Umbria, Italy’s only state without a seacoast, lies in the center of the nation, in the heart of the hill country. Its earliest history is obscure, going back to the Umbrian and Etruscan people who lived and skirmished here a thousand or more years B.C. The Etruscans eventually took possession of this central territory because they were more active and adaptable, but it was the Umbrians who gave the region its name. The Etruscans never formed a central government, but remained a loose federation of city-states, each depending upon its own resources and defense. From frescoes and artifacts found in their tombs, we know that the Etruscans were sophisticated and creative. Unfortunately, they left no literature and their inscriptions are largely funerary. Fragments of city walls, gateways, and sewers attest to their engineering skill. Assisi, Spoleto, and Gubbio are cities which trace their origins to the Umbrians, while Perugia, Orvieto and Todi are of Etruscan origin. In contrast Terni — of old, Interamna — was founded by the Umbrian in 672 b.c. and then became a prosperous Roman town.
In the 3rd century B.C. Rome defeated the Etruscans city by city. The Romans built roads and acqueducts across Umbria, though some historians say the Etruscans taught the Romans how to build them! The Via Flaminia, built in 220 B.C., traverses Umbria northward from Rome towards the Adriatic.You can still walk on its ancient paving stones at Carsulae, about 15 kilometers from Terni and a regular stop for La Romita groups. After the Roman Empire wound down, the Middle Ages settled into the Umbrian hill country with a deep sense of belonging. Indeed, it has been said that here the Middle Ages never really ended. Farmers still build strawstacks shaped like houses. Mulberry trees support grape vines as they have since the late 14th century when Florence began importing silkworms. White oxen still plow fields (as, of couse, do modern tractors). And cuckoos and nightingales still sing in the trees. Medieval towns and fortresses still cling protectively to the hill tops, and monasteries nestle in valleys. Olive groves and cypress trees accent the Umbrian landscape. The wooded hills and steep valleys are bathed in golden sunlight, diffusing into a succession of misty blues in the distance. It is no accident that Umbrian painters imbued their work with mysticism and light — for these are the elements of the Umbrian landscape. You see them in the backgrounds of Perugino’s, of Fillippo Lippi’s, of Rafael’s paintings.
War was also a part of life in medieval Umbria. Fortified hill tops were fought over and changed hands frequently. Women, children, and the frail and elderly took refuge in their town or city’s Duomo (cathedral), where they were usually safe… and men who had no stomach for the constant fighting took refuge in the monasteries. The history of central Italy in the Middle Ages was played out by artists, saints, and soldiers. Today warring factions no longer contend to control strategic hilltops. But the fortresses and towns are still there. Bells still toll the hours of prayer from chapel and cloister, And the golden light still swathes the hills and valleys of Umbria the mystic, Umbria the gentle….