This year in Italy I visited Scarzuola and the Città Ideale – two comingled sites, both separately and together magical and amazing. While it might seem redundant to say so – aren’t all places in Italy magical, you might ask (the answer is no) – this convent / fancy / garden is something pretty incredible. The convent itself was founded by St. Francis of Assisi himself; apparently while on walkabout, in the year 1218, he planted a laurel and a rose here, water gushed forth, and marveling at the miracle he said ‘let there be a convent.’ And a convent appeared. Hyperbole on my part, of course, but when you’re talking about 800 years of history, ‘facts’ are hard to come by.
What we know for sure about Scarzuola is that it is the site of a church built in the 16th century as a way of honoring St. Francis; the convent was created not long thereafter and maintained by the Minor Orders until the 18th century. It was abandoned then, and remained so until Tomaso Buzzi, eccentric, renowned 20th century architect, bought it in the 1950s. Today it is in continual process of being restored by a very small cadre of people who love the place. In fact, there are only two that I know of and they have lived there, worked there, been caretakers of and speakers for the place for, in at least one case, 25 years. One of the fantastical, mystical things they have uncovered are a fresco dating from the 13th century of St. Francis levitating. On the wall next to this fresco is a note that it was painted during the saint’s lifetime; it is considered one of the first visual representations of him. Other frescoes (pictures accompanying this story) tell the story of a number of martyrs who were killed in various horrendous ways.
So this July we walked through the small church, ooohed and aaahed about the frescoes, especially the martyrs, and exited into the convent garden. Like many in Italy it has a presence, a sense of extending back through time, of being part of today but only insomuch as it is passing through, traversing from the past into the future and we just happened to intersect with it on this particular day in this particular year.
While I often detest this word, the garden really is preternaturally calming; it seemed to envelope us as we walked through it, deadening sound and making even birdcalls seem as if they were coming from far away. We passed a spring – the very one, according to legend, that St. Francis called into being – guarded by a lion and populated with hundreds of dragon- and damsel-flies, walked along a low arbor. To our right, a cutout of St. Francis haunted our steps, like a terrifying painting he seemed to always be watching as we moved about.
Our guide, a slender man with an accent I couldn’t quite place, spoke in hushed tones, telling stories – true or some version of a tale told through the centuries – of the place and the personalities involved. One of them, a 15th century friar who wrote a quite remarkable book, plays a small part in my own research (another blog about him coming up soon); his long, hauntingly erotic novel titled “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” is filled with famous woodcuts by Albrecht Durer, and it is these woodcuts that played a part in the Città Ideale, the profane half of this strangely alluring site. And to get there we had to leave the garden via a wooden door. While I had been prepared by my research for what we would be walking into, the effect of the Città Ideale was more awe-inspiring than I’d expected.
Designed by Tomaso Buzzi, built by him and, later, his nephew, and now often silent and empty but for occasional visitors, visiting scholars, and the two caretakers, the wonder of the Citta is hard to capture in words. Except, of course, if you’re Friar Colonna. Apparently his book – original copies of which today go for £200,000-£350,000 (up to 500,000€ or $546,000) – was the inspiration for Buzzi’s genius. Known for his eccentricities and affectations, Buzzi was also known for his spectacular architectural, glasswork, and furniture designs. He was also tiny – some say a dwarf, some say a hunchback. Or maybe that’s my secret desire… that he was somehow twisted in body and that manifested itself in this spectacular place. Whether inspired by an erotic book written by a friar, or by convoluted machinations in his own mind, Buzzi left behind something unique. Awe-full, in the original sense.
I’ll let the photos speak for themselves, and leave you with just one more thought. As I stood in the shadow of the giant, stylized, nude female, knowing that Buzzi had envisioned it as a voluptuous figure, a kind of headless Venus, and having just learned that later architects made of her something less voluminous, I wondered… how much of what we imagine, what we hope, what we dream, will become manifest? Dreams, visions, blueprints; they are all, ultimately, only the beginnings. When we walk through the Città Ideale we realize that when dreams break into the world and become real, sometimes they don’t look like we thought they would.
And that’s okay.