinity for my collection;​e a 1:1 design of the rose window incised into one of the walls (now brought out by pencil, but still not that visible), clearly a model for the workers as they built it; and — the only time I've ever seen this — an otherwise standard vault with the Four Evangelists, 16c? 17c? in which Luke is represented holding a painting of the Madonna col Bambino: as according to tradition, and maybe common enough in orthodox art but not in Catholic art, and certainly not in what should be a strictly parallel depiction of the evangelists. A beauti­ful church (skipping "the usual" frescoes etc.) and Mr. Ergasti, a healthy-looking clear-eyed gentleman of maybe 70, a very good guide.

[image ALT: A rather damaged fresco, fissured and in spots effaced, of a seated amply robed man holding a chest with a backplate rising from it with a painting depicting the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. By his right side, a miniature cow; behind them, stylized clouds. It is a late medieval fresco of St. Luke depicted as a painter, in the church of S. Maria at Ponte di Cerreto, Umbria (central Italy).]

S. Maria di Ponte: the apostle Luke as a painter.
(At home, looking at my photos more carefully, I'd say this was late 15c or early 16c.)

Ponte to Cerreto Borgo hardly a kilometer, poked around a bit — church of S. Lorenzo, closed​f — and started looking for my bus.

Well . . . of course I'd been told Cerreto was my best shot (which is true) and that there would be buses every hour or so — which is not quite. The minute I started inquiring, alas, the first answer I got was gee, you just missed it, there won't be another until 5‑something, which won't get you to Spoleto by 5:50 my last possible train out. So much, four or five guys on the verandah of the bar; an old lady, however, better solution: bus to Terni at about 4:30 — nobody of course had any schedules, and no schedules available anywhere, all this carried around in the collective memory — but it doesn't go to Spoleto, but Terni and Rome. Me: oh I don't care about Spoleto, Terni will do as long's I get back onto the train network (concept flying by everyone, but hey I'm the traveller not them) — but then I didn't expect to be going to Terni, didn't have the full schedules with me, and thus wasn't sure that would get me to PSG on time.

Better solution yet, one of the guys running the bar: out onto the highway, whistles down a semi, hauling ice-cream; friend of mine, he'll take you to Spoleto. Well . . . barman, 500 m from the station in Spoleto; driver, hell no, several km away. Me, indecisive but finally gee thanks no but I'll gamble on the bus to Terni.

After the ice-cream truck left, I slowly convinced myself I'd made a mistake, and had lost my chance to get home in time, now what? Well, Franco'd offered to bail me out in just such a case as this: Booby calls Franco, says hi Franco, I'm in Cerreto Borgo and — raucous guffaws and cackling at the other end, he'd understood immediately; around 4:05 Franco, car, Booby, red & brown (weather by now sunny and hot), Cerreto Borgo, post office; off we go: and after all, might as well catch your train a bit later in Foligno (1838 instead of 1750), one less change, for me pretty much the same distance; yessir — and Franco drives me in the wide arc around the back of Trevi: almost the whole drive quite new to me, past or thru Postignano,​g Ottaggi, Rasiglia, Serrone, Casenove (the latter two usually marked on maps as Casenove Serrone), Leggiana, hey you got time, let me show you Pale, industry and water power kinda like Nera Montoro now, 'cept 2 to 5 centuries ago; way up on the cliff, the hermitage of S. Maria Giacobbe, much more difficult access than the Madonna della Stella —

[image ALT: A vertical cliff partly scooped out by erosion: in the cavity, under an overhang of rock, a small stone chapel with at least 7 tiny windows and a diminutive belfry. The top of the cliff is visible, and is dovered with low brush; in the foreground of the photo, a mix of small deciduous trees and conifers. It is a view of the hermitage of S. Maria Giacobbe at Pale near Foligno, Umbria (central Italy).]

The hermitage of S. Maria Giacobbe;
a telephoto shot making it look more accessible than it is.​h

Foligno with a few minutes to spare, thanks heaps Franco, more laughing at Booby, trains home, exhausted, flop into bed.

Note in the Diary:

1 Roberto Vannozzi, Leone dell' Appennino, 22 corso Vittorio Emanuele, 06045 Monte­leone di Spoleto, cellphone 328.27.75.733 (with his express permission to put this information online).

Later Notes:

a Many years after I wrote this, I was accidentally made aware that in fact I may have been hearing a nightingale; at any rate, online recordings of the song of the nightingale (this one for example) pretty much match my memory of the striking birdsong I heard on this walk — and (dense of me not to think of it earlier) this was near Usigni: the Italian word for nightingale is usignolo. The town may be named for the birds.

b There are at least three other churches by this name in Umbria. To Umbrians, the best known of those is a large 19c shrine near Monte­falco, which I've seen from about half a mile away but did not visit and have no photos of; S. Maria della Stella in the town of Allerona owes its attractiveness to its use as a sort of decorative canvas by a late‑19c architect of the Arts & Crafts movement; the third is a small church near Paciano, which I have not seen.

In addition, often confused with them is the church of the Madonna della Spella on Mount Subasio.

c According to an online site, in 1833, two shepherds discovered a lone fresco here, "that could still be made out", depicting the Virgin flanked by SS. Benedict and Augustine. While that description fits the fresco you see above, there are a number of old frescos on the same face of that rock wall, and the fresco we see is far more than just barely decipherable; it does look like it's been restored. Still, the account doesn't quite tally with what can be seen.

At any rate, in 2011, Mass was being said here by the Augustinian community of Cascia on the first Saturday of every month.

d Mr. Ergasti and I were back down at the church in about 3 minutes.

e This is the fourth one I've seen, all in Umbria. The first, in the Rocca Flea of Gualdo Tadino; the second in S. Agata in Perugia (actually, one head with three faces); the third at the Pieve di Canoscio. The one at Ponte (page here) is the most primitive of the four.

f One of a number of churches I wish I'd seen the inside of; next trip, maybe. See note to my diary entry, Oct. 16, 1998.

g The casual reader of my diary shouldn't get the idea by any means that just because we dashed thru these places in a car, there's nothing to see. Each of these places has its sights of interest: in 2011 the castle at Postignano reopened after a major restoration, having been abandoned since the 1960s.

h That photo is — so far — as close as I've got to the hermitage. You should get closer to it, and I hope to do so myself some day: there are some attractive frescos to see. A rather complete site on the church can be read at Key to Umbria; and handsome photoillustrated pages of visitors' impressions may be seen at Brigolante and Italian Notebook.

Later Notes:

a1 a2 The famous Etruscan chariot seems to have been furtively and illegitimately sold shortly after its discovery on Colle del Capitano in 1902, was spirited out of Italy to Paris in a grain railcar, and eventually made its way to the Metropolitan Museum in New York courtesy of the ruthless J. P. Morgan. It thus is one of a class of controversial items that, depending on one's viewpoint, should be repatriated. (The Elgin marbles, about which so much fuss has been made, have a better right to be in London than the chariot of Monte­leone to be in New York, since they were openly and legitimately sold.) At any rate, the collusion of a local person with outside collectors has left Monte­leone bristling for over a century: the repatriation of the chariot is a sore point here.

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