By Marjorie Dorfman.
Two of the most romantic and enjoyable years of my life were spent during the time I lived in Italy as a student at The Universita Per Stranieri (University for Foreigners) in the Umbrian city of Perugia. Before the controversial murder trial of Amanda Knox, there were not many Americans who were familiar with this charming medieval city steeped in history, folklore and tradition. Located some three hours from both Florence and Rome, this bucolic, hilltop city has a colorful past and an allure all its own.
Umbria as an area and Perugia in particular were inhabited since the days before recorded history. It was, however, the settlement of the Etruscans in the 6th century that elevated Perugia to a position of prominence in the High Tiber Valley. The city is known for its narrow streets (calle) that to this day bulge with all kinds of wares, culinary delights and redolent aromas that linger seductively in the air.
While all of Italy is renowned for its magnificent art and architecture, Perugia’s incredible artwork was created by some of the greatest artists and sculptors who ever lived. The name, Perugia, derives from one of its most talented and celebrated artists: Pietro Vannucci, also known as Perugino. One of his pupils was the Renaissance master, Raphael, and their masterpieces are almost everywhere you look.
The Capella di San Severo, which is located at the Piazza Raffaello, features a fresco where the handiwork of both artists is present. Raphael is said to have done the upper half and Perugino the bottom.
Perugino’s major works can be seen at the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria (National Gallery of Umbria) and a visit is a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon. The gallery contains 30 rooms of priceless art. Even the exterior of the museum is interesting, for this impressive art collection is housed in the Palazzo dei Priori, a grand stone building dating back to the 13th century that due to its central location was a popular meeting place.
Down through the centuries, that aspect never changed. During the golden days of my sojourn, I always met University friends at this magnificent piazza erected in the 12th century and specifically in front of the Fontana Maggiore (Great Fountain) constructed by father and son sculptors, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano.
Not only was the fountain hard to miss even for those directionally-challenged such as myself, it was also in the center of everything you could imagine; cafes, shops, movies etc. If you were waiting for someone who was late, you could get lost in time looking at the magnificent details on the many sides of the two basins.
The magnificent marble slabs all tell their own timeless, picturesque tale about the different seasons of the year, biblical and mythological figures, saints, animals, and the representations of months, sciences, virtues, and places. Even seeing them many times, each time I looked at them I saw something I had previously missed.
The University for Foreigners has two big campuses, but the main one (where I attended classes), is a huge ancient building named Palazzo Gallenga, located in the square of Piazza Fortebraccio. Here the Italian language was taught in its purest form. I learned to read Dante’s Inferno in its original form, which is like trying to read the works of Chaucer in Old English; a formidable task. There was a separate language and grammar course that was part of the program, and the other courses all reflected the same historical time period. Studying the Renaissance meant covering that topic in its different aspects; namely, art, literature and history simultaneously. All of the instructors taught the courses in their native Italian language.
In between classes, sipping on cappuccinos and munching on paninos (little sandwiches found in cafes), was a favorite pastime for most students. A walk along Main Street (Corso Vanucci) known as fare la vasca, was always pleasantly distracting. Lined with all kinds of shops and offices ranging from banks to clothing stores to museums, hotels and restaurants, this public thoroughfare is one grand public space where creative window displays relentlessly attract and hold the passing eye.
The traffic never ceases, day or night, winter or summer along Corso Vanucci. Many people station themselves by sitting on the steps of the San Lorenzo, which offers great views of people walking by. This important thoroughfare serves as a stage for all kinds of special events, ranging from festivals to demonstrations to concerts and art exhibits.
The Fiera dei Morti (Fair of the Dead) which takes place every All Saints’ Day (November 1) is a festival worth attending. Attracting crowds from all over, it features street fair foods, games and many gift and craft items made by local artisans.
Two of the most popular events are the summer jazz festival and Eurochocolate, a huge chocolate festival that has occurred every fall since 1993 and runs for eight straight days during the fall.
Speaking of chocolate, for those with a sweet tooth, a visit to the Baci factory in Van San Sito, where that wonderful chocolate candy with hazelnuts is produced, is quite an adventure. It may bring to mind, as it did to me, memories of that old I Love Lucy episode where Ethel and Lucy get a job in a chocolate factory working on a conveyor belt where they can’t quite keep up with the flow of chocolates.
Established in 1907, the Perugina Factory is without a doubt one of the most successful confection companies in all of Italy. They became world famous at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and their amazing chocolate concoctions are unique and delicious.
The Palazzo dei Priori, an edifice of red and white stones, was once the residence of the chief political authorities of the city. It dates back to the 13th century and you shouldn’t miss the Sala dei Notari, which is noted for its beautiful volts supported by arches in Romanesque style decorated with magnificent frescos.
Even after living there for two years, I can’t say that I saw all there is to see in Perugia. I have, however, seen enough to know that this is an enchanting city with a unique and colorful history.
Don’t miss a trip to this fascinating town the next time you travel to timeless, sunny Italy.