The hilltop city of Perugia, the capital of the region of Umbria in central Italy, may boast the greatest medieval palace in Italy, the finest art gallery in the region, and ancient fortified walls and gates, but its many dark and twisting cobbled alleyways, back streets, arches and winding staircases offer many other surprises for the inquisitive tourist.
Perugia was amongst the most important of the twelve city states of Etruria, the dominant culture of Italy until the Roman Republic was established in 509BC. Though the Etruscans were assimilated into Roman culture, the city has many Etruscan landmarks including the innermost massive walls of the city with its seven gates that were constructed in the second half of the 3rd century BC. In the heart of the city is the masterpiece of Perugia, the C13 richly sculptured Fontana Maggiore in one of Italy’s finest piazzas, the Piazza IV Novembre (the day the First World War ended in Italy). Facing the square is the medieval Palazzo dei Priori, one of Italy’s greatest public palaces, which also houses the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria and the region’s finest collection of Umbrian art. Further out from the Etruscan walls, another series of walls and four gates was built in the C13 and C14.
Curiously evidence of Roman rule is scare. There are Roman remains beneath the cathedral, and also beneath the Tempio di Sant’Angelo at the end of Corso Garibaldi to the north of the city. This unusual circular building, which is a paleo-Christian temple from the C5-C6, is one of the most ancient churches in Italy. It has some Romanesque features and is built on the remains of a Roman temple. The aqueduct on the west side of the city is Medieval not Roman as is sometimes stated.
Today, Perugia is also famous for its international chocolate and jazz festivals, its football team, its cosmopolitan L’Università per Stranieri di Perugia (the University for Foreigners) established by the fascist dictator Mussolini in 1921, and home to the country’s largest language school.
If you’ve only 48 hours in Perugia, here’s an assortment of other places to see and things to do.
The Rocca Paolina
At the southern end of the main street of the city, the broad Curso Vannucci, past the Piazza Italia, under the western porticoes of the Prefecture Palace of Perugia, is an escalator. This unexpectedly takes you down into an underground complex of passages and vaults. This is all that remains of a great papal stone fortress, the Rocca Paolina (the Pauline Fortress), commissioned by Pope Paul III in 1540 following the brutal putting down of a revolt by the city. Perugia had enjoyed a degree of autonomy from the Papal States that had ruled central Italy from the 8th century. The revolt was triggered by the Pope’s decision to enforce a tax on salt which violated treaties between Perugia and previous popes. The conflict became known as the Salt War.
To build the fortress, hundreds of houses, including the palaces of the Baglioni family, the brutal rulers of Perugia since 1488 and enemies of Pope Paul, were demolished. The huge fortress became a symbol of church supremacy and oppression that lasted for three centuries. With the unification of Italy in 1860 the top-level of the fortress was demolished using dynamite and bare hands and the Prefecture Palace and the Carducci Gardens were built on top. This left the bastion and ground floor of the fortress as underground galleries. Anthony Trollope, watching the demolition, wrote that ‘few buildings have been laden with a heavier amount of long-accumulated hatred’.
Three successive escalators continue down through the underground city, into the open in the shadow of the ancient walls, and arrive at a bus station and car parks in the newer city.
At the opposite end of the old city in the north-east, off the Via Bontempi and along narrow lanes, is the small church of San Severo. In a small chapel, now a museum, next to the entrance is a fresco by Raphael Sanzio, the great Renaissance artist. Raphael produced a fresco and five paintings for the city, though the paintings are no longer in the city. Raphael was a pupil of another renowned Renaissance artist Pietro Perugino, born Pietro Vannucci, who had been in charge of the painting of the walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
One way to the church of San Severo is through the cross-vaulted C14 century portico of Via Volte della Pace (street of peacetime), which follows the curved path of the city’s Etruscan wall.
The Raphael fresco which dates from 1505-1508 is of the Trinity and the Saints. Raphael only completed the top of the fresco. It wasn’t until his death in 1520 that the work was entrusted to another artist, his old master Perugino, who completed the bottom half. A portion of the fresco at the top has been lost over the years.
The Piazza San Severo in front of the church is east-facing and is close to the city’s highest point. The church is said to be built on the site of a pagan temple to the sun and this gave its name to the Porta Sole (Sun Gate) district of the Etruscan city.
The Artist Quarter
Below the church of San Severo are the narrow parallel streets of the medieval Porta Sole district connected by tiny passages and staircases. Not so long ago, this area, an historic crafts and artist quarter, some might call in bohemian, was described as a dangerous place; dirty and neglected. But local people restored the area’s image, and today festivals and art events are staged regularly, particularly along the Via delle Viola and the alleys that branch off it. There are art shops and workshops, tiny wine bars, vintage markets, and a restored independent cinema, the Postmodernissimo. This year, Alchemika, an international festival of street theatre and circus arts, now in its third year, was held over three days in June. ‘Their performances illuminate new alchemy between the streets and alleys of the city’. Evidence of the festival remain: paintings on doors and wall, models hanging from wires, posters in the bars and cafes.
Food & Drink
There are a host of inexpensive bars, ecotecas (a wine shop and bar) and osterias (originally a place serving wine and simple food) not far from the centre of the city, full of character. Here are a few of them that were visited.
Via dei Priori
By all accounts, medieval Perugia was a hellish place to be. In the early 19th century, the historian Sismondi wrote that ‘the town had the most warlike people of Italy who always preferred Mars to the Muse’ where aggression and cruelty were commonplace. Perugia in 1265 was also the birthplace of the Flagellants, who within ten years had half of Europe whipping themselves into a frenzy.
One of the most infamous events took place on the night of 14 June 1500 during a wedding that had been intended to seal the power of the Baglioni family. The Baglionis, who were leading condottiere (leaders of mercenary troops), had seized power in Perugia 1488. During the festivities however, the deep divisions within the family exploded with one side of the family conspiring against the other, many of whom were murdered while they slept and their bodies thrown out of the windows. But some escaped and they took revenge by killing the conspirators.
What accommodation there is in the medieval city itself is expensive and most visitors stay in the modern town outside the walled city. One would-be dull hotel on the western side is the Hotel Gio Wine and Jazz in Via le Ruggero D’Andreotto, which has been livened up with imaginative designs and settings.
Fortunately the MiniMetro, a 3.2km cable railway with seven stations, opened in 2008. It carries people 160 metres up from the new town into a tunnel under the old city and to a terminus near Piazza Matteotti, the city’s other main square.
If you are staying in the western side of modern town, you can take the MiniMetro or a taxi up to the old city though if you’re up to it you could always walk up the Via dei Priori on foot. The Priori were the ‘first citizens’ or rulers of the medieval city. This steeply sloping street descends westwards from the Corso Vannucci through medieval buildings with many side streets, past the Baroque church of San Filippo Neri and the 46m tower of Torre degli Sciri, before reaching the steps through the Porta Trasimena, one of the seven Etruscan gates, on the way to Lake Trasimeno.
According to medieval chroniclers however, the Via dei Priori was a conduit for the almost constantly flowing rivers of blood from those murdered as a result of vendettas and intrigues.
So that’s something to think about as you totter back in the dark to your hotel down Via dei Priori.