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In Search of Trevi



I had read about Trevi only a few weeks previous to wandering into the town on a hot summer day in 1992. At that time I was chasing information on the more obscure of Italy’s folkloric and religious festivals and having read of the town’s little-known mid-winter event, l’Illuminata, celebrating its patron and protector, Sant’Emiliano, I had decided to divert way east on the long and picturesque route to Foligno from Siena and call by the hill-town on my way back to Rome. From Foligno a local bus meandered a few kilometers up steep and narrow roads through terraced olive groves. I had one fellow-passenger - an old lady with a lot of dignity, a very stiff leg and matching hairdo who had been into the local big smoke for a morning’s shopping. In twenty minutes or so I found myself in a quiet square, Piazza Garibaldi, outside the main gate to the town, no means of escape other than my feet until around five, by which time I imagined I would have seen this sleepy town perhaps three times over. Following my ridged-legged friend who I had handed off the bus I passed through the gate and was surprised to find of a tourist office in the corner of the main square. A small group were there being helped by an attentive and interested woman with whom I inquired about the availability of information on the January festival - But how did you find out about this in Australia? I felt a little less than the informed traveller when I confessed that I had read about it in a guide to Umbrian festivals I had found in Rome some weeks before.

By afternoon’s end following a lazy summer lunch in a local old-fashioned trattoria, my newest best friend from the tourist office and her father, an octogenerian whose store of the arcana of local history, lore and legend is endless and has resulted in the publication of three fat books, had treated me to the best private tour I could have had. The encounter began the opening of the door to the embrace of a loving and interesting family who are much bound to their fascinating locale and are highly informed of its traditions and history. I had had luck like this a few times in Italy and can only credit it to an unbounded generosity and responsiveness of the Italian heart to those interested in it, but this was truly exceptional and they remain people very dear to me.

My reaction was an immediate bond with this town and its history. I compulsively began the search for Trevi in the writings of travellers. What I was looking for was a key to Trevi’s past apart from that which would be found in the conventional literature of formal history - that history seen by the witnesses of the bygone, and having before so easily found that entree to the backgrounds of more well-known Italian cities I expected to go down the same research path. I didn’t have much initial difficulty and was in fact surprised by the number of unlikely writers who mentioned Trevi I had found after a few hours work in the British Library. In them, however, that past I sought eluded me for all of the authors’ references implied a similar confession - I came, I saw, I did not enter, but looked from afar. Their non-the-less-fascinating and often esoteric writings do however, offer that enticement of the past as a foreign country and some interesting glimpses of Trevi’s unique history.

One of Italy’s forgotten small renaissance city-republics Trevi, and its peripheral area from nearby Spoleto at the southern opening of the Valle Umbra to Perugia at its farthest north, have been the subject of the descriptions of ancient Roman geographers, the diaries of both renowned and forgotten wanderers, the famed English poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, forgotten German Romantic novelists, and the travel commentaries of voyaging’s European and American greats for more than two thousand years. Although much of these writings are found in books much unused and languishing in unvisited library corners the city has also had attention paid it in modern travel literature as well and its history and data, more briefly formatted, are easily accessed in guides printed in recent years. The city’s strikingly picturesque appearance is, however, so little known outside Italy that photographs of it have been used to illustrate other Italian towns not even remotely near the locale, but needing a catching photograph when a feature article or cover illustration has called for it.

Where the dome and campanile of Trevi’s main church stand sentinel at the summit of Colle di Sant’Emiliano its people have lived since pre-Roman times. After the region’s original inhabitants, the Umbri, had been subdued by the Romans a temple to Diana Trivia, the protectress of cross-roads, was built on the site to overlook the plain below. Through this flatland’s length runs the old Via Flaminia, the stone artery laid between 223 and 220 B.C. joining the capital to the Adriatic at Rimini and other strategic coastal points. The spread of Christianity from Rome to Umbria was in fact facilitated by this highway and in that process the temple was supplanted by a church and the town grew beyond its Roman walls. These were twice expanded in the mediaeval period and with this passage of time the city took on its bleached rose-cream aspect and the buildings on the conical peak have spread to cover more than half its surface. Crowning the summit is the church of the patron, the Armenian Saint Emiliano, who was also Trevi’s first bishop.

For many centuries guards must have looked out from this natural vantage point, keeping fellow citizens from incursions led by dukes and warlords of neighbouring Foligno and Spoleto and Trevi’s traditional rival, Montefalco, sitting on high upon the horizon across the valley plain. Below this aerie, beyond the slopes and terraces of olive groves lush river flats are still very much divided into the pattern of fields marked out by the ancient centuriation method used when Augustus settled the area with pensioned-off legionaries. Given small allotments they effectively and profitably populated the area at little expense to Rome’s economy and much to its gain. Scattered on and between the farms are little-known simple romanesque and more somewhat more sophisticated renaissance churches, some founded on pagan sites sacred to those soldier farmers, others dedicated to obscure local saints. Many continue in Christian format the local ancient fertility cults and rituals that have long expressed the farmers’ dependence on abundant harvests. More than a few are the quiet resting places of unique frescoes and sculptures which have not appeared in the literature of art history and sleep in wait to be made the subject of a book or thesis.

In Roman times the town was bi-located and its citizens inhabited the site on high and another, now forgotten, on the plain below, cut through by meandering watery tracts. The lower location and the nearby once-sacred spring of Clitumnus and its homonymous temple were then accessible from Rome by boats carrying emperors, citizens, wares and slaves from the capital along the Tiber, thence to the Teverone and on to the Clitunno. The pleasure-seeking Caligula twice sailed this way to the spring to take part in the January celebrations of the festival of Jupiter, the more important May events in honour of Clitumnus, or just to consult the local oracle-god. One of these visits was depicted by Domenico Bruschi in 1877 on the curtain of Trevi’s tiny bijou Teatro Clitunno where concerts are held and plays regularly performed. Emperor Flavius Honorarius too once stopped here when on return to Rome.

Fourth and fifth century earthquakes destructively re-arranged the convenience of the flow and continuity of these streams, but long before this the now quiet waters of the spring of Clitumnus had been visited by the writers Properzio, Juvenal, Silio Italico, Virgil, and the geographers Pliny the Elder, Strabo and Claudius Ptolomaeus and lauded for their purifying and healing qualities and the pastoral beauty of their setting. The spring’s water was once believed to bring a greater intensity to the symbolic whiteness of bulls selected from a special breed, then neither sullied by labour or mating, but grazed and bathed here in preparation for triumphal processions and mystical pagan sacrifices. Byron visited the spring in 1817 and drew on that tradition to bring through verse to his reading public the following year some of the beauty of the Umbrian landscape and its classical associations:

But thou, Clitumnus! in thy sweetest wave
of the most living crystal that was e’er
The haunt of river nymph, to gaze and lave
Her limbs where nothing hid them, thou dost rear
Thy grassy banks where-on the milk-white steer
Grazes; the purest god of gentle waters!
And most serene of aspect, and most clear;
Surely that stream was unprofaned by slaughters -
A mirror and a bath for Beauty’s youngest daughters! 

(Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV, 60 -68).

The translation of Virgil’s Aeneid by the English poet Dryden was at its most skilled when mentioning the Clitumnus and its surrounds (VII, 563 - 571).

The sacred spring apart, the nearby southern parts of Umbria were visited by many artists, writers and followers of the 18th. century tradition of the Grand Tour. They were drawn specifically by the classical associations and arcadian references not only of the spring and its temple, but also the not too distant Cascate delle Marmore near Terni, an artificial waterfall created by ancient Roman engineers and 15th. and 18th. century improvements by which the course of the Velino was diverted to join the Nera for the practical reason of draining marshlands. The works resulted in the creation of the highest and amongst the most spectacular falls in Europe. In 1765 James Boswell found them prodigious wild and Joseph Addison, sixty years earlier, thought them more impressive than all the waterworks at Versailles. Byron, Addison, Hester Lynch, Shelley, Anna Miller, Edward Wright and Richard Wilson came here too, to mention but a few of the English visitors before touching the edge of the Continental circle which included de Brosses, Marie Vignee le Brun, Goethe, Moritz, Mommsen, Seume, Carducci, Corot and countless others whose horses and carriages often crowded out the viewing points in the travelling season. Tourist inundation is not a problem unique to modern travel. We can imagine amongst these sightseers Byron’s fantastic travelling coach complete with library and menagerie. The writings and drawings of many of them made the sites they familiar to their untravelled contemporaries.

Even two centuries before this, in 1581, the French essayist Michel Montaigne admired Trevi from below its high crowning point and terraced olive groves that gave the city the title queen of the olive trees. He unhappily set a precedent for many future travellers by quickly pressing on to Foligno. The view, however, inspired one of the very few geographic descriptions found in his work. Disappointingly, although Trevi has been constantly mentioned in literature since the invention of the printing press (which, by the way made it first appearance in Umbria and the fifth in Italy in this town in 1470), we must infer from the nature of their writings that few authors were sufficiently intrigued beyond the effect of the commanding aspect to ascend the steep incline and enter one of the many gates that gave access to the city through its walls.

Perhaps the city’s seeming inaccessibility and the presumption that the climb to reach it would only be rewarded with the discovery of more of the then unpopular so-called primitive works of the Romanesque and Renaissance-Gothic traditions which decorated the more accessible churches on the valley floor repelled the snobs of the Grand Tour (Addison, Wilson, Dryden and the like!). Those works were of no interest to the mostly highly focused purists in quest of the fashionably classical and wanting to rub shoulders exclusively with the ancients and the legacy of their times. One of them was the English antiquary, Edward Wright, who, having been travelling companion and tutor to the young George Parker, Earl of Macclesfield, recalled Trevi - again by description of a view from the road - in his book Some observations made in travelling through France, Italy & c. in the years 1720, 1721 and 1722 which was published in 1730:

Another small town called Treva [sic], about four miles further, situated on a 
round hill lower than the great mountain is a very pleasant sight; it seemed

very compact: and a spire steeple just in the middle of it has a very good

And on he passed as well! It was however, in Trevi, where the 25 year old Parker took refuge with a Venetian mistress in early 1722, pre-occupied with more physical passions like many other young aristocratic English travellers, often called macaronis because of their taste for things Italian and the frequently more louche lifestyle of the Italian courts. Too distracted, he has certainly left us no record of his stay.

When German scholars began to reverse the exclusive interest in the classical and the era of Romanticism began Trevi’s location and suggestive image inspired two German writers, the dramatist August von Kotzebue and the novelist Wilhelm Heinse, and it was used in their work. Kotzebue saw Trevi during his 1804 - 5 tour of Italy and from the sight of the city he took a flight of fancy resulting in his book Babbel, oder aus zweyen ueberein das kleinst. Ein historische Posse in ein Aufzuge. He wrote: The road to Foligno is romantic. Amongst other things you suddenly come in sight of a town built around a mountain exactly in the same manner as the town of Babylon is generally represented, the road winding in a spiral direction to the top. The translator surely meant Babel and the lines conjure up the image of Pieter Breughel’s work of 1563 The tower of Babel, and if Kotzebue was referring to pictures of similar iconography the image holds true, but only if your knowledge of Trevi is limited to the view from below. Heinse’s experience may have been different. An art historian as well as a novelist, he spent three years in Italy from 1780 to 1783 and used Umbrian locations, including Trevi and the spring and temple of Clitumnus, as idealized and dream-like settings in his semi erotic novel Ardinghello, oder die Gluckseeligen Inseln, ein Italienische Geschichte aus dem sechzenten Jahrhundret. The lovers in this obscure book, Ardinghello, a painter and humanist (Heinse’s literary alter-ago perhaps?), and Fiordimona take lodgings in Trevi for one night during which they descend the slopes of Colle di Sant’Emiliano to the spring and temple. For an art historian and a writer of intense imagination a visit to the shadowy streets and palaces within the walls on high should have been an irresistable urge, but if he caved to it Heinse has disappointingly left us no record either.

Some years later Heinse’s and Kotzebue’s fellow-German, the historian Ferdinand Gregorovius, passed by Trevi. Although his writing initially impresses upon the reader an intimate knowledge of the area he must have compiled his journal with fading memories quite some time after the trip and so made a complete jumble of the order of the towns along the Flaminia in the Valle Umbra. All the same, he is right when he says that the signature of Lucrezia Borgia is to be found on a document in Trevi’s archives. Was this second hand information or did he visit the town? He makes no mention of having done so.

Perhaps an interior vision of the elevated town as a kind of forbidden city overcame the writers who chose only to see Trevi on high. Whatever their reactions this preference for distance continued into the 19th. century, holding back Giacomo Leopardi and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well. Although they have left the most evocative word images of Trevi ever written they too, having glimpsed the city, trundled on by in their carriages. In 1822, finally escaping the stifle of of the emotional claustrophobia of his family home in Recanati and eager for Rome, Leopardi obviously saw in the view of the city hovering aloft a symbolic and vision-like place, floating in limpid light and breezy air, the dazzling rays of the sun reflected in the windows of its building’s windows, and the walls seeming to spin around it. The inspiring view was the embodiment of a brilliance and liberation that is the very essence of his description of Trevi in Song 3, Verses 7 and 8 of the Paralipomeni, but is impossible to translate the original lines and retain their unique suggestiveness. No time to tarry, he headed on for the freedom of Rome for which this brief sighting of the town was a significant prelude of the imagination.

As he headed in the opposite direction 36 years later, escaping a Rome he obviously had detested, and after a break and lunch at Spoleto, Hawthorne’s reaction to the sight of Trevi was equally eidetic, even fantastic. Rome and its people had irked him as did most things foreign to his waspish Protestant mentality. He saw the religion of the Papal States as witchcraft; its society as threatening, disordered and demanding; and the inertia of its political system a vortex. Some people are not meant to travel and perhaps Hawthorne was one of them! His words on Trevi, however, seem to mark a point of transport from his inability to accept that which was not akin to homeland and, paradoxically, in terms of his initial reaction to the atmosphere of a country known to inspire writers and artists, they are the most aptly descriptive ever written on Trevi. Interestingly they maintain that distance consistently, even instinctively felt by all writers who preceded him:

I am so tired and sleepy that I mean to mention nothing else tonight except the city of Trevi, which, on the approach from Spoleto, seems completely to cover a high peaked hill, from its pyramidal tip to its base. It was the strangest situation in which to build a town, where, I should suppose, no horse can climb, and whence no inhabitant would think of descending into the world, after the approach of age should stiffen his joints. On looking back on this most picturesque of towns (the road of course, did not enter, as evidently no road could), I saw that the highest part of the hill was covered with a crown of edifices, terminating in the church tower: while a part of the northern side was too steep for building; a cataract of houses flowed down the western and southern slopes. There seemed to be palaces, churches, everything that a city should have; but my eyes are heavy, and I can write no more about them; only that I suppose the summit of the hill to be artificially tenured, so as to prevent its crumbling down, and to enable it to support the platform of edifices which crowns it.

( Passages from the French and Italian notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 2 volumes, Strahan and Co., London, 1871).

Whilst Trevi is vividly extant in literature it is actually little known in historic images and misrepresented by modern ones. As you enter the town’s centre from Piazza Garibaldi (some centuries ago the site of a lake and later the market place) and stroll towards the central Piazza del Comune, in passing through the gate and into the vaulted passage under the old bell-tower and by the tourist office you see a fresco at the left depicting the guardian Sant’ Emiliano kneeling at the feet of a Madonna and Child flanked by his deputies, San Benigno and San Vincenzo. The group, painted by a forgotten local in 1703 to celebrate Lucca’s restitution to Trevi of the relics of these cohorts of Sant’ Emiliano, hovers over the earthly domain of these heavenlies. The city is seen resplendent with churches, towers and palaces and instantly calls to mind Hawthorne’s description of the city of a century and a half later - probably little different. This image unfortunately did not set a standard for the coming years and went askew in 1832 when the London publishers Jennings and Chaplin printed Goodall’s engraving of Trevi after a drawing by James Duffield Harding in a book on Italian towns. Harding may have lost his original drawings and made up something from a poor visual memory, or Goodall perhaps chose to fantasize the town’s appearance. There is no resemblance. Adding insult to injury a couple of years back an English guide to central Italy published a shot of another Umbrian city’s more picturesque main square and claimed it to be the Piazza del Comune. More recently an Australian newspaper used a panoramic photograph of Trevi with the caption "a typical Tuscan hill town" in yet another article on the tired cliche of that other region’s cooking schools. Even last year a photograph of Trevi as seen from the Flaminia appeared on the cover of an American novel set in the Abruzzese town of Castel del Sangro (The miracle of Castel del Sangro by Joe McGinnis, Broadway Books, New York, 1999). The unique appearance Trevi remains unfortunately not widely known.

The authors mentioned earlier are only a small number of those who have written on the city and although new and exciting things are happening quite rapidly it is fairly well covered by easily-found English language guides. An armchair traveller could find quite a bit to read on Trevi, but better to go and see this town which has somewhat eluded modern reality as well as quite a few writers for yourself - and soon, for in a sense having entered the 21st. century only recently Trevi has so rapidly crossed the last ten decades it seems almost have jumped the 20th. It now has underground parking, newly styled museums of local art and interest, good eateries, and hotel accommodation from the low priced to those categorized with more than a few stars, private apartments to rent and a range of farm-stays organized through local Agriturismo. The Modern Flash Art Museum, associated with the international art journal of the same name, is perhaps a startling surprise for those not travelling on roads to the past. The cloisters of the mediaeval and wonderfully cluttered church of San Francesco, in which the man after whom it is named preached, not long ago accommodated a modern art installation by an Australian artist grouping old shoes of local trevani accompanied by brief biographical sketches of their owners. The Museum of the Culture of the Olive tells much about the town’s commercial and rural past. Local publication is small but diverse and interesting. 

Both its proximity to bigger centres - Rome is two hours away, Perugia half an hour and Foligno (the local big smoke) ten to fifteen minutes - have in recent years brought to this town’s locals whose families go back generations an additional small creative community of people, artists and writers, as well as others simply in search of village and rural peace where they can live in serenity yet have the access to conveniences such as bookshops, the bigger galleries, museums and cinemas, or even just a day out on the town. It was only ten years ago, the tourist trade almost uncatered for, that the presence of the past was still palpable: in the quiet bustle of small-town business around the town hall, to be glimpsed in the still and silent shadowed cortili of 15th. and 16th century palaces hung with washing and lined with potted plants, churches not curated as if they were museums, a maze of narrow streets cobbled in the traditional Umbrian style in which you could wander in shadows on enervating summer days and meet with the drift of the aromas of meals being cooked at midday, fragments of frescoes of the early primitive school here and there in backstreet and archway, the odd little shop which sold stock which appeared to have been there since the 50’s, and all this in the setting of a daily life undertaken almost at the pace of slow motion disturbed by very few outsiders. I remember one day rushing to the edge of a friend’s garden terrace to see who was speaking German in the street below. What invasive strangers had arrived here? I jealously wanted this place to myself! That atmosphere is, fortunately, mostly still there and if the obvious lessons of what has happened elsewhere are heeded the tardy arrival of the tourist trade up the steep approach may not obliterate the traces of the history of this tiny example of an old renaissance city-state.

In Trevi’s culturally rich hinterland once rival villages of more or less historic importance, most harking back to pre-Roman times, Bevagna, Spello, Spoleto, Sellano and Montefalco (one of the interesting new go-slow cities challenging the uglier aspects of modern Italian life) to name a few, doubly repay the effort of a few minutes drive to explore their intriguing pasts. You can venture into most on a bus from Foligno which connects quickly to Rome via Intercity rail service. Who knows what past, present, or new friends you may encounter? I still wander up the hills to Trevi through those magic terraced olive groves which are perhaps haunted by Heinse’s lovers. It has captured me and it won’t let go.

Tony Anderson, Melbourne, Australia 
tonjonandy@bigpond.com), 2001


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