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Exploring land art in Umbria, Italy’s green heart

From modern works of sculpture to remnants of ancient civilizations, Italy’s Umbria region is rich in cultural heritage

  • Oct 10, 2023
  • 1,114 words
  • 5 minutes
A village nestled in Umbria’s Nera River valley. Umbria is rich in natural and cultural heritage to explore. (Photo: Umbria Region)
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Italy’s Umbria Region is a timeless land richly endowed with history and art. Visitors to Umbria can explore the archaeological heritage of past civilizations, from the ancient Umbri and Celts to the Etruscans and Romans, and many a Renaissance palazzo rests on foundation blocks laid by workmen two millennia ago. But make no mistake: Umbria is not a stale museum. Contemporary art and monumental outdoor installations speak to a passionate relationship between 20th and 21st century artists and this verdant region of forests and vineyards, lakes and waterfalls. Here are seven places to discover the natural and cultural heritage of Italy’s green heart. 

Todi, Panicale, Tuoro sul Trasimeno, Brufa

The Todi columns by American sculptor Beverly Pepper. Pepper spent much of her life in Todi, and her works are found throughout Umbria. (Photo: Umbria Region)
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The American sculptor Beverly Pepper spent much of her life in Italy, particularly Todi, and, shortly before her death in 2020 at the age of 97, donated 20 works in metal and stone to the town to create Beverly Pepper Park. She even designed the graceful benches that invite viewers to relax in contemplation.

Pepper’s affection for Umbria was long-lasting and expressed through works inspired by and in some cases donated to other locations in the region. Important installations by the sculptor can be found in Assisi, Spoleto, Torgiano, Brufa, and Panicale, where Pepper took advantage of a natural slope to create an amphitheatre that is used for occasional performances. A spectacular panorama of mountains and forested valleys forms a natural backdrop to the stage.

Lake Trasimeno, as seen from the medieval fortress Rocca del Leone (Lion Fortress). (Photo: Umbria Region)
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Across Lake Trasimeno from Panicale, in the village of Tuoro sul Trasimeno, the sculptural installation Campo del Sole serves as a focal point on the lakeshore. Composed of 29 column-sculptures arranged in a spiral, the ensemble was the idea of Pietro Cascella, and different sculptors have contributed to its creation. While not commemorating any specific events, the works invite visitors to reflect on history and memory.

Brufa Sculpture Park, in the village of Brufa outside Torgiano, is home to more than 30 permanent works installed among the gentle slopes of this wine-growing area. Each year, a contemporary sculptor is invited to create a new work: selecting the location, observing it in different light and atmospheric conditions and designing a sculptural piece to enter into a dialogue with the setting.

The avant-garde Carapace at Lunelli Winery in Castelbuono di Bevagna. (Photo: Tenute Lunelli)
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Umbria is home to the prized Sagrantino grape, which flourishes in the long, hot growing season. A visit to Lunelli Winery in the tiny hamlet of Castelbuono di Bevagna is a must, both for the opportunity to sample their Sagrantino and Rosso di Montefalco wines and to see the Carapace, an audacious architectural creation that is both a sculpture and a workplace. Designed by the Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro, the dark copper dome rises above the surrounding vineyards, its irregular surface evoking the furrowed earth below.

Assisi

The entire town of Assisi is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous worldwide for being the birthplace of St. Francis, patron saint of Italy. Assisi is at the heart of the Via di Francesco, a walking and cycling route through the forests, fields and olive groves of Umbria that immerses modern-day pilgrims in peaceful countryside. St. Francis’s message of respect for nature and all its creatures is one that resonates today, and many of those drawn to the Via di Francesco are motivated by the desire to connect with nature, rather than by spiritual or religious sentiment.

The town of Assisi as seen from the Bosco di San Francesco, the peaceful woodland where Italy’s patron saint meditated and prayed. (Photo: Roberto Berti/Fondo Ambiente Italiano)
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Terzo Paradiso, a grove of 121 interlinked olive trees inside the Bosco di San Francesco, Assisi. (Photo: Paolo Barcucci/Fondo Ambiente Italiano)
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Adjacent to the Basilica of St. Francis is the Bosco di San Francesco, a harmonious parkland where the saint meditated and prayed. Today it is owned and stewarded by the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, a non-profit trust with a mission to promote and safeguard special places in Italy for the benefit of current and future generations. Within the Bosco is the Terzo Paradiso, a work of 121 olive trees planted in three connected circles, conceived by Italian painter Michelangelo Pistoletto.

Spoleto

A sculpture by American sculptor Alexander Calder, the Teodelapio, dominates the piazza in front of Spoleto’s train station. Organizers of the 1962 Spoleto Festival invited the artist to design one of the mobiles (kinetic sculptures powered by motors or air currents) for which he had become known; Calder instead proposed a monumental stabile, the only such work by the artist in Italy. For 66 years, the Spoleto Festival has brought performing arts to the town’s venues: the open-air Roman theatre, the sloping piazza in front of the cathedral, the theatre and churches. The festival is known for cutting-edge and world premier performances of music, dance and drama: the 2023 edition featured a new play based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream staged in the local prison by inmate-actors as part of an ongoing program to foster inclusion and personal growth for inmates through theatre.

Spoleto’s Piazza del Duomo. (Photo: Umbria Region)
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The Marmore Falls in Terni are among Europe’s highest. (Photo: Umbria Region)
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The Spoleto Festival also brought the American artist Sol LeWitt to Umbria, launching his lifelong relationship with the territory. LeWitt had a home and studio in Spoleto for decades, and his work is displayed in Palazzo Collicola’s “G. Carandente” Gallery of Modern Art. In nearby Campello sul Clitunno, LeWitt created La Torre, a work in concrete blocks. La Torre, rising not far from the Clitunno springs and temple that attracted 18th century aristocrats on their traditional Grand Tour of Europe, provides a contrast to the idyllic setting with its evocation of the towers of 1960s Manhattan.

Terni

In Terni we find Umbria’s largest example of land art — but it is not modern. The Marmore Waterfalls, another stop on the Grand Tour itinerary, is a work not of nature but of the Romans. As part of a land reclamation scheme, the consul Manius Curius Dentatus ordered that a canal be cut to drain water from a swamp and send it over a cliff into the Nera River below. Lord Byron wrote of the falls’ “terrible beauty,” which also inspired plein air artists such as Corot.

With a total drop of 165 metres, Marmore Falls are among Europe’s tallest. The surrounding park preserves important biodiversity, with many varieties of ferns, lichens, mosses and aquatic plants, as well as numerous animal species. Trails allow visitors to discover the environment around the falls, admire the rainbow created by the mist rising from the foam, and be refreshed with of a bit of splashing spray. The waterfall park includes a trail to the top of the falls; the woods below and above the falls have tables to relax with a picnic lunch. The Nera River is used for canoeing, kayaking and white-water rafting.

After a day enjoyed in the open air, the ideal conclusion is a meal of hearty traditional dishes, prepared with local ingredients and perfectly accompanied by Umbrian wines.

Find out more at umbriatourism.it.

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