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Window on Italy - An Explosion of Flowers: Corpus Domini in Piegaro, Umbria!

Colleen Simpson

From April to July, 2008, I rented a small apartment in Piegaro, while we were completing the renovation of our 13th century abandoned glass factory. Piegaro is a small medieval glass-making village located just south of Lago Trasimeno on the border of Tuscany, in Umbria.

Tucked into the 9th century walls of the village, across the village from our glassworks, the apartment is miniscule, but sufficient for my solitary needs. It is still a few months before my husband, Tom, joins me. The apartment has one room downstairs comprising the living room with fireplace, a couch designed for a midget and a teeny, tiny kitchen corner with a small eating area for table and two chairs. There is no counter space, so it becomes a juggling act every time I prepare a meal. Upstairs is one spacious bedroom with a wide window overlooking the tiny village street, a big completely tiled bathroom with huge walk-in shower sporting modern double spray nozzles, and a small balcony overlooking the green countryside. Obviously the owner's priories are sleeping and bathing in splendor and enjoying the view. Facing east, it has a delightful dawn and the mornings are magical with the tinkling of bells as a shepherd moves his sheep from one meadow to another. I can sit and sip my morning cappuccino on the balcony and watch the countryside come alive.

This is my brief respite before launching into the long hours of work and demands of supervising the final stage of restoration in my rudimentary Italian. Each day I come to the job site a full half hour before my crew of local Piegarese workers: Mario, Andrea, Luca, Evandro, Bianco and Lorenzo. Although they try to arrive before me, I manage to set the alarm earlier and earlier each morning. Finally, they give up the contest and stick to a firm 7am start to the day. They are an earnest and hardworking bunch of guys and they readily accept me with great respect, as they watch me lift and tote my share of stones and run endless errands for supplies.

Evandro and Luca with the new steps

Evandro and Luca with the new steps

I Visit Castiglione del Lago On My Rest Day

On one of my rare days of rest, the Saturday before Corpus Domini, I treat myself to a visit to the beautiful market town of Castiglione del Lago overlooking one of the largest lakes in Italy, Lago Trasimeno. I am there to gather a good supply of local sangiovese wine, cinghiale salami and pecorino cheese at my favorite shop, Battalini, beside the main shopping piazza. I am apparently a favorite of the flamboyant owner, Signor Battalini. My frequent updates on our immense project just over the hill fascinate him. He showers me with effusive kisses and makes a show of tucking an extra bottle of wine into my bag, while his wife looks on bemused by his attentions to the American.

After our elaborate goodbyes with more kisses and promises of a return visit soon, I sit in the piazza enjoying a scoop of gelato. All around me are groups of people gathering with buckets of flowers and large templates. As I watch, I realize that they are planning the next morning's "infiorata", the floral tapestries that will magically appear for one day and disappear that evening.

Side street in Castiglione del Lago

Side street in Castiglione del Lago (photo courtesy of Andy Rosuck)

Corpus Domini

Corpus Domini is a religious festival held sixty days after Easter celebrating the Eucharist (the body-corpus of Christ with the sacramental symbol of bread). First held in the 13th century, the festival is observed in a solemn way with processions through the streets. The Eucharist bread is carried through each town in a glass container for all to see. Flower tapestries, called infiorata, are created in towns in Umbria and Tuscany, the most famous being in Spello to the east, and Orvieto to the south of my village. I had never visited Italy on this precise weekend, so I was anticipating a big display and festival somewhere.

Resolving to get up early to witness the creation of these beauties in Castiglione del Lago, I go to bed a little earlier than usual. But before my alarm could ring, a loud chatter in the street below awakens me. Wondering what disaster has befallen my neighbors, I jump up to spring open my window shutters! To my complete surprise and delight I see a white-clothed table emerging as an altar with delicate vases of roses, peonies and Queen Anne's lace right in front of my doorway. My neighbors, with buckets of flower petals, are creating a huge chalice tapestry of petals of white and pink roses, yellow forsythia and green ferns.

Creating the Flower Display for Corpus Domini

Creating the Flower Display for Corpus Domini

I quickly get dressed and skipping my morning coffee, hurry to join my neighbors. They readily welcome me to help arrange the altar. After we finish the floral tapestry, I go around the corner to see my friend, Arnika, who owns the Caffé Via Roma for my delayed and much-needed jolt of caffeine. All around me in the central piazza are other altars and more flower tapestry creations.

An Explosion of Flowers on Via Cavour

Corpus Domini Flower Festival

Corpus Domini Flower Festival (photo by Gillian Freney)

As I enter into Via Cavour, the street of our future villa, members of the Italian family who have adopted me are beckoning for me to join them. Gentle, graceful Elida, the great grandmother, vivacious Lea, the grandmother (my age) and beautiful Alessandra (young enough to be my daughter) ask me to help finish a giant Tau cross. They tell me that most of the villagers are still in the Church attending the long service of Corpus Domini to celebrate the reception of young children into service, and I am invited to come along with them.

After the service, Don Augusto, the village priest, walks under a golden canopy held by four altar boys. The entire village follows the children, dressed in communion white, in a procession exiting the church. Pausing at each street altar, Don Augusto holds the Eucharist aloft and blesses each village street, as we all sing a Latin chant. Following along with my "family" singing in unison, I feel a part of something larger than myself, a community whose rituals have remained unchanged by time. We could be in 13th Century Piegaro and the only difference is how we are dressed.

On that beautiful and treasured day, I learn that I do not need to go anywhere but home to find the splendor of a Corpus Domini infiorata. Someday I will venture to Spello or Orvieto to see the magnificence of their displays admired by thousands, but on this day, being in a little Umbrian hilltop village is magical enough.

Poppies in BloomI highly recommend coming to Umbria during Corpus Domini, which will be on June 6th, 2010 and moves to June 23rd in 2011. There are a number of small towns to visit and enjoy this festival: Piegaro, Citta della Pieve, Castiglione del Lago and the larger infiorata displays of nearby Spello and Orvieto.

Come in June and a profusion of red poppies in the fields, roses climbing on every wall and an explosion of flowers in the streets will greet you!

Colleen's Window on Italy is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Colleen's Window on Italy - Introduction" for more information.

Colleen Simpson lives most of the year in Piegaro, Umbria and operates L'Antica Vetreria (www.anticavetreria.net): a villa and four apartments for vacationing guests. At other times, you can find her in beautiful Seattle.

© Colleen Simpson, 2010

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