Inside the Monti Sibillini park, in the heart of the Valnerina Valley in Umbria, is a great little town with an ancient history, threatened not only by events, but also by disastrous earthquakes, the most recent happening just two years ago. Today, we want to travel back in time to discover the history of Norcia, a history totally worth your while!
From the Neolithic to the barbaric invasions, passing through Saint Benedict!
Norcia is found on a plateau that is full of archaeological evidence that leads us to believe that the area was already inhabited during the Neolithic era, to then become an important Etruscan centre (probably the name of Norcia comes from Nortia, goddess of destiny and fortune, worshipped by the Etruscans).
During the expansion period of the Sabini, Norcia was under their control and was afterwards conquered by the Romans in the year 300 B.C.. It was the hometown of famous characters of the Empire, for example: the mother of the emperor Vespasiano. The historian Tito Livio explains that, in the year 205 B.C., the city offered men to Scipio Africanus as volunteers to fight in the Second Punic War.
In the 3rd century A.C., with the coming of the Christian religion, Norcia became the seat of a diocese leaded by the bishop from Foligno San Feliciano and, in 480 A.C., the saint twins Benedict and Scolastica, the two emblems of the city, were born there.
We can say that Saint Benedict brought civility and spiritual values after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Together with other monks and using his famous motto: “ora et labora” (pray and work), he changed Europe with a message full of not only spiritual values, but also practical ones, encouraging the population to roll up their sleeves and work for a better future.
This better future would have to wait for Norcia, since, between the 7th and the 9th century, the Goths, Lombards and Saracens performed several violent incursions in the city. This caused a progressive abandonment of the city, which didn’t stop there…
From the Middle Ages to today, earthquake after earthquake.
During the High Middle Age, in order to resell products conserved in salt to the neighbouring cities, the nursini (this is the name of the inhabitants of Norcia) specialised in butchery, developing an extremely precise technique known to our days.
It was during this period, in the abbey of the neighbouring city of Preci, when the famous Surgery School was born. This school was recognised by the Church in 1215 and went down in history as the first in which a small group of non-religious people were permitted to practice surgical operations.
Norcia was slowly recovering and had become a Free Commune. During the 14th century, it conquered several neighbouring territories and, during the 15th century, it was often fighting with neighbouring lands like Spoleto, Cascia and, above all, Ascoli over the Arquata del Tronto region.
After the plague in 1524 and a subsequent decline in city activity, the city was the protagonist of a great artistic and social development in the 17th century. During this time, many churches, convents, hospitals, monasteries and many public buildings were erected.
However, the nursini hadn’t seen the end of their suffering yet. In 1703 and in 1730, the city was shaken by two violent earthquakes which razed the city nearly to the ground. The few remaining inhabitants embarked into a great reconstruction work, revitalising the commune which, after an unhappy period under French rule, flourished under the Church once more.
Another extremely violent earthquake in 1859 only left 76 houses standing. This was only one year before the Italian Unity but, the nursini were not afraid to start again…
After the two world wars, another earthquake in the 70s and one last one in 2016, the nursini didn’t have not given up and even today the city is still involved in a huge reconstruction project to bring back splendour to a true jewel, not only in Umbria, but in the whole of Italy…