Civita iconography can roughly be divided into three categories—religious, historical, and vernacular—the latter spanning many time periods. What is most interesting to me about this visual language is how each of these three very distinct layers mix. Not surprisingly, this is a recurring theme here in Civita given its amalgam of past incarnations, beginning from its Etruscan beginnings and extending up to today. Having the luxury to spend an extended period of time here looking and learning allows one to begin to perceive the extent of this intermingling in a much more subtle way.

There is also a welcome tendency here to leave well enough alone. Whether this is due to the relatively easy-going lifestyle of the Italians, their innate sense of design, or their tendency to reuse materials (more about that later), the result is that even the simplest of vernacular signs has a natural balance and pleasing composition. Hand-printed signs lettered decades ago hang happily and comfortably beside cantinas and tabacchi. Typography, especially handwritten, is satisfying as well.

Tabacchi are in fact, good examples of vernacular design. In Italy, a tabacchi is where you go for local bus tickets, phone cards and postage stamps. Tabacchi display this sign: a big white “T” on a blue or black background. The text “sali e tabacchi” refers to the two products—salt and tobacco— that these shops sold that were initially controlled by the government. Nice sign, right?

Historical signs carry with them the weight of imagination and memory, making them particularly interesting in cultures like Italy where time reaches back so far into the past. The Etruscans, Civita’s first inhabitants, and the Romans who followed, were both cultures that understood well the power of symbols and used iconography extensively for protection, fertility, wealth, crop germination, death, and birth rituals. In fact, one of the first things the Romans did on their relentless march to conquer the ancient Etruscan cities was to smash their black clay wear which was heavily decorated with symbols. Symbols common here in Civita include the horse—an archetype that both the Etruscans and Romans associated with honor and spiritual journeys to other worlds—the lion, and the eagle.

Religious iconographic art is sometimes referred to as “windows into heaven” and the Greek work anagogic—literally meaning “leading one upward”—was often used to describing their purpose. Iconography was an integral part of Christian life, despite a great controversy in the seventh and eighth centuries when the Iconoclasts (“icon-smashers”), suspicious of any sacred art that represented human beings or God, demanded the destruction of icons. In addition to the Bishops’ hat and keys, associated with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, the pervasive religious icon here in Civita, as in much of the rest of Italy, is the Madonna. Not only is she visually represented everywhere, but her presence is alive in many of the built-in altars and icons on buildings and in Civita’s caves and grottos.

For a palpable look into this iconography “mix” we need look no further than Civita’s main piazza and its beautiful Medieval church, the Chiesa S. Donato. Here, in tangible ways, we can see not only the layering of symbols, but also symbol “borrowing” as well as active incorporation of artifacts from one culture to another.

Rosettes—which some scholars believe derived from the Etruscan paterna or mundus—the symbol of the ever-present life-force—abound as decorative elements. The Etruscan lions and Roman eagle now grace the outer entry of the Porta S. Maria, placed there in the 1500s to commemorate Civita’s triumph over a nearby city-state. Roman sarcophagi, frieze fragments, and corbels are set into the lower outer walls of the church and the nearby bell tower.

Enter the church and you will see a holy water font made from two ancient Romans Corinthian capitals turned upside down. When Civita celebrates its festas in the piazza,the Medieval symbols depicting the town’s four contrade, or neighborhoods (the Market, the Bridge, the Caisson, and the Prison) are unfurled and live on. Going back even further, the physical divisions of these four contrade correspond closely to the Etruscan layout of the ideal city, a circle divided into four areas, favorable and unfavorable.

Coming from a young country, this concept of flow and continuity in history is striking. We try hard to understand it, but we may never fully absorb its effect. Michael Adams in his book Umbria, writes: “To the Italian…acceptance of the past is natural and effortless. For him, the centuries merge more easily than for the rest of us, partly because he lives (in Umbria and especially in Civita) surrounded by so many of the physical symbols of the past, but even more because here the essential thread has never been broken…with no Reformation, no French Revolution, lies like a caesura across the line of his history. The Romans (and Etruscans) are his ancestors, as they are not ours, and all that lies between, all the troubled history of two thousand years, has been assimilated, unified, and transmuted into a culture singularly free of contradiction.”

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