PART 1 !
Here I am kicking off a multi-part series on the identity, or as we will see, identities of Umbria. It’s going to be a fun ride!
Umbria. The only region in Italy to border neither sea nor foreign country. Umbria is bounded to the north by the region of Tuscany, to the west and south by Lazio, and to the east by Le Marche.
Everyone knows about the sun drenched villages and fields of Tuscany. Tuscany is now a world class brand, long gone are the days when it was simply an Italian region. Its capital, Florence, is a bastion of art and culture, the flower of the Renaissance. And the region of Lazio is the home of Rome, another dream destination of many today. Rome’s name alone immediately conjures images of exotic splendor and sophisticated culture.
But their neighbor, Umbria? What is Umbria’s identity? What is Umbria known for?
MAP of modern day Italian regions:
If you are like most travelers to Italy, especially if this is your first or second visit, you will make a beeline for the hotspots of Rome, Florence, Venice, and Amalfi coast.
If you have a bit of extra time, or have already hit those hotspots previously, you may decide to get off the beaten path. And you may hear about Umbria as an option for doing so. Guidebooks and internet search pages will tell you that Umbria’s principal sites are Assisi, known as Italy’s spiritual mecca, and Perugia, the chocolate city that is also the better known of Umbria’s two provinces (the other being Terni).
If you dig just slightly more on Umbria, you will quickly uncover the options of Spoleto, Gubbio, Todi, Spello, Orvieto. Perhaps even Montefalco, or Castiglione del Lago, or Bevagna. You might hear about the formerly magical towns in the eastern part of Umbria devastated by earthquakes several years ago – Norcia, Amatrice, and Castelluccio, now piles of rubble that the government still can’t seem to find a way to rebuild.
Rarely will the internet tell you about the hundreds of undiscovered village gems that dot the Umbrian countryside. They are “sperduti”, as we say in Italian, a mystical word which means a combination of lost and forgotten in the middle of nowhere. Still inhabited, these small gems move forward slowly, limping to keep up with world progress, and at the same time remaining hundreds of years behind.
MAP of Umbria today, with Perugia and Orvieto to the west of the Tevere (Tiber river)
And so, what can the traveler expect of the Umbrian towns indicated in travel guides? And what unites these places in a sense of common regional culture?
This question plagued me for some time. I first started visiting the western part of Umbria over 15 years ago, and several years ago bought a house here. Our part of Umbria is home to the small city of Orvieto, and we are also very close to the borders of both Tuscany and Lazio. But when I heard people talk about Umbria, or read it about it, our western part of the region was rarely mentioned. If it were mentioned, they talked only about the city of Orvieto proper, and 2-3 of its most important highlights. When I read about other parts of Umbria, they seemed so unlike our western environs.
So I felt quite alienated from the internet’s description of Umbria and it’s highlights. Perhaps it would be like someone from Tahoe City in California, who only hears California described as Hollywood or Los Angeles or Malibu or San Francisco. Or someone from Reno who hears people associate Nevada only with Las Vegas.
But why was our corner rarely mentioned? And why did it also seem so different?
Of course, some of today’s differences between Orvieto in western Umbria and the classic Umbrian cities of eastern Umbria are simply explained by ease of travel. More Orvietans do their big city shopping in Viterbo than in Perugia even though the distance is the same. The road quality to Viterbo is superior to that of the road to Perugia, due to a set of thorny hills between Perugia and Orvieto. We will get to this later on too below, when the Byzantines used this thorny geography to their advantage over their rivals the Lombards.
In addition to road quality, distance is another easiest answer. “Terra di Confine” is a nickname for our area, it means “Borderland”. This spur of Umbria, where Orvieto is located, nestles up against both Tuscany and Lazio. “Terra di Confine” is also the name of a lovely wine from the Maravalle family’s winery in the nearby village of Ficulle. We can arrive in Tuscan towns like San Casciano or Cetona, or Lazio towns like Bolsena and Trevinano in just 20-40 minutes. The idea of driving to Spoleto or Assisi for practical matters is not within the realm of the reasonable in the mind of an Orvietan.
The Orvietan thinks, instead, of places like Spoleto or Assisi as where they might go as a tourist themselves, where they might go as a getaway. Even though these towns are in the same region of Umbria, in the mindset of the Orvietan they are in a completely different category, in the same category as the Castelli Romani or towns in Emilia Romagna.
But while distance may be the easiest answer, it’s not the most complete one. I knew from early on, because everyone here will quickly tell you, that Orvieto had been a part of the Papal States under the command of the Pope. But I also knew there must be more to it. And so I set out to study the origins, nature, history, and identity of Umbria.
Umbrian and Italian history is extraordinarily complex, with mind numbing layers of history and thousands of powerful entities vying for control of the fertile and strategically positioned Italian peninsula.
Disclaimers: While I have three university degrees, I am in no way a professional scholar – I’m an armchair scholar at best. I probably have made some mistakes in my assumptions and observations. I’m open to being challenged and glad to correct any errors I’ve made.
I am half Italian but that Italian half is not Umbrian, so I hope I can see Umbria more objectively than an Umbrian. I’ve also consulted many Italians and Americans who have lived in Umbria but who have also lived in other parts of Italy or the world.
All this to say, I’ve strived to be objective, but if there is anything you read here or in the upcoming posts of the series that doesn’t seem quite right, or needs clarification, please reach out to me.
Next up: PART 2, a fun read on Italy History!