Spoleto, Italy through the eyes of Bret Lott, Director, MFA Creative Writing

Buongiorno! Bret Lott here, and yes, it’s that time of year again: The College of Charleston’s month long program of study we hold each year in our sister city of Spoleto, Italy. I want you the ready to enjoy vicariously our course of study here in Umbria. This is our eighth year in the villa, 15th century farmhouse just outside town that looks out on the Umbrian Valley toward Assisi. This year we have fourteen students from five different states and with six different majors. We all arrived safely after almost two days of travel and within a half hour some of the students were already in the pool ( Yes there is a pool). Later, just after sunset, they all sang Happy Birthday to Brett, who turned 20, celebrating with Tiramisu cake they bought for her at the grocery store down the hill. So here are a few. We have one graduate student Kaileigh Ashby first year (Masters of Arts in English student) with us on the trip! And here we go–


Kaileigh is our MA English Graduate Student

Liz, Caroline, Mattie and Kaileigh

The Villa

Day #2

Ciao! Day number two broke bright and early and gave us the view below of the fields sloping down into the Umbrian Valley. This was taken at 6:00, when the rooster next door got to work in earnest. It’s the same view as every time we are here, but different nonetheless, and always beautiful. We had classes in the morning, then walked for the first time into town for the annual tour of Spoleto with Luca, our guide, who seems never to get any older—he’s been leading us for eight years now. Students were suitably agog at the history, the architecture, the art and gelato (of course we stopped for gelato) of their new home for the next month. But, sadly, there was some evidence of the earthquakes (“terremoto” in Italian—a lovely and terrible word) last fall here in Umbria, including one building next to the library riddled with newly installed high-tech earthquake bolts and a metal support frame to keep it from falling down. Charleston has more in common with Spoleto than simply the international arts festivals they both stage each year. Both cities have a history of terremoti; earthquake bolts in Charleston are one of the architectural elements you’ll hear carriage tour guides point out, the same element Luca points out in the buildings here. Despite the recent earthquakes, Spoleto’s beauty and stateliness and charm remain intact, timeless characteristics the students appreciated all day long.

The gang and Luca at the duomo.

The view, yet again

Day #3

Cari Lettori (look it up). Day 3 is our first Saturday, which means our first day trip. In honor of Italy’s greatest poet, because these are writing courses we’re teaching over here, we visiting Dante’s beloved little medieval town of Gubbio, and the hill beside which it sits, Colle Eletto. In Canto XI of Paradiso, Dante writies, ” A fertile slope falls from a high mountain, between the Tupino and the Chiascio, the stream that drops from the hill chosen by the blessed Ubaldo…” This is Colle Eletto, at the top of which is a monastery over a thousand feet above the town. Inside the minor basilica there you’ll find the mummified body of Sant’ Ubaldo in a crystal coffin, his body in regalia, replete with miter and jewel-encrusted vestments. Almost sixty years ago, the townspeople decided to create an easier access to the top of the mountain, and therefore to the basilica and Sant’ Ubaldo, than the mountain trail up to it and set about building the coolest ride in all of Italy: The Funivia Colle Eletto. Its a chairlift-birdcage, a one-person stand up contraption that was a blast to ride up the mountain. And so, on this August literary excursion, we went to the top, where we had cappuccino and espresso and ciocollata calda at the little café there. Yes, we saw mummified Sant’Ubaldo and later toured the extraordinary Palazzo Dei Consoli Museo in town, a towering medieval palazzo filled with the history of Gubbio. But that Funivia thing was cool!

Lott run and jump

The beloved medieval town of Gubbio, noted in Dante’s Paradiso, Canto XI, as seen from the funivia.

Note the glee with which Kaileigh laughs at the vaunted professor’s less-than-graceful embarkation.

Day #4

Salve! The weekend is almost over—7:30 Sunday evening. Tomorrow we head into town for the first full day of classes at the biblioteca (more than likely there will be photos of that incredible place!). But until then, here are actual unretouched photos of students in their native habitat already hard at work for their travel writing and short fiction courses.

Student study conditions at the villa.

Day #5

Buongiorno! Classes began in full today. For years we have been meeting on the third floor of Palazzo Ancaina, a beautiful old building that fronts on Piazza della Liberta. But because the building sustained some damage from the terremoti last fall, Gilberto Giasprini, the director of the office of tourism for the city of Spoleto, and our old friend for all these years, arranged to have us moved to the extraordinary Palazzo Mauri, built in the mid 1600s by the Mauri family, nobility in the region all the way back then. Recent renovations have revealed Roman mosaic floors and foundations about six feet below the present building-these can be seen through the glass floor in places on the ground. But now its the biblioteca, the city library, and we have the honor of meeting in one of the primary rooms on the second floor. The photo showing the students is really our classroom, and those are really 17th Century frescoes on the walls-the originals. The photo of the window shows (1) more frescoes, (2) the thickness of the walls, keeping the building cool all summer long, and (3) the incredible view out the windows of our classroom. Nothing other to say than we are humbled to be here, thankful for the generosity of the city, and looking forward to our studies in this grand building.


Palazzo Mauri, a couple streets up from the old classroom

This really is our classroom


Day #6

Salve! Today is always one the of best days we spend in Umbria: our wine tour day. We start at Duccio Pompili’s very very very small vineyard and winery, Fontecolla, just outside Montefalco, a hilltop town famous for its Sagrantino wines. This is a  one-man operation-literally. Everything on his four-hectare plot of land ( a hectare is close to four acres) is done by hand, and because next week he starts stripping the shoots that have grown off the trunks of the vines, the students with his permission, went ahead and started helping. His aging room, is the size of a three car garage. Then we go to Antonelli, an internationally known vinter three kilometers down the road, where the aging room is a whole lot bigger. Big as a hangar. Given that the land Antonelli works is ten times the size of Duccio’s, its no wonder. But the very good thing about this experience of big and small is that the wines are absolutely beautiful in both places. That’s because they’re all grown with love under the Umbrian sun in a place as beautiful as the previous photo of the hillside sloping away from Montefalco toward Spoleto.


The volunteers at work.

Cristiana in the Fontecolla aging room, with Duccio looking for something in a bin of bottles. I couldn’t tell you what.

And Wendy, our guide at Antonelli, in their aging room. A little bit bigger.


More to come,

Bret Lott


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