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A journey through the work and poetics of artists for whom the colour of night is their own personal queste. At times a symbol of spirituality and mysticism, and at other times, of sincerity and loyalty, blue unfolds as a recurring motif throughout the Twentieth Century.

Blue periods and horses

The Twentieth Century opens with the dramatic – almost monochromatic – atmosphere of the Picasso Blue Period between 1901 and 1904. Picasso focused on blue to express the «sincerity […] that cannot be found in pain», after his friend Carlos Casagemas took his own life. Blue was associated with the idea of ​​the night and of secret love, of mystery, the essence of the Picasso blue: «the colour that appears best in the world […] the colour of colours, the bluest of blues. »[1].

The German Blaue Reiter movement originated from the passion of Kandinsky for blue and the love of Franz Marc for horses in 1911. The blue knight fights evil, facing the most dangerous tests, symbol of the struggle between good and evil, of the battle of the spirit against materialism. Kandinsky attributes the ability to show depth, the darker, the more it awakens the human desire for infinity. It associates it with the circle, in its theory in which shapes and colours take on a kind of universal symbolism. Spirituality in art[2] becomes blue.

 

Lago umbro 1942 olio su tavola cm. 52.5×62.5 Foto www.futurahma.it

Dottori and Aeropainting

In those years, the avant-garde Futurism was born in Milan and with Gerardo Dottori[3] in Perugia too, the futurist of Aeropainting[4], of the blue views of Lake Trasimeno. Above a plane Dottori flew over the lake, fascinated by the landscape: «The first time I reached the Trasimeno […] I was deeply impressed. The large mirror of water was calm, and mirrored the sky clearly with the white clouds. But I felt that to enjoy it, I had to see it from some surrounding hill around […]. I was so taken by this splendid vision that I have never forgotten it, and it is always in most of my paintings […], my beautiful Trasimeno. »[5]

Every time we admire an aeropainting by Dottori, the feeling is that of a deep blue colour that calms the senses. The description of blue by the philosopher Max Lüscher comes immediately to mind: «Blue is loyalty and corresponds to the depth of feelings […]. Blue symbolically corresponds to calm water […]. It is the full satisfaction of blessings of the highest ideals of mankind, unity, a union with Gaea, mother-earth. It is the truth, trust, love, and dedication, rendition and devotion»[6]. The paintings by Dottori, where the shades of azure of the waters and sky prevail, are often mystical, thanks to these, a «new extra-terrestrial spirituality»[7] is «reached» as written in the Manifesto.

The lyric and spiritual landscape of Dottori is blue: «I wanted to aerate the earthly landscape by isolating it out of time-space, feeding it of sky so that it became heaven: by this, overturning the great Umbrian Renaissance painting that religiously dragged a lot of heaven down onto earth. If I overflow a gulf or an Umbrian lake it is because I can become a whole with its green-blue-white-grey liquid, reaching all my simultaneous forms of colour, including those mirroring into the water»[8].

Hundreds of works, where he portrays stretching lakes and rivers that spiral and wrap, the aircraft wraps up the landscape creating big eyes, lake mirrors. But in the past, the water of the seas, rivers, and lakes was green; as Pastoureau writes, and it became blue only at the end of the Fifteenth century: «it took a lot of time in the imagination and in the daily life […]for the water to become blue, a cold blue. Cold like our contemporary western societies, of which blue is the emblem, the symbol and the favourite colour at the same time»[9].

 

Nakedness, dreams and patents on colour

In the post-war period, the conception of art changes, but not poetry and the intensity of blue. Henri Matisse claimed that «a certain blue enters the soul»; his Blue Nudes of the Fourties are famous, cut figures of women become a shape using a bright blue, that moves them away from the natural description. For Miró, blue is the colour of dream and spirituality: it reaches its apex with the Bleu I, Bleu II, Bleu III series of 1961, the work is an extreme reduction to the essential, where elements float in a metaphysical universe. But certainly, the most striking example of the blue passion is by Yves Klein with his blue proclamation and his patent, the IKB, the International Klein blue, a bright colour that emerges from an abysmal depth. His blue, as Pierre Restany – founder of the Nouveau Réalisme at the beginning of the Sixties – wrote: «for it, it was the revelation; it is the backing of insights that are not enclosed in formulas, the vehicle of great emotions, an image captured by the vault of the sky and the intimacy of the world, the memory of this immaterial dimension of the universe»[10].  With his IKB he covered girls, canvases, sponges, «with the intent» as Vettese wrote, «of approaching art to heaven, but above all to recover a relationship between art and spirituality mediated, precisely, by colour»[11].

 

Graziano Marini, Utopico

Eastern full moon

Is there anything more spiritual that light? Does refractive light create colours? In Umbria, the quasi-scientific, but amused, concretistic study of light and colours reaches its highest exposition with Piero Dorazio[12], the Roman artist who moved to Todi in 1974 and never left the town again. In his paintings «the fabrics or better membranes», of an almost monochrome uniform painting, as described by Ungaretti, «interwoven with different threads of colour, with rays of colour», the very often blue background, creates the effect of «fixation on a point of light resurfaced from abysses, iterated to infinity»[13]. His blues are able to capture the everchanging shades of the tides, the skies he encountered on his trips and holidays[14]. The writer and journalist Mario Fortunato recognised, at a London auction, after many years, a blue work of art he had seen at the artist’s home, his guest during the Spoleto Festival in 1984: «A small Dorazio canvas with a dominating blue that reminded of the sea at night: it was taken from me for a few pounds and I still regret not having relaunched my bid»[15]. The only student and heir of his art, Graziano Marini, in an absolute personal way, combines Dorazio’s compositional purity, the geometry of structures like postpictural abstraction, the emotional charge of the Informal. His surface is not clean, his painting is like an internal drive expressed through light-colour matter. His travels to Asia made him discover the light of the desert, recreate it: the colour absorbs all the strength and power of light. The darkness is represented by the blue of Utopico II: «I was immediately struck by the light of that unknown sky, I saw that deep darkness of the night, really dark, dark, distant, of an indefinite colour, maybe indigo blue to which a densely immovable sea blue is superimposed»[16]. Blue is born from the Eastern Nights, because, as Goethe writes, «very near to darkness arises what we designate with the word azure»[17].  This affinity between darkness and blue is described also by Kandinsky: «blue can become as deep as black. Besides the physical resemblance, there is also a moral resemblance».[18] At night, the darkness of the room, illuminated by a single blue light-sign by Carlo Dell’Amico[19], to immerge the visitor in a plenilune light, to whom it is required to open up to a vital relationship with the immanent. These works by the Umbrian artist, made from 2008 to 2016 with blue neon, recall the light of the deus, of the luminous being, of the radical dyu, of the God-sky, a colour that represents the elevation of the Spirit symbolically. Frédéric Portal writes in the Nineteenth Century, azure, along with black and white «are the colours of the initiator: that overcomes spiritual (black) death with the power of truth (azure) to obtain the complete regeneration (white) ».[20] So, Dell’Amico, through the emanations of his blue light, reveals to us what is hidden in the darkness, allowing us to understand the hidden message of the words to get closer to knowledge[21].

 


[1] P. Picasso cit. in AA.VV., Colore, ed. Idealibri, Milan, 1982, p. 215.

[2] V. Kandinskij, Lo Spirituale nell’arte,1909, published in 1912 in Munich by the editor Reinhard Piper: “From a musical point of view, azure resembles a flute, blue a cello or, when it becomes very dark, the wonderful sound of the double bass; in its darker and more solemn dimension, it has the deep sound of an organ”, quote from Lo spirituale nell’arte, ed. Milan, 1989. Kandinskij had also created a work of art called Der Blaue Reiter in 1903. This painting is the cover of the Blaue Reiter movement.

[3] Gerardo Dottori (Perugia 1884, died there in 1977), for a complete bio www.gerardodottori.net. Most of his works are kept at the Civic Music of Palazzo Penna in Perugia.

[4] Manifesto dell’Aeropittura futurista, published on the «Gazzetta del popolo», dated September 22, 1929 in the article called edited in 1929 by MarinettiBallaFortunato DeperoPrampolini, Gerardo Dottori, Benedetta Cappa, FilliaTato and Mino Somenzi, Roman journalist that flew over Lake Trasimeno with him starting in 1928.

[5] Framment from Autobiografia of 1963, published by A. C. Ponti, M. Duranti, Intervista su Gerardo Dottori, Umbria Editrice, Perugia 1977, pp. 81-96. See also M. Duranti, A. C. Ponti, edited by, Aeropitture di acque e di colline: Gerardo Dottori e il lago Trasimeno, catalogue of the exhibition (Corciano, Tuoro sul Trasimeno, 4 August – 23 September 2001), ed. Effe, Perugia 2001.

[6] M. Lüscher, Il test dei colori, Astrolabio, Roma 1976, quote. from Il significato dei colori: nelle civiltà antiche, edited by Lia Luzzatto and Renata Pompas, Rusconi Milan 1988, p. 150.

[7] Manifesto dell’Aeropittura futurista, 1929, cit. in www.gerardodottori.net.

[8] G. Dottori in Manifesto futurista umbro dell’aeropittura, 1941. In full world war he wrote the manifesto where he clarified that the real essence of his futurism lied in the representation of mystic-like ambiences and landscapes. Quote in www.gerardodottori.net. For the futurist manifestos see also www.futur-ism.it.

[9] Pastoureau, Blu: storia di un colore, ed. Ponte alle Grazie, Milan 2008, p. 217.

[10] P. Restany, cit. in L. Vinca Masini, L’Arte del Novecento, Giunti, Florence 1989, vol. 5, p. 790.

[11] A. Vettese, Arte e colore alcune linee di sviluppo nel dopoguerra, in Il colore nell’arte, Ivan Bargna … [et al.],  Jaca book, Milan 2006 p. 216. Recent volume Blu K.: storia di un artista e del suo colore di Teodoro Gilabert, Skira, Milan 2014.

[12] Piero Dorazio (Roma 1927 – Perugia 2005). In 1947 he was among the undersigners of the manifesto of Gruppo Forma 1. In 1951 it merged with the group “Origine” by Mario Ballocco, Alberto Burri, Giuseppe Capogrossi, Ettore Colla, giving life to “Fondazione Origine”, within which Colla and Dorazio published the magazine “Arti Visive”. In 1974 he moved definitely to Todi where he purchased an ancient Camaldolese hermitage and here he continued to create until his death. In 1978 he founded the Centro Internazionale della Ceramica of Montesanto, hosting international artists in Todi since the Seventies.

[13] G. Ungaretti, Un intenso splendore, cat. Im Erker Galerie, San Gallo, 1966.

[14] For further study on the colour of Dorazio, see the recent Piero Dorazio “Il colore della pittura”, exhibition catalogue (Milan, Galleria Lorenzelli, October 2015 – January 2016) Milan 2015.

[15] M. Fortunato, Quelli che ami non muoiono, Bompiani, Milan 2008, cap. 6.

[16] G. Marini, Luce Orientale, in Graziano Marini: l’ arte che sa veder morire gli imperi, text by Enrico Mascelloni, exhibition catalogue (Frankfurt, Orvieto and Zurich 2004), ed.  Industria grafica editoriale, Todi 2004.

[17] J. W. von Goethe, La Teoria, op. cit., § 502.

[18] V. Kandinskij, Lo Spirituale nell’arte, 1912 ed. Feltrinelli, Milan 1974, p. 61.

[19]  Carlo Dell’Amico was born in Perugia in 1954, for the latest updated bio see Carlo dell’Amico L’anima che perse la memoria, exhibition catalogue (Norcia, 16 April-5 June 2016) texts by Claudia Bottini, Antonella Pesola, ed. Add Art, Spoleto, 2016. Bio and works also published in the recent catalogue Light Art in Italy, by Gisella Gellini, ed. Maggioli, Milan 2016, pp. 156-159.

[20] F. Portal, Des coleurs symboliques, Paris 1839, trad. it. Sui colori simbolici nell’antichità, nel Medioevo e nell’età moderna, ed. Luni, Milan 2003, p. 71 e 75. See also G. D’Aloe, I colori simbolici: origini di un linguaggio universale, S. Pietro in Cariano (Verona) 2004, p. 85.

[21] C. Bottini, La luce vera nell’esperienza della notte della vita, in Carlo dell’Amico, op. cit. p. 60.

The magnificent landscapes of Umbria, in particular the Nera Valley, have over time bewitched several world-famous artists. Today, a project as innovative as it is interesting, aims to retrace the paths they have trodden.

In 1818, the French painter Léon Cogniet writes to Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, his master: “You ask what impresses me at most: the sculpture of the Ancients, the painting of the masters or people’s features. Something else impressed me more than all this: I want to tell you about the beauty of Nature!”[1]. Exactly this is what enchantes painters coming to Italy starting from middle Eighteenth Century and which is the same striking Umbrian painter Franco Passalacqua: the universe of the nature as main source of inspiration. Maybe the love for the valley of the Nera river beauties – as Marmore waterfall, Piediluco Lake, River Nera, Narni, Papigno and Augusto’s Bridge – pushed him to set out on a journey of discovery and knowledge on the previous artists who chose to get on the spot to represent these sites on canvas and to design this important project on the Plenaristi.

 

Martin Verstappen , La cascata delle Marmore, olio su tela, 76,9 x 61,8 cm, secc. XVIII-XIX (Terni, Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Terni e Narni)

 

Anna Ottani Cavina, woman of note as art historian and whose role in the project contributes to grant for its soundness, underlines that en plein air painting has been the big change of these artitsts who, facing the extraordinary landscapes of Italy, chose to leave their comfortable atelier to immerse themselves in the beauties of the nature, depicting what the enchanted panorama offered to their eyes with short and quick dabs on the canvas, preferring watercolour and oil on paper so that colours dried as soon as possible. The details are left out while an effect of chromatic synthesis prevails in order to capture a specific fraction of light or time. Of course, the sensibility of each painter was decisive in determining the result of the portrayals. In fact, German artist Adrian Ludwig Richter[2], in Italy between 1823 and 1826, writes: “our goal was to depict the landscape with the greatest faithfullness. It was amazing to see our four researches for the a clear-cut distinction between them. Our eyes had seen the same place, but each one through his own temperament”. The Valle incantata, new earthly paradise, becomes the location of choice for tens of European painters’ artistic pilgimage as the Swiss Abraham Louis Rudolphe Ducros and François Keisermann, the English Francis Towne, the Dutch Joseph August Knip, and especially the French Jean Baptiste Camille Corot and the Deutsch Carl Blechen perhpas the two most important representatives of en plein air painting here made.

The project has been enthusistically welcomed by the municipalities of Narni and Terni and it has obtained the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Terni e Narni financial support because, as declared by CARIT chairman, Luigi Carlini, we immediately recognized “the great potential for economic and tourism development”, in fact “the promotion and the upgrading of a great environmental and landscape value area are the main objectives of this project”. Three are the souls of this iniziative: the documentary La valle incantata by Franco Passalacqua[3], the Dispersed Museum of the en plein air painting that is an itinerary of over 20 km along the routes where the artists created their works and, eventually, a complete virtual archive of all the works realized in this area, which today are housed in the museums all over the world. The virtual archive (available to view online at www.plenaristi.beniculturali.it[4]) has been realized thanks to the support of the Soprintendenza Archeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio dell’Umbria and to the efforts of Marcella Culatti.

 

Nera waters

BOX

Stifone and the Blue of Nera waters

During the centuries, the village, built upon karstic sources (among the most important in Italy), has exploited the water power to activate grain and olive mills and the bellows of the foundries obtsining the mineral from the above mount Santa Croce, which is destination of speleologist thanks to the many caves.

Magnesium, sodium and calcium salts present in the chemical composition of water determine an intense blue colour that enhances during the bright days when the rays of the sun reflect on the calm surface of the Nera river. The small but fascinating village lays just down the rocky crags which make a spur to the Taizzano castle, on the left river bank. In ancient times, into the valley, only a hundred metres away from it, was the port of Narnia romana, from where food and wood departed for Rome. In fact, in his guide of the town of Narni Rutilio Robusti writes: “the orgin of the word Stifone is Greek-Pelasgian and it used to point at a place where they built and launch boats or rafts of wood to send to Rome or somewhere else, then to serve to the building of larger-sized ships”[5]. In the town centre the buildings date back from Trecento to Cinquecento, you get surprised by the unexpected poetry in the air. Just into the town, down to the old wash-houses, supplied by two powerful resurgences, you can find the remains of the first power station in that area, which was able to generate a power of 60 Kw, enough energy to light 700 bulbs in Narni, so that it was one of the first Italian towns to enjoy electric light. The theatre was the first buiding illuminated, then the rest of the town. The power plant was opened the10th of November 1982, at the presence of the mayor of Narni, Paolo Eroli, and of the designer and engineer, Mr Aldo Moretti, who was born in Stifone. An interesting nature trail follows the old railway line Orte-Terni starting fron the Augusto’s Bridge, recently replaced by a route inside tunnels, which runs along the river past Stifone.

 


[1] A. Ottani Cavina (curated by), Un Paese incantato. Italia dipinta da Thomas Jones a Corot, Milano, Electa, 2002.

[2] The quotation is taken from Franco Passalacqua’s documentary La valle incantata.

[3] The documentary is visible on request at Museo Archeologico, at Centro Arti CAOS (Terni).

[4] To know more about the project visit the website www.plenaristi.it

[5] R. Robusti, Narni. Guida della città e dintorni1924.

«Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colorless, all- color of atheism from which we shrink?» Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

A perfect opposition to black, white too is a non-color, similarly a clot of all possible colors. «White strikes us as a grand silence which feels absolute», says Kandinskji. There is white as an absence of sound, as a place of purity, a place of nothingness and of the invisible. A color telling tales of silence, of hiding, of progressive subtractions until almost nothing remains. This is how extreme abstraction unfolds, achieved by the exercise of Kazimir Malevič, Russian painter and founder of Suprematism, who in 1918 painted the unconceivable: a white square on white background. Only an imperceptible contour outlines the quadrangular area, slightly rotated, the mental space delimited, a non-object nevertheless possible, where slightly different shades affirm the existence of a protected space. Almost invisible. He writes: «In art the absolute supremacy of the plastic sensitivity must prevail on the naturalistic descriptivism, this is an invitation to research a non-objective art, in which figurative and representative elements are canceled; this painting of mine says: this is not an empty canvas, a deleted icon I framed, but it is an invitation to perceive the non-objective of the objective in status nascendi»[i].

Affiliati Peducci & Savini, a school of sculptural art

The artistic duo Matteo Peducci from Castiglione del Lago and Sienese Mattia Savini met because of their love for sculpture, a passion both pursue after graduating from the Fine Arts Academy of Carrara in 2007. But Affiliati Peducci Savini isn’t simply the name of their partnership, it is also the name for their place of art: a decommissioned quarry of pink limestone in the hills of Assisi, now home to their white creatures, where they both live and work and which has become their ideal place of research and experimentation. They transform marble with ability and craftsmanship, reproducing the other materials with striking resemblance, proving the versatility of the marble here molded to imitate materials like paper, polystyrene, wood or plastic, to an estranging effect, suggesting just how deceptive reality can be.

By a deep knowledge of the classical canons, sculpture is directed towards new interpretations, enhancing the nobility of the material with a witty sense of humor. Research and experimentation are the hinges of this artistic duo, who have turned an important laboratory into a bustling art-studio, retrieving the single specializations and pausing on each step of the artistic process, from the extraction of the marble to the final levigating of the stone. An ideal dimension, resembling the old botteghe (art workshops), where the ancient knowledge and work is taught in direct contact with the maestro.

The craft foresees great teamwork, with specialists for each step, from molding clay to polishing the finished stone-work; the demand for professional artisans arose and a proper school of sculpture was founded. Peducci and Savini, after many years spent working in Italy and abroad, sculpting artworks for the king of Thailand and collaborating with important artists, such as Cattelan, Penone and Jan Fabre, since 2014 have also worked closely with the Research Center of the Normale di Pisa University, developing new technologies for electroplating and electro-sculpture, used for their metal artworks – and studying the geopolymers.

The reality created by Peducci and Savini embodies the Magnum Opus – in alchemy, the process of manufacture and transformation of matter, material and spiritual metamorphosis into purification. They are sculptors who search for new perspective and new application within contemporary art, recovering the values that made it indispensable.

 

Contenitori vuoti, 2019, di Tonina Cecchetti. Proprietà privata.

A journal of femininity by Tonina Cecchetti

An artist from Sigillo, sculptor of great experience, Tonina Cecchetti almost exclusively uses ceramics though with various techniques and is especially interested in the human body, either in its integrity or mutilated, but always in the great expression of a shiny white.

Her bodies, shaped as mannequins, are of different height, at times only visible as legs, with bare feet standing on wooden bases, often dressed in white garments, evoking ceremonial sacred rites, inevitably embellished with lace and veils.  Cecchetti displays a journal of femininity in relationship to the acceptance or refusal of one’s body, while investigating the great mystery of maternity. Her statues scream in silence, a dramatic relationship with aesthetics unfolds, the social will of an always perfect body, the recognition of a public equalitarian and dignified status.

The most investigated themes are those of the female body and of the child, with graceful shapes often set in unsettling and surreal context. The pale shade of the flesh is often in contrast with the dark backgrounds, becoming beacons of light in the night, like dreams governing the obscurity of a deep sleep rummaging through the unconscious by just existing.

The double we often find in her artwork represents duality, a declared value she wishes to rehash, the tensions of the union with the other, a breath of hope for a harmonious cohabitation. The artist explores the two-dimensionality, a space where her actors are trapped in a thought-out scenography, where they may recover a harmonious livability by overcoming a tragedy, a subtle restlessness ironically evoked, staging actions scanning mutations, unravelling the conscious yet not always ending in happiness.

The vibrating and estranging nature of Eraldo Chiucchiú

The Deruta-born sculptor has always expressed his imagery in ceramic and in his long career he has conducted a scientific research, studying the different themes and the different techniques, investigating geological phenomenon and constantly experimenting to find new technical solutions.

White has become predominant in his latest productions, inevitably, as he wisely works with porcelain, crafted into thin sheets in light boxes lit by led and in mobiles, part of his intriguing series Litofanie. The sheets become as fine as paper, etched with graphemes their surfaces are vibrant. White is investigated in all its potential and transparency plays an important role as it influences the tactile or visual perceptions.

Frattura holds a unique stylistic code and displays his great technical wisdom in turning surfaces into enlarged particles or materials: Chiucchiú investigates what lies beyond which is cleverly evoked in his work. His light boxes, made of two thin sheets of porcelain descending from above, compose a habitat where a new refined plant universe reigns, reminiscence of the elegant oriental art.

Everything changes if the light goes on: the sculptural elements strike for their harmony and balance, but the led-lights change the perspective and the cold milky white is transformed in warmer welcoming shades, lovingly embracing the viewer, inviting into a new natural dimension, estranging yet also reassuring.

 

“QUIETE” di Eraldo Chiucchiù

Assaulting white: Giosuè Quadrini

The most recent artworks of Giosuè Quadrini, a young artist from Terni and among the most interesting to date, are solved in a complex composition of impressions, graphics and symbols standing out on their surfaces of wax. He rediscovers the ancient technique of encaustic painting, repurposed in a dramatic modernity, where opacity is in contrast with the writings, where white is constantly assaulted by the signs, color zones, words and become a welcoming surface of a convoluted tale.

The whites affectionately absorb the light, the opacities are in contrast with the symbols and writings and other shades, evoking the deepest emotions for an intimate yet universal narration, because they tell us of the meaning of being; there is no embellishment, just humility.

Quadrini’s poetic wafts through like a whisper, the dirty white creates the neutral tonality, never uniformed, revealing the manual work,  layer after layer: the shades are never shrill or in opposition, but compose a refined palette, researched, intended, experienced. The choice of wax allows more subtle engravings: like a layer of pale skin, the wax is a veiled surface which protects but never hides. His investigation of the material is tarnished, yet sublimed, it is fused with the process of time which consumes: there is something of archeological in Quadrini’s work, the elements must be carefully observed and searched for. The canvases are like walls with niches inhabited by the relics of the everyday or like closets, they are content and containers, as if they suggest that there is a hiding place, a safe place, somewhere to conserve.

Image is pure meaning: Lauretta Barcaroli

Artist from Terni, active for many years, Barcaroli recently developed a series of artworks which abandon the original figuration of her early training. The recent cycles exalt the gesture of the artist, now imbedded in the artwork’s materiality: here the image, free within a chromatic annihilation, may be exhibited to the observer as pure significant. Apparently Barcaroli’s material cycles seem to avoid any space defined by composition: rather we have surfaces autonomously undergoing the transformation in art work, according to the laws of chemistry. The narration is nullified, what we see is pure matter, as is its creation, it being a physical act; absence of color must underline the objectivity of the surface. Everything is planned into a carefully woven warp, even though we only realize later: by scrutinizing the surface, the color white used by the artist does nothing other but exalt the essence of the artwork, which is white and nothing else, rather is and nothing else: to be, total essence in pure becoming.

 


[i] K. S. Malevič, Non si sa a chi appartenga il colore, scritti teorico-filosofici, Nadia Caprioglio (a cura di), Torino, Hopefulmonster, 2010, p. 163.

Crushed by an unforgiving international competition, Umbria gave up on the production of silk and focused on sericulture instead: today only an echo of the white silkworms chomping tirelessly on the mulberry leaves remains.

For centuries, wearing silk garments was an exclusive prerogative of the nobility and the wealthy. Goods made of silk, as in the case of other luxury goods, contributed to the social divide and to the distinction in social class.

The silk fever

This radically changed in the beginning of the Eighteenth century, when consumption became less selective. With the desire to imitate the fashion of the great European courts, the shades and patterns of silk cloths began to dominate the wardrobes of the emerging social classes (merchants, government officials, middle class), who also felt obliged to respect social etiquette and show off their status through appearance.

The baroque era introduced new clothes also among men, like stockings, handkerchiefs, vests, undergarments, blouses – all rigorously made out of silk. Though not everyone had the means to buy the best silk imported from oriental Asia, the newly-born fashion industry embraced the silk fever infecting Europe and its colonies as a powerful launching pad. For manufacturing, some European cities such as Lyon and London were especially favored, becoming industrial capitals of silk in the European continent.

The Italian regions, following the general fashion, found space within the silk production chain, whether choosing to work in the delicate phase of silk thread making, or in the agricultural operations of breeding the bombyx mori – the silkworm – on which the whole production depends upon, from raw material to finished product. The region of Umbria too, promptly became part of this new dynamic trade.

 

Silkworm

Umbria’s turnaround

In the middle ages, everyone admired the famous silk veils of Perugia, cloths of exceptional quality, made with silk thread imported mostly from the southern regions of Italy. The silk manufacturers in Perugia, crushed by the international competition, were hit by a crisis during the modern age. When in the 1700s the demand for silk rose again, unlike in the past, Umbria began to produce the raw material. To describe the magnitude of the change running throughout the region, it suffices to notice the suddenly increasing mentions of mulberry tree cultivations in the historical documents. The mulberry leaves are the only viable nutrition when breeding the silkworm, a delicate and special creature. The Umbrian landscape was suddenly filled with mulberries: along roads and boulevards, in private gardens, by the farmhouses, in the olive groves, until it became widespread and familiar. A tree imported all the way from Asia largely contributed to today’s Umbrian landscape’s colors. As an example, the estate of Casalina (near Deruta), owned by the monastery of St. Peter, counted around 10.000 trees. The mulberries grew by the same number as the silkworms, in the attempt to satisfy the growing international demand. The French court and the Papacy encouraged sericulture, setting the groundwork for an economic development in a more industrial fashion.

 

Silk

Silkworm breeding yesterday and today

To this day, the diffusion of the mulberry trees in the rural landscape of Umbria may be easily retraced. Unfortunately, a large number of specimens have been eradicated or barbarically cut down, yet in many cases some still stand with their beautiful and rich foliage, especially in the summer months. It is a tree that though it has lost in time its original purpose – that of guaranteeing a constant replenishment of leaves to feed the silkworm and cocoon – remains the symbol of an era and of the intense economic endeavor for the many farmers’ families involved in the breeding of silkworms.
As the cocoons grew – from one larval age to the other – not only did the consumption of leaves increase, but also the demand for ever larger spaces, until entire rooms, carefully environmentally controlled, were occupied. The most ventilated and well heated rooms in the premises became silkworm nurseries, with stoves and thermometers to control the temperature. At times built as towers, these structures have also contributed to shaping the rural landscape of Umbria: they are the architectonic testament of an economic reality, which in time, has found profound changes
During the summer months, from May to August, everyone in the family would work to replenish the leaf supply – which needed to be fresh and moist-free – clean the trellises to avoid infections, select the best specimens and harvest the ripe cocoons before the chrysalis pierced the protective casing, made of one single extremely thin continuous thread of a length comprised between 300 and 1000 meters. For the distinctive characteristics of the autochthonous silkworm, Umbria became a provider of raw material of excellent quality, resistant to illnesses and infections.
After the growing period was over, the cocoons would be treated by dipping them in hot water before being sold. In the farmer’s homes, special machinery was used either manually or mechanically, to allow the threads to be woven into a thicker one.
A silky white filled the workspaces, recreated today in Bevagna during the annual Medieval Gaite markets, when the Gaita of Saint Mary reenacts with patience and detail the various steps of the silkworm breeding: from the time the larvae are carefully deposited on the mulberry leaf-bed, until their rise into the woods to make the cocoon, from the boiling of the latter to the production of the thread by using a refined hydraulic mill. Scenes and gestures which remind us of the time when the Umbrian farmhouses were filled with the mono-tone and deafening sound of the worms relentlessly chomping down on the tender mulberry leaves.

An enigmatic artwork, laying between the snow-white walls of an unfinished church in Foligno: a cosmic union between sacred and profane.

In the nave of a church dedicated to the Annunciation and suspended between Baroque and Neoclassicism – its beauty and simplicity combined into a space of great symbolic and cultural significance – visitors are awed by a body of time-cancelling perfection; an artwork of historic value for its enigmatic and strongly characterized aura: the Calamita Cosmica (Cosmic Magnet) by Gino de Dominicis.

A monumental mostrum

Time has stopped upon a mighty white skeleton twenty-four meters long, perfectly replicating the bone structure of the human body; the skeleton has a thin and pointed nose, splitting the body in half and introducing conflict and division in the delicate lines of the face, making it some sort of monumental mostrum and generating a sense of inferiority and littleness in the observer. The eyes are sunken into a deep inward gaze, the arthritic hands and the long spindly fingers hold their own mysterious elegance; the only thing that breaks the purity of the white bones is a golden shaft, the so-called magnet, nine-meters high and balanced upright on the phalanx of the right middle finger[1].

 

Calamita Cosmica

The magnet that tells the time

The name, Calamita Cosmica, derives from the existence of a profound relationship between the white skeleton and the cosmic world: the golden shaft also known as magnet or gnomon, can tell time. The magnetic field created by the shaft pervades the whole skeleton – he is the creator and the beneficiary.
The artist could feel the weight of the human condition and was obsessed by the reality of age and by the cosmos: in his letters on immortality he wrote: «Aging is an illness […] corroding body and mind […] it is a tragic problem […] by stopping time at a chosen age and interrupting age, man would break the spell of the most mysterious dimension regulating the universe, and this would be the first step towards the possibility of a larger comprehension of life»[2].
The masterpiece was shown at Castel Sant’Elmo in Naples, at the Mole Vanvitelliana in Ancona, at the Royal Palace in Versailles, in the square of the Royal Palace in Milan and at the MAXXI Museum in Rome, finding its definitive location in the former church of Holy Trinity in Annunciation, in Foligno[3].

The unfinished church of Foligno

The church itself has a controversial history and background. It was built between 1760 and 1765 – when it was consecrated – to be one of the most beautiful churches in the Foligno area. It bares the prestigious signature of Carlo Murena, scholar of Luigi Vanvitelli, and was meant to embody the highest architectural ambitions, topped by refined plaster decorations, but was instead left unfinished. From the beginning it had been destined to be a church, instead it was also used as a granary and a warehouse; today it has become an exhibition area[4]. Probably, its bare and unfinished architectures is what makes it such a fascinating space, where time feels still and suspended.
Two realities so far from one another, yet so close. Two completely contrasting styles: on one side, the neoclassicism and perfect architectural design by Carlo Murena, on the other, pure innovation of an immense white skeleton.
Two different and opposing destinations: sacred and profane, two similar yet contrary natures creating the perfect unity in one of the most characteristic cities in Umbria.

 

Gino de Dominicis

In the second half of the Twentieth century, Italy is enriched by an eclectic artist: Gino de Domenicis (Ancona, April 1st, 1947 – Rome, November 29th, 1998). He studied at the Art Institute in Ancona; in 1968 he moved to Rome, enlivening its artistic scenery by displaying his artworks in the streets and squares. De Dominicis has always been the main custodian and defender of his artworks: with lucidity and relentlessness, during his thirty-year long activity, he tried to subtract them from the homogenization of the mass media and the artworld, escaping any attempt of classification of his research within a specific current and opposing any publication of catalogues and books about his work. Regardless, his artworks were admired in the private galleries and public museums from Rome to Paris, from Grenoble to London, in New York and at many editions of the Venice Biennale.
Especially through his art, but also with verbal declarations and communications, he has always claimed for the visual arts a special mission and condition of existence: his is not an art reflecting on art, but an art that reflects on life[1].
His artworks reclaim the power of image and tackle the fundamental questions: death, mystery of creation, the end of history and art as a practice to stop time. The objects had to be durable and immobile in their existence, so they could resist; the Calamita Cosmica, immobile for years inside the ex-church of Santissima Trinità in Annunziata in Foligno, perfectly embraces these principles.

 


[1]N. Bryson, The Buddha of the future in De Dominicis. Selected works on the art and the artist, by Gabriele Guercio, Umberto Allemandi e C. Torino, Stamperia artistica nazionale, 2003, pp. 28-29; G. di Pietrantonio e I. Tomassoni, Calamitati da Gino. Centro Italiano Arte Contemporanea di Foligno, 26 November 2011-14 January 2012, promoted by Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Foligno, p. 4.

[2]G. Guercio, Raccolta di scritti sull’opera e l’artista, Torino, Umberto Allemandi e C. Stamperia artistica nazionale, 2003, p. 73.

[3]G. di Pietrantonio e I. Tomassoni, Calamitati da Gino, Centro Italiano Arte Contemporanea di Foligno, 26 November 2011- 14 January 2012, promoted by Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Foligno, p. 3.

[4]G. Bosi, Foligno, una stagione: la città tra Otto e Novecento, Foligno, Orfini Numeister, 2009, p. 100.

 


[1]Filiberto Menna, De Dominicis o della immortalità in De Dominicis. Raccolte di scritti sull’opera e l’artista curated by Gabriele Guercio, Umberto Allemandi e C. Stamperia artistica nazionale, Turin, 2003, p. 13.

The historical heritage of this city speaks a language of modern inflection. An emotional place, to be saved from oblivion.

«Et maiores et posteros vestros cogitate».
«Think of your ancestors, think of posterity», wrote Publio Cornelius Tacitus and never, like in the case of Carsulae, has it been ever so adequate.
Even though today’s visitors may walk through a site of scattered ruins and remains around 20 hectares large, the compared studies supported by modern technologies (applications and video-mapping especially), are allowing to enjoy a rather complete vision of a sensational place, which deserves to be torn from oblivion.

A salubrious island, florid and welcoming

Built in the vicinity of Interamna Nahars and Casventum, the modern cities of Terni and San Gemini – harbingers of contrasting images of steel mills and mineral water springs – Carsulae is an island in the course of the Roman Flaminia way. Its destiny is consumed along the white cobblestones of the consular road, marked by the furrows of the wagons – and there were many! – built between 220 and 219 b.C. to connect Rome with the northern Adriatic Sea.

The pre-roman populations had understood the opportunity for increasing trade and quality of life and eventually settled closer to the road, building town centers and putting to use the nearby flat lands. Under Emperor Augustus (44 a.C – 14 d.C.), after being recognized as a township, Carsulae reaches its definitive urban layout. The Roman historian Tacitus (Hist. III, 60), together with Plinius the Younger (Ep. I, 4), describe it as florid and hospitable, rich in architectural splendors, salubrious and fertile, speckled with cultivations, vineyards and olive groves, politically active and open to the world.

 

Carsulae, photo by Carsulae site

Teeming with life

What if we were tourists in the age of its maximum splendor? We would be blinded by its white monuments, statues and bright enthusiasm! Let’s try and walk through it all again, walking along the Cardo Maximus (Flaminia road) cutting through the ancient town. There is the San Damiano Arch, suggestive northern gate, built with robust travertine block and inset in a triple-vaulted structure. Beside it, just outside the town perimeter, we find a place of remembrance: the Necropolis, with its sepulchral monuments of illustrious families. In front of the Forum, the basilica – once used as a tribunal – and around it, we can almost hear the sound of passing-by wagons, voices of men, women and children, of deals being struck at the shade of the associations’ guilds. The square, paved in marble and lined with porticos on its longer sides, is embellished by the facades of the public buildings, two twin temples dedicated to Castor and Pollux and the Capitolium, in honor of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. All around, the tight network of the domus, the Roman houses. Social life was enriched by entertainment varied in venues and cruelty. In the theater, harmoniously inserted in the urban context, tragedies, comedies and satires would be staged, while the nearby amphitheater – about 85 meters long and with a dug-out ring built into a natural depression – gladiators would engage in gruesome fights. Among the luxurious urban commodities, the cistern replenished the city with water, also used for the public thermal baths, major attraction for relaxing and socializing time.

 

Carsulae, photo by Carsulae site

End and rebirth

Yet a mist of forgetfulness descended on Carsulae. Between the Fourth and Fifth century A.D. it became an inhospitable place, after an earthquake caused great damage and caused the route of the Flaminian way to be diverted towards Terni and Spoleto.

The white road which had once brought favorable conditions for the city, now concurs to its fall, and Carsulae becomes a mine for construction materials. The archeological digs, started in the Sixteenth century but especially effective between 1951 and 1972, have now allowed the rediscovery of a historical heritage of inestimable value for the province of Terni, which has entrusted its communication to the documentation center U.Ciotti[1].

BOX – The battle of battles

During the winter of 69 A.D., in full Roman civil war, while the generals Vitellus and Vespasian were fighting for power, Carsulae became a crucial player for the faith of Rome and its Empire. After setting up camp on a well-exposed plain with views over Narni, where Vitellus had left some of his cohorts, Antonio Primo, Vespasian’s general, and the lieutenant Arrio Varo decide to scout out the city of Carsulae. After appreciating its beauty and its people’s warm welcome, the two spend a few days in the basilica to plan their strategy – knowing that the soldiers prefer a victory to peace. After laying out a plan and having offered sacrifices to the gods, the battle begins at the shout “Ahead men, fight! As long as you do not want to leave your banner to the enemy”. The victory of Antonio Primo end the civil war will favor the proclamation of Emperor Vespasian.

 


[1] Cfr. www.carsulae.it consulted on 19 July 2019.

The city art museum in Todi conserves a jewel of the Renaissance architecture: the wooden model of the Tempio della Consolazione.

In the Sixteenth century the production of wooden models and architectural mockups is consistent, for they held a dual purpose: to allow the customers to visualize the project they commissioned and to serve as a guide for the artisans and stone masons, especially when encountering any problems during construction. In 1629, after the monument is completed, the model is carried to Rome by the architect of the Factory of St. Peter Carlo Maderno seeking council for some unfinished work; in 1660 Maderno travels to Rome again seeking advice from Francesco Borromini on how to protect the Temple from moisture.

The travels of the model never ended and in the last few years have increased: among many of the wooden models of Renaissance architecture, Todi’s model is among the few to have been perfectly conserved, and is often requested for important art exhibitions in Italy and abroad. A few examples include The Renaissance, from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo at Palazzo Grassi in Venice in 1994, the exhibits in Paris and Berlin, the Milan Triennale, the recent shows in Urbania and Perugia.

 

The restoration of the Temple of the Consolazione, photo by Sandro Bellu

 

In 2007, with the contribution of the Lions Club in Todi, the model underwent a careful and accurate restoration process by the hands of Roberto Saccuman Snc with close surveillance of the Umbrian Cultural Patrimony Superintendence. The restoration was also a moment of study for the University of Tuscia’s Agrarian Faculty, tasked with recognizing the different species of wood, and for its Art History Faculty, assigned with the analysis of pigments. The studies with ultraviolet florescence and infrared reflectography were conducted by Davide Bussolari’s Diagnostics Studio for the Arts Fabbri. The results were surprising and unexpected and Roberto Saccuman, who coordinated and conducted the work with his team, revealed to us the most interesting details and secrets.

The model was made out of poplar tree wood, it measures 120x120x150 centimeters and is composed by a heptagonal base sustaining the central body of the building, the tambour, the dome and the lantern roof.

Through the centuries, the model underwent restorations and retouches, visible especially in the architectural elements rebuilt by using stone pine wood and of a different thickness.

The Southern apse shows a slight difference in craft probably connected to a variation of the project during the construction; there is an indent inside it which was probably made to fit the main door, never completed. The void was filled by using an inferior quality of wood, even if of the same type as the original. All of the model’s mobile components are oriented correctly thanks to a cross-shaped runner etched on the sides; the final lantern roof on the contrary does not have a matching inset.

On the heptagonal base of the monument there are five holes: the central one, square shaped, was probably used to mount the model on a stand for better viewing; the others are placed according to the pillars and are used to correctly insert the base. The orientation of the holes, with their slightly rectangular shape, forbid mistakes during mounting, especially because one of them is oriented differently from the others.

 

The heptagonal base of the monument, photo by Sandro Bellu

 

During restoration, the base was blocked and stiffened by a twin set of large crossbeams and by a peripheral frame, slightly moved towards the back. These superstructures, probably dating back to the nineteenth-century restoration, would prevent it from closing. The recent restoration work removed all the added parts and returned the model to its original function.

By detaching the body of the model, fixed with nails to the base, a drawing of the plant of the building was revealed, invisible to viewers in its entirety since the 1800s. The infrared investigations allowed further understanding by revealing what remained of the old guidelines drawn with graphite pencil, invisible to the eye because covered with a layer of light blue pigment, over the chalk and glue preparation outlining the exact blueprint of the temple.

On the contrary, the ink lines accurately defining the drawing and the metric scale are still quite readable. Interestingly, the date, 3 8bre 1963 L P, was deciphered by applying UV lighting.

The surface of the model had been completely painted: after analyzing it carefully, the body resulted covered in one coat of white color made of calcium carbonate and oil, probably spread in one solution without any preparatory phase. On the domes, a preparatory layer of chalk and animal glue was laid, followed by a layer of pigment composed of indigo and calcium carbonate.

A number of plaster fillings made with Bologna chalk and animal glue, closing the number of crevices and tiny indents on the surface, were consequently retouched with tempera colors. During restoration these materials were greatly altered, giving the artwork into an unfair dark-greyish tint. A careful cleaning of the surfaces, the retrieval of the base’s function, the reconstruction of the missing elements and the chromatic reconstruction have finally returned the model to its ancient beauty.

«Work peacefully and happily, like the stars move: without fury, but never still, on a path that follows the great law». Alice Hallgarten Franchetti

«It is a slowly disappearing art. We are trying to beat time, or even stop it». With these words, the weaving master Maria Menchi Bocciolesi[1] tries to explain the essence of Tela Umbra in a 1962 newspaper clipping[2]. The skills of the weavers and the work of the loom was in danger of being lost, so the author of the article refers to the workers of Tela Umbra as «vestals». At the end of the 19th century, Città di Castello counted 1240 looms, on a population of a little more than 24.000[3]; of course, these were domestic looms, mostly used for linen and hemp, cultivations which were widespread in the area, requiring little attending[4].

 

A business at the heart of Città di Castello

It is in the years of domestic weaving, when the art and knowledge was passed down mother to daughter, that Alice Hallgarten Franchetti came up with the idea of venturing into a proper business with the mission – as clearly stated in its manifest – of «conserving […] the ancient Umbrian art of weaving with hand worked loom and allow women and especially mothers to have a paid job while free of worry for their children, taken care of and fed by the kindergarten made available by the laboratory»[5].

On June 8th[6], 1908 the laboratory was inaugurated, installed at the ground floor of Palazzo Alberto Tomassini. After Alice Hallgarten Franchetti’s death – in 1911 – her husband Leopoldo, who had always supported her emotionally and economically, gave the direction of the laboratory to Maria Pasqui Marchetti, the dear and trusted Marietta to whom Alice had written countless letters, affectionately signing herself as «mamina»[7].

Hand-woven linen since 1908

In 1985 the laboratory, still in its original location, was turned into a cooperative, founded by the workers, the city council of Città di Castello and Sviluppumbria. A museum was also created in the premise. Today Tela Umbra. Hand-woven linens since 1908 is the only active laboratory in Italy of cloths made exclusively in linen, for warp and weft.

 

Weaver at work foto by Tela Umbra

Alice Hallgarten Franchetti[8]

(New York 1874-Leysin 1911)

Alice Hallgarten Franchetti was the daughter of Adolph, of rich bankers’ family, and Julia Norheimer, both German Ashkenazi Jews, and she was born in New York where the family had moved for the father’s work.
In 1882, when Alice was only 8 years old, the father was forced to leave his job due to health reasons, so the family returned to Germany.
On July 9th, 1900, Alice marries Leopoldo Franchetti, Sephardic Jew from Livorno, senator of the New Kingdom of Italy, whom she had met in Rome – where she had moved after living a few years in Frankfurt. They met at the pharmacy of the San Lorenzo neighborhood where they both volunteered as humanitarian and social assistants at the Union of San Lorenzo.

Alice Hallgarten Franchetti

In Città di Castello, Alice and Leopoldo promote a number of educational initiatives for the emancipation of the farmers, especially for women and children. In 1901, Alice founds the Scuola della Montesca, inside the palazzo baring the same name, and later on, the Scuola di Rovigliano, both free of charge for the peasants’ children up to the sixth grade. From 1905, the direction of the schools is entrusted to Maria Pasqui Marchetti, and from 1910 the educational plan is reviewed to fit the Montessori system[9].
In 1908 the laboratory Tela Umbra is born, under an extremely innovative management for those times, as it included a kindergarten for the working women’s benefit. Apart from the nursery school, at Tela Umbra one could also find an evening carpenter school for the youth and a medical consultation ambulatory to learn how to better take care of newborns. Alice Hallgarten Franchetti died of tuberculosis in 1911.

 


[1] To learn about her and the other workers see M. L. Buseghin, La “Tela Umbra” di Città di Castello. Una storia di donne, in «Pagine altotiberine», a. II, n. 6 (sept.-dec. 1998), pp. 123-136.

[2] P. Magi, Un antico laboratorio che ha fermato il tempo. Le “vestali” della Tela Umbra, in «La Nazione», June 15th, 1962.

[3] In 1881 the population counted 24.491 people. The data is collected from A. Tacchini, Le vicende politiche di Leopoldo Franchetti a Città di Castello, in A. Tacchini, P. Pezzino (curated by), Leopoldo e Alice Franchetti e il loro tempo, Petruzzi, Città di Castello 2002 also avialble on the website www.storiatifernate.it.

[4] Cfr. A. Tacchini, Artigianato e industria a Città di Castello tra Ottocento e Novecento, Petruzzi, Città di Castello, 2000, pp. 334-339.

[5] The citation of the Manifest is taken from M. L. Buseghin, Alice Hallgarten Franchetti un modello di donna e imprenditrice nell’Italia tra ’800 e ’900, Pliniana, Selci Lama, 2013, p. 66.

[6] For the date see M. L. Buseghin, Alice Hallgarten Franchetti un modello di donna e imprenditrice nell’Italia tra ’800 e ’900, cit., pp. 67-77.

[7] The letters have been published fully by M. L. Buseghin, Cara Marietta… Lettere di Alice Hallgarten Franchetti, Tela Umbra, Città di Castello, 2002.

[8] For a more detailed biography see M. L. Buseghin, Cara Marietta… Lettere di Alice Hallgarten Franchetti, cit., pp. 467-472 and the website curated by da M. L. Buseghin in http://www.enciclopediadelledonne.it/biografie/alice-hallgarten-franchetti/.

[9] S. Bucci, La Scuola della Montesca. Un centro educativo internazionale, in P. Pezzino, A. Tacchini (curated by), Leopoldo e Alice Franchetti e il loro tempo, cit., pp. 195-242.

Soft and white inside, browned and slightly hardened on the outside, alone or as a side dish, the torta al testo has become a symbol of Umbria.

Bread has always been the fuel of the people, not just as a basic source of food, but also as a propulsion for the people’s revolts against tyranny and oppression. The rise of the price of bread has in many occasions throughout history been the pretext for uprisings and revolutions. Think of Chapter Eleven in Manzoni’s The Betrothed when the unreasoning crowd assaults the Forno delle Grucce baker’s shop, or the most notable sentence attributed to Mary Antoinette: «If they have no bread, let them eat cake». Within our regional borders, one may remember how the people of Perugia reacted to the papal victory of 1540 by boycotting his tax on salt, banishing it from the bread dough forever.

Though as the Nineteenth century approached with its industrial revolution bread became a common food, its preparation was still a long and laborious endeavor involving the entire family. Between one batch of bread and the other, 7 or 8 days could pass, because there were many ways stale bread could be employed and the mouths to feed were innumerous. The wait for more nutritious food could be very long especially for the peasants, bound to the hard work in the fields, so the torta al testo was born. 

 

prodotti tipici umbri

Torta al testo

The secret? How it is baked

Soft and white within, browned and slightly hardened on the outside, alone or as an accompaniment for the strong-flavored cheeses, the seasoned cured meats and the rich arrabbiata sauce used in the Umbrian tradition for meat stews – the torta al testo has become a symbol of our region. The dough is made with water, flour, salt and yeast – in the 1800s baking soda, sourdough or brewer’s yeast, in the 1900s idrolitina (baking soda and acid salt) was introduced, today ousted by baking powder. The name al testo refers to the half-inch thick disk used for baking.

Before gas stoves and cast-iron flat-pans became widespread, in the central-north areas of the region this disk was made of terracotta or river sand and clay and would be left to warm on a grill[1]. The testo – or panaro when in Gubbio and Città di Castello[2] – would have reached the perfect temperature when the flour doused on top turned yellow: then the bread, of the dimension and shape of the disk, would be laid on top to bake for about 15-20 minutes[3].

South of Todi, this white flat bread was cooked in the fireplace – previously warmed with the coals then brushed away – flipped and covered with warm ashes and cinder after it had browned. Half-way between the testo and the Terni-based fuoco morto (i.e. dead fire which cooks the pizza under the fire), were once more the peasants, who loved their torta al testo snacks in the fields. There, they could also pluck certain rock slabs, called dead or serene, later tempered to make sure it could resist heat and sudden changes in temperature[4] and turned into the perfect testo.

And if simplicity is not enough…

Creativity cannot be tied down and our forefathers knew this well, juggling restrictions and mouths to feed, they would refuse nothing that the land could offer. The torte al testo would sometimes include ciccioli[5] and pecorino cheese, olive oil – or pig fat -, eggs and grated pecorino cheese, diced bacon, raisins or dried plums, walnuts and yet again… pecorino, a prized ingredient in the mountainous areas where sheep herds were common.

The type of flour could also offer a curious variation, though today it has been abandoned for it is a painful recollection of a poor and difficult past[6]: corn flour was once used, mixed with wheat flour, salt and very hot water, forming a more granular dough which could only be kneaded by hand. This version of the torta would never be flipped and would cook for at least twenty minutes; it was often combined with cooked greens and potatoes, raw onions, beans and fava-beans.

A clarification

To be fair, Umbrians didn’t really invent this type of bread. In the way of cooking it, as in the dough and the shape, similar versions lost in the folds of time may be found, handed down from father to son, from conqueror to defeated.

If it is true that the torta al testo is originally nothing else but an unleavened bread, it is worth mentioning the Egyptian bread, which was similarly made out of spelt flour, water, salt and sometimes dates and coriander seeds. After some hours of rest, it was baked on a burning-hot stone, obtaining a bread with a «hard and shiny crust, dense, heavy and fragrant»[7].

Cato the Elder, in his De Agri Cultura dated 160 b.C., cites a certain placenta, similar in shape and lack of leavening to the torta al testo of the origins: «you shall carefully clean the fireplace, you will heat it to the right temperature, then you shall place the placenta. Cover it with a hot tile». Quite similar to the testuacium of Varro, similarly baked with the help of a roof tile, or to the panis artopticus, cooked under a bell[8].

Pliny the elder, on the other hand, offers a full list – though he himself specifies it is not complete – of the numerous types of bread available in Ancient Rome. One may note that for the Romans, there was no distinction between a focaccia (or pizza) and bread, especially when considering the panis subcinerinus or fucacius cooked under the cinder, the panis adipatus seasoned with bits of lard or bacon, or even the panis testicius, eaten by the legionaries after baking it on a clay tile, eloquent enough in its name[9].

The queen of the Umbrian table

Whether deriving from Ancient Rome or from the mefa made with flour, water and salt mentioned in the Tavole Eugubine, the torta al testo is the true queen of the Umbrian table. Easy, quick and tasty, it has the merit of deriving from a peasant’s meal and becoming a typical Umbrian dish. In its simplicity it is the expression of the local household and of the afternoons in the fields, with the sun shining on the bent backs and the lunch baskets full of this fragrant bread cooked on a testo.

 


[1] Cfr. R. Boini, La torta al testo, in «Percorsi umbri», n. 2-3 June 2006.

[2] In Gubbio the torta al testo is known as crescia (risen) because in the baking process it rises and thickens.

[3] Cfr. R. Boini, op.cit.

[4] The place where the blocks of stone were smoothened were called schiacciaie (“flatteners”) and the bread originally was called schiaccia (“flattened”). Cfr. O. Fillanti, La torta al testo in Umbria, Perugia, Promocamera, 2011.

[5] The ciccioli are the tiny bits of meat residual to the extraction of the pig fat, cfr. I. Trotta, Perugia a Tavola, Perugia, Morlacchi Editore, 2017.

[6] Cfr. R. Boini, La cucina umbra, Ponte San Giovanni (PG), Calzetti Mariucci, 1995.

[7] Cfr. www.vitantica.net, consulted on August 21st, 2019.

[8] Cfr. www.cerealialudi.org, consulted on August 20th, 2019.

[9] Cfr. www.taccuinigastrosofici.it, consultato il 19/8/2019.