MONTEFALCO is a pleasing and intimate medieval village that’s home to a superb collection of paintings. Its name, meaning Falcon’s Mount, was glorified with the appendage la ringhiera dell’Umbria – “the balcony of Umbria” – a tribute to its wonderful views. It was also the birthplace of eight saints, good going even by Italian standards. Nowadays the town’s sleepy rather than holy, with only a stupendously ugly water-tower and very slight urban sprawl to take the edge off its medieval appeal. The strong, blackberry-flavoured local wine, Sagrantino Passito, made from a grape variety found nowhere else in Europe, is well worth a try; it’s available in many shops around town. Recommended producers are Adanti and Caprai, also makers of the excellent Rosso di Montefalco.
The town’s lofty location was a godsend to Spoleto’s papal governors, left high, dry and terrified by the fourteenth-century defection of the popes to Avignon. They took refuge here, and their cowering presence accounts for some of the rich decoration of Montefalco’s churches, a richness out of all proportion to the town’s size.
The cavernous ex-church of San Francesco, off the central Piazza del Comune, is now the Museo di San Francesco, housing the town’s big feature, Benozzo Gozzoli’s sumptuous fresco cycle on the life of St Francis. With Fra’ Angelico, Gozzoli was one of the most prolific and influential Florentine painters to come south and show the backward Umbrians what the Renaissance was all about. Resplendent with colour and detail, the cycle copies many of the ideas and episodes from Giotto’s Assisi cycle but, with two hundred years of artistic know-how to draw on, is more sophisticated and more immediately appealing.