Needless to say, I had left telephoning to make an appointment to visit La Scarzuola until the last minute with the result that they could only fit us in that afternoon so we had to revise our planned visit for the day.
We decided to drive to Orvieto via Montepulciano (where unfortunately we didn’t have time to stop) to see St Patrick’s well.
a tantalising glimpse of Montepulciano
Orvieto was dramatically perched on top of the cliffs. From the little we saw of Orvieto it looked as if it was yet another beautiful place to wander around. Apparently it has a beautiful duomo, supposedly one the of the most impressive examples of mediaeval architecture in Italy and a fascinating underground city made up of a network of underground passages used for water cisterns and pigeon breeding. St Patrick’s well was built in the early 16th century and is an architectural marvel. Its double spiral staircases run along the sides of the well, 62 metres deep, without meeting. Each has 248 steps and is just wide enough for pack animals to descend and then carry water back up.
We managed to find the well without too much difficulty and paid our entrance fee (quite expensive at €10 per person). We got as far as the first window when disaster struck. I had noticed the previous evening that one side of the frame of my glasses was bent and therefore no longer very secure. Somehow I managed to dislodge them, as I tried to take a photo looking down into the depths of the well, and they landed on the window ledge before bouncing off into the void and landing in 2 metres of water at the bottom of the well. I took one photo but was too shocked to want to stay any longer, as the full impact of what the loss of my glasses would mean to me*.
It was a long way down and DH had already decided that he wouldn’t be able to get down and back up again in the short time we had so we climbed back up the few steps we had already descended and went in search of refreshment before going to our next destination: la Scarzuola.
Fortunately we had left ourselves with plenty of time to find it as our gps gave up long before we got to it. More by luck than anything else we actually managed to find the place. I had spotted a brown and white sign with the name “la scarzuola, eremite C12” on it so we followed the narrow road that soon became a track through a landscape of scattered oak trees. We found the little chapel to which the sign had directed us.
We passed two beautiful examples of country retreats and I eventually got out of the car to ask directions from a family I spotted in the garden of the second property. In fact we were on the right track but hadn’t gone far enough.
“In Montegiove (Montegabbione near citta della Pieve), the creations at La Scarzuola have been expanding across the Umbrian landscape since the mid-Fifties when Tomaso Buzzi, a controversial, mystically inclined architect, bought a 13th century hermitage founded by St Francis and began building his Ideal City”. After his death his nephew decided to continue his uncle’s work using the drawings that he had inherited. The result is an Italian equivalent of Portmeirion but on a much smaller scale.
The tour, with an Italian guide (actually Marco Solari, Buzzi’s nephew) who only spoke Italian, started at 4pm. It was supposed to last 2 hours but he was intent on passing on to us much of his encyclopaedic knowledge of and enthusiasm for the project and it lasted a lot longer. I could understand a little of what he said and it appeared to be a metaphysical discourse on the thought process of the architect who originally constructed the buildings. Much of Buzzi’s work was influenced by Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) . John Tranter has reviewed this fascinating book and its importance in the history of printing. There is another fascinating article about this now-obscure piece of architectural literature here and if you google the name of the book you’ll find lots more images from it.
Quindi La Scarzuola, basata sul primo poema illustrato italiano “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili”, altro non è che un viaggio iniziatico all’interno di noi stessi dove possiamo incontrare luoghi, a forma di scene teatrali, metafora della vita di tutti noi, insomma un viaggio nell’anima, attraverso il non luogo ideato dalla fertile mente del Buzzi.
However, La Scarzuola, based on the first illustrated Italian poem “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” is nothing other than a journey of initiation into ourselves where we may find places, in the shape of theatrical scenes, metaphors of life for all of us, in conclusion a journey of the soul, through the “non-place” imagined in the fertile mind of Buzzi (my translation).
It was one of the most extraordinary places we have ever visited.
* the saga of my glasses continued. When we got back to the hotel and I took my spare glasses out of their case one of the lenses fell out and it was 3 days before I could get it replaced ….