Gubbio (with a few pictures of Perugia and Cortona)

Florence § Rome § Siena § San Gimignano § Lucca § Assisi § Orvieto § Turin

Siena's Duomo § Siena by Night § Marche § Piccolomini Library § Spoleto § Gubbio

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The ceri in the basilica of San Ubaldo


Gubbio, the ancient Ikuvium and Roman Iguvium, is an extravagantly beautiful town which sits more or less by itself in a splendid though slightly isolated position on the slopes of Mt. Ingino above the Eugubine valley.  People in nearby towns think the residents of Gubbio are a little crazy, and there may be something to this:  one of their civic celebrations (on May 15) involves running through the streets with large and very heavy wooden posts or ceri (literally, "candles"--shown above on a non-race day in the church of S. Ubaldo), each topped with a statue.  This festival may have pre-Christian origins, but now it involves saints: the first cero is that of San Ubaldo; the second, St. George; the third, St. Anthony.  Teams of townspeople run through the streets with these statues, all the way up the slopes of the mountain back to S. Ubaldo. Although this event is sometimes described as a race, this is missing part of the point, because the order of the ceri is always the same; maybe an exhibition of strength and skill is more like it, because the teams have to substitute for the exhausted bearers while on the run.  (Once when I was in college, for no particular reason, we pushed my roommate's completely functional Chevy Chevette for about 15 blocks through the streets of Holland, Michigan.  However, we didn't make an annual event of it.) Another part of this festival is throwing heavy clay pots off the top of the Palazzo dei Consoli into the huge crowd below.  It is considered good luck to grab a shard of a broken pot, although of course it is bad luck to get brained by an intact one.  When it is not being flung at you from on high, the pottery in Gubbio is quite nice to look at, or buy if you wish.  Another famous export of Gubbio is the crossbow (a.k.a. the balestra), certainly a conversation piece but perhaps not as practical a souvenir as some nice ceramic stuff.  I am also not sure how the U.S. Customs treats crossbows.  On August 15, the Palio della Balestra is celebrated, with dramatic medieval costumes, a crossbow shooting contest, and a torchlight procession.  In the Piazza del Bargello is the Fontana dei Matti (Madmen's Fountain); it is said you can become an official Gubbio madman by circling the fountain three times, splashing yourself with its water.  Another slightly off center Gubbio attraction is the Canon's Barrel, on the ground floor of the Museo Diocesano, a huge but now rather rickety wine barrel with a capacity of 19,350 liters. What the Canon wanted with that much wine in a single barrel is not explained.  A Gubbio tradition of more recent origin is the world's largest Christmas, formed from 800 lights on the slopes of Monte Ingino behind the town.  It is illuminated from December 7 to January 10.

The Palazzo dei Consoli (Palace of the Consuls) is now the home of the Museo Civico.  Its most famous artifacts are the Tavole iguvine (Eugebine Tablets), seven bronze tablets from the second century B.C. (rediscovered in 1444) which have inscriptions in Umbrian (based on Etruscan writing) and in Latin.  Most of the text is devoted to instructions on how to perform certain important religious rituals, such as pushing an automobile uphill through the streets of the town very late at night (of course I just made that up--actually I have not found descriptions of what these rituals were in any guidebooks, leading me to suspect they are probably rather dull rituals).  The museum also contains sculpture, painting, ancient coins, and medieval ceramics; the top level balcony also offers a terrific view over the valley.  I believe the bell tower is closed to the public, or I missed the stairs to the top.  One thing I did not miss was the medieval men's room in the very top level, a cozy three seater without any effete stalls or partitions to prevent the consoli from conferring with each other.  Ceramic pipes built in the walls led downward from this lofty perch. A sign above the three seats requests that museum goers refrain from lifting the toilet lids.  (They had seats, too, unlike a lot of train station restrooms.)  I sincerely regret that I did not take a picture. On the same ticket, you can enter the Roman museum, which is entered around the back of the building at a lower level, which has a large number of Roman artifacts of practically every description.

Gubbio's Duomo has a striking interior, with a single broad aisle and ten vaulted arches.  It has impressive paintings, mostly by local 16th century artists.  Another interesting stop is in the Ducal Palace, started by Federico da Montefeltro of Urbino, when Urbino gained control of Gubbio, and finished by his son Guidubaldo.  It is cool, though the Montefeltro Ducal Palace in Urbino itself, home to the National Gallery of the Marches, is really spectacular.  Below the town, a short walk from Piazza 40 Martiri, is a Roman theater, still used for performances.  Further outside the town, between Monte Ingino and Monte Calvo, is the Bottaccione ("Big Water Barrel") Gorge.  It is a beautiful site; it is also at least somewhat famous because the gorge cuts through layers of Scaglia rossa limestone, about 400 meters thick, with other limestons above and below it.  This provided the building material for Gubbio, and for geologists, it is one of the best preserved sequences of deep ocean limestone in the world,  containing very little sand.  It was the first place in the world where it was recognized that the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary zone, a layer of clay about a centimer thick, contained an unusual concentration of iridium.  The iridium is the marker of the asteroid or comet impact that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, and many other species.  T. rex and the Crater of Doom, by Walter Alvarez, contains a very readable account of this discovery, and some pretty nice pictures of Gubbio to boot.  Walter indicates he has spent quite a lot of time in Gubbio, though he doesn't have much to say about crossbow contests or flinging pots.

Far above the town is the basilica of San Ubaldo, the patron saint of Gubbio and its leader in the 12th century.  It is a long walk if you take the route followed by the ceri.  There is also a four person cable car that runs up the mountain, ending just to the east of the church.  The church, and associated monastery, can also be reached by road.  The church dates from the thirteenth century, was rebuilt in 1514, and although I couldn't find mention of this in any guidebooks, I would guess it was renovated relatively recently and its attractive stained glass is fairly new.  The ceri are on display there (see above), as is S. Ubaldo himself, in a glass case.  Adjacent to the basilica and monastery there is a small bar, and an attached restaurant that has a spectacular view and actually quite good food.  Somehow or other an Italian friend of mine convinced the management of this place to serve us lunch in about five minutes flat, the fastest sit-down meal I have ever eaten in Italy.  In normal circumstances, this would be a place to linger over the food and enjoy the view.  

Some practical information:  the nearest train station to Gubbio is Fossato di Vico, a very small town, about 35 minutes away from Gubbio by local bus (APM).  Buses stop in the Piazza 40 Maritiri in the lower part of town.  The Bucci bus company provides service into Marche, to Urbino and all the way to the coast, with a change in Cagli, about halfway. Private bus services also run to and from Florence and Rome.  The tourist office on Corso Garibaldi is the best place to ask about schedules, since this information can be hard to come by outside of Italy (schedules posted on the bus company's websites may not be up to date).  


 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).

11/12/03 §

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