Tuesday, November 1, 2011

B-E-N-G-O and Ben-Go Was his Name-O

In this blog, in which I primarily recount our daily adventures here in Italy, I often try to tie together the day’s disparate activities by employing a common thematic strain.  Often, many of you will agree, doing so is a real strain.  Yesterday’s activities, at least for the first part of the day, however, lend themselves well to a theme.

Benozzo Gozzoli.

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What is a benozzo gozzoli, you ask?  A creamy pork sauce served on homemade pasta (“I’ll have the benozzo gozzoli to start and then the osso buco”)?  The town at the base of the mountain beween Terni and Narni (“drive south until you reach Benozzo Gozzoli and then head toward Orte”)?  A style of Umbrian weaving (“your gozzolo is so benozzo, I would just love to stroke it all day”)?

No, Benozzo Gozzoli is, or was a man, but unlike Aldo Cello, he is not a fancy dancer. And no, Benozzo Gozzoli is not a Beiber.  Benozzo Gozzoli is one of the great Umbrian painters of the renaissance whom you have never heard of.  Yesterday we heard about him.  And saw his work.

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Only a day ago I was writing about the joyous discovery of a place that can happen when you visit with a tourguide.  Yesterday repeated itself, literally, when we began our day with a two hour walking tour of Montefalco, one of our favorite towns, with Cinzia, our tourguide from the previous day’s visit to Spoleto.  Cinzia, who lives in Montefalco showed us alleyways and medieval gates, ancient churches and even a chapel on the main piazza that we had routinely passed by or missed for the several years that we have been coming to this town, the epicenter of Umbrian wine production.

The highlight of our tour of Montefalco, however, was a visit to the municipal museum of St. Francis, housed in the former Franciscan monastery church just a few steps from the main piazza in.  Here we were treated to the full sweep of the history of art in Umbria from the early gothic to the high renaissance.  It was here that we discovered Benozzo Gozzoli.

I was going to make an argument that Umbrian painters of the renaissance have never received their fair recognition and was going to do so using our newest bestest buddy Benozzo.  There are two distinct drawbacks that undermine this line of reasoning, unfortunately.  First, Benny was a Tuscan, not an Umbrian.  And second, he is not, among scholars, considered a great painter of the times.

As Suzy will tell you, however, I won’t allow a few facts to get in the way of a good argument.

Umbria, in so many respects, has played second fiddle to Tuscany (when it has even been invited to play in the fiddle orchestra) on the Italian and world stage.  Food, tourism, industry, fashion and, especially, their roles in the renaissance – advantage Tuscany.  Why this is so is a mystery to us and to those who have loved their time in Umbria and among the Umbrians.  There is a definite inferiority complex among the Umbrians, or at least a sort of capitulation to Tuscany and the Tuscans.  We hear it often and at unexpected times from our Umbrian friends – “we Umbrians are so stupid [fill in reason why].”

So sure, it may not be possible to make the argument that Benozzo Gozzoli is one of the best Umbrian painters you have never heard of, for the simple fact that he was Tuscan, not Umbrian.  But that fine distinction misses the point.  What is really the case is that so much time and energy is spent by the world – experts and casual tourists alike - on Tuscan treasures, which are many and which are priceless.  But they are not the only treasures worth exploring, learning about and coming to love.  A few hours in the municipal museum of St. Francis shows just how vibrant and full speed ahead the same strains of humanism, creativity and world-changing genius were occurring on this side of the Umbria-Tuscan border as they were percolating and boiling over in Florence and Siena and Arezzo. 

A visit to the Basilica of St. Francis, twenty minutes from Montefalco is an opportunity to view, in the frescos of Cimabue and Giotto, the end of the medieval world and the beginnings of the radically different world view that, two centuries later, saw its expressions in the great and well known Florentine painters.  Fifteen minutes away, but a century and a half later in what is today the industrial city of Foligno, a school of painters were for a period of time the leading school in the world of art.  The point is not that Umbrian painters have been underappreciated, it is that art in Umbria is often an afterthought.

Yesterday, thanks to Benozzo Gozzoli, an honorary Umbrian in my mind, Umbria and its artistic heritage and its renaissance contribution grew, like the Grinch’s heart, three sizes. 

Scholars can and do trace the development of renaissance art through particular artists and schools.  BG, criticized as a mere decorator by some, as a hardworking, gifted artist lacking genius by others, is a definite link in that chain.  That chain stretches forward into the future, picking up some impressive Umbrian links along the way – Perugino and Pintoricchio come to mind – before ceding leadership to Michelangelo and Rafello, the ultimate renaissance victors.  History, they say, is written by the winner.  Art history, they should say, is written by the Ninja Turtles.

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A ten minute drive from Montefalco, thirty minutes if you follow Wendy, lies the picturesque town of Bastardo.  To be completely accurate, one must acknowledge that the town itself is not particularly picturesque, but the signs along the winding strada statale that announce its municipal limits are.  Not so much picturesque as photogenic.  For some reason the sight of the name “Bastardo” in large block letters on signs along the road is enough to trigger any man’s inner child.  And so as we left Montefalco yesterday on our way past Bastardo to visit the Signae winery, we were amused by the Fiat 500 parked along the outskirts of town, boyfriend posing in front of the city limits sign, covering the final “O” and doubled over in peels of laughter.  Too bad the city hasn’t begun collecting a fee for photographing the sign.  Talk about a cure for Italy’s fiscal woes.

There are dozens of wineries in the Montefalco D.O.C. zone, an area comprised of several different commune – Montefalco, Bevagna, Gualdo Catteneo, Giano dell’Umbria spring to mind.  To drive one end of the zone to the other takes about half an hour.  We have heard various estimates of the number of wineries within the boundaries – 40?  70?  More?

Whatever the number, in all seriousness we have visited nearly all of them.  And when we ate lunch at Montefalco’s l’Alchemista restaurant earlier in the day, a quick scanning of the wines they carry for sale, and they carry many if not most of the Montefalco wineries in their shop, turned up only a handful of wines that we had not tasted either at the vineyard or in a restaurant.  We are what you call serious amateurs.

But our wine knowledge and familiarity starts to grow cold once you pass Bastardo and head into Gualdo Cattaneo, on the far side of the D.O.C. zone from the villa.  So today, having been recommended to visit the Signae winery on the far side of the zone by a new friend we had only recently met at a reception in our Bethesda, Maryland store, we took the opportunity to visit this shiny, new winery.  We’re glad we did.

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Signae is not your typical Montefalco winery.  True, there is no such thing as a typical Montefalco winery.  They range in size from tiny, three or four hectare (8-10 acres), one man “garage” wineries, to opulent, Napa Valley style monuments.  In some, modern machinery and gleaming stainless vats.  In others, dirt floors and cement storage tanks.  Throughout this incredible range of approaches, however, is a universal love for the earth, a respect for the vines and a belief that whatever goes on inside the walls of the winery is secondary to what takes place in the fields.

Inside the walls, Signae is anything but typical Umbria.  It is the brainchild of Luciano Cesarini, a self-described engineer with a passion for agriculture.  As we were to find out later, after meeting and tasting his wines with Luciano, he has a passion for music and the arts as well.

Signae, which is built along the ancient via Flaminia, is a marvel of technology.  Shiny metal catwalks allow you to walk above the dozens of enormous stainless tanks, each one temperature controlled by computer that pipes hot or cold water carried in tubes that double as the catwalk’s handrails.  The entire winery is encased in electromagnetic shielding so that excessive electromagnetic waves will not disturb the wine.  In the aging cellar, air is circulated and the temperature and light conditions controlled to allow optimum repose for the wines.  Passito, sweet dessert wine made from dried sagrantino grapes are dried and ventilated with large fans and exhaust ducts that are centrally controlled and which mimic the atmospheric conditions that existed during the best vintage years.

But despite all of this technology, it is the grapes and the fields that matter the most.  And as we surveyed the rolling fields, their fiery red leaves gleaming in the late afternoon sun, it was clear that this earth and its fecundity are the real patrimony of this estate and this part of the world.  Signae rigorously controls what it can inside the walls of the winery.  They allow nature to provide the best raw materials, pruning, harvesting, destemming and selecting the grapes entirely by hand.

The result?  A beautiful lineup of wines, including two whites, their flagship Umbria Rosso I.G.T. which they call Rossobastardo, two Montefalco Rosso D.O.C. wines, a sagrantino and a new I.G.T. wine made entirely from sagrantino grapes called, you guessed it, Benozzo.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

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