An Italian village cloaked in cashmere

photos by Claudia Flisi except as noted

The Renaissance is alive and well in southern Umbria, at least for 10 days each year. Between late July and the first few days of August, Solomeo, a tiny town 14 km. (about 10.5 miles) southwest of Perugia, Italy, animates history for its local population of 500 as well as all travelers who happen to be passing by. The handful of streets in this dollhouse village are crowded with more than 15,000 visitors from elsewhere in Italy and from abroad.

photo suppliied by Solomeo tourism office

Street performers in costume animate every angle, craftspeople ply local wares ranging from edibles to wearables, and every evening a banquet is served outdoors on rough-hewn wooden tables by locals in Renaissance attire. Almost every visitor to the fair winds up enjoying at least one evening meal. The food and wine are rigorously Umbrian, with the emphasis on pasta, meat, and regional produce such as figs, fava beans, greens, and truffles, all washed down with excellent local wines and the ubiquitous unsalted bread.

But the town’s roots predate the Renaissance by more than a millennium. Solomeo’s history can be traced back to Etruscan times (from about 700 BC), relics from that civilization have been found in the area, and the Etruscan deity “Lumm” was apparently honoured by the inhabitants, so the name “Solomeo” is believed to be a derivation of “San Lume”.

If you want to know what it is like to walk the streets of a medieval hamlet with Etruscan origins, albeit a spotlessly clean version free of disease and animal excrement, plan to come off-season, in the spring or fall, or in any case before or after the Renaissance Fair. No crowds so you can see the authenticity of the place. It has been so beautifully restored that it comes across a little like a movie set, or Disneyland, but there is no admission fee, and you can arrange for a guide to describe Solomeo’s history and architectural features in several languages, including English.

These features include the Renaissance-dated Castello di Solomeo, the 16th century Villa Antonori, and the church of San Bartolomeo dating back to the 12th century. Seven schools for crafts — including textile tailoring, cutting, and mending, masonry, and gardening — are tucked away in parts of the castle; students come to learn these artisanal skills much as Renaissance apprentices learned by observing and assisting master craftsmen.

Solomeo also has its own theatre. The latter was completed in 2008, but was constructed with respect for its historical context, so it fits in with the historic buildings. The piazza outside the theatre includes a Roman-style outdoor “amphitheatre” that hosts performances in the summer, when the theatre itself is closed.

The name of the theatre, Teatro Cucinelli, is a link to the town’s restoration and its relationship to cashmere: the former was financed by one man, Brunello Cucinelli, and his eponymous company and foundation. Brunello Cucinelli is sometimes called the “king of cashmere”, because the company he founded in 1978 focuses on the design, production, and sales of upscale cashmere garments.

In 1985 Cucinelli bought most of Solomeo, including the castle, the villa, and the church. By then his company was doing well and he wanted to establish headquarters in the then-almost-abandoned hamlet, partly for sentimental reasons (his wife is from Solomeo and he courted her there), partly for economic reasons (a dying town doesn’t cost a lot), and partly for image (a prestige brand needs a prestige headquarters). The importance Brunello Cucinelli attaches to the town can be seen in the logo of his company, which incorporates the coat of arms of the Castello di Solomeo.

Today the Cucinelli family live in Villa Antonori; when not traveling, Brunello can walk to his office, as do some of the company’s 700+ employees who work at headquarters. Visitors are invited to tour various company facilities, such as its gorgeous library, and eyeball others from afar, such as the luminous timber-roofed new company restaurant whose main flaw is that it is not open to the public.

One can actively participate in the town’s veneration of cashmere at the Cucinelli factory store, part of the headquarters complex. Prices are 30 per cent less than in High Street shops, and the shop is sometimes used as a testing ground for new products and marketing ideas. So you may pick up an item before it makes it way into next season’s collection. All are welcome at the store without prior appointment.

For the rest — tours of the town, visits to the craft schools, the history of Solomeo — it is advisable to write in advance to comunicazione@brunellocucinelli.it.

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writer, PR professional, mother, dog-lover, traveler. See more at www.paroleanima.com

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