An Art Marathon in Umbria

From northern Tuscany, we took the train into the next province south, Umbria, where we had a host for three days. Those days were an orgy of art, as we visited the hill towns of Assisi, Spello, and Perugia.

Old towns look different in Umbria than in Tuscany. Churches have plain facades, not ranks of white, marble-columned loggias. Instead of tall stucco houses painted in earth-tone colors, like mustard or ochre, the houses are shorter and made of pinkish beige stone, giving the towns a spare, uniform look. The steep, narrow streets are still picturesque, though, and still offer views down to lush green plains. And the gelato is just as good as farther north.

The focal point of Assisi is the hilltop basilica of St. Francis, a magnet for pilgrims and art lovers alike. (Even in early April, the crowds are thick and full of Americans.) Construction of the basilica began in 1228, just two years after the saint’s death. The outside is fairly plain, but the inside is an amazing riot of frescoed scenes and painted columns.

It seems probable that Francis—with his dislike of ostentation and his desire to return the church to its simpler roots—wouldn’t have liked it very much. But the basilica feels more like a shrine to great art than to the spirit of a humble man.

The basilica is full of wonderful frescoes from the 1200s and 1300s, but no photos are allowed

You could spend hours studying the details of the paintings, which are remarkable (especially the faces by Pietro Lorenzetti, to the left of the altar in the lower church). We hadn’t heard of most of the 13th- and 14th-century painters who did the work—other than Giotto, who painted the wall frescoes of the upper church—but many of them were obviously masters. This must be some of the best free art in Europe. Alas, we weren’t allowed to take pictures.

Spello, the next major town down the train line from Assisi, is another pretty pinkish stone village. Its big artistic draw is an astounding chapel in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore frescoed by Pintoricchio. We had never heard of this late 15th-century Umbrian painter, but we were captivated by his finely drawn, expressive faces and his attention to detail. The frescoes have been beautifully restored, and with a timed ticket, you can see them up close. Just gorgeous color and detail in everything.

We were lucky that Spello was also hosting a special exhibition about Pintoricchio, featuring 15th-century objects similar to those in his paintings—textiles, jewelry, ceramics, carved wooden book stands, wafer presses, etc. (Our friend Peter would have eaten it up.)

The alleys of Spello are great to wander

As if we hadn’t had enough art, on our last day in Umbria we headed to the National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia. We only knew Perugia as the home of Perugina chocolates, but it’s also the capital of Umbria and a medieval city full of grand buildings, an international university, and Italy’s foremost jazz festival. Strangely enough, at least three medieval popes died in Perugia: two from poisoning and one from eating too many eels. You’d think they would have stopped coming.

We seriously underestimated the size of the National Gallery in Perugia. (They don’t give out a map when you buy your ticket.) Unlike many Italian museums, it has informative plaques in English about the history of Umbrian art, and we started out dutifully reading each one and carefully studying the paintings. After many rooms and several hours of that, we discovered that the museum has a second floor!

Unfortunately, everything after the 15th century got short shrift, as we raced through the remaining rooms (“like that, don’t like that, that one’s cool”) in order to see everything before the local restaurants stopped serving lunch. Whew, talk about full brains and tired feet!

Part of a 1st-century temple in Assisi incorporated into a 17th-century church

After a rest and a meal, we strolled across town to the archaeological museum. There we saw interesting carved Etruscan funeral urns and a bronze chariot, as well as great views from the former hillside monastery that houses the museum. (We left the camera at home on our day in Perugia, so again, no pictures.)

After our three-day art marathon—and with the weather turning colder and wetter—we decided to leave Umbria a little early and spend a few days relaxing on the Amalfi Coast farther south. We needed a little R&R before our next onslaught of famous sites.

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