Florence § Rome § Siena § San Gimignano § Lucca § Assisi § Orvieto § Turin
Siena's Duomo § Siena by Night § Marche § Piccolomini Library § Spoleto § Gubbio
The Duomo in Florence § The Piazza del Popolo in Rome
Perugia began as an Etruscan city, Perusia, one of the twelve chief cities of the Etruscan Federation. As the capital of Umbria, with a population of 130,000, it is the only one of the principal Etruscan cities that is larger than a small town today. After being razed in Roman times, it was rebuilt by Augustus as Augusta Perusia. It was prominent again in the Middle Ages (despite extremely quarrelsome local politics), and has a very old university, but it was conquered by the armies of Pope Paul III in 1535. It remained part of the Papal States (and heavily taxed) until the 1860's. The Pope had a fortress, the Rocaa Paolina, constructed over an entire district of the town. The fortress itself was largely destroyed in riots in 1860, but the streets and houses underneath the Rocca are almost eerily preserved. This area is accessible by escalators (scala mobile) which connect parking lots outside the town with the historic center. (Perugia was one of the first cities in Italy to attack its chronic traffic problems by severely restricting traffic in the central city; many others have wisely followed.) In the last century, Perugia became famous for chocolate; bacci (kisses), the precursor to the Hershey's Kisses, are exported widely. Besides having hazelnuts inside, a major difference is that the bacci comes wrapped in a piece of paper with a possibly romantic saying printed on it. I say possibly, because I have found many of them to be semi-inscrutable. They're tasty, however. More recently, Perugia has become well known for its jazz festival. Perugia sustained considerable damage in the 1997 earthquake.
No-mortar Etruscan stonework, more than 2200 years old, can be seen particularly well at the Arco d' Augusto (see below in the thumbnail frame). It is topped by Roman construction (with the inscription 'Augusta Perusia') which in turn is topped by medieval fortifications. A large part of the city wall is open to pedestrians; the views of the city and the surrounding countryside are mostly excellent (though there is a lot of new construction around the outskirts of the city). A much newer attraction is the Fontana Maggiore, whose marble carvings are by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, who also did the altars in the Duomo in Siena and the baptistery in Pisa. Despite being only 725 years old, it required extensive renovation in the 1990's. (Plumbing.) At the much smaller and more utilitarian fountain shown below, an inscription promises a stiff fine for doing your laundry in the fountain ('PENA UN SCUDO E PERDITARE PANNI PER CHI LAVA IN QUESTE FONTI'). The highest part of the town is reached by via del Sole, mentioned by Dante as a hot, windless place in the summer (and noted in an inscription set into the wall).
I attended a conference called "Trends in Peptide Research" in Perugia
in May 1995. This meeting was organized by people in the Department of Cellular
and Molecular Biology at the University of Perugia They were exceptionally
gracious hosts. It was a small meeting, about 40 people, but that created
many opportunities to meet the other particpants at the meeting--as did
the lavish food and wine served at the meeting site, the "Hotel Gio," at
a farmhouse near Assisi, and at a private residence. It was far and away
the most enjoyable scientific meeting I've ever attended! After the conclusion
of the conference, I visited at the University itself. Founded in 1308,
its schools of medicine and law were prominent by Renaissance times. As
is the case at many Italian universities, some beautiful and historic buildings
have been converted for modern academic use. In Perugia, this included
the cloister of a medieval abbey. A little publicized treasure on the campus
can be found in the basement of the organic chemistry building--the mosaic
floor of some Roman baths, depicting Orpheus taming all the known wild animals
with his lyre. This discovery cost the chemistry department the space it
intended to devote to a lecture hall, but it's fantastic. Unfortunately,
it was too dark in there for me to get a picture of it; so here, for the
time being, is one from a tourist guidebook. There is a lot of medieval
art to see, not so much from the Renaissance. The Virgin Mary's wedding
ring is kept in a church there, inside 15 nested locked boxes, which are
only opened once a year (not when I was there, though). The food and wine
are wonderful! I am eager to go back sometime, particularly if the weather
were better ...
Cortona (just across the border in Tuscany) is a pretty little town, like the others Etruscan in origin. It is close to Lago Trasimeno, a large but quite shallow lake, which can be seen from various vantage points in the town. The lake has abundant freshwater fish and eels, which are prominently featured in Umbrian cuisine. Cortona was a free commune in the early Middle Ages, later controlled by Florence. The painter Luca Signorelli (whose work can be seen to advantage in Orvieto's Duomo, and who frescoed a relatively small part of the Sistine Chapel) was born here.
As a small art historical footnote, after the early Renaissance artists Donatello and Brunelleschi had spent some time together in Rome, sketching Roman architecture, they returned separately to their native Florence. As told by the early art historian Vasari in his Lives of the Artists (and retold in the book Born Under Saturn by Rudolph and Margot Wittkower), "Donatello stopped at Cortona where he admired a beautiful ancient sarcogaphus. Back in Florence he described ... 'the excellence of its workmanship. Filippo Brunelleschi became fired with an ardent desire to see it and went off on foot just as he was, in his mantle, cap, and wooden shoes, without saying where he was going, and allowed himself to be drawn to Cortona by the devotion and love that he bore to art.'" (pp 46-47) (It is at least 60 miles from Florence to Cortona) Vasari's biographies are great reading, but his accuracy is debatable and debated; without doubt he was casual about things like precise dates. However, the sarcogaphus is still in the Duomo, according to the Wittkowers, which lends some credence to the story. I didn't check this out myself. You can definitely see a very fine Annunciation (1432-33) by Fra Angelico in Cortona's Museo Diocesano. The angel has bright orange hair, a great pair of wings, and his words hang somewhat comic-book-like in the air.
In recent years, Cortona has been popularized by the American writer Frances Mayes, who bought and renovated a house outside the town. In Under the Tuscan Sun, she intersperses stories of under-the-table real estate payments and crooked-contractor nightmares with recipes and glowing descriptions of traditional Tuscan life. Although she seems to have been ripped off in nearly all phases of this project, what the heck, her book sales doubtless paid for everything several times over. (Of course these Tuscan farmhouses are beautiful, but it is also understandable why the original owners moved to modern houses in town as soon as they could afford to.) Another of her books, Bella Tuscany, contains a number of very nice photographs of Cortona and the surrounding area.
The area around Cortona is well served by trains between Rome and Bologna. The nearest train station is in the small town of Camucia, down the hill some 5 km of seriously twisty road from Cortona. This is a small station which is unstaffed on weekends; there is an automatic ticket machine, but it is of an antique design that takes only coins with purchasing directions in Italian only (luckily for people who don't speak Italian, these are being phased out in favor of multilingual machines that take credit cards, debit cards, or cash). There is bus service every 30 minutes to Piazza Garibaldi near the town walls. Near Piazza Garibaldi, there is a small monument to the sailors of Cortona. I was unable to figure out if these were sailors on Lago Trasimeno, which is not very deep, or if there is some connection between Cortona and the sea--in Cortona, you are about as far from the sea as it is possible to get on the Italian peninsula. Partway up the road is the beautiful Renaissance church of Santa Maria del Calcinaio (a calcinaio is a tannery; the church was built on the site of a former tannery where an image of Mary appeared on the wall). The bus will stop there on request; it is not an easy place to reach on foot. The town's narrow streets are enjoyable to walk through (count the steps from one wine store to the next).