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Report 492: For Luigi, All the World's A Stage

By Baroloman from MD, Summer 2003

Trip Description: Group of six on trip to Umbria.

Destinations: Countries - Italy; Regions/Cities - Umbria

Categories: Sightseeing; Independent Travel; Small Group: 5 to 9

Page 1 of 1: A Day in Citta della Pieve

It is an intensely bright August day as we park the car just outside the portal gate to the small Umbrian city of Citta della Pieve. As we walk the short distance to the city gate, we are jarred by the sight of numerous red-and-black flags flying the Communist hammer and sickle and several banners bearing the iconic image of Che Guevera. Smiling nervously, we walk briskly past the flags and through the portal gate of the salmon-colored city wall. A little later we are somewhat relieved when a shopkeeper informs us that the members of the local Communist party are “the friendly type” and the flags and banners are just to call attention to the party-sponsored young people’s dance to be held that evening.

Our group consists of me, my wife Julie, our friend Roseanne and three other close friends and we are on the second day of our long-awaited trip to Umbria. The agendas for most days of our tip have been planned in great detail. For our small group of close friends, reading about and then spending time together planning for the places we would visit is part of the pleasure of travel. However, other than for a classical music concert scheduled for this evening in Citta della Pieve, this day is without plan, completely open for serendipitous encounters. Without a map or directions and no agenda we head up the portal road hoping this will lead to a piazza, stopping frequently to admire the ceramic or food and wine displays in the windows of the shops lining the road.

Shortly, we find ourselves in front of the 15th century convent of Santa Maria di Bianchi, which bears a little wall plaque indicating that inside is a mural by one of Umbria’s most famous Renaissance painters, Perugino, who was born in this city. We wander inside and pay a small admission fee. We are the only ones in the room other than for the caretaker, who introduces himself as Bertoni. On the front wall is the famous mural by Perugino depicting the Adoration of the Magi. The mural is painted in his signature muted, ethereal colors with a bucolic landscape not unlike what we see in Umbria. Bertoni informs us that the lake depicted in the landscape is in fact, Lake Trasimeno, which we passed on our way to the city. It is very quiet. I am struck by the fact that we have one of Perugino’s famous murals all to ourselves. There’s none of the tourist frenzy of Florence here.

To the left of the mural is a glass case with a copy of the original contract between Perugino and the city for the painting of the mural. Bertoni tells us that he reduced his usual commission for the mural as a favor to the city because he was born here and has a sentimental attachment to the city. However, Bertoni allows that Perugino did request a large down-payment.

Obviously bored and looking for a break from the tedium, Bertoni leads us across the street to show us what he claims is the narrowest alley in Italy. It is narrow – just wide enough for two people to stand in side-by-side. To Bertoni’s obvious regret, we say goodbye and continue up the street.

Not much further and we are at the Piazza Plebiscito, where the Palazzo della Corgna is located, the site for the evening’s concert. The austere palazzo is one of the more prominent buildings on the piazza and is now a public building that serves as a meeting place for civic functions, a concert venue and a museum. Entering the palazzo, we pass through a loggia which opens into an outdoor courtyard enclosed by an old stone wall. A stage and chairs have already been set up for the concert tonight.

At a desk where we stop to pay a small entrance fee, a 60-something year-old man introduces himself as Luigi, and offers to give us a guided tour of the palazzo. Since Luigi doesn’t speak English, Roseanne, who is fluent in Italian, serves as translator for our group, which is no easy task in this case because Luigi has a lot to say and talks very fast.

The first stop on our tour is at an Etruscan stone obelisk off to the side of the courtyard. Luigi explains that the obelisk had resided in quiet anonymity for centuries in a convent courtyard - that is until Luigi took an interest in it and recognized it as an Etruscan artifact. After experts confirmed Luigi’s assessment that it was a valuable early (6th century BC) Etruscan artifact, the obelisk was subsequently moved here for public display. Luigi takes great pride in the publicity his town receives for his initiatives in this regard.

We then get a tour of two spacious rooms upstairs, undistinguished except for the murals on the ceilings. However, the 18th-century murals are relatively modern by Italian standards and, while interesting, don’t really hold our attention. What is of interest is the anecdotes and commentary by Luigi regarding the palazzo, its history and famous occupants.

However, the tour is soon over. As we prepare to leave, Luigi offers to take us on a free guided tour of the city. Talk about serendipity; this is an offer that can’t be turned down. We are soon off and running with Luigi and Roseanne in the lead and the rest of us trying to keep pace with Luigi, who is talking all the time as he is walking. He points out to us the house where Perugino was born. Before too long, we are at church of San Francesco and into the Sanctuary of the Madonna di Fatima.

There is a striking late medieval mural on the front wall by an unknown artist, which depicts various saints, each one identified by their individual symbols, all of which Luigi explains to us.

At this point, my head is starting to spin and my notes become sketchy as Roseanne valiantly attempts to translate Luigi’s rapid-fire comments. According to Luigi, the Madonna is to convey certain messages from God. With a sly grin, Luigi indicates that one of these will probably be that women should be able to enter the priesthood.

As we exit the Sanctuary, Luigi shows us the courtyard where he discovered the obelisk. He then invites us to his house. We look at each, other and quickly nod assent. With that, Luigi is off and running again with his flock of fatigued tourists in tow. We have no idea of direction or where we are headed. We plunge into narrow, twisting alleys lined with ancient stone buildings tumbled one on top of the other, like children’s toy blocks. One narrow alley, Via San Egidio, is especially picturesque and we pass under stone arches spanning the narrow alley, some supporting houses overhead.

Suddenly, the alley opens into a small area, more like a patio than a piazza, where five narrow streets, more like alleys, converge. Julie comments that this small open area surrounded by low buildings has the look and feel of a stage setting. Luigi stops and suggests a group picture with all of us holding raised hands, as if responding to applause after a performance.

It appears that, for Luigi, all the world’s a stage.

We’re off again are now are on a narrow street that runs along the edge of the city wall. When we arrive at Luigi’s house, he asks us to wait while he goes inside. He emerges shortly with a wooden obelisk, a replica of the original in the Palazzo della Corgna, which was presented to Luigi by his grateful city in recognition of his discovery. He also distributes copies of a pamphlet printed to celebrate the discovery of the obelisk with Luigi’s biography as well as a poem written by Luigi, focusing on the mysticism of the pagan obelisk symbols and their significance to Italians today, which he reads to us. He then autographs our copies.

It’s now dusk and the shadows are lengthening on the city walls. We’re hungry and the concert is scheduled to start in an hour. We ask Luigi to join us for coffee and dessert as we head toward Piazza Plebiscito.

Luigi offers to take us to his favorite pizza place, but in the interest of time we opt for lighter fare from the pasticceria on the piazza, not far from the palazzo for this evening’s performance. We offer to treat Luigi, but he demurs, indicating that he needs to meet his friends, and takes his leave with our praise and thanks. In retrospect, we should have taken Luigi up on his offer of pizza. I can only imagine what fun it would have been sharing a pizza with Luigi and his friends in a small-town, Umbrian pizzeria.

It’s dark now and the stars are out on what is a cloudless night. We sit down with our coffees and desserts at a table in the center of the piazza. With low humidity and a light breeze the weather is perfect. A few street lights combine with the lights inside the pasticceria to illuminate the scene unfolding on the piazza.

Sitting on chairs arranged in a haphazard circle in front of the pasticceria, a group of men of varying ages are carrying on an animated discussion, frequently punctuated with laughter, about politics, women, the church or whatever, probably the same discussions their fathers and their fathers before carried on in the same spot in years past.

Off to their right, a small group of elderly women dressed in dark clothing are sitting on chairs, carrying on an intimate conversation, leaning into one another as they converse. Some couples are strolling by arm-in-arm, some with very young children gaily chasing one another in games of tag, their voices bouncing off the walls of the buildings enclosing the piazza. Behind us, a teen-aged couple is talking very softly as they sit, holding hands, on the steps in the shadows of the church.

We reluctantly leave, heading across the piazza where the concert is scheduled to start shortly. The seats start to fill quickly as people suddenly converge on the palazzo from all directions. In a short while, there is only standing room. Lights in the loggia of the palazzo and along the edge of the courtyard cast shadows on the ancient stone walls enclosing the courtyard and provide a more intimate setting than was the case in daylight.

Tonight’s concert is by a baroque music ensemble who are to play a selection of songs and dances from the 1600’s on period instruments, including a long-necked baroque guitar and a viola de gamba. There is also a female vocalist who from time to time beats softly on a wide, hand-held drumhead. The musicians are earnest professionals totally absorbed in their music. The concert is simply spectacular, totally unlike any I have heard before or since. Singing in Italian, the vocalist cast a spell over me, aided I’m sure by the romantic setting of classical music performed under the stars in a Renaissance courtyard. As far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t get much better than this.

All too soon, the concert is over and we reluctantly retrace our steps to the car for the trip home. As we pass through the city gate and head to our car, we hear music of another kind, loud rock music coming from the band at the Communist-sponsored dance party now in full swing. The part of the parking lot serving as a dance area is crowded with gyrating couples having a fun time. The party sponsors evidently are the “friendly type” – no politics and no speeches tonight, just young people having a good time.

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