One of the best quips about retiring to Italy is Gracie Fields (about Capri): I was looking for somewhere like Blackpool only warmer. Umbria and Tuscany, the areas chosen by about 6,000 Britons of retirement age, arent much like Blackpool, or even Englands south coast retirement belt stretching from Sidmouth to Bexhill-on-Sea, where it is said that residents hover between the public library and the cemetery.
In central Italy it is often the case of they came, they saw and they stayed on, sometimes because of their memories of world war two, sometimes for the quaint reason that the green heart of Italy reminds them of England. Certainly this damp, temperate climate, bar a few heat-waves, is reminiscent of Englands sceptred isle and the locals are more reticent than the Italians of the south. A classical writer spoke of il tardo umbro (meaning the slow-witted or sluggish Umbrian). Perhaps it is to live down this reputation that Castiglione del Lago on Lake Trasimeno is unusually rich in activities, cultural clubs and self-improvement generally.
The boom in foreigners buying Italian property began in the 1980s, and restoring old farmhouses is still a passion of the British, perhaps because there is nothing much left to restore in their own country. A house with a view, sometimes built like a fortress on a mountain top for fear of the once malarial plain, and with difficult access at the end of an unpaved mountain road, can exert a stronger attraction. And Umbria, which is cheaper than Tuscany, has the smallest population of the Italian regions, thus increasing its appeal to those wishing to retire from their over-industrialised northern countries. There is also the mistaken conviction that life and building operations are cheaper in Italy.
So why do Brits actually come to this district? Lake Trasimeno is of course the chief tourist attraction, though few Italians bathe or even paddle in it. It has a strange, partly legendary history. The legend tells us that the nymph Agilla dragged prince Trasimeno down to dwell with her among the water weeds. On the other hand, careful historians say that the name is pre-Etruscan and derives from the Indo-European word trasminus, meaning tending to dry up.
Certainly the lake has risen and fallen over the centuries. The emperor Claudius (who reigned from 41-54 AD) tried to drain the marshes and his example was followed by Fortebraccio di Montone (1422). Leonardo da Vinci had the ambitious plan of linking Lake Trasimeno with the Tiber and the Arno, and making a waterway from Rome to Florence. Unsurprisingly the scheme was foiled by the endless conflicts in the region between the papacy and the dukedom of Tuscany. Castiglione was known as the most malarial spot in Italy, and a local saying had it that a man with an ugly wife or too many children should send them to Castiglione del Lago. Now the mosquitoes have practically been wiped out by insecticide and Castiglione is an attractive tourist centre with several sandy beaches.
What do these hordes of Brits do in Umbria and Tuscany? One expatriate who until recently let rooms to holiday visitors still a pocket-money spinner answered blandly, nothing. However, there is a largely unexplored storehouse of Italian art to keep one occupied.
Castiglione del Lago, for example, is dominated by the castle, rebuilt by Frederick II, which has withstood attacks both by land and water launched by the warring factions of Perugia, Cortona and Orvieto. The centrepiece is of course the palace, built by the soldier of fortune, Ascanio Della Corgna, around 1550, where the frescoes celebrate his victory at the siege of Malta and at the battle of Lepanto under Don John of Austria.
In what is now the public library (with an English section) there is a series of delicate Pompeian-style frescoes called Il mondo al rovescio (The world upside down), showing the revenge of the weak on the strong, a rabbit tormenting a dog, mice teasing a cat. This was a seat of a cultural group called LAccademia dei Silenziosi, presided over by Ascanio himself when he returned from his campaigns.
There is also an attraction for Anglicans (and others) at Citt della Pieve. Peter Hurd, lay minister of the Anglican churches in Umbria (there are four; in Citt della Pieve, Orvieto, Assisi and Perugia), started a centre in his charming 17th-century flat in the town in 1993. The Roman Catholic archbishop of Perugia, who serves on the Vatican commission for Christian unity, then arranged for the Anglicans to use the chapel of S. Bartolomeo in Citt della Pieve with its striking fresco of weeping angels, and then later to move to the beautiful 17th-century church of St John the Baptist.
Hurd holds Sunday Matins and a chaplain comes to celebrate Holy Communion once a month. Hurd, an ex-naval officer and solicitor, ably combines shrewd legal advice, ethical principles and saintly tolerance. He also arranges church socials and lunches for visiting ecclesiastics and is a firm believer in the ecumenical movement for Christian unity. In reply to a parishioner questioning the authority of the pope, he said crisply, We all accept the authority of God.
Ascanio della Corgna
A soldier of fortune, Ascanio della Corgna was born in Rome or Perugia in 1514, the nephew of the future pope Julius III, and studied classics, architecture and sport. His military career began at the age of 21 and he lost his right eye the following year at the battle of Casale Monferrato. He went on to fight under various flags, battling against the Turks, the French, the Spanish and the papal states.
Excommunicated and later accepted back by the Church, he was arrested on charges of murder and rape in 1565 but he was freed to help fight the Turks in Malta the same year. Finally, he became ill on the way home from the battle of Lepanto off western Greece in 1571 and died soon after his return to Italy. His body lies in the Cappella dei della Corgna in Chiesa di S. Francesco in Perugia.
For more information, see www.ascaniodellacorgna.it.