The Battle Over Italy's Belly Button

The Battle Over Italy's Belly Button

By Silvia Marchetti

The San Cassiano monastery in Narni.


Because this age-old quarrel among villages might finally have been resolved.

By Silvia Marchetti

The land of a thousand church towers is also the land of a thousand squabbles. In Italy, neighboring towns love to bicker about everything: which brews the best espresso, which boasts the tastiest boar soup, where you can find Italia’s most beautiful piazza.

Pettiness has no limits, as evidenced by a years-long quarrel among three lovely hamlets for a rather more scientific honor: Which is the precise geographical center of Italy? In 2015, researcher Giuseppe Angeletti tried to put an end to it with his charts, compasses, binoculars and satellite navigators. Using data from Florence’s Geographic Military Institute, he declared the coordinates of Italy’s center were: 

Latitude N 42°30′15.5″; longitude E 12°34′21.5″

That meant that the center lay about 85 kilometers northeast of Rome, right under an ancient Roman bridge in the hamlet of Narni. Said to have inspired C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, the town is enchanting indeed. 

Angeletti, a geographer who loves touring the boot with all sorts of measuring instruments stacked in his car trunk, says the calculation is based on the intersection of Italy’s four cardinal points, with the northernmost in the Alps and the southernmost in deep Calabria. But his endeavor merely confirmed what he (and Narni locals) said they always knew. Nonetheless, the findings have boosted the confidence of villagers. Local authorities have created a tourist route highlighting the bridge, and several bars now call themselves things like Caffé Il Centro d’Italia.  

It’s not just a matter of numbers and intersecting radii, says Roberto Nini, a member of the local city council and a speleologist. Narni is also a so-called “geomantic” center, meaning a place with a special vibe where there are deep underground vibrations and magnetic forces that exercise a concentric pull. “The ancient Romans felt this magnetism,” he says, which is why they built in Narni one of Italy’s longest aqueducts, the Formina. Nini leads underground enthusiasts and amateurs along 700 meters of it.

Shutterstock 414494350

The Umbilicus Italiae monument in Piazza San Rufo, Rieti.

Source Shutterstock

I went in there once, and I did feel as if I was surrounded by a muffled echo. The air was full of electric charges. It was a spooky and fascinating adventure, though you need to walk bent on your knees for an hour to avoid crashing your head against the slimy, wet roof. 

Narni may bathe in its glory, but it must fight tooth and nail to keep the record. Other two nearby villages — Foligno and Rieti — claim they are Italy’s center and have waged war for the title to lure more tourists. Mayors in these towns have launched “belly-button military campaigns,” aka la guerra per l’ombelico, going around measuring ground levels, analyzing modern and ancient maps and calling wannabe Sherlock Holmes experts to gather proofs. They’re all going nuts.  

Rieti, for its part, says Italy’s center is a historical billiard table located inside a tiny bar on the main piazza; the town has erected a round, cheese-shaped monument to mark the spot. Its claim is supported by an ancient Roman inscription in Latin on one of the city walls, saying Rieti is “Umbilicus Italiae” — but detractors point out that national boundaries centuries ago were quite different from the actual ones now.

Meanwhile, Foligno, the third town, has taken things one step further: It boasts of being the geographical center of the Earth, not just of Italy. The claim is based on the readings of some medieval manuscripts, composed at a time when the Earth was thought to be flat, and its end was marked by Hercules’ columns, near Spain; beyond them, ships would fall off. Today, of course, we all know that the real center of the planet is its innermost core, which in this case is made of magma and fire.

But belief is stronger than science. Italians have a saying: “Each single village has its own traditions and reality.” Geography can be interpreted and reshaped. Boundaries are not walls. For that matter, your own house could be the center of whichever country you live in. How about starting your exploring now?