According to our schedule, the day began with a visit to a theatre. Which felt strange on a @Made in Italy agricultural tour, and even stranger as we drove down (yet another) winding dirt road through the woods with no signs to anything.
We stopped outside the gate of what turned out to be a restored Franciscan convent, founded in 1218 by St. Francis of Assisi himself. Scarza was the name of the marsh plant the saint used to build himself a shelter. While there he apparently planted roses and a bay bush, and created a spring of fresh water, still gushing, which allowed people to live in the area.
English-speaking guide Brian, who’s lived on the property for 30 years, gave us a tour of the small Catholic Church inside with its restored alter and frescoes.
He then invited us to walk behind the church for a magical mystery tour of La Scarzuola, designed by Milan architect Tomasso Buzzi, who bought the property in 1956 and transformed it into a strange and wonderful city of miniature theatres between 1958 and 1978, He died in 1981.
For the next two hours we walked through the grounds behind our enthusiastic host, past an outdoor amphitheatre where the Philadelphia symphony once played, to a tiny indoor space that seats eight people, each looking at a mirror image of themselves and the actors’ backs from mirrors set on the stage.
We stood in a “boat” moored in a pond of koi and water lilies that the architect had envisioned as a guest house gilded in gold, which did not happen. Later, like Jonah, we walked through the mouth of a “whale” and out the other side. The walk was supposed to make us wiser but we’re not sure it worked.
Along the way we, um, encountered Mother Earth, a giant female torso several storeys high, and were relieved we weren’t asked to climb the spiral staircase in a tall clear cone that looked awfully claustrophic on top.
It was all surreal and unsettling, like being in a Gaudi building in Barcelona or the subject of a Salvador Dali painting that suddenly comes alive.
Brian said the private foundation that maintains the site doesn’t advertise, yet people from all over the world seem to find this hidden gem in the middle of Umbria by word of mouth. Lucky us.
Guide Brian and his new pup Savoya.