A recent visit to La Scarzuola, in northern Umbria – where our region almost merges with Tuscany – plopped me right into a surreal world of Dali-Miro’-Escher-Fellini-like bizzarities. The name “Scarzuola” derives from a marsh plant of the area, “la scarza”, used by San Francesco di Assisi, legend tells us, to build himself a shelter here in the early 13th century. In 1218, San Francesco planted a rosebush and laurel bushes near his primitive hut and caused a spring to gush forth miraculously out of.a rock. The spring still has sacred connotations for the local populace. In the very early 1400's, a Franciscan monastery was built here – and in the apse of the monastery church, a fresco depicts the Saint in levitation. Until 1876, the monastery remained property of the Franciscans.
La Scarzuola today is a leap from the sacred to the profane (or is it a taking of the sacred to another level?). In 1956, Tomaso Buzzi (1900- 1981), visionary Milanese architect, acquired the monastery complex and soon after, launched his twenty-year project of transformation of the site into his own “Ideal City”, where a fusion between nature and culture could take place in a sort of “theatrical complex”. Buzzi first lovingly restored the monastery and then transformed the humble, innocent gardens of the friars into labyrinthine hedges meandering around rare flowers and statues. After his restoration of the “sacred city”, Buzzi moved on to his creation of the “profane city”, his “città Buzziana”, a sort of “autobiography in stone”. Just beyond the gardens, Buzzi’s città ideale rises out of a natural amphitheater of volcanic tufo rock, like a giant citadel, a sort of spectacular, monumental stage set where wonders and mysteries overlap and fuse with each other: at least seven theaters, an Acropolis, a honeycomb complex of buildings of every architectural style, empty inside but with countless chambers. Buzzi himself termed his project “classical, medieval, Renaissance, Mannerist and also, why not? ..decadent”.
A very personalized neo-Mannerism reigns supreme: stairs jutting out in all directions, deliberate disproportion of many details, and a few monsters, here and there. Fantasy and irrereverence merge in this grafting of the sacred city (monastery and friar’s garden) to the profane (the città Buzziana), both laden with allegories, symbols and secrets. Buildings and monuments bearing indeciphrable symbols and bizzare quotations are piled together, including circular ones imitating Arab astronomical observatories, zoomorphic structures, grottoes for meditation, pagan temples, a chrystal tower similar to a pinnacle on a Gothic cathedral. The Eye of Buddha, Tower of Babel, homage to Teatro della Scala in Milan, a towering Totem of Meditation, a massive nude Madre Dea (Iside), the Arch of Triumph, Theater of Waters, Temple of Vesta merge together, tumble over each other. Buzzi defined his extraordinary project as “an oasis of welcome, of study, of work, of music, silence, greatness and poverty, of social life, heremitic life, contemplation, solitude, fantasy, fables, myths, outside of time and space – so that each can find echoes of the past and visions of the future.”
Since 1981, Buzzi’s nephew, Marco Solari, is carrying on his uncle’s mission of “build and destroy”(!) Reminding me of Dante’s Virgil, Marco had my head spinning as he took me through this astounding surrealistic maze of monuments, embodying something of the evocative, geometric, astronomical, magical…and even miraculous. Contrasting elements working in a sort of bizarre, yet sublime harmony. San Francesco to Salvador Dali. All in one.
By Anne Robichaud, the only American authorized as an Umbrian Regional tour guide. Read about her Umbrian hilltown tours, cooking classes in her home and in the US and her "memoirs of rural life" on www.annesitaly.com. Enjoy the many stories on her blog http://annesitaly.com/blog/