Umbria’s Last Castle-village?
Maybe not the last of the many castle-villages in Umbria, but certainly one of the most picturesque, pink limestone gem, Collepino, slumbers on a mountainside above Spello in almost monastic quiet. Befitting: Collepino has an ancient link to a monastery, for medieval Collepino was once a defensive stronghold, protecting a nearby eleventh-century Benedictine abbey, San Silvestero.. Embrasures in the outer walls – slit-like openings for the shooting of crossbows – and the crumbling remnants of a medieval guard tower give testament to a bellicose era.
After the abbey was abandoned in the 15th century, the walled stronghold, Collepino, became the refuge for the Baglioni family of Perugia, vociferous opponents of Pope Paul III who had levied the hated salt tax on the Papal States in 1550 (Note: the Umbrians took salt out of their bread then – and have never put it back in! – joined by the other regions of the Papal States, ie, the Marches, Abruzzo and Latium).
Papal troops from Perugia, residence then of Paul III, sacked Collepino, routing the Baglioni. Stone plaques over a drinking fountain and over the pink limestone laundry basins date them to that time of Papal aggression, mid-sixteenth century; yet today, this peaceful mountain village gives no sign of its contentious past.
The population hovers at about thirty-two. In the center of this walled castle-village, a church is opened by a priest from Spello for a Mass on Sunday. A few steps away at the one coffee bar, Stefano (who lives in Spello) and his girlfriend are happy for any client. A restaurant serves Umbrian specialties to hikers in what was once a cellar for wine or olive oil. Here and there, a battered old wooden door remains, once an entry to an animal stall. Most of the old wood has been replaced but the pink limetone Gothic pointed arches over the entryways remain. Screen doors would not be in harmony with the medieval and are forbidden – curtains take their place.
In one backstreet, workers loading a wheelbarrow indicate restoration in progress – but there is not much more to restore. Romans have bought up the old stalls (ground level) and small stone houses above, transforming them into peaceful week-end retreats. Most of the remaining Collepino natives are elderly and sit together under windowboxes of geraniums, exchanging stories about their youth.
Most still have olive groves in the surrounding countryside, though they no longer need to work the land in the valley below, about a one-kilometer vertical drop. What stories I have heard! In the 1960’s over three hundred people lived in Collepino, nearly all farmers. An elderly woman told me that her family walked down to their land in the mornings, mother carrying a baby in one arm, wash on her head (to be washed in the creek below) and scythe in a free hand (“for the cutting of grasses for our rabbits”) as the smaller children followed. Papa’ was first, leading the mule, with all his farm tools piled on the mule’s back: hoes, shovels, scythes and whatever else would be needed to work their land below in the fatiguing hours ahead.
The climb back up at sunset could be arduous, with wet laundry in a basin on Mama’s head, crops from the land below carried by the mule – and in baskets on the father’s back. The 1960’s in Collepino.
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