Città di Castello – Gubbio – Perugia – Assisi – Spoleto – Todi – Montepulciano – Pienza
We are going to visit the mystical heart of Italy, bounded by Tuscany, Umbria and Northern Latium, where the faith of the Middle Ages provided the inspiration to so many great architects and painters.
• Città di Castello
Our trip states from Sansepolcro, entering the upper Tiber Valley through the tree-covered hillsides topped by ancient churches, villages and ruined castles until we reach Città di Castello. The stark Gothic Palazzo Comunale stands in the mediaeval Piazza del Duomo. The Municipal Picture Gallery houses some fine mediaeval and Renaissance paintings.
Driving up Umbertide and the Assino Valley, we reach Gubbio, one of Europe’s most perfectly preserved mediaeval towns where two major traditional events take place each year with the enthusiastic participation of the local people: on May 15 is the Corsa dei Ceri race, and on the last Sunday in May in the Palio della Balestra tournament. Walking past the austere façade of the ancient feudal palaces in Via dei Consoli, including the Gothic Bargello Palace, we reach Piazza della Signoria, which over hangs the lower town and the surrounding plain, supported on massive arches. Facing the Gothic Palazzo Pretorio the magnificent 14th c. Palazzo dei Consoli is the setting for the municipal museum and painting gallery with the famous ‘Eugubine Tablets’ dating back to the 2nd century B.C. It is a fairly steep climb up Via Ducale to the 14th c. Cathedral (with some fine primitive paintings) and the 16th c. Ducal Palace. We can then walk down to the Church S. Domenico which is near the Roman theatre built under Augustus. The churches of S. Francesco, S. Pietro and S. Ubaldo are well worth a visit.
From Gubbio we will go to Perugia, a city with much to offer the art lover and the casual visitor alike. Its typical steep streets offer unexpected glimpses of ancient houses and the surrounding distant green hills. We will begin our visit in Piazza IV Novembre; in the center is the 13th c. Fontana Maggiore fountain decorated with reliefs by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, and in front of us towers the Gothic Cathedral, with the ‘Museo dell’Opera del Duomo’ museum. Let us now visit the austere Palazzo Comunale (or Palazzo dei Priori) with two tiers of mullioned windows and a battlemented roof. It was built between 1293 and 1443, and inside is the Umbrian National Art Gallery that traces the history of the region’s painting from the 13th to the 18th centuries (Duccio, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, Perugino, Pinturicchio, etc.). On the ground floor is the Gothic ‘Collegio della Mercanzia’ Hall; we can then see the ‘Collegio del Cambio’, built in 1455 with superbly frescoed walls by Perugino (Sala dell’Udienza) for the city’smoney-changers. We can either walk along Via delle Volte or Corso Vannucci to reach Piazza Italia and see the wonderful view from the Carducci gardens at the end of the street. Other important monuments are the churches of S. Bernardino (15th c.), S. Pietro (10th c.), S. Domenico (l4th-l7th c.), S. Angelo (an unusual 5th-6th c. Paleo-Christian church), S. Giuliana (Church and Convent), Porta S. Pietro (also known as Porta Romana), the Arco Etrusco (Arco di Augusto), and Porta Marzia. The ‘Museo Archeologico dell’Umbria’, and the famous Foreigner’s University building – Palazzo Gallenga Stuart (18th c.) – are well worth a visit, and 5 kilometers outside the city is the Ipogeo dei Volumni, a wonderful example of an Etruscan aristocratic tomb with seven splendid funeral urns.
On the other side of the Tiber Valley facing Perugia stands Assisi, nestling on a spur of Mount Subasio. Our first call is to the Basilica of S. Francis and the adjacent Friary. The basilica comprises two churches, one above the other, and was begun in 1228, just two years after the Saint’s death. See the frescoes by Cimabue, Pietro Lorenzetti, Simone Martini and Giotto. All the great painters of the day had a hand in decorating the walls of both churches. It would take days to study all the details of this unique painting anthology. Walking along Via S. Francesco past the medieval houses andpalaces, we come to Piazza del Comune standing on the site of the ancient Roman Forum. It is framed by Palazzo dei Priori, Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo and the Roman Temple of Minerva, now a church. In Palazzo dei Priori is the municipal art gallery. Nearby is the Cathedral of S. Rufino with its imposing façade, and the Gothic white and pink Stone Basilica of S. Clare (Gothic frescoes and primitive painting).Let’s go up to the Rocca Maggiore castle and 4 kilometers away, the Eremo delle Carceri (Hermitage of the Carceri), an oasis of Franciscan peace; in the plain is the imposing Basilica of S. Maria degli Angeli (built in various periods to enclose the Porziuncola chapel, the Franciscan Order’s first house) and the restful Friary of S. Damiano. On the last spur of Mount Subasio is Spello, with its two Roman gates, S. Maria Maggiore (frescoed by Pinturicchio), and the belvedere on the walls of the ancient castle. Other towns with a wealth of art treasures are Foligno, with its Romanesque cathedral, mediaeval churches and picture gallery, Bevagna, with its Gothic Palazzo dei Consoli and the Romanesque churches of S. Silvestro and S. Michele, Montefalco with its stout, battlemented town wall and churches with exceptionally fine frescoes of the Umbrian school, and the mediaeval town of Trevi with Gothic and Romanesque churches overlooking the valley from the top of the hill. On the way to Spoleto are the Clitunno Springs one of Italy’s most romantic sites and the Temple of Clitunno, an ancient Roman shrine.
Spoleto has grown in fame since the Festival of Two Worlds has breathed new life to this quiet secluded town with its magnificent 12th c. Cathedral and soaring bell-tower (with Filippo Lippi’s frescoed interior), 12th c. Church of S. Eufemia, and 12th-15th c. Church of S. Gregorio Maggiore, Palazzo Comunale, Palazzo Arroni and Palazzo Ancaiani, the Druso Arch and Roman theatre. We can also walk to the 13th c. Church of S. Pietro, the Paleo-Christian Church of S. Salvatore, the Romanesquc Church of S. Ponziano, and then stroll across the 14th c. ‘Torri’ bridge spanning the valley to the belvedere. From Spoleto we pass Terni and Narni (Romanesque cathedral, Loggia dei Priori and Palazzo del Podestà, 12th c. Church of S. Domenico).
In Todi we can visit the splendid Piazza del Popolo, with the Gothic Palazzo del Popolo and Palazzo del Capitano, and the 12th-16th c. cathedral; then there is the Church of S. Fortunato (frescoed by Masolino da Panicale, with the tomb of the poet Jacopone da Todi), Bramante’s Church of S. Maria della Consolazione just outside the mediaeval town walls.
We now enter in Tuscany and we head for Montepulciano a fascinating Renaissance town overlooks Valdichiana, with many churches and palaces to see, especially the Palazzo Comunale, attributed to Michelozzo, the 16th-11th c. Cathedral, the municipal museum, and the Churches of S. Agostino and Sangallo the Elder’s masterpiece S. Biagio (1518-45).
14 kilometers later is Pienza, which owes its outstanding beauty to the Humanist Pope Pius II (Enea Silvio Piccolomini) who elevated his tiny birthplace of Corsignano to the rank of a city and named it after himself, building it with the help of the Florentine architect Bernardo Rossellino. He laid the city out, and built the Cathedral and Palazzo Piccolomini (1459-62). The Palazzo Comunale, the Church of S. Francesco, the Cathedral Museum and the nearby Romanesque Pieve di Corsignano chapel should all be visited.
Next on our route are Montalcino (Palazzo Comunale, and two major museums), the 12th c. Abbey of S. Antimo standing in the middle of the countryside, Buonconvento and, 9 kilometers further on the Monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, a superb complex of buildings from the 14th to the 18th centuries (in the grand cloister is a fine cycle of frescoes on the life of Saint Benedict by Signorelli and il Sodoma).
Umbria has managed to conserve its original simplicity founded on certain basic ingredients: olive oil, among the best in Italy, the hog, the lamb, durham wheat pasta and the precious Tartufo nero (black truffle) from Norcia. This town is also renowned for its cured meats and the entire region offers stupendous cheeses, including caciotta, fresh and salted ricotta, and Pecorino. Among the wines of Umbria are Orvieto, Torgiano, Montefalco Sagrantino, Montefalco Rosso, Colli Altotibertini, Colli Perugini and Colli del Trasimeno.
Tuscan cuisine is distinguished principally for its simplicity and wholesomeness. Among the first courses are Pappardelle alla lepre (noodles in hare sauce), Tagliatelle with Porcini Mushrooms, the soup Ribollita (an extremely thick soup based around beans, bread, cabbage, vegetables and herbs) and Zuppa di fagioli (bean soup). Tuscan meats, especially beef, are famous for their tasty tenderness cooked on a spit or grilled, the famous Fiorentina, T-bone or the Controfiletto di manzo. Sea food dishes are wonderful, like the typical Caciucco (fish stew), Stoccafisso and Triglie (Red mullet) from Livorno. Desserts are simple but delicious like the Buccellato di Lucca or the biscuits Cantucci, Ricciarelli, Panforte, Cavallucci. These biscuits are often served with Vin Santo, a sweet wine for dessert or as a snack. Other important wines are Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Vernaccia di San Gimignano.