The New Grand Tour
A La Romita Tribute Itinerary
La Romita could be considered a direct descendant of the “Grand Tour” of the 18th century and beyond. Most popular among wealthy young British men seeking a kind of worldly status, the Grand Tour was focused primarily on a search for the art and history of France and Italy, a search for the roots of western civilization. Some English, and even French writers of the time commented on the young men’s shock to find female artists and intellectuals accepted into the world of Italian academia. Salons were attended by erudite professional women in the arts and sciences, like Anna Morandi Manzolini, a leading anatomical sculptor who lectured at the University of Bologna, or Laura Bassi Veratti, an Italian physicist and philosopher. When word got back to the women of English society, demand grew for inclusion in the Grand Tour, forming groups like the “Blue Stockings Society”, elite predecessors of the suffragettes.
By descending the peninsula from the North towards Rome, original Grand Tourists crossed Umbria along the ancient Via Flaminia road, passing through the Apennines, heading to the Cascata delle Marmore (Marmore Waterfall) and then towards the towns of Terni and Narni.
For us, the New Grand Tour began in 1966. Decades before “A Year in Provence” and “Under the Tuscan Sun”, Enza Quargnali, along with her sister Paola, hosted their first group of American artists at La Romita. Along with art historian Adabelle Hill, and professors Betty Lynch, Charlotte Britton, Lisa Guthrie, Carol Maddox and many others, these women wrote the guidelines for a new grand tour.
The New Grand Tour
Our new grand tour begins at La Romita, which was a thriving monastery of about 20 men at the time of the original tour in the 18th century, just 2 miles from the Marmore Falls. During the 18th century, many of the works of art in the church at La Romita were painted by visiting monks at La Romita, or donated by some of the ruling families of Terni. The tasks for many of La Romita’s friars was to descend into the city for preaching…often on street-corners. One can imagine the quizzical looks from British gentlemen at the bare-footed, and large hooded proselytizers.
Day One: Cascata delle Marmore
For a glimpse into the past, we’re using “The Grand Tour, Volume 3” By Thomas Nugent, first printed in 1749. Nugent’s impressions are a fascinating counterpoint to today’s artistic travels.
For our first stop, we visit the Cascata delle Marmore, a waterfall painted and sketched by Turner, Corot, and countless others. Lord Byron, who visited the falls in 1817 during his Italian Grand Tour, was so impressed by the falls’ grandeur and the roar of waters that he wrote about it in the poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”. In that work he described it as “horribly beautiful”. Thomas Nugent notes that “the road to this cascade is very rough, and you may hire a horse to carry you thither for three julios.”
Today that road is mostly a brand-new tunnel which connects La Romita almost directly to the waterfall, about two miles away. The Cascata is now truly one of the most pleasant places to paint in the world, with its trails affording countless vantage points, well-placed benches, and even a sweet little café directly below the main thrust of the falls. The perfume of the mist-soaked greenery is intoxicating. The falls were actually created by Roman hydro-engineers in the third century BCE, and today they power a major hydro electric plant.
Day Two: Ancient Narnia and the Augustan bridge
Narni is just seven miles from La Romita, and our visit there requires a stop along the Nera River outside town to see the remains of a grand bridge built during the Augustan era. In 1817, James Hakewill wrote in “A picturesque tour of Italy” that, “There are few relics of antiquity that impress the traveler with greater ideas of Roman magnificence than the sight of this bridge.” The English painter J. M. W. Turner made sketches of the bridge in 1819 which are now held by the Tate Gallery. A few years later, the French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot completed “The Bridge at Narni”, which now hangs in the Louvre. Thomas Nugent says of Narni: “Tis very troublesome walking in this city, being constantly obliged to go up and down hill.”
The modern Grand Tourist does occasionally find that part of the hill-towns to be troubling, but Italian architects and planners have found beautiful ways around many of those obstacles, and for La Romita, our bus removes that obligation entirely in Narni. Just as before, the town features all the classic elements of an Umbrian hill town, with tiny winding streets, beautiful panoramas of the valley, and a collection of small theaters and museums to explore.
Day Three: from Otricoli to Carsulae
A few miles past Narni is a vast archeological park at the point of the ancient Roman port on the Tiber River, Otriculum. The park has not been thoroughly excavated, and a visit there usually involves new acts of discovery, as many of the monuments are covered by trees and undergrowth. Nugent visited Otricoli long before the first major excavations which began there in 1775, but he found the ruins already captivating, and commented that “the ruins are scattered here and there across the plain.” Well said!
The original path of Roman consular road Flaminia passed Otricoli, through Narnia, over the Augustan Bridge, to the town of Carsulae, a Roman municipium and tourist destination from the second century BCE. While Otricoli remains an interesting destination, we more often stop in Carsulae. An active archeological site, Carsulae features massive arches, funerary monuments, a roman theater and baths, and with fully 80% of the city yet to be unearthed, each year there is something new to discover.
Day Four: Spoleto
Spoleto is certainly one of the jewels of the Via Flaminia, with outsized historical importance for a small town. Once a Roman municipium, later the seat of a Lombard Duchy from the sixth century, then sometime center of the Holy Roman Empire from the ninth century, Spoleto has always been more cosmopolitan than many of its neighbors. The 14th century papal fortress that looms over the town once housed Lucretia Borgia as papal legate.
Modern Spoleto is a favorite La Romita destination; the cosmopolitan nature continues, with their many opera houses, Roman theaters, and art museums. The marvelously colored masterpiece of Fra Filippo Lippi adorns the apse of the Duomo. The “Festival di Spoleto” was established here just a few years before La Romita School of Art, and has always been a great neighbor, offering performances and rehearsals throughout the day during festival time.
Day Five: Rome
Probably the principal destination of all of the Grand Tourists was — and is — Rome. Let’s leave the description to Thomas Nugent in 1749, “No place in the universe affords so agreeable of variety of ancient and modern curiosities as this celebrated city. In fact, one cannot walk 50 paces … without observing some remains of its ancient grandeur”.
Although La Romita is firmly in Umbria and just over 60 miles from the Eternal City, Rome’s influence on our area is evident in the local dialect and accent. The fast train from Terni to the center of Rome takes 45 minutes, and while vehicles have limited access to the center of Rome there are still a variety of important locations open to our bus. Our sketch-bookers with Ken O’Connell frequently include the Museum of Modern Art along with the nearby Villa Borghese Museum. Poet Kim Addonizio takes her groups of poets along the paths of the poets of the Grand Tour, culminating at the Protestant Cemetery for the graves of Shelley and Keats.
Everyone who visits Rome today leaves with a unique impression. There is so much art within the city, in so many different manifestations, from so many different eras, that one is left with a kind of sensual overload. Walk to the top of any of Rome’s seven hills and view the panorama of a world capital, softened by domes and graceful bell towers, baked in ancient umbers and alabaster, the people bustling in their ancient patterns. It is truly the greatest representation of transitional architecture, on the broadest and deepest scale, available to humanity today.
Day Six: Orvieto
Orvieto was difficult to get to in the days of the Tour, but many sought it out, probably for the same reasons that we go there today. When viewed from afar the city, on its table of tufa rock, draws you in for further scrutiny. And then there’s the Cathedral! The Duomo of Orvieto took hundreds of years to build and contains one of the masterpieces of the high Renaissance, the frescos of Signorelli. In 1828 William Turner painted his “View of Orvieto”, which will look familiar to anyone who has arrived there in our bus. Much later, the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio included it in his Cities of Silence, writing that sometimes in Orvieto, one hears only the sound of Signorelli’s angelic trumpets.
As Charles Dickens wrote in his “Pictures from Italy” in 1846, “If you are good-humored to the people about you, and speak pleasantly, take my word for it you may be well entertained, (even) in the very worst Italian Inn, and always in the most obliging manner, …. especially, when you get such wine in flasks, as the Orvieto, and the Monte Pulciano.” We could not agree more!
The wine still draws us today; it’s a staple during meals at LA Romita, and visiting the cellars beneath many of the local trattorias, one finds wine to be well considered in city planning. There are few wonders outside of Vatican city as impressive in scale and pallet as the San Brizio chapel in the Cathedral of Orvieto. The walls and ceilings literally throb with action and color. Renaissance master Luca Signorelli di Cortona painted many of the horrific scenes of the apocalypse. In counterpoint, he also included the “Resurrection of the Dead” scene, which resembles a day at the (nude) beach. Michelangelo visited the chapel to study Signorelli’s work, before undertaking his own “Last Judgement” at the Sistine Chapel.
Day Seven: Terni
Our city has been around for about 3000 years, so it has undergone huge changes, but retains a special mix of ancient and modern. It is a livable, walkable, bikeable city, nestled among dramatic mountains and rushing streams. Terni was an important destination on the Grand Tour, first for its proximity to the waterfall, but acquiring its own reputation for its great food and beautiful monuments. In these aspects, Terni has changed very little. Thomas Nugent wrote of Terni’s, “great antiquity”, and describes a wondrous bridge, no longer extant, said to have been built by “Pompey the Great”. He praises Terni’s fruit, olive oil, doves, cabbages, and turnips. Today we would have to add a few items to that list – I’m not sure how Nugent missed truffles and trout, but the area is still renowned for its culinary delights.
Although Terni has suffered from the dark sides of the past century…the city suffered intense bombing in the second world war…the city rebounded under the architectural brilliance of local resident Mario Ridolfi. The modern sections of the city blend seamlessly with the antique, making Terni unique among Italian cities. Terni hosts a thriving arts scene and a night life that we love sharing with our guests. The Roman Amphitheater Fausto, actually built before the Coliseum in Rome, hosts events in music and theater and opera all summer, and in a beautiful interpretation of industrial re-use, the former Vatican foundry has been converted into the city’s arts complex, including museums, theater, and night clubs.
Back Where We Started: at La Romita
The Grand Tour took a long pause during the Napoleonic era, and La Romita, along with most other monasteries in Italy, was shuttered by the French occupiers for almost twenty years. It never really regained its status after the closure and was left unoccupied by the church until the 1880s, when it was sold to the ancestors of Enza and Paola Quargnali.
The buildings at La Romita are beautiful…walls the color of hillside stones, red clay tiled roofs, lofty arches, traces of previous configurations obvious in the present stonework. It draws one toward contemplation and a feeling of harmony and calm. It must have been perfect for the lives of spiritual followers, just as it is today for artists and poets. Many people over the years have mentioned the feeling of the history of the building…not to mention ghost stories. But all the ghost stories at La Romita have been of friendly spirits, recounted in the evening over a glass of wine. Enza and Paola were always quite confidant that they had found precisely the correct use of this old family property…and that the monks would have certainly approved.
The grand tourists sought commune with the great masters of Italian art and architecture, something that we experience around every corner in central Italy. They were drawn to ancient Rome and Etruria, to marvel at the grandeur and feel the chariot tracks carved into the consular roads like the Via Flaminia which passes through the nearby ruins of Carsulae. Less remarked upon was their desire to experience the Italian people, known even then for their warmth and civility. These aspects of a visit to Italy have not changed at all.