Lifted by a hill above a valley patterned with fields, where the Tiber River runs swift and clear, Perugia is Umbria’s petite and immediately likeable capital. Its centro storico (historic centre) rises in a helter-skelter of cobbled alleys, arched stairways and piazzas framed by magnificent palazzi (mansions). History seeps through every shadowy corner of these streets and an aimless wander through them can feel like time travel.
Back in the 21st century, Perugia is a party-loving, pleasure-seeking university city, with students pepping up the nightlife and filling cafe terraces. The hopping summer event line-up counts one of Europe’s best jazz festivals. Together with its spiritual sister, Assisi, Perugia is a candidate for European Capital of Culture 2019.
Although the Umbri tribe once inhabited the surrounding area and controlled land stretching from present-day Tuscany into Le Marche, it was the Etruscans who founded the city, leading to its zenith in the 6th century BC. It fell to the Romans in 310 BC and was given the name Perusia.
During the Middle Ages the city was racked by the internal feuding of the Baglioni and Oddi families. In 1538 the city was incorporated into the Papal States under Pope Paul III, remaining under papal control for almost three centuries.
Perugia has a strong artistic tradition. In the 15th century it was home to fresco painters Bernardino Pinturicchio and his master Pietro Vannucci (known as Perugino), who would later teach the famous painter Raphael. Its cultural tradition continues to this day with the University of Perugia and several other universities, including the famous Università per Stranieri (University for Foreigners), which teach Italian, art and culture to thousands of students from around the world.
What to see in Perugia
Among the main sights of Perugia are the Fontana Maggiore, which is mediaeval and the Palazzo dei Priori (the town hall, encompassing the Collegio del Cambio, Collegio della Mercanzia, and Galleria Nazionale), which is one of Italy’s greatest Renaissance buildings. The Collegio del Cambio has frescoes by Pietro Perugino, while the Collegio della Mercanzia has a fine later 14 C wooden interior. The Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, the National Gallery of Umbrian art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance houses outstanding paintings by Duccio, Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico and Perugino.
The Cathedral of San Lorenzo is the “duomo” and principal church of Perugia, rivalled only by the Basilica of San Domenico. Unlike most cathedrals, the cathedral of Perugia has its side facing the city’s main piazza towards the Fontana Maggiore and the Palazzo dei Priori. The Loggia di Braccio, an early Renaissance structure attributed to Fioravante Fioravanti from Bologna and commissioned by Braccio da Montone in 1423, is located on this side. It was formerly part of the Palazzo del Podestà, which burned down in 1534. Under it there is a section of Roman wall and the foundations of the old campanile.