Brunello Cucinelli: The Italian town that’s my place of calm and reflection
The Italian fashion designer heads to a small town where he is friends with the local monks to recharge
Brunello Cucinelli is a global success these days, but started modestly as a maker of cashmere knitwear. From his base in the hilltop medieval town of Solomeo in Umbria, he has now expanded both his repertoire and his influence. The Brunello Cucinelli signature for both men and women is a luxurious and relaxed take on Italian style, employing an expert combination of traditional tailoring skills and contemporary design. These are not casual clothes. Nor are they formal. Instead, they sit perfectly in-between, providing a chic and comfortable wardrobe for people who do not feel the need to shout about their good taste. But as well as being an admirably talented designer and businessman, Cucinelli is also a committed humanist and runs his company along lines that see him investing in the people who work for him (who are paid around 20 per cent more than the national average) and in the landscape and environment around his enterprise. His credo of “Humanistic Sustainability” and “Humanistic Capitalism” even saw him host a “Soul Symposium” in his hometown in Umbria in 2019 that was attended by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and a bunch of Silicon Valley billionaire worthies. But even the most philosophical of people needs to take refuge once in a while, and Brunello Cucinelli has a secret place where he goes to put things in perspective.
My tip is a medieval Italian town called Norcia, or Nursia, which I believe is what you call it in English and is the Latin name. It is in Umbria, not too far from Solomeo, which is where I live, and where my label is based.
Norcia has beautiful architecture, particularly in the old town, and though it dates back to the 5th century BC and the Roman era, it has surrounding 14th-century walls. It is a simple place, but rich in culture. There is a monastery – the Monastery of Saint Benedict, who was born here – and I am friendly with the Benedictine monks who live there, particularly Father Cassian, who, in 2000, returned the monks to Norcia after an absence of 183 years. It is a very spiritual place and I go there when I have spiritual troubles and need to work things out. I’ll travel there for two or three days and stay in a hotel. I am fascinated by the lives of the monks, and feel like I am in some way becoming a bit of a monk myself when I am in the town.
I certainly regard my times in Norcia as spiritual holidays – and by “spiritual” I do not mean religious. This is all about rediscovering yourself, your psyche, surrounded by quiet. When I listen to the monks at prayer at half-past-five in the evening through the door of the cathedral it is magical. And in winter there is often snow, which adds to the fairytale impression. It’s like poetry. So whenever I feel in need of a break, I like to head to Norcia; it’s only a one-and-a-half-hour drive from home.
I recommend this place as somewhere to reenergise and restore your soul. You come to nurture yourself and live in the moment. You can go see the Benedictine monks and pay a visit to the monastery. You can stroll along the streets. In the evening there are these very dark blue skies, because there are not many public lights. It is easy to take in the spirituality that is everywhere. The food is great, too. The cuisine here is like home cooking and the region is famous for its pork and wild boar ham and sausages, and for its black truffles. You should aim to be eating bruschetta or pasta with truffles. In silence!
In 2016, two earthquakes struck the area, and though Norcia has weathered many earthquakes over the centuries, and the first caused only structural damage, the second had a devastating effect, destroying many buildings, including the 13th-century Basilica of Saint Benedict. While this was obviously terrible, it has had a peculiar effect on me. When I see something that has fallen down that is now being beautifully restored, like the Saint Benedict church, it fills me with hope. If I look up and there is restoration work, I consider that this new craftsmanship may last for the coming 1,000 years. It is symbolic of mankind’s resilience and creativity. And in Norcia, there were no deaths, so I can contemplate the drama of seeing a church that actually caved in without it summoning feelings of human tragedy.
The reconstruction for me represents Umbrian culture and the European culture of Saint Benedict, who has been the patron of Norcia for some 1,500 years, and is the patron saint of Europe. I am pleased to say that my company and employees, along with my friend the philanthropist and entrepreneur Marc Benioff, have played a part in this, sponsoring the restoration of the bell tower of Saint Benedict’s. Interestingly, Saint Benedict stated: ‘Every day, you should look after your mind through studying, your soul through praying, and then work.’ The workmen of Norcia are through their work restoring this place of the mind and soul.
So I sincerely recommend two or three days in Norcia for your spirit. And it’s good for your body too – you may put on three kilos, but that’s healthy. There are several hotels to stay in; the one I use is Hotel Palazzo Seneca. And for restaurants, I like Ristorante Vespasia and Ristorante Granaro del Monte 1850. There is also a great store specialising in butchery called Antica Norcineria Fratelli Ansuini, from which you can stock up for meals at home that will remind you of this wonderful place.
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