Perugia – Umbria

The provincial capital, PERUGIA is the most obvious base to kick off a tour of Umbria. It’s an oddly mixed town, with a medieval centre and not a little industry: Buitoni, the pasta people, are based here, and it’s also where Italy’s best chocolate, Perugina, is made. It can get very busy in summer, but there’s a day’s worth of good sightseeing to be done and the presence of the the Italian University for Foreigners, set up by Mussolini to improve the image of Italy abroad, lends a dash of cosmopolitan style.

Perugia hinges on a single street, Corso Vannucci, a broad pedestrian thoroughfare constantly buzzing with action. At the far end, the austere Piazza Quattro Novembre is backed by the plain-faced Duomo, recently reopened after damage caused by the 1983 earthquake, although the interior, home to the so-called Virgin’s “wedding ring”, an unwieldy one-inch-diameter piece of agate that changes colour according to the character of the person wearing it, isn’t especially interesting. The Perugians keep the ring locked up in fifteen boxes fitted into one another like Russian dolls, each opened with a key held by a different person; it’s brought out for public viewing every July 30.

The centrepiece of the piazza is the Fontana Maggiore, sculpted by the father-and-son team Nicola and Giovanni Pisano and describing episodes from the Old Testament, classical myth, Aesop’s fables and the twelve months of the year. Opposite rises the gaunt mass of the Palazzo dei Priori, worth a glance inside for its frescoed Sala dei Notari (daily 9am–1pm & 3–7pm; free). A few doors down at Corso Vannucci 25 is the Collegio di Cambio (March–Oct Tues–Sat 9am–12.30pm; Nov–Feb Thurs & Fri 8am–2pm, Wed & Sat 8am–2pm & 4–7pm; L2000), the town’s medieval money exchange, frescoed by Perugino. The palace also houses the Galleria Nazionale di Umbria (Tues–Sat 9am–1.30pm & 3–7pm, Sun 9am–1pm; L8000), one of central Italy’s best galleries – a twelve-room romp through the history of Umbrian painting, with work by Perugino and Pinturrichio along with one or two stunning Tuscan masterpieces (Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca) and early Sienese works (Duccio).

The best streets to wander around to get a feel of the old city are either side of the Duomo. Via dei Priori is the most characteristic, leading down to Agostino di Duccio’s colourful Oratorio di San Bernardino, whose richly embellished facade is far the best piece of sculpture in the city. From here you can wander through the northern part of the centre, along Via A. Pascoli, to the Arco di Augusto, whose lowest section is now one of the few remaining monuments of Etruscan Perugia. The upper remnant was added by the Romans when they captured the city in 40 BC. On the other side of town, along Corso Cavour, is the large church of San Domenico, one of whose chapels holds a superb carved arch by Agostino di Duccio, and, to the right of the altar, the tomb of Pope Benedict XI, an elegant piece by one of the period’s three leading sculptors: Pisano, Lorenzo Maitini or Arnolfo di Cambio – no one knows which. There are also some impressive stained-glass windows, the second biggest in Italy after those in Milan Cathedral. In the church’s cloisters, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale dell’Umbria (Tues–Sat 9am–1.30pm & 2.30–7pm, Sun 9am–1pm; L5000) has one of the most extensive Etruscan collections around. Further on down the Corso Cavour, advertised by a rocket-shaped bell tower, the tenth-century basilica of San Pietro is the most idiosyncratic of all the town’s churches. Its choir has been called the best in Italy, and there is a host of works by Perugino and others.

Perugia was a very important Etruscan city with marvellous buildings such as the Etruscan Arch or the Etruscan Well. The Roman emperor Ottaviano conquered the city and gave it a new name: Augusta Perusia. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the city became independent town with a own council, but often divided into fierce fights against families like the Baglioni. This family was the only which contended the city with the Papal States in 1531. The pope Paolo III, as a symbol of his power, decided to build the Rocca Paolina, a huge rock above the old city. This power finished in 1860, year of the unification of Italy.