As we sit on our Perugia roof terrace, sipping a Sagrantino and wrapped up against the evening chill, Assisi, 15 miles away, is turned rose by the late sun. Behind is the looming mass of Mount Subasio, where St Francis once wandered. If I lean out over the precarious terracotta tiles I can see, to the south, Spello, another hill town perched above the valley floor. This huge vista is the backdrop to countless Christmas cards: it was here that landscape began to get a finger-hold into the world of art, Perugino, Raphael and Pinturicchio adding a central Italian backdrop to a Middle Eastern religious story.
These sprawling Umbrian views were a deliberate ploy to move the landscape of Christianity further west, a rebranding exercise that placed the Holy Family in a 15th-century Italian context,with central Italy at the very hub of the world. Though Jesus never got to kite surf on Lake Trasimeno, in paintings all over Umbria there it is, shining over his shoulder.
Perugia’s most popular view has another religious connection. The side of the cathedral is adorned with huge steps, which face across the piazza and down the town’s main street, Corso Vannucci. In rather un-Italian fashion, even winter weather does not deter step-sitters, though it becomes a real theatre of the watched and the watching when the sun comes out, at which point, rather irreligiously, it transforms into the town’s liveliest drinking spot.
And the cathedral designers certainly knew about views. The most succulent figs may have been in the fertile lower reaches further down the valleys, but almost all of Umbria’s towns are built high up, with well-defended vantage points over the ancient Via Flaminia, connecting Rome with the Adriatic and bringing trade, invaders and (worst of all, some say) the Pope.
By living on hilltops, the Umbrians have always managed to remain slightly removed from the to-ing and fro-ing below. Their distance from money and power has sometimes left them at a disadvantage, often overshadowed and bypassed in favour of their brasher neighbour, Tuscany. But, ask in the market and they’ll tell you that though there may be fewer of them, the best olives grow higher up.
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