The provincial capital Perugia is the most obvious place to kick off a tour of Umbria. A bustling university town, known for its chocolate and its jazz festival, it offers at least a day’s worth of good sightseeing, and is not a bad place to base yourself if you want to explore the surrounding area: it has big-city amenities, and trains run to all the major highlights, complemented by fast new roads and an extensive bus network. The town hinges around a single street, the Corso Vannucci, named after the city’s most celebrated artist, Pietro Vannucci (c1450–1523), better known as Perugino. Lined with bustling pavement cafés, this is one of Italy’s greatest people-watching streets, packed from dawn through to the early hours with a parade of tourists, students and trendsetters.
Medieval Perugia was evidently a hell of a place to be. “The most warlike of the people of Italy”, wrote the historian Sismondi, “who always preferred Mars to the Muse.” Male citizens played a game (and this was for pleasure) in which two teams, thickly padded in clothes stuffed with deer hair and wearing beaked helmets, stoned each other mercilessly until the majority of the other side were dead or wounded. Children were encouraged to join in for the first two hours to promote “application and aggression”.
In 1265 Perugia was also the birthplace of the Flagellants, who had half of Europe whipping itself into a frenzy before the movement was declared heretical. In addition to some hearty scourging they took to the streets on moonlit nights, groaning and wailing, dancing in white sheets, singing dirges and clattering human bones together, all as expiation for sin and the wrongs of the world. Then there were the infamous Baglioni, the medieval family who misruled the city for several generations, their spellbinding history – full of vendetta, incest and mass slaughter – the stuff of great medieval soap opera.
The Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria is on the upper floor of the palace complex (lift or stairs), with the entrance through its opulently carved doorway. One of central Italy’s best and most charming galleries, it takes you on a romp through the history of Umbrian painting, with masterpieces by Perugino, Pinturicchio and many others, plus one or two stunning Tuscan masterpieces (Duccio, Fra’ Angelico, Piero della Francesca) thrown in for good measure. The entrance fee is worth every cent if you’re the slightest bit interested in early and mid-Renaissance art.
Top image: Perugia - a view of the old town and the Basilica di San Domenico, Umbria © Shchipkova Elena/Shutterstock