The Sites of Umbria
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To Henry James, Umbria was "the most beautiful garden in all the world." St. Benedict and St. Francis were born and raised here, then went on to become two of the most powerful influences on Western spirituality. Perugino and Raphael started their famous schools here, and still today the serene landscapes and picturesque hill towns look almost as they do in canvases painted four hundred years ago. It's hard to explain the relative obscurity of this beautiful region. Five years from now Umbria will be all the rage. Today it is still a tranquil jewel, almost never crowded, frequented by the connoisseurs and pathfinders who always find the best places before the masses even know they exist.
region's capital is Perugia (pictured here). Lively home of the Università degli Stranieri (University for Foreigners), the hopelessly picturesque medieval town is reached by a very unmedieval escalator and dominated by Italy's largest fortress, the Rocca Paolina. Built after 1540 at the orders of Pope Paul III, it was intended to subjugate the independent Perugians to papal power. When Italy was unified in 1860 and the Papal States ceased to exist, the first thing the Perugians did was reclaim the fortress as their own. Independent to the man, woman and child, these Umbrians.
Perugia's main square is Piazza IV Novembre; in its center is the Fontana Maggiore, a
large fountain covered with highly expressive bas-relief sculptures. The local art museum, La Galleria Nazionale
dell'Umbria, is filled with wonderful works by local (and "foreign") artists. Walk to the end of Corso Garibaldi
to see the simple little church of Sant'Angelo; farther on is the monastery of Sant'Agnese. It is quiet, semi-deserted
places such as these, erected not out of the pomp of religiosity but as retreats for hermits, monks and nuns, that best exemplify the spiritual nature of Umbria. A perfect place to stay, where you will find this peaceful tranquility just 15 minutes' walk from town, is Villa Nuba Charming Apartments.
Picture perfect hill towns abound in this region. The traveler to Spello, home of the painter Pinturicchio, is rewarded by the absence of traffic. Only pedestrians are allowed on the steep, narrow streets of this town, whose ancient walls still stand, complete with portals and towers dating back to Caesar Augustus (63BC-14AD). The 13th-century church of Santa Maria Maggiore offers some of Pinturicchio's most wonderful frescoes, located in the Capella Baglioni, which also boasts a majolica tile floor made in Umbrian Deruta.
Trevi is another excellent example of a homogenous medieval town. Todi lies within an admirably preserved ring of city walls; its sloping streets are crowned by the church of San Fortunato, with a 15th-century facade and an echoing stark interior. 14th-century Piazza del Popolo is the town's main square. Narni's
11th-century cathedral of San Giovenale has many interesting annexes, towers and chapels. Nearby, a 15th-century belltower clearly shows the passage of time and several architectural time zones. Stop and rest in front of the 14th-century Palazzo del Podestà and Loggia dei Priori. Panicale's authentic medieval character is visible in its Piazza Umberto I and Rocca del Podestà; the view of the valley can easily make you dizzy. Gualdo Tadino, dominated by a 13th-century castle called Rocca Flea, is a great place to tour a ceramic factory. Elegant little Città della Pieve, birthplace of the artist Perugino, has a wonderful cathedral and a 12th-century city tower. A few valleys away, the church of Santa Maria Assunta overlooks the steep streets of Nocera Umbra. Amongst the town's medieval houses is the Picture Gallery, where you'll see Cimabue's poignant "Crucifixion."
Norcia, although best known for its prosciutto, salami and sausage, also offers the Tempietto, an incredibly ornate 14th-century tower covered with bas-relief sculptures. High atop yet another hill, Umbertide boasts one of only three dueling grounds remaining in Europe; it sits next to the church of Sant'Agostino. Stop in at the church of Santa Croce to see Luca Signorelli's wonderful "Deposition." Tiny, unspoiled Bevagna has preserved several remains from its days as an ancient Roman staging post. Its Piazza Silvestri is an exemplary Romanesque town square; lining it are the glorious Teatro Torti (try to peek inside), the dark, mysterious church of San Silvestro, and the 12th-century church of San Michele. More hilltop magic is to be found in Città di Castello, home of a noteworthy municipal art gallery, the personal gallery of modern sculptor Alberto Burri, a local aristocrat's model train museum and an exquisite theatre you may be able to view. Of all the Umbrian hill towns, it is said the best views are afforded from Montefalco, nicknamed "the balcony of Umbria".
My favorite hill town? Gubbio, a medieval jewel whose gray stone buildings seem to be resolutely marching up the impossibly steep slopes of its heavily wooded hill. At its feet is a well-preserved Roman ampitheatre, still used for summer performances. In town is the 13th-century church of San Francesco, offering delightful frescoes and a serene little cloister. But the most visible landmark of Gubbio is the turreted tower of Palazzo dei Consoli, commissioned by the citizens in 1332. Outlined against the dark green hillside, it is gleaming symbol of medieval civic independence.
Umbria is the geographical center of Italy, and directly in the center of Umbria is Lake Trasimeno, where Hannibal became the first non-European to defeat the mighty Roman Empire, in 217 BC. Perhaps in tardy reaction to the debacle, castles and fortresses now abound, such as the 14th-century Monte del Lago and the 13th-century Torre dei Lombardi. If you have a day to dedicate to leisure, take an excursion boat to one of the islands; on the largest, Isola Polvese, shady olive groves are rimmed by great sandy beaches. Medieval towns peer down at the edges of the lake, among them Castiglione del Lago, whose Palazzo Comunale is frescoed with heroic and mythological scenes. On the last Sunday of July, the people of Passignano sul Lago host a fishermen's regatta. Pilgrims flock to Rigone to visit the church of La Madonna dei Miracoli; most of them pop into the lovely 13th-century Romanesque church of San Vito as well.
Of course, there are three Umbrian towns almost everyone has heard of. Spoleto, home of the Festival of Two Worlds, has been a cultural center for centuries. Arriving on the Via Flaminia, you can't miss the Rocca Albornoz, a gloomy medieval castle that looks very unItalian. But once in town, you are back in the land of warmth and harmony. Seen from outside, the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is unforgettable, with its terra cotta-paved piazza, symmetrical belltower and golden Byzantine mosaic. Inside are Fra Filippo Lippi's frescoes, possibly Michelangelo's inspiration for the Sistine Chapel. The magnificent 10th-century church of Sant'Eufemia was the court church of the Dukes of Spoleto, hence its soaring vault. In the municipal cemetery, the church of San Salvatore has a very rare 4th-century facade.
Churches, churches, churches: self-effacing Umbria has two of the most renowned examples in all of Italy. Orvieto's stupendous cathedral of Santa Maria took centuries to build; its ornate facade will take your breath away, especially at noon when it basks in the full glory of God's golden Umbrian sunlight. Nearby is the Tempio Belvedere, Italy's only remaining above-ground Etruscan temple; and the Pozzo di San Patrizio, a well topped by a spectacular two-story house built in the 16th century and featuring a double staircase of the type originally designed by Leonardo.
Umbria's other illustrious place of worship would probably have caused great consternation to the saint to whom it is dedicated. Assisi's Basilica of San Francesco, hastily erected in 1230, is as huge and imposing as St. Francis was poor and humble. Its walls have been frescoed by a young Giotto with delightful scenes from the life of the saint, who was born here in 1181. He is buried downstairs, in the tiny crypt. Elsewhere in town, the church of San Rufino has an excellent Romanesque facade and a lovely belltower. Walk up to the top of the hill, where the fairy-tale castle, Rocca Maggiore, is a 14th-century replica of an earlier fortress destroyed in a citizens' revolt. The view from here encompasses all of the Tiber Valley that St. Francis loved and walked with his disciples. Just outside of town is the enormous church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which entirely encompasses another tiny church, La Porziuncola, first of the many Franciscan friaries.
As in so many parts of Italy, the best thing to do in Umbria is rent a car and strike out for places known and unknown. Almost forgotten in the countryside near Narni are the ruins of Carsulae, an ancient Roman city. Little has been written in contemporary records about this city, of which are visible two temples, a theatre, several monumental tombs and the remains of various homes and an ampitheatre, all dating from the reign of Caesar Augustus. Not far away is the 13th-century monastery called Lo Speco di San Francesco, half-hidden in a chestnut grove. On the road from Trevi to Spoleto is the Temple of Clitunno, a 4th-century "acropolis" dedicated to the martyr San Salvatore. Its 7th-century frescoes are among the oldest surviving in Italy. If you drive from Umbertide to Gubbio you'll encounter an entire string of castles, including two impressive family fortresses, the Castello di Serra Partucci and the Castello di Civitella Ranieri. Deep within an olive grove on the outskirts of Spoleto is Umbria's oldest monastery, the 8th-century San Pietro in Valle. A place of profound spiritual beauty, it has a renowned collection of Roman sarcophagi and an exquisitely carved marble altar. Another monastery, the 11th-century Benedictine Abbey of Sassovivo, is just outside of Foligno. Stop and share its charming Romanesque cloister with the birds, as St. Francis might have done when he walked these hills and valleys so many centuries ago.
by Kristin Jarratt
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