In Search of Spoleto, Italy

© Spoleto resident, Lavina. (Anne Rhett Photography)

By Stefanie

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- If you live in Charleston, you most likely have heard of Spoleto Festival USA. Though it has come and gone for this year, Spoleto is a 17-day arts festival that takes over the Holy City every Spring.

However, many people may not know that even though Charleston transforms into Spoleto for over two weeks, there is indeed a real place called Spoleto in Italy. In fact, Spoleto is known as one of the most ancient and artsy towns located in the region of Umbria, Italy, and is host to its own summertime "Spoleto Festival."

The Italian Spoleto festival, named the Festival dei Due Mondi (the Festival of Two Worlds) by late composer and founder Gian Carlo Menotti, has taken place annually each June and July in Spoleto, Italy, since its founding in 1958.

In 1977, when Menotti was looking for a counterpart to his festival, he found a perfect match in Charleston.

What has now grown to more than 150 performances of opera, dance, theater and music during Spoleto Festival USA, the event draws both international and national crowds. This years event took in nearly $3 million in ticket sales, according to festival officials.

Theres no question that an event with a $50-million economic impact is important to Charleston, but where did the roots of the festival all begin? Luckily, one Charlestonian had the opportunity to see these origins firsthand.


Charlestonians Explore Italy

Ashley Hall teacher and photographer Anne Rhett traveled to Italy in June as part of the schools professional development program. Rhetts employer, the private, all-girls school in downtown Charleston, has a long-standing history with Spoleto, Italy.

Ashley Hall is one of 17 independent schools connected to the Spoleto Study Abroad student program. The program kicks off on July 11 and runs until Aug 4, and is a hands-on immersion program in the arts and humanities for high school students ages 15-19.{}

Rhett teaches English as part of Ashley Hall's Upper School Humanities program. Her curriculum focuses on world literature and the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. She visited Spoleto, Italy, for more than two weeks in June with fellow Ashley Hall teachers to conduct research.

"Being in Spoleto is like stepping back in time," Rhett said. "There is an entirely different pace to things there. You feel isolated from the chaos of American life and transported to simpler times."

Rhett being a professional photographer only added to her experience, and her pictures are proof that the quaint little town of Spoleto looks like a place straight out of a history book.{}

"It is amazing that the students are able to study abroad in a place that feels as untouched as this, living among old ruins and Medieval structures," Rhett said. "They may come from Charleston, but Spoleto offers a whole different sort of living history."


True Sister City

Charleston sure does love it's history, but a city founded in 1670 looks like a baby compared to the foundings of the ancient city of Spoleto that has still-standing ruins dating back to the 1st Century BCE.

"Picturesque is an understatement," Rhett said of the vistas in Spoleto. "The views from the ancient aqueduct in town were breathtaking -- I couldn't stop snapping!"

Rhett says even the people matched the mystique of Spoletos charm, perhaps another thing the sister cities have in common.

"I immediately noticed that the citizens of Spoleto were very warm," Rhett said.

So warm that Rhett says an elderly Italian lady named Lavina invited her right off the street into her home.

"I was walking around with my camera and noticed a striking looking woman standing in front of a faded fresco. As I started to take her photograph, she stopped me and said, You dont want a photo of me; youll want a photo of my house," Rhett said.

Rhett was then taken inside into an Italian villa with a 360-degree view of Spoleto.

Rhett says she later learned that the kind woman who had let her in her home had been a Holocaust survivor and the daughter of a former Italian diplomat. She also told Rhett that she had once housed the founder of Spoleto Festival USA, composer Gian Carlo Menotti, in that very home.

Though Lavina told Rhett she had never been to America, she had indeed heard about Spoleto Festival USA and had always wanted to go.

"Of course when I heard this, I invited her to come stay with me in Charleston," Rhett said. "I told her that we Southerners also believed in hospitality."

Rhett says she learned that Lavina worked as a preservationist in the city of Spoleto for most of her life -- ironically, a very popular profession here in the Holy City.

"Lavina pointed out everything she had preserved in her house and was very meticulous about doing things the old way," Rhett said. "I told her she would fit very well in Charleston."

And with that, the two woman from two Spoletos showed they're not that different after all.

You can view more of Rhett's work by clicking here.{}

You can learn more about the Spoleto Study Abroad program by clicking here.