Perugia – an excerpt from Italy: Umbria and the Marche

What a town for assassinations!

H V Morton

Balanced on a commanding hill high over the Tiber valley, Perugia adroitly juggles several roles: that of an ancient hill town, a magnificent città d’arte, a university centre and a slick cosmopolitan city. It is a fascinating place and a fitting capital for Umbria, arguably the most intensely medieval of Italy’s great art cities. Splendid monuments from the Etruscan era to the Late Renaissance stand cheek to jowl; its gallery contains the region’s finest art, but in the alleyways cats sleep undisturbed. Thanks to Lake Trasimeno, just a hop and skip to the west, Perugia has a ‘riviera’ of its very own, dotted with bijou islands and mighty castles; Perugino was born just to the south of the city in Città della Pieve and made these bluish-green landscapes his own.

Yet its sun-filled present is haunted by sinister shadows from the past. Four medieval popes died in Perugia. One did himself in – stuffing his gut with Lake Trasimeno eels – but for the other three the verdict was poison. And then there were the Baglioni, the family who ruled the city for a time who were so dangerous that they nearly exterminated themselves. Blissful Assisi, perfumed with the odour of sanctity, may only be over the next hill, but Perugia in the old days were full of trouble. But in Italy creativity and feistiness often went hand in hand, and the city has contributed more than its share to culture and art. Just as remarkable as the people is the stage they act on: the oldest, most romantically medieval streets and squares in Italy.

A strange thing happened to Perugia in the middle of its rough-house career in the 1500s, when the popes took firm control. Art, scholarship, trade and civic life quickly withered, and the town’s penchant for violence was rocked to sleep under a warm blanket of Hail Marys. Look at Perugia now, its people famed for their politeness, urbanity and good taste. They make their living from chocolates and teaching Italian language and culture to foreigners. Maybe a few centuries under the pope was just what they needed.

© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls