I colori d’Umbria

July 27, 2006 | 26 comments
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Most summers for the last twenty-two years, I’ve come to Italy for a week or more—one of the costs of specializing in European philosophy. If you want to meet European philosophers of whatever nationality during the summer, Italy is the place to be.

I love a lot of things about Italy, driving on a two-lane road that, when passing, locals use as if it had three, the smell of my neighbor’s wine at dinner, the sexy, musky aroma of the truffled cream sauce on our pasta, the texture of a linen bath towel, hearing Italians speak Italian, trying myself to speak a rudimentary form of it, cicadas strumming their own form of the language. But from the very beginning I’ve especially loved Italy’s colors: fields like golden sand bordered by tall, airy, green trees, dark hills surmounted by red and brown churched villages, rust tiled roof tops supported by farm house walls the color of the fields and their gray stones. Mostly, however, I’ve loved the sky.

Jet-lagged and unable to sleep, I open the window of my room at the very beginning of dawn. Across the valley on Mount Subasio is Assisi, a block of luminescence against the dark of the mountain. And above Assisi, the Mediterranean sky cresting and coloring the blue and gray hills, giving light to the mountain and to Assisi, the fields of sunflowers, the red and brown villages and the green copses, a light that after the sun rises will be clear and bright yet seldom harsh.

In Perugia, five hundred years later, I see what Perugino saw, what he placed behind each of his Virgins as well as in their robes and faces, and what he taught Raphael to see.

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26 Responses to I colori d’Umbria

  1. Jonathan Green on July 27, 2006 at 12:28 am

    If the Mormons have to flee outside the borders of the U.S. again, I vote we head to Europe. The experiments in communal agriculture that didn’t work out in southern Utah might turn out differently along the Mediterranean coast. It’s worth a try, isn’t it? Couldn’t we repurpose a gothic cathedral or two?

  2. A. Frost on July 27, 2006 at 2:27 am

    There’s nothing like a sexy cream sauce to make pasta dance within my bowels!

  3. Russell Arben Fox on July 27, 2006 at 8:32 am

    I’m there, Jonathan. Count me in.

    Someday, I’ll get my family to Italy. And back to Germany. And we’ll somehow visit Britain and Ireland too. Plus we have to visit Denmark, since Melissa’s family is pretty much all Danish, and maybe take a crusie up the Norwegian coast while we’re at it. Amersterdam and the Low Countries would be very cool, also. And, of course, France. And since we’d be there, Switzerland as well. I think that’s about it though. That’s not asking for much, is it? Only about half of Europe? I’m willing to take a pass on Spain and Portugal. Despite being a part-time philosopher, Greece isn’t a priority either. Nor am I insistent about Austria or Eastern Europe. Turkey and Constantinople would be fabulous, but I can live without them. We don’t need to see the Ukraine. So really, this is a modest request. Very reasonable. I’m sure someone will step up and pay for it, right?

  4. A Nonny Mouse on July 27, 2006 at 11:23 am

    Jim, you make me jealous. Make sure you eat the following things for me while there: Bacci (a candy), any kind of gelato, and buffalo mozarella. Mmmmm… Buff moz.

    Assisi and Perugia are just gorgeous.

  5. Blake on July 27, 2006 at 1:02 pm

    O come bella L’Italia! Se potrei starci, ci starei! Italy — the fun part of Europe. The cheese and calzoni, the wonderful evenings down by the Po river and the Alps in the background. The beautiful castles and the fun-loving people. Were that I were with you.

  6. DKL on July 27, 2006 at 1:53 pm

    Is it true that Italian chicks don’t shave their armpits?

  7. Adam Greenwood on July 27, 2006 at 1:59 pm

    “I’m willing to take a pass on Spain and Portugal.”

    Boo.

  8. Jim F. on July 27, 2006 at 3:48 pm

    I just reread my post. What I intended to be a reflection on a profound aesthetic response I had looks like a snobbish, “Look where I have been” post. I apologize.

  9. DKL on July 27, 2006 at 4:18 pm

    I think it’s a wonderful post, Jim. My question was only tongue in cheek. I mean, really: Who doesn’t know that Italian chicks don’t shave their armpits?

  10. Jim F. on July 27, 2006 at 4:24 pm

    DKL, my comment was a response to my post rather than to your tongue-in-cheek response. I really am embarrassed by this. It doesn’t do what I intended it to, though perhaps my apology will help change that.

  11. Jim F. on July 27, 2006 at 4:27 pm

    DKL, by the way, as far as I can tell most Italian women, at least in central Italy, don’t know not to shave their arm pits.

  12. queuno on July 27, 2006 at 4:38 pm

    Buenos Aires! It’s the Latin Paris, and their Spanish sounds Italian, che.

    Despite my preference for Chile, I’d vote for Buenos Aires, since there are already more members in SA, and it’s cheaper too.

  13. Wilfried on July 27, 2006 at 4:46 pm

    Beautiful, Jim. Exquisite description.

    But here I am in Europe. In the beauties of Flanders. And I miss Timpanogos. And Mirror Lake. And all this. And all that. Last week one of my friends at the U of Antwerp said he watched a documentary on the marvels of Utah. He said he wished he could live there. How does a philosopher explain that?

  14. DKL on July 27, 2006 at 5:09 pm

    Jim: as far as I can tell most Italian women, at least in central Italy, don’t know not to shave their arm pits

    Well, in an effort to find the source of this misconception about Italian chicks with furry armpits, I googled italian women hairy armpits. I can tell you one thing: It was a big mistake (seriously).

  15. Jim F. on July 27, 2006 at 5:35 pm

    Wilfried, the far-away and different is almost always exotic and, so, desirable. That is the philosophical/psychological explanation I would give.

    I also think that Utah is quite beautiful, and in many different ways: salt flats, western deserts, canyon lands, mountains, . . . , but for some reason I’ve not had the same experience of color here that I’ve had in Italy. It wasn’t just the beauty of Italy that struck me–I’ve seen other very beautiful places. In addition, and more powerfully, it was the sensation of color. And it was a palpable sensation that lasted several days. When I was outside, I could hardly think of anythiing else. This experience is especially interesting to me because I was at the same place that I’ve been going to since 1983 or ’84. I’m familiar with the area and, so, it seems that I ought to have become accustomed to it. But I was struck this time in a way similiar to when I first went to Italy as an adult.

    DKL: I believe you, sufficiently that I’m not going to duplicate the search.

  16. annegb on July 27, 2006 at 7:33 pm

    Jim, you might be embarrassed, but I enjoyed what you wrote. Have you read Eat Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert? The “Eat” part is about Italy. She made me, like you did, just long for some good food.

    My best friend says the best food in Europe is to be found in Italy.

    Italian men are wonderful. They love women even if they’re fat.

  17. Eve on July 27, 2006 at 7:59 pm

    Jim, I enjoyed your post as well. And thanks to Wilfried’s additions, now I miss both Italy and Utah. Desperately.

  18. Nate Oman on July 27, 2006 at 8:33 pm

    Jim: Snobbery in the pursuit of good writing is no vice…

  19. Jim F. on July 27, 2006 at 9:59 pm

    Nate, if only.

  20. Jim F. on July 27, 2006 at 10:13 pm

    A Nonny Mouse, Blake, and annegb: I love Italian food as well as its kissing cousin, French food: wonderful fresh vegetables, incredible cheeses, peppery olive oil, chewy breads, simple preparation. And the diet must be good for you. I lost five pounds but ate two four-course meals each day and exercised less than usual. In the hill country you have not only the great food and great people, you have a sense of being in the middle of medieval history. The Umbria region is where I’ve spent the most time, and it is really a wondeful region to visit: besides Perugia and Assisi, there are Todi and Spoleto and Gubbio and dozens of small villages, all with good food, great scenery, and a strong sense of history.

    However, as I said to Wilfried, this time something about the colors struck me very deeply. I don’t think I can describe my experience adequately, but I continually found myself in awe, staring at the country side. I’ve been moved by music. I’ve been moved by particular paintings. This was the first time that I was moved by color.

  21. Rosalynde Welch on July 27, 2006 at 11:38 pm

    Not to be embarrassed, Jim; the post was very enjoyable. If I may, what is the texture of a linen bathtowel like? Is it absorbent? Does it wrinkle like linen clothing and tablecloths? I can’t imagine what it must be like to use a linen bathtowel.

    Your description reminded me so much of my first area in Portugal, Castelo Branco. I was there in the summer, and it was surpassingly hot but surpassingly beautiful that year. I associate all those mediterranean colors and smells with the taste of figs. An enormous wild fig tree grew at the mouth of the path we would walk to the rented church predio, and every time we passed I would break open a fig and eat the sweet pink flesh right off the rind.

    I went to Italy as an unlovely seventeen-year-old, wanting beyond words to be desirable (if not, in fact, actually desired). In Italy, I found, every seventeen-year-old is desirable. I’ve loved Italy ever since.

  22. annegb on July 28, 2006 at 9:06 am

    And Rosalynde, old fat middle aged women are desirable, as well. I got hit on by two Italian doctors in the swimming pool at Little America about six years ago. I was sort of oblivious to it at first, I just got in the pool so Sarah wouldn’t feel stupid swimming alone with two old guys. Oh, they were my age, but so charming.

    Sarah was as delighted as I was clueless. I was excited to talk to someone from a foreign country. Now I think they were excited about my bosoms. In an utterly innocent charming way. To me, at least. Who knows what they were thinking.

    I have liked Italian men ever since. My husband is not the least bit jealous, being a secure man.

  23. P. G. Karamesines on July 28, 2006 at 6:19 pm

    Jim F. said:

    I just reread my post. What I intended to be a reflection on a profound aesthetic response I had looks like a snobbish, “Look where I have been� post. I apologize.

    Me:

    Thanks for tipping us off, Jim. I completely missed the snobbery on my first reading. Now I can go back and read for it!

    FWIW, I got the aesthetic response part but the post ended far too quickly for my taste.

  24. Jim F. on July 28, 2006 at 11:57 pm

    Rosalynde: linen bath towels are wonderfully absorbent, but those, like me, who have never used anything but terry cloth ones before will find them strange, partly because you won’t expect them to absorb well. It is a bit like drying with a gigantic dish towel–but oh so effective and thick. Of course terry cloth is also thick, but in a different way. It is thick because it has all of those little loops of textile. Linen towels have no loops, but they are equally or almost equally as thick.

    P. G. Karamesines: I could have sworn you were a better reader than that, but I’m glad to have tipped you off so you could read it properly. The post ended so quickly because, unlike some poets (and novelists) I know, I didn’t have any more in me. The experience lasted a week; the language didn’t make it quite that long.

  25. P. G. Karamesines on July 29, 2006 at 7:27 pm

    “The experience lasted a week; the language didn’t make it quite that long.”

    Well now, there it is. A true snob will continue to weave even when he runs out of wool.

    And admit — even suggest — he has indulged in snobbery? A practiced snob never would.

    At best, you, sir, are an amateur; at worst, a mere snob wannabe.

  26. Jim F. on August 1, 2006 at 4:51 pm

    P.G. Karamesines, you’ve found me out. I am ashamed, but I confess.

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