SPOLETO is among Umbria’s most charming large towns, divided into the medieval, hilltop Upper Town, home to the Duomo and most of the key museums and galleries, and the predominantly modern Lower Town, which nonetheless preserves a handful of Romanesque churches and Roman ruins. Known these days mainly for its big summer festival, it’s also remarkable for its thoroughgoing medievalism, an extremely scenic setting and several of Italy’s most ancient Romanesque churches. Far more graceful and provincial a city than Perugia, nowadays it plays second fiddle politically to its long-time historical enemy, though for several centuries it was among the most influential of Italian towns.
Two kilometres of well-preserved walls stand as testament to the one-time grandeur of Spoleto’s Roman colony, though its real importance dates from the sixth century when the Lombards made it the capital of one of their three Italian dukedoms. The autonomous Duchy of Spoleto eventually stretched to Rome, and by 890 its rulers had become powerful enough to lay claim to the imperial throne itself, making Spoleto, for a short time at least, the capital of the entire Holy Roman Empire. Barbarossa flattened the city in a fit of pique in 1155, and in 1499 Pope Alexander VI appointed his daughter, the 19-year-old Lucrezia Borgia, governor. After that it was one long decline until the arrival of the festival almost sixty years ago.