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A symbol of nobility and transcendence, the colour blue has been extracted from a plant that grew lush in the entire upper Tiber valley for centuries: the woad, common name of Isatis tinctoria, has decreed the fortune not only of numerous cities.

In the Middle Ages, the main economic activity, apart from agriculture, was the textile industry. The weavers and merchants’ shops occupied the squares and the central streets of the cities.


The citizens’ statutes attested the quantitative and qualitative dimension of a branched sub-sector that moved from the popular neighbourhoods where the most polluting activities took place, to the central areas dominated by the sale of finished items. The fabric marketing at markets and fairs generated huge fortunes, and a great part of the population, including the humble sectors, were employed in a variety of jobs ranging from the initial preparation of raw materials (wool, cotton, silk, linen) to the weaving operations at the looms, without forgetting the equally fundamental fulling and colouring of the fabrics. Even if the authorities, in the name of a Christian poverty, sought (in vain) to limit the manifestations of luxury and ostentation, the eternal pleasure for textiles has led to fuelling mass consumerism and fashion.


But the fabrics, considered for what they really are, a material, are also an ideal point of observation to follow the prevailing cultural trends in society. Consider the importance assigned to fabrics in works of art. Each picture, each fresco, each painting, in fact, is like a window through which the history of fabrics, clothes and colours can be observed with the garments worn by people as well as an infinite quantity of furnishing textiles and everyday use. In this way, pictorial representations help us trace, albeit indirectly, the wealth of forms and techniques that marked the evolution of the textile industry that had to, long before the chemical products arrived, look for a solution in nature to find the pigments to obtain the desired colours. Except for white, the starting point, all the rest, had to be invented and prepared with great care.


To obtain the refined blue, nothing was better than using the woad plant, the Isatis tinctoria, an Asian vegetable species used in Europe since remote times. Galen and Pliny wrote about the colouring properties of the woad on wool. Over the centuries, the woad became essential to the textile industry and botanical treaties provided detailed information on plant cultivation and on the procedures to follow to reach the precious “blue gold” up to recent times. Let’s see them. The leaves of the plant sown in February, showing great resistance to cold climates, had to be picked as soon as they reached maturity – towards June – and deposited in places sheltered from natural inclemencies but also by too much violent sunlight. A dough was obtained with the leaves shredded in the mills (the oil ones could be used), left to ferment for about eight days. After this time, the still moist dough was made into powder and moulded into “cakes” or “pods”. The weight, the smell and the violet colour were good quality clues. To use them during the dye process the “woads” had to ferment in a tub or tin for a couple of weeks, with the addition of substances (lime, urine) that contributed to accelerating the precipitation of the pigment. At this point – and checked by the wise dye master – the threads or fabrics to dye could be immerged. Although the fabric came out initially with slightly yellow shades, immediately after contact with the air, it gained the typical blue chromaticity.



The woad cultivation, decreed, during the medieval ages, the fortunes of some European regions. In the triangle between the French cities of Toulouse, Albi and Carcassone, the woad also decreed the birth of the “cockaigne” myth as merchants used spheres or containers called cocagnes to carry the precious commodities. In Italy, instead, the history of the blue plant is closely linked to the lands of the central Apennine, between Tuscany, Umbria and Marche, decreasing the fortunes of cities like San Sepolcro or Cortona. It should be remembered that the father of Piero della Francesca, Benedetto de’ Franceschi, was a renowned fabric and woad merchant and this surely enabled the master to obtain an exquisite sensitivity to blue-painted clothing, similar to those that continue to capture our attention every time we stop to contemplate the beauty of the “Madonna del Parto”, the “Polittico della Misericordia” and many other masterpieces by the artist. It should be remembered that blue, to borrow what was written by the Tuscan painter Cennino by Andrea Cennini  in his Libro dell’arte, symbolised the highest degree of nobility as an allegorical indication of spirituality and transcendence: a “Noble, beautiful, perfect colour beyond all colours”.  If the pre-eminent role assigned by Piero della Francesca to blue was mentioned earlier, always at the centre of the scene, it is equally true also for Pietro Perugino and Bernardino di Betto Betti (the Pinturicchio), Umbrian painters both attracted, in unison, to the shades that the woad gave fabrics, chromaticities then to be transferred to an altarpiece or a fresco, giving life to a suggestive reference of transpositions and referrals between the different fields of artistic creation.



If we now move from the painters who with their works allowed the cities of Umbria to play an important role in defining the artistic rhythms of the Renaissance and we turn our attention to the precious textile craftsmanship in medieval Perugia, the use of the woad is the setting of a dense plot of influences between the different plans of artistic creativity. During the Middle Ages, Perugia’s textile industry became famous for the so-called “tovaglie perugine”. This was a type of white linen cloth with a “bird’s eye” or a “low fish bone” pattern with cotton stripes elegantly decorated with rusty figures, even if blue was predominant. In the realisation of the ornaments arranged along the stripes there are floral, geometric, and mythological animals, with great emphasis (it could not be otherwise) to the griffin, the zoomorphic symbol of the city. Richly elaborated elements that gave the entire product, a marked orientalising influence in this the use of blue is decisive. The decorated “tablecloths” of Perugia, even they debtors towards the woad cultivated in the upper Tiber valley, appear in the inventories of churches and noble houses, but we can also see them, thanks to the hand of painters, embedded in sacred scenes such as cenacles of Ognissanti by Ghirlandaio or the Fuligno by Pietro Perugino. Even in these circumstances, the blue of the tablecloths helps fill the ambiences with colour and, as mentioned before, the deep influence of the woad plant and its striking dye substance are captured in filigree.


Fuligno by Pietro Perugino


The woad, like many other realities in Europe, had to bear the consequences of the discovery of the American continent that decreed the spreading of the most affordable indigo, another colouring agent for blue that, in fact, decreed the abandonment of the old plant now used as plain forage for animals in many areas. But today, under the effect of a request for natural dye agents deriving from environmental friendly productive processes, new opportunities are opening for the woad plant. The story of the blue plant is one that will be continued to be written.


To learn more:

Borlandi, Franco, Note per la storia della produzione e del commercio di una materia prima, il guado nel Medioevo, in Studi in onore di Gino Luzzatto, vol. I, Milan, A. Giuffre, 1949, pp. 297-324.

Guarducci, Piero, Tintori e tinture nella Firenze medievale (13th-15th cent.), Florence, Polistampa, 2005.


“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sor’aqua,

la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta…”

The water mentioned by Francis in The Canticle of the Creatures, also known as The Song of Friar Sun and Sister Luna, the first poem in Italian composed in 1226, can only be blue.

Blue is an evocative colour, just like painting and music. It bounces and resonates between eyes and heart as a colour and a feeling of depth. It is no coincidence that Kandinsky, who was a painter and also a cellist, wrote: “from a musical point of view, azure looks like a flute, blue resembles a cello, or the wonderful sound of the double bass when it becomes very dark; in its darker and more solemn dimension, it has the deep sound of an organ…”.

Blue becomes the colour of purification, with a biblical reference; an immersion in inner life to re-emerge enriched and aware. The chromatic line of the whole Canticle cannot but be blue, a supreme example of a praise to God, to life and nature perceived in its beauty and complexity. In it, Francis descends into himself and then pronounces, in a liberating scream, in a deep breath, towards the sky:

“Altissimu, onnipotente, bon Signore,

tue so’ le laude, la gloria e l’honore et onne benedictione.

Ad te solo, Altissimo, se konfano, et nullu homo ène dignu te mentovare…”

To express the immensity of Francis’ feelings, blue returns with Giotto, a master in the use of one of the most famous and precious colours in the history of art.

Obtained from the shredding of lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone extracted in various places in the East, preserved the trace of its long travels to reach Europe in the well-fitting name “Ultramarine”. From the sea – from the water – to the sky, a short way, and the Tuscan artist dispenses lavishly his deep blue lapis lazuli skies in the monumental Basilica Superiore in Assisi and in the Chapel of the Scrovegni in Padua, although in some cases he used the cheap azurite, obtaining a very similar shade. Yet, Giotto’s blue is timeless, capable of reaching contemporary art with its load of suggestions. Yves Klein, creator of the famous International Klein Blue (IKB) in 1956 – “the most perfect expression of blue” to unify heaven and earth by dissolving the horizon with an Ultramarine free of alterations – sent a postcard depicting a scene of the Giottesque cycle in the Assisi Basilica, to his gallerist Iris Clert, delighted for having found a match to “his” blue in those frescoed skies.




It can only be the blue – matched with the Yellow of “… messor lo frate sole, lo qual è iorno, et allumini noi per lui…” on which one could find as many correspondences – the colour of the Franciscan Path. The path that connects the “places” of life and of the preaching of the Saint of perfect joy and allows reaching Assisi from Tuscany and Lazio, then continue to Rome through the Valle Santa Reatina. Over 570 km, including some variants and always between 400 and 600 meters in altitude, sometimes rising to 1,100 meters. The guide is the signposting, placed to make travelling easy in both directions. Easy to locate, interpret and follow, but not entirely homogeneous. If in Umbria and in the Lazio section it combines the blue-yellow colour – differing only for number of signs, more in Umbria – in the Tuscan section it uses the red-white of the CAI (the Italian Alpine Club). The only password, repeated on several sources: “always follow the same type of signage”. Via Lauretana intersects the Francis Route, that reaches Assisi from the Holy House of Loreto, and the Patron of Europe Route, St. Benedict, from Norcia to the Abbey of Montecassino passing through Cascia, and the Franciscan Protomartyr Route, marked by Benedictine abbeys and Franciscan places in the province of Terni.


However, the Franciscan Way is much more than a journey. It’s a Pilgrimage.

“We choose a Pilgrimage Route because we want to change, everyone looks for something different, for themselves, a different relationship with others, faith …” said the Auxiliary Bishop of Perugia-Città della Pieve, Monsignor Paolo Giulietti (President of the Consortium “Umbria & Francescos’ Ways”, dedicated to the spiritual routes – editor’s note) recently, motivating the sense of an experience of this kind.

Yes, because the Franciscan Way can allow to descend into the immense Blue of one’s soul, to drown in personal depths and find the right thrust to re-emerge. It can allow finding a sense of a daily life in harmony with the world, with man and with God, without the steps of the Saint, Patron of Italy and of ecology, overlapping ours, crushing them, but, instead, coming besides them.

The same landscapes that filled the heart of Francis can embody the Pilgrim’s eye, investing it with its words and actions to use like a balm for the heart and mind. A viatic, taken along all routes that will come. Spirituality, welcoming, humility, the bitterness mixed with an unfiltered sensing of Umbria, in accordance with the flow of seasons, can only gratify those who decide to come with a pure and clear mind to Assisi, a city, a crossroads of the world, capable of transcending any distinction of Culture and Credence.


Franciscan Basilica


Let’s imagine then to leave without hesitation, armed only with a careful eye and the ability to understand, taking the Route of the peace of the woods of the Verna monastery on the Apennine ridge. It is the place where Francis, after following the Gospel to the letter, wanted to share his pain with Christ and wanted it so much that he was rewarded… with the stigmata. He drew the awareness from them, an awareness that he would no longer return, he uttered a commotified “Goodbye God’s mountain, Goodbye Mount Avernia”. From a breath-taking view, from which the threads of love often torn by the egoism of modern life can return to be woven, the route unfolds along gentle paths, perhaps less impacting from the natural point of view but full of history and culture. Here is Città di Castello and the descent towards south to reach high Pietralunga and Gubbio. One of the first, authentic trips of the Saint, after crossing the Medieval Gate, the Church of St. Francis appears evoking, among other things, the miracle of the wolf calmed down with the famous promise Brother Wolf, promise to observe the peace treaty, that you do not offend either men, animals, or creatures?” The Path then touches Valfabbrica and after one of the most beautiful sections, amazing because it approaches the imposing massif of the Sacred Convent and of the Basilica of Saint Francis, the joy of entering Assisi is tangible. With the Franciscan Basilica behind, the Path’s blue thread leads to the Eremo delle Carceri, clinging to the sides of mount Subasio to reach Spello and Foligno. Without leaving the ridge of the valley, here comes Spoleto and then, after going through the pass, it arrives at Valnerina, summed up between Ceselli and Arrone, to touch the water of the Marmore cascade. The borders of Lazio are near and from the Piediluco expanse of water, the blue dives into that liquid depth, re-emerging in the Santa Reatina Valley, at the foot of the Terminillo, and then engages the immensity of the eternal city.

And in the peaceful Blue that was the companion on the way, the pilgrimage become aware that being on the route is already the goal, because the Way of Saint Francis embraces others. The Way of Santiago, for example, under the aegis of St. Anthony of Lisbon, a Franciscan brother who appeals to he who would become Patron of Italy “My Bishop”. In July 2008, the Assisi and Santiago administrations twinned the two cities, underlining the cultural and spiritual closeness that are the foundations of the pilgrimage.

A way to keep alive “The love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Heaven XXXIII, 145) preserved, unconsciously, globally, humanly… in the intimacy of every traveller of life.