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The crosses in the fields

curated by Francesco Deplanu

We are made of history ... of millenary traditions handed down from gesture to gesture ...

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One shot shows us a field at the end of the harvest in the southern area of Umbertide, in front of the so-called “Skyscraper”.

If we look at this photo from an economic history perspective, we can see a productive world modified by mechanization. Change that we can immediately identify  in the "round bales". Mechanization began well before, in the early 1900s and led to a sharp decrease in workers in the fields. This contributed to a radical change in the type of settlement: from scattered to centralized. Here it meant the beginning of a clear growth of the city settlement and also the extension of the inhabited area in a southerly direction, especially starting in the 60s ... up to "eating" the "fields" and the houses rural.

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If we place ourselves in the respective "immaterial culture", however, we also see a folkloristic-religious sign, of a simple religiosity that has been handed down for centuries: the " feast of the holy cross " or " Inventio Crucis ". A cross intertwined with blessed olive branches to protect the harvest, to "guarantee" one's life, manage the fear of the future to protect one's labors. In short, a propitiatory rite.


The origin dates back to the recovery by the Emperor Heraclius of the "True Cross" from the hands of the Persians in 628 AD, but it is claimed  that, with the celebration of this "recovery", a festivity of the spring period already present since the fourth century after Christ has definitively crystallized, in short,  more than two centuries earlier.

It was celebrated in  May or September?

In central-northern Italy, the "feast of the holy cross" is usually "celebrated" on May 3, although the religious feast is located in September. In fact, in the Gallican custom, starting from the 7th century AD. C., the feast of the Cross was held on May 3 but the feast in  this month, already formally secondary to the Catholic rite, the Roman liturgical calendar was removed in 1960/1962, following the reforms of the "Missale Romanum" which took place with John XXIII.

But it wasn't there  the recovery of nature in September ... and in the countryside they continued to celebrate in May.

These spring rituals, functional to propitiate the trend of agricultural life, took place during the period of the " Rogations ", or two holidays: the greater on April 25 and the lesser of three days in May, where with prayers and processions the deity was asked for clemency for the harvest. This is attested in different parts of Umbria, for example in Trevi, as well as in numerous areas of Italy. Today the processions of the " rogations " have completely disappeared ... however "the crosses in the fields" remain, even in our countryside.

The current state of archival research  it does not allow us to attest in what period the rituality of the "feast of the holy cross" was defined in a stable form  in the area around Umbertide; there remains even the doubt that for the less recent past there may be a "secular" documentation that reports this aspect, because it belongs to the culture of the humble of those who could not write or had a "voice". Rather, the diocesan archive for past centuries should be investigated, as well as the secondary elements present in photographic sources from the early 1900s.  and finally the oral sources. Fortunately, the memory remains  by prof. Angeletti in his 2019 text " If only the stones speak "  that  fixed some moments of the "rogazioni" in Montemigiano, above Niccone, during  the period of the world conflict. We are also certain that in the "Fratta" the rituality of the "rogations" existed for some time since in the period of French domination, and then specifically Napoleonic, the "Seminary", dependent on the Diocese of Gubbio, closed to celebrate the days dedicated to this holiday. Cesarina Giovannoni, in her unpublished graduation work “ Events of an Umbrian country in the French age. Fratta (now Umbertide) from 1796 to 1814 ",  in fact, it lists these holiday periods. In a note, a "Table of holidays in the schools dependent on the Episcopal Seminary of Gubbio" appears, where it is indicated that  the school was closed for the month of May for “ The three days of the Rogations, on the 15th eve of St. Ubaldo but only after lunch and for the feast of the saint, on the 26th for the feast of San Filippo Neri ”. In April the 25th of the month was already indicated as a holiday for the " Feast of San Marco Evangelista ".

There  persistence of the tradition of the "cross in the fields" is also visible in this other photo, near Niccone along the road that leads to Mercatale di Cortona, between the Niccone stream and the state road. Here we see how in a similar way the historical changes, that is, the cultivation of tobacco and modern irrigation technology, have not made this millennial custom disappear. The "holy cross" stands out on the hills with the Montalto castle in evidence.

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And then several crosses are visible  in various plots that rise towards the Castle of Civitella Ranieri ... to propitiate the harvest of different types of crops.

In the northern area of Umbertide known as the "Petrelle" it can be seen in the grasses ... and also in the first meters after the limit with the Municipality of Montone, at the crossroads of S. Lorenzo, you can see a cross between the fruit trees. But the custom is present throughout the territory as they are also found  near the town of Spedalicchio di Umbertide, in the plain and at the beginning of the road that climbs towards S. Anna. Finally they can be seen again in the plain south of Umbertide, near the stadium and with Monte Corona in the background.

But always observing in the perspective of "immaterial culture" we see how rites and traditions adapt, overwriting previous customs, even with deeply different cultural and religious systems. In fact, propitiating the divinity to protect the fruit of one's work is an action  ancestral.


In short, we are a complex stratification of "stories" ...


Stories that have the common dominator in the connection between the material life and the spirituality of the men who have inhabited this territory, linked by the need to survive. In fact, ingratiating yourself with the divinity to protect the fruit of your work is not an urgent need that dates back only to the origins of Western Christianity: the " rogations " in fact incorporated the " Ambarvali " of the Roman period (a term that we can translate as "around the field ": etymology: from Latin ambarvalĭa, neutral term pl., comp. of the pref. ămb- 'around' and a derivative of ărvum 'field').  

It was Pope Liberius in the fourth century after Christ who pushed to replace and incorporate in the Christian religious and ritual sentiment the festivities of the "Ambarvali" which continued to take place in the countryside on April 25 and early May. For the date of April 25 another Roman holiday  is connectable  and "superimposable" and was always linked to another "propitiation", that is a functional ritual to remove the scourge of rust: the Robigalia . This time, these rituals took place in a wood dedicated to the secondary divinity goddess with a double aspect of the “rust of wheat” (Robigus). Like most of the geniuses of vegetation and rustic life he was  fatal and at the same time propitious, male or female. In this case, the sacrifice of animals was present in ancient Rome. In short, various propitiatory rites in the same period of the year and with the same dates, in the period of the "masses", date back to the Roman cultural system and refer to the same function.


Detail of the inscription (also reachable  by clicking on the image) from:ção_dos_sacerdotes_arvais.jpg

What we can see is that even in the pre-existing "pagan" rites of the Roman world the request addressed to the deities was the dominant feature. We insert here a translation of the inscription relating to the "Ambarvali" in ancient Latin where you can see the  request to the "cruel Mars" to "pass over", or to save the harvest. The Latin text of the above inscription can be found in several online sources, the Italian translation is taken, however, from the wikipedia page cited at the bottom, together with the image of the inscription of "carmen arvale" present only in the Portuguese wikipedia.

« [...] enos Lases iuvate

snow lue rue Marmar [si] ns incurrere in pleores Satur fu fere Mars limen sali sta berber. [sem] unis alternnei advocapit conctos

enos Marmor iuvato.

Triumpe triumpe triumpe


"Oh Lari help us,

do not allow Mars, that the ruin falls on many,

Be sated, cruel Mars. Go beyond the threshold. Stand still there. Call upon all the gods of the harvest.

Help us oh Mars.

Triumph, triumph, triumph, triumph and triumph !

Similar invocations were also present in the "Rogations" which were still established liturgically until a few decades ago.  

In the "Blessing" of the Roman ritual of the CEI we can still read them among the "Other blessings for special occasions" (Appendix 1), specifically in the "supplications", to which they had to be answered  every time "hear us Lord", the phrases:

" Give us a forgiving season",

"Give us the fruits of the earth",

“Give everyone wisdom  prosperity and health ".


As far as we know during the Rogations in Monteleone di Orvieto the "invocations" for the blessing of the waters were declaimed ":  

" From lightning and storms, deliver us, O Lord;

from the scourge of the earthquake, deliver us O Lord;

from plague, hunger and war, deliver us O Lord;

for the mystery of your holy Incarnation, deliver us O Lord. "


This latest news comes  by Fernando Corgna who wrote  " Monteleone d'Orvieto: History of the town, of the churches and of social and religious life ".

In Umbertide Prof. Angelo Angeletti tells some aspects related to the "invocations" that were recited during the processions between  Montemigiano and Niccone when he was a child, in the period between the Second World War: <<  in spring the Rogations were made which had St. Vincent as patron saint, celebrated, honored and invoked to implore good harvests and to avert the many calamities that could put bread at risk; for this reason, in April, in the most delicate period for the countryside, the Rogations were recited ... >>. During the ceremonies, the men of the countryside listened to the Latin of the litanies and responded more heartily to what they heard  precisely, that is the fear for the harvest, or that they really managed to understand in the language of the liturgy: << There were other things that left me perplexed: they were the litanies sung during the procession to which people responded in unison "Free nos Domine! " But when the priest sang "A plague, a fame et bello" the "Libera nos" dropped in pitch almost to become little more than a murmur because, after the invocation to keep away the plague and hunger on which everyone was dying. chord, that "beautiful" sounded somewhat out of tune; much clearer and more shared was the "Libera nos", when the priest sang "a fl agello terraemotus, a sudden death" and everyone, absolutely everyone, would have liked to respond a hundred times to the invocation "a folgore et storm": that was the prayer really important sung by men and women as they watched their fields and vineyards. >>. That deliver us from  "beautiful", or rather from "war", was not understood, while it was well understood   the reference to natural disasters.

We are stratifications of stories ... always in our territory, in fact, we can see that the same need for propitiation of products by one's own work is easily traceable also in the previous agro-pastoral economy society of the period between the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Here the bronzes of the Umbrian-Etruscan world, found in Monte Acuto, in the shape of bovine, sheep and other animals served as " thanks and request for protection for the donor's breeding " Luana Cencaioli quotes, reporting the opinion of D. Monarchi in his work on the “ Votive bloodline of Grotta Bella ”.


We conclude by showing below the entrance to the sanctuary of Monte Acuto seen from the south and from below. In the votive cabinet, the traces of which have been identified inside the "enclosure", immediately after the entrance highlighted in the photo, the votive statuettes now preserved in the Museum of Santa Croce in Umbertide were recovered.

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The need for "propitiation", or to invoke protection for the livestock that is found in the "bronzetti of Monte Acuto", belongs to  that same need to protect ourselves from the uncertain and frightening future that has taken on different forms over time based on one's own religious reference system… and which we find in our “crosses of the fields”.

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PHOTOS: Francesco Deplanu, images taken between May and June 2020.



- Roman Church Liturgy:


-Carmen Arvale:ção_dos_sacerdotes_arvais.jpg


-Rogations and Ambarvali:

Angelo Angeletti: “If only the stones are left to speak”, Digital book Srl, Città di Castello, 2019 (pp. 54-55).à_SULLE_ROGAZIONI_pag170_171.pdf




-Unpublished thesis by Cesarina Giovannoni: “ Events of an Umbrian town in the French age. Fratta (now Umbertide) from 1796 to 1814 ; "1968. (p. 38).


- “ Umbrians and Etruscans. Border peoples in Monte Acuto and in the territory of Umbertide ”, edited by Luana Cenciaioli, Ministry for Cultural and Environmental Heritage Archaeological Superintendence for Umbria - Municipality of Umbertide, 1996; (p. 41-44).


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