We stumbled upon the information on the St. Francis Monastery, La Scarzuola, Umbria, Italy, accidentally. Its pictures in the Internet looked like a hello from a wonderful private estate, Quinta da Rigaleira, Sintra, Portugal, that we visited a couple of years ago. Then we found the website of La Scarzuola with minimal historic information, but with an Italian telephone number and email. So, it was possible to agree on the date and time of our visit. Why?
According the website www.lascarzuola.com, the monastery/estate can be visited by a group of at least eight persons, and by appointment only. The cost is 10 Euro (2017) per person, paid in cash at the entrance. Only guided tours are possible, and they are conducted in Italian and sometimes in English.
We wrote and told them there are only two of us and we have no idea where to find six other people. Could we do something about it? Additionally, we included four dates that were convenient for us. The next day, we got a laconic answer in English, “It is possible. Sunday, March 26, at 14.30.” Great. The low season. There would be only us and our guide.
Francis of Assisi is the most famous saint in Italy. But before he received his sainthood in 1228, he wandered the hills of Italy, preached, spoke with animals and birds, and performed miracles. Often, his followers built monasteries on the places of his staying. One of them was La Scarzuola which was abandoned by 1218, but remained a property of the Franciscans until 1876. In 1956, Tomaso Buzzi, an eccentric architect from Milano, bought the half-broken buildings of the monastery, the old Franciscan graveyard, and the neighbouring lands. Two things struck me as strange: he bought the graveyard, and he was allowed to buy it. Italy is a very interesting country in legal terms.
We stayed in the city of Orvieto. It is just 60 km from La Scarzuola, but we drove out early, not to keep our guide waiting for us near the entrance to the monastery. The Italians call Umbria the “green heart of Italy.” I agree. We saw green hills for 50 km around the city of Orvieto which is located on a flat summit of a butte of volcanic tuff. All the fields were neatly plowed and sown, the grape was perfectly trimmed and bound since autumn, fruit orchards were blooming.
An empty road looped among the hills skirting the rare, but quite rich houses of Italian “peasants.” Realizing that we would arrive in La Scarzuola before the appointed time, we slowed down and simply looked around. There was a castle on one hill and we stopped to take pictures. In this moment, six cars swept by at high speed and disappeared around the bend. “Probably, they are in a hurry to get to a local wedding,” we assumed. It was midday on a Sunday and the car numbers were local.
There were 30 minutes to the appointment time in La Scarzuola. We slowly proceeded on our way and were overtaken by a BMW motorbike which “flew” by like in a rally. Where was the fire? We could see the roof of the monastery among the trees on the next hill.
Upon arrival at the monastery, we saw an impromptu parking lot full of cars, minibuses, and motorbikes. We barely found a free place. Only the guide and us? Eight people? No way! There were about 20 vehicles (and it was March). The gate of La Scarzuola was opened at exactly 14:30 and everybody was permitted to enter.
For twenty years, away from civilization, Tomaso Buzzi built his “ideal city” near the old St. Francis monastery. The monastery building was reconstructed, and today, in the apse of its church, you can see a genuine fresco from the 13th century depicting Saint Francis in levitation.
If you decide to visit La Scarzuola, you will find yourself not so much in the Catholic monastery as in the surrealistic world of Dali or Miro. This world is hidden from outsiders by a high wall. First, Buzzi carefully restored the medieval building and the modest monastery garden around it. When the “holy city” was ready, he started to erect, full of allegories, symbols, and mysteries, La Citta Buzziana, the city of Buzzi.
Our first impression: it seems like the architect read “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” more than once. The second impression: La Scarzuola is good for contemplation and reflection on the space and time that are embodied here in architectural forms (of course, if you were lucky enough to be there alone).
The city of Tomaso Buzzi has as many as seven theatrical scenes, none of which are used for performances; an Acropolis and the Arch of Triumph; pagan temples with astronomical symbols; and even the Tower of Babel. Probably, Tomaso built everything here that he’d had no opportunity to build during his architectural career. Now, the “holy city” (the former Franciscan monastery, La Scarzuola) and the allegorical city (La Citta Buzziana) exist side by side.
Our guide outlined the history of La Scarzuola passionately, artistically, and even eccentrically, but in Italian. At that time, we knew just a few Italian words, therefore I couldn’t say we understood the intent of the builder of the “ideal city,” but we took plenty of pictures.
Just watch this short amateur video (3 minutes). Probably, you won’t understand WHAT the guide says, but you can appreciate HOW he says it.
Now tell me, please, how many such artistic guides have you met in your travels?
This guide is Marco Solari, the nephew of Tomaso Buzzi, who inherited La Scarzuola in 1981. Apparently, he is in love with his work. It must be mentioned that we decided to learn the Italian language after this excursion.
Of course, we expected that the culmination of the tour would be visiting the tiny building of the monastery, but unfortunately, it needed repair and was closed. Maybe, you will be more lucky.
The Italian TV about La Scarzuola, Umbria, Italy (4 minutes).