From woods and rocks, meadows of flowers and olive groves, emerges a cluster of houses sprouting up either side of a deep gorge. The Ciuffenna river flows through a dark rocky channel and high above a Medieval bridge joins the two crooked outcrops of dwellings that cling on either side. Loro Ciuffenna is a village of contrasts: Romanesque churches rich with obscure religious symbolism share a town with a dirty hardware shop, and brooding medieval alleyways are surrounded by sudden joyous fields of flowers.
First to note is the sheer ingenious exploitation of nature by the original builders of this town. Far from being put off by a village scythed through the middle by an ominous plummeting gorge, the houses balance as precariously close to the cliff edge without crumbling down as possible, barely distinguishable at their bases from the rock itself. Naturally there is a mill at the higher end of the gorge that sits as nonchalantly down in the rocky depths as though it grew there organically. One lone man sits inside watching the cascading water.
Borgo Storico of Loro Ciuffenna
The gorge is conquered by a beautifully formed medieval bridge. Like the buttress of a great cathedral its gothic form is sharp, simple, and solid.
The bridge leads to the Porta dell’Orologio, a clock tower, which forms the entrance into the old, charming borgo of just under 3000 inhabitants.
The central winding street ends with another Porta leading to Arezzo, and branching off the street are mysterious narrow alleys, their destinations obscured by curves. Some duck beneath parts of houses, one becomes like a rabbit warren underground, and ultimately they open out into small sunlit squares given life by the flowers, old brooms and washing that sit so naturally in these spaces.
Santa Maria Assunta in Wisteria
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Up a flight of steps richly perfumed by a magnificent wisteria plant (in a private house which, if you are lucky enough to see the gates open, you can see forms a roof over the courtyard) you can visit the church of Santa Maria Assunta. Cited in literature as early as 1275 and with the date 1333 inscribed on the architrave, it is home to a shimmering golden altar piece by Bicci di Lorenzo featuring Madonna and Saints which glows in the dim interior. During Easter a sumptuous display of flowers sits at the saints’ feet.
The parish churches of this region are particularly special, most dating back to the Romanesque period. However, far from being simple they are powerful, muscular structures peppered with cryptic carvings rarely found in Italy (more commonly found in Northern Europe). There is an abundance of churches in this area which were built along the ancient Via Clodia. This road roughly corresponds to the now named Via dei Sette Ponti (road of the seven bridges), which is also home to six pievi, or parish churches. The comune of Loro Ciuffenna hosts two of these unusual churches.
Dating to 1011 it is a vast three-nave basilica. In the 18th century fourteen canvases depicting with stations of the Cross were erecting in the church.
San Pietro a Gropina
Named by guidebooks as one of the most beautiful pievi in Tuscany, this cavernous chilly stone interior enchants the viewer with its enigmatic sculptures. The pulpit is decorated with mermaid whose tail is split in two and held in either hand (incidentally the same symbol which inspired the Starbucks logo), geometric motifs that seem almost celtic, and hefty stone knots. These seemingly uninterpretable motifs are explained wonderfully (and in perfect English) on their website. Here is a summary of the most important elements:
The Knotted Base: Particularly arresting is the weighty knot entwined around the two columns supporting the pulpit. These columns, called ofitiche in Italian, are one of the earliest examples of this motif, which is most commonly found in Northern Italy, Burgundy and Bavaria. This motif may represent the mystery of the Trinity. The two columns are the Father and Son who are bound together by the Holy Spirit (the knot), which is the origin of everything. The two columns may also represent the dual natures of Christ: human and divine.
The Apostles: The double capital above the columns depicts the twelve apostles kneeling in prayer. Their stylised, very flat appearance is particularly Lombard. The disproportionately large heads and wide open eyes represent the Lombards’ belief that the head was the most important part of the body and that perception of the world was achieved by rays from the eyes illuminating the world.
The Siren/Mermaid and Man with Two Serpents: These two panels on the on the pulpit feature a male figure and a mermaid both holding their ankles (or forked tail) in their hands either side of their heads. The male figure has two serpents either side of his head with their jaws open showing substantial teeth. Together they are suggested to represent temptation. The Siren traditionally symbolises seduction, demonstrating the power of sensory attraction and distracting the man from spiritual endeavours. The serpents, too, are a common symbol of seduction, leading the faithful astray. This part of the pulpit represents the general idea of man’s journey towards salvation, overcoming temporal pleasures.
There are many more elements decorating the pulpit, the capitals of the nave columns and around the door, which are equally intriguing. For a much more in-depth explanation see the website of the Pieve.
San Pietro a Gropina is a short distance out of Loro Ciuffenna, in the countryside, so a car is necessary to reach it.
Flowers and Grannies
When it comes down to it, the key elements for an attractive borgo are an abundance of delicate flowers and a healthy population of italian pensioners. Whether they are old men smoking pipes who stare apathetically at strangers or belligerent grandmothers pressing food on well stuffed children, every borgo needs their anziani. Loro Ciuffenna does not disappoint with its flower power group of grannies, and dog.
Tuscany is home to some of the greatest art cities in the world, but remember that a little way out in the countryside sit charming borghi patiently waiting to reward an adventurous tourist with their humble marvels.
As a break from exploring alleys and snapping artistic photos of washing, stop at La Torre, enoteca and restaurant. Ask for some local wine and order an antipasto toscano which comes with the region’s typical warm paté on Tuscan bread.
Loro Ciuffenna can be found in the Province of Arezzo.
Tourist Information: Piazza Matteotti 7
locali della casa Comunale – Tel. 055 9170136