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On the trail of Perugino

Terre d'Umbria
03 Febbraio 2014

On the trail of Perugino

An itinerary of art and nature to rediscover the beauty of our Country

It often happens that a beautiful painting, a serene landscape, a masterpiece or nature's beauty make us forget the everyday fatigue of life allowing us to try, or to rediscover, that emotional but intense calmness, that broadens the mind and heart.
So, why not grant ourselves the possibility to experience this breath of fresh air for the soul? We live in a Country that is rich in the beauty of art and nature, just a short break from the routine is enough to rejuvenate us!
So here is a proposal: a simple route and not at all difficult, all gathered between Perugia and Città della Pieve, among the harmonious landscapes and gentle rolling hills that have inspired the Perugino, in the discovery of his works among the cities, villages and parishes of his land.

The "divin pittore" (divine painter). A master of the Renaissance period, who grew up in the workshop of Verrocchio, with the best talent in the second half of the 15th Century, in turn, had opened not one, but two workshops, one in Florence and one in Perugia, and had among his disciples Raphael. His paintings, transparent and harmonious of colour and light, where highly appreciated by his contemporaries, as Vasari states, "many came from France, Spain, and Alemagna and other provinces to learn it". And even today his works of art are on display everywhere in the world, the National Gallery in London, the Louvre, the Metropolitan in New York and in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.


But it is precisely here, in Umbria, that we can appreciate it even better. Because they were born here in this land, and here where time sometimes seems to stand still in an endless present, every colour, every line of the horizon in the painting seems to weave a dialogue with the harmony of the landscape, the smooth succession of hills, the calm mirror of Lake Trasimeno and even with the scents and smells of the earth.
In Perugia, at the Umbrian National Gallery (Galleria Nazionale), many of his works of art have been collected, beginning with his first commission for a few tablets the so-called "nicchia di S. Bernardino" (St.Bernardino niche) where, in the construction of the scenes and in the architecture, one recognises the clear influence of Piero della Francesca, at the Adoration of the Magi, an early piece with a very pronounced design which was typically used in Verrocchio's workshop. Up to the Altarpiece of St. Augustine, the last magnificent work in maturity where the centrality of the figure corresponds to an essential background landscape, soft and simple and where the colours are softened by delicate transparency.
But it is the Collegio del Cambio, right next to the gallery where we find the masterpiece that made Perugino famous among his contemporaries and especially among the other great artists of the period: the cycle of frescoes in the sala delle udienze. The theme is the correlation among pagan and Christian knowledge, thus the representation is rich in refined and classic symbolism, but also of the fantastic and grotesque decorations on the ceiling. The pictorial style is mature, the design is no more pronounced, the colours are bright, but harmoniously blended with clear, clean light. Behind the elegantly and gently refined figures, the landscape is soft, smooth and streamlined: it no longer remembers the backgrounds of some of Leonardo's early works, but the calm atmosphere, the lights, the colours and the quiet of the Umbrian countryside.


After so much art, it will be nice to immerse oneself in nature and the landscape that inspired so much grace. Leaving Perugia, we can then move forward along the beautiful roads leading to many small Umbrian towns that always reveal hidden treasures. From Spello to Assisi, from Foligno to Bettona, From Trevi to Montefalco, there are many treasures created by the Master Pietro Vannucci, known as the Perugino. However, we prefer to follow the path that perhaps he himself followed in his numerous journeys between Tuscany and Città della Pieve, his hometown. Thus we take the state road in less than an hour, in a succession of cultivated fields, olive and oak groves, it leads us to the beautiful village resting on top of the hill and surrounded by walls. It is advisable to park outside the walls and head into the historical centre on foot. Venturing among the medieval alleyways -here is the narrowest alleyway in Italy, it is called Baciadonne, (kiss women) it opens from Via Vannucci and its width varies between 50 and 60 cm. Wandering through the narrow twisted streets soon you begin to feel that you are part of an ancient but never far away history, in that maze of walkways you can lose yourself, daydreaming about meeting a pretty lady or bold gentleman just around an evocative corner.

Really exciting and unchanged over time are the wonderful views that suddenly appear from the terraces and panoramic viewpoints. The view from the hill of Città della Pieve is one of the most broadest and breezy in Umbria. To the south it is open all the way to Mt Cimino, the Peglia and the Sibillini Mountains, to the east it extends to Nestor Valley and Subasio, to the north beyond the hills that surround Lake Trasimeno and the Pratomagno mountain range. These are the landscapes that inspired the Perugino! Hence the vivid light in his paintings! From the panoramic viewpoint Belvedere of the Torre del Vescovo you reach Trasimeno and the Valdichiana, and on closer inspection it is the same landscape that we find in the adoration of the Magi at the Oratory of Santa Maria de' Bianchi, not far from here in town. From the Panoramic Viewpoint of via Garibaldi your gaze reaches the mountains that surround Lake Bolsena and the view from the look out in via del fango dominates the whole valley.

In his city the Master has left many works of art. In addition to the aforementioned Adoration of the Magi, you cannot miss out on seeing the Virgin in Glory with Saints Gervasio, Peter, Paul and Protasio and the Baptism of Christ in the Cathedral and the fresco of Saint Anthony the Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit and Saint Marcello in the fourteenth century church of St. Peter, located at the wall's limit.

However, before leaving the city, let us also have a moment for rest and refreshment as the food is very tempting to the stomach. Here, as in the whole of Umbria, the truffle is king and saffron is also counted among the typical local products. Therefore, let's take the opportunity to enjoy some tasty food in one of the excellent taverns or restaurants that the city offers, that often welcome visitors in very pleasing, antique rooms and some even have frescoes!

Moving away from the city centre, we will move downwards taking the road that takes us back towards Perugia, but there are still a couple of scheduled stops along the way. The first involves a short detour to Panicale, a small medieval village perched on the hills overlooking Lake Trasimeno. The detour is almost a must because the road through the oak and chestnut groves is delightful and the village is very old and still retains its original architectural and urban structure. Another important work of art by the Perugino is preserved here, Saint Sebastian the martyr, in the oratory of the church of the same name. . This is a recurring theme among Vannucci's paintings who did not disdain from reusing the same very large sheet of paper "cartone" or "cartoni" as they are called in Italian since, in accordance with the taste of the time, the quality and the value of the work lay not so much in the creative invention or composition but more so in the pictorial mastery and refinement.

Just a little after, the second stop: Fontignano, an even smaller village. But it was here that Pietro Perugino spent the last few years of his life. Perhaps he was trying to escape the plague that had infested the city. However in 1523 he died of the plague. And he is buried here. One of the few greats whose bones do not rest in an important abbey or often visited cemeteries. And here in Fontignano there is also his latest work: a Madonna and Child, unfortunately very damaged and then restored, perhaps made of the same "cartone" as that in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Spello.

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