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Medieval and in Umbria

Andreas Petzold travelled on a Royal Academy art tour with Cox & Kings to Umbria, and discovered a wealth of art in the most peaceful of places.

Day 1

Our tour was centred on the beautiful hilltop city of Perugia, which we used as a base to explore Umbria. On the first day, we went to the old part of the city ascending through the cavernous Rocca Paolina, the great fortress that Pope Paul III built when Perugia came under papal control in the 16th century. On the way, we looked at the Etruscan gate embedded in the fortress, which reminds us that this region goes back to the Etruscan and Roman periods.

From the standpoint of art, the most glorious period in the history of the city, and, indeed the region, was from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Monuments from this period which we looked at included the city fountain carved by Nicolo Pisano and his son; the hall of the money changers’ guild with its frescoes by Perugia’s most famous artist, Perugino, which, with their mix of Roman deities and Christian imagery, reflect humanist learning of the period; and the great town hall, the Palazzo dei Priori, which now houses the National Gallery of Umbria, one of the finest collections of art in Italy.

Day 2

On the second day, we visited the nearby town of Assisi, which is dominated by the great basilica built as a burial place for St Francis. We walked through the town: visiting the Romanesque cathedral; the basilica of St Clare, which houses the Romanesque crucifix, said to have spoken to St Francis; and the Roman temple of Minerva in the town square, which so impressed the German 18th century writer, Goethe. The town’s greatest monument is the Basilica of St Francis, which is divided into a lower and upper church. The walls of the basilica are covered with frescoes by some of the greatest artists of the period, including Giotto, and reflect a new naturalism and humanity in art.

Day 3

On this day we visited three of the smaller towns of Umbria – Spello, Bevagna  and Montefalco, which have remained little changed since the medieval period.

Day 4

The theme of the fourth day was the Piero trail, when we saw some of the most important paintings by the enigmatic early Renaissance artist, Piero della Francesca. We first visited his birthplace, the town of Sansepolcro, where his fresco in the town hall represents the resurrection, with Christ stepping out of the tomb and looking at us with hypnotic eyes. We then went to the small town of Monterchi, which has the fresco of the Madonna del Parto, which curiously represents the Virgin Mary pregnant. Unusually for Piero, this was painted in seven days and has a freshness and immediacy to it.

We then went to Arezzo, which in the church of San Francesco has Piero’s most important cycle of wall paintings, The Legend of the True Cross, which has been beautifully restored. We also had the opportunity to visit the cathedral, which has a painting of Mary Magdalene by Piero and the churches of San Domenico, with a great painted crucifix by Cimabue, and the Pieve with an early altarpiece by the Sienese artist, Pietro Lorenzetti. Many of us felt that this day was the highpoint of the trip, with an opportunity to appreciate the work of one of the Renaissance’s greatest and yet most enigmatic artists with his fascination with geometry.

Day 5

For our last trip, we visited another of the great Umbrian hilltop cities, Orvieto, which has one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Italy. On the way we stopped off at one of the masterpieces of High Renaissance architecture, the church of Santa Maria della Consolazione in Todi. With its centralised design, great dome and clarity of conception, it is thought to reflect Bramante’s original design for St Peter’s Basilica.

Orvieto is dominated by the great gothic cathedral, with its front façade decorated with carvings by Lorenzo Maitani, as well as glittering mosaics, and punctured by the great rose window – a characteristic feature of architecture of the region. Inside the cathedral we visited the chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio, with its series of apocalyptic wall paintings by Luca Signorelli of the end of time and the Last Judgement, which are thought to have influenced Michelangelo in the Sistine chapel.

One thing that struck me was that we were able to see examples of great art in comparative quiet, which made for relaxed viewing, and without the huge crowds that can be found in other sites in Italy. This combined with the pleasant weather, the companionship of our fellow art lovers, the good food, the beautiful scenery, and our Italian guide, Eduardo, who had lived in the region most of his life, made for a most enjoyable week. Umbria is one of the less well-known and visited regions of Italy, and yet contains art that is fundamental to an understanding of the development of late medieval and Renaissance art in Italy. For anyone who has not visited this region, I would thoroughly recommend it.