Cascata delle Marmore and Valnerina: Monastic sites and ancient hydrogeological reclamation works
Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities
Region: Umbria - Province: Perugia and Terni
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The Valnerina covers the south-eastern area of Umbria, delimited by the hydrographic basin of the Nera River. Its characteristic features are the steep valleys of the Apennine Mountains and two tablelands, where the main settlements have developed. The area is partly under the administration of the Province of Perugia (municipalities of Cascia, Cerreto di Spoleto, Monteleone di Spoleto, Norcia, Poggiodomo, Preci, Sant’Anatolia di Narco, Scheggino, Sellano, Spoleto and Vallo di Nera) and partly under that of the Province of Terni (municipalities of Arrone, Montefranco, Ferentillo, Polino e Terni).
The upper valley, Alta Valnerina, corresponds to the territory of the Province of Perugia and of the Comunità Montana della Valnerina and comes within the boundaries (Norica and Preci) of a national park, Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini. The area, a total of 918 sq km, is scarcely populated: 13,766 persons at the last census; the economy is based on agriculture (niche products) tourism, commerce and pig meat processing.
The Valnerina’s specificity comes from its particular condition as a strategically located “land of passage”, isolated and therefore protected, that favoured the development of an independent culture.
The impulse for the development of this area into a territory came from the religious communities. Ever since the IV – V centuries, this valley was particularly favored by Heremetic movements; the first Syriac anchorites fled from persecution and inhabited the more austere and isolated gorges, (Val Castoriana, Val di Narco , Val di Noce, Scentelle , Romita and Monteluco). These were the first elements that promoted the territory and settlements took advantage of the area’s great richness in spring waters.
The subsequent development process began, in the VI century, as hermitages grew into monastic organizations, thanks also to the followers of Benedetto da Norcia. The monks of the abbeys (flourishing and influent in the whole valley) structured the Nera valley, organized the development of the region’s resources, through wood clearing and stone removal, to make place for farming – wheat, forage, olive groves and orchards. They also canalised waters and drained marshes and so created the few plains that could be used for farming on the valley floor in Vaòl di Marco, for instance, the monks Mauro and Felice reclaimed that stretch of river and developed farming.
In Valnerina, this process occurred much earlier than anywhere else, so that it served as a model for many other territories. This region’s specificity is due also to the fact that these works are perfectly preserved and still active.
A particularly important case is that of the Marcite on Norcia’s karst plateau (about seventy hectares of grassland that remain green all year round) which were implemented as of the VI century to promote repeated forage mowing; the area is chequered and consolidated by lines of trees and particular irrigation canals, known as cortinelle, where the water still flows and supplies the water mill.
This economical impulse is reflected in a particularly significant historical, artistic and architectural heritage with the transition from the initial monasteries and churches to the diffusion of new urban settlements. The territory’s structure, created by the Benedictine monks was so strong that it was set up as a model and influenced, directed and set in motion all subsequent transformations. Civilian and sacred edifices, roads to connect the valleys, soil improvement for farming, are all elements that were introduced during this period and are present to this day; indeed, they represent the territory’s distinctive element and its continuity.
This significant architectural patrimony is enriched by a vast array of sculptures and paintings, found both in urban settlements and in the country, spanning from the XIII to the XVII century (Norcia, Cascia, Sellano, Preci, Vallo di Nera). The variety, quality and wide distribution of these masterpieces are among the territory’s outstanding features.
The lower valley, Bassa Valnerina – towards the falls – coincides with the territory of the Province of Terni and follows on from the upper area along the river Nera’s course. It is the territory of the Parco Fluviale Neri, covering 2,120 ha, created in 1995 to safeguard the integrity of this extremely valuable heritage.
Following the state road Valnerina, one comes across a succession of ancient villages, towers, remains of medieval civilizations which still dominate the territory. Collestatte, surrounded by the castle’s battlements rises on the right of the river; not far off, there are two strongholds, Arrone and Castel del Lago, featuring several sanctuaries and convents, namely the Convent of San Francesco, founded by Saint Francis of Assisi, and finally two villages, Ferentillo – Matterella and Precetto, with the impressive Benedictine abbey San Pietro in Valle towering above.
Further along, the valley is overshadowed by Monte Solenne on the right and Colle Bernara on the left.
This is the backdrop of the Cascata delle Marmore, the highest falls in Europe, all of 165m, delivering thousands of cubic meters per second. These fascinating falls are not the work of nature: they are artificial, built in 271 B.C. by the Roman Consul Curius Dentatus who wished to put an end to the floods in the Sabine valley and so built what is certainly among the most spectacular public hydraulic works – artificial falls that directed the waters of the River Velino into the River Nera , away from the plains of Rieti. The result is here for us to admire today, one of the most fascinating and peculiar “natural” sights, praised by Ancient Romans and celebrated during the XVIII and XIX century by the travelers of the Grand Tour, although the river’s course has been partially deviated on account of hydro-electric plants supplying several important industries. Most of these industries were implemented between 1920 and 1930 following the development of the Terni electric company.
Most of these industrial plants have now closed down so that the area is configured as an open-air museum of industrial archeology while the natural beauty of the landscape remains intact.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
Unlike many other Italian and European landscapes that have become unrecognizable as a result of extensive alterations performed during the last century, the Valnerina maintains its original authentic features. The territorial structure has remained unchanged, even in its minor features, so that the different periods from Antiquity to modern times can be easily traced (water-control systems, monasteries and isolated churches, road network, farms, urban settlements, villas and castles). Also the hydro-electric plants in the lower valley are worthy of notice; they were implemented in the first half of the XX century to exploit the waters of the Cascata delle Marmore and are now inactive, but they represent one of the best preserved examples of water-related industrial archeology. An earthquake struck the Apennines in Umbria and Marche in 1997 and caused serious damage to several monuments and minor edifices. Following this event all the buildings involved were restored and consolidated under the strict supervision of the competent authorities.
Comparison with other similar properties
The Valnerina's specificity, as compared to other areas where monastic orders, in particular the Benedictine Order, carried out land development schemes, comes from the continuity of the equilibrium, achieved with great difficulty and jealously preserved throughout the centuries, between an environment poor of resources except for water, and its development performed by Man. Because this is a mountainous environment, land-reclamation and water-control schemes had to be performed using specific, remarkable instruments, quite different from the traditional ones used in the plains. The territory is relatively isolated and this has favoured continuity of use and preservation of significant features such as the Marcite that date back to Ancient Roman times, whereas in other regions, Lomellina for instance, they have practically disappeared. Another element that distinguishes the Valnerina from other land-reclamation areas, is the prevailing presence of large portions of the original, Ancient Roman, water-control system, with the Cascata delle Marmore as the most significant example. The preservation of a dense network of civilian and sacred edifices built during the Middle Ages around the three main abbeys, further distinguishes the Valnerina. In particular, the original features of the two types of settlements established in this area, villas and castles, have been maintained here but can no longer be found elsewhere.