Perugia: a pearl in the middle of Italy


Right in the centre of Umbria, the 'green heart of Italy' the beautiful cosmopolitan city of Perugia is known for many things, not the least being its two universities, its important cultural and artistic heritage and its internationally famous festivals for chocolate and music, particularly jazz. The town dates back to Etruscan times and beyond and its maze of medieval streets and its wealth of architecture are enduring testaments to the town's long standing importance. The centre is compact so it is easy to walk around the main sights with ease especially now that the modern transport system has made the streets less congested. This enables the visitor to park underground and enter the city by modern escalators and walk through the medieval underground passageways.

This subterranean  approach leads us into the via Bagliona which leads to the heart of the city, the Piazza IV Novembre. This has its fair share of the city's architectural gems, in particular the impressive, but incomplete Cattedrale di San Lorenzo and beautiful 13thcentury Fontana Maggiore by Pisano outside the imposing Palazzo dei Priori. This fountain was made of pink and white stone and decorated with intricately carved panels depicting the months of the year, astrological signs, mythical monsters and Aesop's fables. The Palazzo itself was the seat for the town's judiciary but contains several important interiors which served other purposes.

Among these were the Collegio della Mercanzia was where the merchants' guild created an impressive space with inlaid wooden panels. In an adjacent space the Collegio del Cambio was where the money changers created an audience chamber exuded Renaissance humanism thanks to the wonderful frescoes painted by Perugino. It is the legacy of Perugino and his assistant Raphael that constitute some of the city's most enduring artistic heritage. Born Pietro Vannucci in the mid-15th century,  Perugino left his mark in various parts of the city and the surrounding area, his last being fresco work in San Severo church which had been started by his assistant Raphael. It is also thought that Raphael helped him with the Collegio del Cambio frescos. Another great artist born Perugia was Pinturicchio but to get a full appreciation of the richness of the city's artistic tradition it is well worth a visit to the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria which is also housed in the Palazzo dei Priori.

The art and architecture are both well worth the visit to this city as are the extensive shops and restaurants. However, I find that of the greatest pleasures of Perugia is just to wander without a guidebook and take in the atmosphere of the narrow medieval streets around Via dei Priori. Two of my favourites being Via Maesta dell Volte and Via Ritorta with its amazing architectural textures and irregular vaults and external staircases. Further along Via dei Priori lies another fascinating area around the Piazetta della Madonna della Luce and the 46 metre high Torre degli Sciri. Just a little further still is the beautiful Piazza di San Bernardino with its beautiful Renaissance Oratorio di San Bernardino. Other places of interest is the Sandri pastry shop in Corso Vannucci which, apart from selling amazing pastries is a landmark in itself with an incredibly rich panelled and frescoed interior. All around the city you will see shops devoted to the city's famous chocolate and a reminder of the amazing Eurochocolate Festival which attracts visitors from all over the world every October.

John Heseltine

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