Egerton R. (Egerton Ryerson) Williams.

Hill towns of Italy; online

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ing to tell him how to begin and where to stop.

I crossed over to the cathedral, with its dull
stone fagade, unornamented save for an old
romanesque recessed portal, and found the in-
terior rather picturesque from a similar crudity.
It had a nave and aisles without transepts, and
large columns with romanesque capitals of leaves
and scrolls. In the choir I found the best thing
in Sansepolcro, an Assumption by Perugino. It
was distinguished by all his usual depth and grace


of composition and expression, in spite of being
so full of figures as to seem overcrowded. There
were five or six apostles on each side below, and
Christ with four angels above, almost shutting
out any view of the golden background; but
one forgets the overcrowding in contemplating
any one of the rapt heavenly faces. Across the
choir is a Resurrection by Colle, representing
Christ bounding out of the tomb with a white
banner in his hand; and the fact that Colle did
not know where to stop is forcibly demonstrated
by the manner in which the sleeping soldiers are
thrown sprawling in all directions. In spite of
the subject, I could not help laughing.

After this I spent some time in strolling about
the town, following the main street to the south-
ern gate, and searching eastwards amongst the
side streets, narrow and dirty, till I brought up
against a little park on the first rise of the moun-
tain side, decorated with an excellent marble
statue of Piero della Francesca. Near the park,
in the private palace of the Collachioni, is his
reputed chef d'ceuvre, the Infant Hercules. A
worthy citizen conducted me to the palace,
which had an exterior as ugly and dull as any
other, and a pompous portiere admitted me,
in the absence of the family. The interior was as
rich and elaborate as the outside was plain, which
is typical of Italian houses generally. There was
a handsome lower hall, with suites of living*


rooms, parlors, and billiard room opening off to
right and left ; and at the end was a curving
stone stairway that led to a smaller hall on the
first floor, adorned with arms and armor. From
this opened a spacious salon of seventeenth cen-
tury style, with frescoed ceiling and tables of
precious marble, and here upon the end wall was
Piero's painting of the Infant Hercules, a
sturdy, bare-limbed child, aglow with vigorous
strength, a true precursor of Luca Signorelli's
athletes in his Last Judgment at Orvieto. I
learned from the portiere that the Collachioni
resident mostly at Rome came to this one of
their country homes but one week in the year,
and that was usually as a stop-over on the way
to or from Florence. Nevertheless the house had
to be constantly kept in perfect readiness to re-
ceive them in case of a sudden visit. I do not
blame the Collachioni for spending only one week
a year in this splendid villa ; that is a long time
in Borgo Sansepolcro.

Having now visited all but the western quar-
ter of the town, I proceeded thither, and roamed
about its streets, picturesque here and there
with an old church fayade or loggia. The west-
ern gate was but a simple round archway in the
brick town wall, with a stone bridge beyond
spanning the moat, whence the road ran off across
the luxuriant plain between elm trees laden with
garlands of vine. On the parapet of the bridge


sat an old man, sunning himself in the noonday
blaze, gazing sleepily down at the dry bed of the
ancient fosse ; and along came strenuous woman-
hood which does more work in Italy than the
men in the shape of a peasant woman carrying
on her head a load of hay so huge as almost to
obscure the means of its propulsion. This is a
very frequent sight ; for so does feminine labor
feed the donkeys that the lords and masters drive.
Soon after I returned to the inn, and after a hur-
ried lunch took the train for Citta di Castello.

The narrow gauge railroad carried me ten miles
down the valley, at no faster a pace than that
with which we had yesterday climbed the moun-
tains, and which a nimble horse could easily
equal. The Tiber accompanied us, in gentle me-
anderings beneath great willow trees and oaks ;
it was here but a brook some twenty feet in
width, not yet impregnated with its distinctive
muddy color. We passed frequent villages,
one having an old fortified monastery of unusual
picturesqueness, and after crossing the Tiber,
stopped at the station of Citt& di Castello outside
its eastern gate. I perceived that the town lay
on the west side of the valley, instead of on the
east, like Sansepolcro. Its huge brick battlements
rose sheer from the level of the plain, with but a
trace here and there of the ancient moat, that
had mostly been filled up. Over the wall to the
right of the gate soared the extensive pile of one


of the palaces of the Vitelli, the mediaeval tyrants
of the city ; and adjacent to it was a garden with
a copse of beautiful trees growing on the top of a
bastion in the wall.

It was to another of the palaces of the Vitelli,
now used as an inn, that I betook myself with
my luggage ; I found it at the southern angle
of the town, a rambling, disconnected structure,
quite ruined save for the part now inhabited.
Once it was a gorgeous renaissance court, with
the resounding name of the Palazzo della Can-
noniera, bedecked with all the ornament that
the art of the Renaissance could devise. They
were not bad tyrants, these Vitelli ; they spent
the money of the citizens in building, which is
far preferable to making war. Citta di Castello
owes more fame to-day to their brief lordship
in the fifteenth century than to her historic im-
portance in Roman times, when she was a
proud and wealthy municipium under the name
of Tifernum Tiberinum, enjoying all the trade
of this rich upper valley of the Tiber, and of so
much account that Totila the Goth turned out
of his way to sack and destroy her. The popu-
lation then, as in subsequent renaissance days,
must have been several times as large as the pre-
sent one of five thousand. The city was merged
in the States of the Church after the end of the
power of the Vitelli, and has declined ever since.
On walking about it that afternoon, I found it to


be quite in the shape of a coffin, lying with its
head to the north, a half mile distant from the
hills on the west of the valley ; and a coffin is
also suggestive of its absence of life. Only a
very few people were crawling lazily about its
ancient sun-baked streets, with their remains
of mediaeval grandeur. The white stuccoed
facades, interspersed with an occasional front
of stone, were in fairly good preservation, but
it seemed like a city of the dead. The long
straight line of the main thoroughfare, the
Corso, running from the southern gate to the
northern, was deserted ; in the cross thorough-
fare, running from the eastern gate at the rail-
road station to the lofty bastion at the western
angle, there was more shade, and here a few in-
animate beings sat drinking coffee at several

The central Piazza lies, naturally, at the junc-
tion of these ways ; and here is the arcaded Pre-
fecture and a third palace of the Vitelli, now used
as a barrack. I returned to the eastern gate to
inspect the largest of these palaces, which I had
noticed on my arrival. There was a little piazza
before its white plastered facade, inset with stone-
framed windows and doorways, imposing only
from the proportions of the mass and the nicety
of the spacing of the openings; and in the
middle of the Piazza rose the ever-present Gari-
baldi in marble. This palace is still in the pos-


session of a private family, which, of course, lives
at Rome and visits it but seldom j but it accounts
for its being kept in royal condition. Hoping to
be admitted, I rang the bell at the porter's door,
but received no answer. Then a bystander who
had appeared conducted me by a long route
through a lane where an old couple were making
rope to the grounds at the rear ; there, in a field
behind the garden proper, some men were hay-
ing. The limits of the garden were marked by a
graceful stone colonnade, and advancing through
its arches I saw the back fagade of the palace
across a beautiful stretch of lawn, cut with graveled
paths, set with countless orange and lemon trees
in vases, and ornamented in the centre with a wide
splashing fountain. It was a picture ideally Ital-
ian. A colonnade in the ground floor of the old
palace added to its grace, and on the left rose the
thicket of lofty elms and ilexes upon the bastion
of the city wall. Through these curving walks
and fragrant shrubs once strolled the courtiers
of the lords of the city, resplendent with laces,
silks, and satins, discussing the new-found beliefs
of Humanism and the latest canvas of Perugino.
One of a number of women who were drying
clothes upon the bushes turned out to be the
wife of the care-taker, and informed me that the
palace could not be entered; but she enjoined
her small son to conduct me to the " Palazzino."
This he did by leading the way along the top


of the adjacent city wall to another bastion some
distance to the north, upon which I found a
thicket of shrubbery with a charming summer-
house hidden behind it. Its airy loggia was com-
pletely frescoed with mythological subjects in a
happy manner, of which enough had been spared
by the assaults of time to show the original rich
glow of coloring. It was thoroughly consonant
with the gay spirits of the people who built and
made use of it.

I returned to the central Piazza, after some
wandering through the narrower, darker ways of
the northern section of the town, and then fol-
lowed westward the main cross-street; it soon
opened into another piazza, with the Palazzo
Communale upon the south side, and the little
park of the city terminating it upon the west.
The Palazzo Communale, or Municipio, is a de-
lightful little building of the fourteenth century,
of general renaissance characteristics in form and
rustica work, but with gothic windows and door-
ways. In the hall I found a fine ponderous
gothic stone stairway, curving upwards about a
huge column. On inquiring of a gorgeous offi-
cial, I learned that the municipal art collection
which used to be kept there had been transferred
to another building some distance to the north ;
and thither a little boy conducted me, who re-
vealed the freedom of Citta di Castello from
visitors by refusing to accept a fee. The art




collection did not amount to much save for some
examples of Signorelli, and a church banner by
Raphael, on whose linen he had painted a Trinity
on one side and a Creation on the other. These
were distinguished by his usual great power and
grace, in spite of much fading and defacement.
They were all that Citt& di Castello has left of
the many works with which Raphael once adorned
it in his early days at Perugia ; the others have
been carried off by conquerors, or sold, or dis-
appeared without trace.

Returning to the Palazzo Communale, I found
the cathedral near-by, fronting westwards upon
the park. The original church upon this site
was founded in 1012, but all that remains of it
is the unusual round campanile, pierced with
several tiers of windows at the top, and the quaint
romanesque side portal on the north. The pre-
sent church was erected about 1500, in renais-
sance style, and its facade, finished through the
first story only, is in the usual rococo. I climbed
the high sweeping flight of steps to the doorway,
and searched through the lofty gilded interior
in vain for some work of merit. There were a
nave and transepts without aisles, but with many
side chapels having elaborate altars and modern
paintings ; and there was a large choir, in which
the chapter of the cathedral was intoning after-
noon service with many breaks and baitings.


After a dinner at the remains of the Palazzo
della Cannoniera, I watched the sun set behind
the hills from the little park on the western ram-
parts. On this knoll, the highest part of the town,
once stood the castle or fortress from which it
derives its name. The razing of that fear-inspir-
ing citadel gave place, as in the case of so many
cities, to shady walks and flower-beds ; and on its
great bastion at the western angle of the city
wall, raised sixty feet from the plain below, where
pontifical soldiers once kept watch and guard
over city and valley from grim battlemented
towers, the free citizens of United Italy now loll
beneath umbrageous ilexes. Here I saw the sun
sink to the crest of the mountain that raised
its steep verdurous slope but half a mile away,
covered with olive orchards and clumps of oaks
embosoming picturesque white villas. The peace
of a summer evening descended on the scene,
and the lowing of a cow from some distant farm-
yard but accentuated it. I watched the sun-line
rise upon the long, high, brick wall of the city
stretching northwards, till it reached the battle-
ments, and leaped from them to the white facades
of houses and churches within. Up these it
swiftly crept to the bronze-tiled roofs that peered
over the valley, and forsook them for the few
campaniles that soared above the mass, whose
tops glowed rosily for an instant while all the town


below was wrapt in shadow. Then with a last
flash the golden light took flight into the air and
perched upon the lofty peaks of the mountains to
the east. Wonderfully they gleamed from every
rocky spur and pinnacle in hues of gold and pink
and crimson, over the deep shadows of the his-
toric valley of the Tiber, just as they had done
for so many thousand years. And it seemed to
me as if in those shades of the rolling plain I
could see the bonfires of the legions of Rome be-
gin to glitter, reflecting from corselet, shield, and
morion ; but they were but the house lights of
some modern peaceful contadini.


EARLY the next morning I took a train to con-
tinue southwards down the valley as far as Umber-
tide, and mount thence to the east to the table-
land of Gubbio. As we rolled on through the
never ending fields of wheat and vine, looking
more like orchards from the richly leaved elms
supporting the avenues of garlands of budding
grapes, the Tiber's course was always in sight
to the left, marked by a double row of lofty wil-
lows and oaks. This majestic avenue meandered
gracefully from side to side of the valley, and
occasionally we approached it closely enough to
skirt the bank, disclosing the stream twenty feet
below the protecting boughs, already growing
muddy from the garnered soil of the plain. We
passed frequent homely villages on the level,
modern ones, scattered about unpaved streets
with no enclosing walls; more ancient towns
were visible upon the heights here and there,
clumps of brown-tiled roofs looking over broken
battlements. Now and then a pilgrimage church
or mediaeval castle lifted its gray tower upon


some mountain crag. After traversing about four-
teen miles we crossed the Tiber and rolled into
Umbertide, which proved to be quite a town, with
a considerable extent of good-looking modern
buildings; it is the metropolis and distributing
point of the lower end of this fertile valley. Be-
yond it the Tiber flows into a narrower defile
that it has cut southwards through the moun-
tains, and continues in it for eighteen miles, till it
emerges upon the plain of Umbria. Beside that
point of emersion rises the hill of Perugia ; and
the realization that I was once more so near that
most wonderful of all Italian hill towns made me
long to get out and take horse for it. Beautiful
Perugia ! I recalled the day when I stood upon
her lofty northern ramparts above the mighty
gate of Augustus, gazing out at the jagged sum-
mits of the main ridge of the Apennines, and
thinking that in the valley below them lay Sanse-
polcro and Citta di Castello, which I hoped some
day to visit. Here I was now in that valley, and
would give a good deal to be back on those ram-

At Umbertide there flows into the Tiber from
the east a little stream that brings the waters of
the table-land of Gubbio; and through the ravine
that it has worn in the intervening mountains the
train now proceeded to climb. I saw upon a hill-
top to the left the castle for which Umbertide is
renowned, a massive quadrangular structure, with


lofty dark walls of heavy stones and huge round
towers at the angles, apparently in a very good
state of preservation. As the glen narrowed, an-
other castle fully as picturesque, and more ruin-
ous, reared its broken keep and crumbling en-
ceinte upon a precipitous grassy mount to the
right, looking directly down upon the sweeping
willows and splashing water of the stream. Fur-
ther up the ravine, as the train crawled through
its tortuous windings with a tunnel here and there,
we lost sight of such evidences of mediaeval civili-
zation, and had but a trace of modern, in the
shape of an occasional farmhouse in some level
covert. And as we mounted ever higher with
laborious puffings, ascending into the very heart
of the bare peaks that loomed above us, it seemed
as if we must be leaving far behind not only man
but even vegetation.

It is a revelation, then, that awaits the traveler
at the end of this rocky defile, a vision like that
of the promised land after the journey across the
desert ; as one fancies that he must be at last near
the bald summits of the central Apennines, with
the world of life left far below, the train sud-
denly emerges from the glen on a wide-stretching
fertile plain glistening with luxuriant verdure,
rich with fields of grain and vine. Still beyond it
rise the loftiest peaks, mounting from its village-
dotted landscape in sheer walls, whose lower
flanks are green with olives and whose upper


soar into barren cones and crags amidst the clouds.
So I saw for the first time the strange lofty pla-
teau of Gubbio, nestled here with its fertility and
life between the summits of the highest moun-
tains, and Gubbio itself gleaming white upon
the encompassing wall to the southeast, looking
with proud palaces and towers over the land that
it has always called its own.

When we had crossed the plain and come
nearer to the city, it appeared from the car window
like one of those weird phantasms of oriental im-
agination, like an extensive town built grandly
upon a level and then picked up bodily and
plastered against a perpendicular mountain side.
When I dismounted at the station, which is out
upon the plain distant some way from the city, a
still nearer view was obtained that was not too
close to want a full comprehension ; then I realized
that not yet in Italy had I seen anything so wonder-
fully picturesque. At the far top of the lofty crag
against which the city backs sat a heavy build-
ing like a mediaeval castle or fortified monastery,
forming the apex of the gigantic pyramid. Half-
way down the bare and rocky mountain side clung
a ruined fortress, a buttress of the city wall, with
crumbling top and huge dismantled tower ; from it
to right and left swept down the remainder of the
mediaeval battlements to the plain, gaunt and
terrible upon the precipitous stony slope, raising
at frequent intervals other lofty towers. Some of


these still were intact, and some with the inner
walls fallen, causing them to loom like grisly
skeletons above the city. Some way below the
ruined citadel forming the apex of this triangular
enceinture rose the highest buildings of the town,
two large adjacent stone structures, distinguish-
able by the ruinous state of the one and the ancient
romanesque campanile of the other as the old Pal-
ace of the Dukes and the cathedral. Below them
again was the central, chief feature of the pic-
ture, the Piazza della Signoria, a long arti-
ficial level built out from the hill-slope upon
mighty foundations of masonry, with a tremen-
dous gothic pile rising from it upon the left that
towered over the whole city, dwarfing all other
buildings to insignificance with its arcaded mass
and frowning battlements. This I knew must be
the old Palazzo dei Consoli, or Municipio, now
disused. Large buildings also fronted upon the
two other sides of the Piazza della Signoria ; and
from this predominant group of structures the
town fell away on right and left to the level of
the plain.

I proceeded to an inn at the lower edge of the
city, situated where the walls had been razed and
the ground they had occupied converted into a park-
like piazza, and after a little lunch took a steep
street that led from the Piazza directly up to the
Signoria. The slope of this became more acute
as I advanced, climbing between plain old houses

, ,

III 6 *


with crumbling stained fagades of stucco. To the
right, southwards, opened off two long straight
thoroughfares that maintained a level along the
side of the mountain ; and on the more important
called the Corso I saw the shops of the
city extending away for half a mile, with quite a
throng of people passing to and fro. There was
many times as much life here as at Citta di Cas-
tello, although Gubbio was likewise destroyed by
the Goths, suffered the blighting influence of
papal rule, and has to-day about the same popu-
lation. But modern life is on the plain, and the
ancient loftier quarter to which I was climbing
was as dead as any antiquarian could wish. Just
ahead now loomed the vast substructure of the
Piazza della Signoria, a series of colossal arches
opening black and cave-like to the air. I passed
along under them to the left, gazing at the para-
pet of the Piazza f eighty feet above, with amaze-
ment. Truly the mediaeval Gubbians spared no
toil or time for a thing that suited their fancy ;
they were inspired by the freedom and pride of
civic independence in those centuries. Like all
other municipalities after the wane of the Empire
of Charlemagne, Gubbio was first a republic and
then an autocracy. In such days was built this
huge Palazzo dei Consoli, or Palace of the Consuls,
towering now far above me on a substructure
of pointed arches. I mounted to it by a winding
stair-street on its north, that led me ultimately


around into the Piazza della Signoria, as out
of breath as if I had climbed a mountain. Yet
another stairway, direct and imposing, led from
the level of the Piazza to the great recessed door-
way upon the first floor of the Palazzo. The
door being open, I entered and found a single
vast hall, embracing all the dimensions of the
building, bare, void, and dismantled. Here doubt-
less once took place the public meetings of the
citizens and their elected officers ; there was no
soul about to inform me exactly. I climbed a
long flight of stairs affixed to the outer wall, and
emerged at the top upon the wide loggia under
the battlements. The view thence was inspiring.
It ranged over all the city below, with its par-
allel streets upon the side of the hill and steep
ways falling from them to the plain, and it took
in the whole luxuriant valley with its surround-
ing mountains.

Returning to the Piazza, I observed the long
renaissance Palazzo Ranghiasci-Brancaleone
as monumental as its name stretching along the
eastern or mountain side, with a high rusticated
basement, and the two upper stories connected
by pilasters in the style of Palladio. On the
south side rose the dull, ugly Palazzo Pretorio,
another ancient civic building, now used as the
municipio. In this I found some human beings
the first sign of life in this quarter and one
of them exhibited to me the famous Eugubian


tablets. They are inscriptions upon bronze plates
in the ancient Umbrian and Latin languages,
referring to sacrificial ceremonies, and were un-
earthed here in 1440. In this building is also
the little municipal art collection, having no
painting of importance, but some fine old wo'od-
carving and specimens of Gubbio's renaissance
majolica-ware. For this she is as much cele-
brated as for her extraordinary religious festival
called the Elevation and Procession of the Ceri,
which occurs on the fifteenth of each May.

It was another long climb to the cathedral

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Online LibraryEgerton R. (Egerton Ryerson) WilliamsHill towns of Italy; → online text (page 21 of 24)