“...you would see grandfathers and great-grandfathers of those now grown up to be young men, hear old stories and the dialect of our ancestors, and fancy yourself born in some former age were you to come here” Pliny the Younger
History and culture
Pliny the Younger
Some 1900 years ago, during the first century AD, Pliny the Younger had an estate somewhere in these same hills, between Cortona and Citta di Castello (referred to in his letters by its Latin name: Tifernum). Then, as now, the Tuscan border ran through these hills. Pliny describes his house as being in Tuscany but near Citta di Castello “a town...which, with more affection than wisdom, put itself under my patronage when I was yet a youth.” He evidently felt as passionately about his estate here as we do about Casa Nova. At the top of this page and scattered through this website you will find snippets from a letter he wrote to Domitius Apollinaris, extolling the beauty of the region and describing in loving detail his villa and its gardens. Amongst other things, he valued it as a place he could get away from “troublesome clients” and enjoy time with his family: see here. It’s just the same today. For the full text of the letter, which is a great read, click here.
Pliny was a relative latecomer to the area, however. Long before the Romans came to these hills, the Etruscans occupied this territory. At the height of their power in the 6-7th centuries BC, Etruria was a federation of 12 city states, Perugia one of them, covering all of central Italy. If you visit Cortona, about 30 minutes from here, and park in the car park outside the city walls, be sure to take a good look at the walls as you walk through the gateway: you’ll find that the medieval city walls are built on top of the much earlier Etruscan fortifications, constructed of such enormous black blocks of stone fitted so closely together it is difficult to imagine how the Etruscans could have achieved this with no more than manpower and levers. In Cortona is a Museum of the Etruscans where you can find out more about this rather mysterious civilisation, with its blend of joie de vivre and savagery. There is a particularly beautiful ornate bronze candelabrum and a wonderfully lifelike portrait from an Etruscan tomb. For details of the museum’s contact details and opening times, click here.
Medieval mysticism and bloodshed
As well as being at the physical heart of Italy, Umbria is also at its spiritual heart. St Francis lived and preached in Umbria, and following his death in 1226 the Franciscan order thrived across the region and especially at the order’s principal monastery: Assisi. The extraordinary multi-level basilica with its frescoes by the Lorenzetti, Simone Martini and Giotto (or non-Giotto, depending whom you read) attracts millions of visitors (many of them pilgrims) each year; and the character of the region is stamped by Franciscanism. The Canticle of the Sun, St Francis’s famous song celebrating “Brother Sun”, “Sister Moon” and “Sister Death”, was composed in the Umbrian dialect.
If Franciscan mendicant preaching affected towns across Umbria, so too did the frequently bloody history of the region. From the battle of Lake Trasimeno (in which Hannibal massacred the Roman army in 217 BC) to the struggles to liberate this part of Italy during WWII, Umbria has seen more than its fair share of bloodshed. Perugia has sometimes been described as the bloodiest town in all Italy, a reference to the bitter feuding as rival families strove for political power in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The landscape is still punctuated by fortified castles and watch-towers, while sections of Perugia are built on the levelled houses of previously dominant families (such as the Baglioni, whose palaces were demolished to make way for the Rocca Paolina in 1540).