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.
Fra’ Filippo Lippi died shortly after completing the frescoes in Spoleto’s Duomo, the rumour being that he was poisoned for seducing the daughter of a local noble family, his position as a monk having had no bearing on his sexual appetite. The Spoletans, not too perturbed by moral laxity, were delighted at having someone famous to put in their cathedral, being, as Vasari put it, “poorly provided with ornaments, above all with distinguished men”, and so refused to send the dead artist back to Lorenzo de’ Medici, his Florentine patron. Interred in a tomb designed by his son, Filippino Lippi (now in the right transept), the corpse disappeared during restoration two centuries later, the popular theory being that it was spirited away by descendants of the compromised girl – a sort of vendetta beyond the grave.
Hosting Italy’s leading international arts festival, the Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of Two Worlds), has been a double-edged blessing for Spoleto – crowds and commercialism being the price it has had to pay for culture. Having already rejected thirty other Italian locations, the influential arts guru Giancarlo Menotti plumped for the town in 1958, attracted by its scenery, small venues and general good vibes. The ensuing jamboree is a great attraction if you’re into music, dance or theatre, though the place forgoes a good part of its charm for the duration. While the festival is in progress – for two weeks between June and July – you can expect packed hotels and restaurants, and the chance of higher prices all round. At the same time there’s an Edinburgh-influenced fringe and plenty of films, jazz, buskers and so on. Organizers, moreover, are increasingly looking to more avant-garde shows to recover the artistic edge of the festival’s early days, while Spoleto has spawned an annual sister festival at Charleston in the USA. Check out information from the tourist office or the festival’s main box office at Piazza della Libertà 10. For big events, it’s worth buying tickets in advance online.
Top image: Spoleto (Italy) - A misty fall day in the charming and surprising medieval village in Umbria region © ValerioMei/Shutterstock