Have you ever tried to imagine an ideal city? You may have dreamed of one, but in Umbria one really exists. I have been there and I can assure you it is a pleasure not just for the eyes but also for the soul! Today I invite you to join me on a journey to to Scarzuola in Central Italy.
Once upon a time in Umbria, there was an enchanted place with the aura of a fairytale. Yes, it is appropriate to start this story with “Once upon a time“, because the history of Scarzuola has all the ingredients of a great story: there is mystery, intrigue, a magical atmosphere, abundant curiosities, and even a pinch of madness (which never hurts). So let the curtain rise … and the story begin!
Scarzuola takes its name from the local herb, called “scarza“, which – so the story goes – St. Francis used to build a shelter, while on one of his wanderings in the early thirteenth century. The small convent which was built in the place of the hut towards the end of the century, was abandoned by the friars in the 18th century. In 1956, it was taken over by one of the great Italian architects of the twentieth century, the Milanese Tomaso Buzzi.
What is Scarzuola
Between 1958 and 1978 Tomaso Buzzi built – in great secrecy and well hidden by the Umbrian woods – his “ideal city”, inspired by the ideal of the marriage of nature and culture. Basing his work on the Italian illustrated poem “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili”, an allegorical journey into the self, Buzzi created a promenade rich with symbolism On arrival at Scarzuola, the spectacle of the frontage immediately transports the visitor beyond reality into an “other” dimension, be this magical, dreamlike, fantastic or symbolic; immersed in the Umbrian countryside this “ideal city” lends itself to a journey of the imagination, inviting us away from the everyday. Buzzi designed and built the ideal city as a great theatrical set piece, one which derives its forms and architectural language from great works of the past but which reveals them in a new light through multiple perspectives.
Virtual journey to Scarzuola
Our virtual journey begins in the garden behind the convent which symbolizes the different routes that man can choose during his life. Next we are confronted by buildings inspired by iconic monuments of the past, such as the Colosseum and the Parthenon. These are surrounded by stairs that intersect and interrupt, by arches that open towards nature and by architectural and natural labyrinths. Then, walking along the path next to the amphitheater, the visitor may stumble upon the other part of the city, initially hidden: here between pergolas and meadows, the visitor can pass through a gate, called the Gate of Time, decorated with stars; a “whale’s mouth”, a large golden compass. Finally the path leads to a pond of water lilies, from which to admire the Umbrian valley. Throughout the journey the visitor is surrounded by a complex symbolism of figures representing different aspects of the human psyche.
A visit to Buzzi’s city is a journey of introspection and free interpretation, not least because Buzzi himself did not provide explanations of the work; it is left to the visitor to let their imagination take them where it will. Children are likely to have very different visions to adults – all are free to imbue their experience with personal meaning: at Scarzuola the imagination finds fertile ground… provided it is willing to enter into the spirit of the place (conjured up by the saying on the exit door), “AMOR VINCIT OMNIA” (love wins over everything).
Scarzuola’s remote location, nestled in the hills of Umbria, has hidden it from the world, or at least from those who are not sufficiently curious to find it.
For me Scarzuola is the anthem of an architect, who transformed his dreams into stone, and so gave them to the whole world. Tommaso Buzzi puts it like this: “Scarzuola is made for ants, lizards in the sun or to allow snails to make silvery paths on the stones, for silkworms to stay in their cocoons and produce their noble threads, for bees to welcome their honey, for the butterflies, the crickets, the cicadas, or rather the ciandelline, and for the many worshipers of the sun”.