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Only connect in the land of St Francis

28 September 2012

Sarah Stancliffe is led through Umbria by its C of E archdeacon


Umbrian landmark: Orvieto Cathedral, in a cover image used for the Archdeacon Boardman's book

Umbrian landmark: Orvieto Cathedral, in a cover image used for the Archdeacon Boardman's book

Umbria: A cultural history
Jonathan Boardman
Signal Books £12
Church Times Bookshop £10.80 (Use code CT231 )

THE series Landscapes of the Imagination, of which this is part, seeks "to explore the world's great landscapes . . . through their history, literature and art". Jonathan Boardman's credentials for the task are pretty good: a culturally aware and enthusiastic settler in Umbria, whose natural register is art history, but whose work as Archdeacon of Italy, based in Rome, gives him a wider perspective on the ways in which modern Umbria is influenced by its history.

This is not, then, a straightfor­ward guide to the history, art, and churches of Umbria, but an attempt to observe and record connections between the physical geography, political history, religious, artistic, and social traditions of the area. This is much to ask in 200 pages. Boardman's experience as a Church Times diarist helps make densely packed information accessible, often using a personal anecdote to lead into more serious subjects.

Thus, in Chapter VI, "The Town Hall: Middle Ages II", he begins: "I wanted a new cheque book so I went to the bank. Simple. Not so simple." He takes us then via the invention of banking through the 12th-to-14th-century development of central Italian cities as prosperous trading, manufacturing, ,and commercial communities, able to nurture architecture and the arts.

A consideration of the "piazza" as the location of prestige, civic pride, and religious and dramatic festivals, a place of assembly for the people, leads us eventually up the steep streets of Todi to its Piazza del Popolo, and thoughts on city governance in the 12th century.

By the end of the chapter, we are asking "where does power lie in modern Umbria?" So the present leads back to the past, and the medieval is brought right into the present. Other chapters deal with The Church, The Castle, The Palace, and The Fresco in the same engaging way; we feel we are included in a thoughtful musing on the connections between Umbria's history and its modern development in industry as well as the arts.

Church-crawlers and art buffs will have their own reference books - just as well, since the illustrations here are dismally drear: grey and black, and often hard to make out at all - a great shame when the prose is often so vivid and bright; and historians will have their own sources, and more ordinary tourists their Green Guides.

What this book does so well is to make the connections, fill in the gaps, raise the questions, and leave us keen to visit or revisit Umbria, more aware of the complexities of this beautiful part of central Italy.


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