Key to Umbria

Cities    History    Art    Hagiography    Contact

This site is a detailed travel guide to the cultural history of the cities of Umbria, based on what you can still actually see and experience there.  My definition of “city” is a bit odd - I generally mean a place that once had its own bishop, albeit that many of these early dioceses were subsequently absorbed by larger neighbours.  There are over 20 of these, an extraordinarily high number for such a relatively small area, and they are well-connected by public transport links.   The site is in construction: only about two thirds of the cities I intend to cover are complete, but I am continually adding more pages.  Click on the first link (“Cities”) above to see if the places that interest you are there yet.

I have planned one or more walks around each city, with links to more detailed pages on individual monuments and, from there, to individual artists whose work was (and in many cases still is) to be found there.   In most pages on monuments, I include a section with a title like “Art from the Church”, so you can imagine what it looked like before it was deprived of its original treasures (which has sadly happened all too often). 

The walks also contain links to the cities’ important museums.  Even the smallest of them will probably have an interesting civic art collection, generally acquired after the suppression of religious orders and confraternities after the unification of Italy in 1860.  They will also usually have an archeological museum or at least a lapidarium that illuminates their pre-Roman and Roman history.

Every Italian city has its own saints.  I have pages on the saints that protect each of the cities that I describe, with links, for example, to the churches in which their relics repose.   One of the pleasures of visiting Italy is to witness the celebrations of the feast days of these saints, which are still part of the local culture.  (I particularly like to watch relics being taken in procession after dark in the depths of winter, witnessed by hundreds of families of perhaps three generations, without a sulky teenager in sight).

My pages on history are embryonic: one day I will build a cultural history of each city from the “stones” provided by their surviving monuments, archeological treasures and works of art.  I will also link this history to the historical events that affected “Umbria” and “Italy” as a whole.  However, that remains a long-term and somewhat daunting aspiration.

Finally, you cannot visit Italy without thinking about food.  After each visit, I update my home pages on the cities that I have visited with my new favourite hotels, restaurants and bars.  The latter are particularly important at breakfast: it is generally advisable to avoid the hotels’ breakfast offerings in favour of a cappuccino and corneto (croissant) in the bar round the corner.  When it comes to restaurants, I make no claim to comprehensive coverage.  Remember also that your tastes may well be different from mine and, in any case, things change.

When I want to use the site during a visit, I “suck” it into my iPad using Sitesucker.  This makes it into an off-line guide that is easily carried around busy and often boiling city streets.  If you prefer to print onto paper, you might have a problem if you are using Windows, because the site is built on a Mac.  However, the browser “Safari for Windows” will probably work.

I hope that you enjoy using “Key to Umbria”, and would be grateful for feedback, particularly if you find errors or problems, or if  you have issues relating to your proprietary rights - see the contact link above and (for my approach to proprietary rights) the last paragraph and the yellow box below.

About Umbria

Umbria is the most central region of Italy and the only one without a coastline.  (Sorry, but I could not bear to roll out the cliché about the Green Heart of Italy, although I did paint it deep green in the map above).  It is named for the ancient Umbri: according to to Pliny the Elder, who wrote in the 1st century AD, they were “gens antiquissima Italiae existimatur” (the most ancient surviving tribe in Italy).  He believed that they had originally occupied much of central and northern Italy, but that they had been driven back:

  1. from the Tyrhenian Sea in the west as far as the Tiber by the Etruscans; and

  2. from the Adriatic and the Apennines in the east by the Gauls. 

The first formal designation of a region known as Umbria was probably made by the Emperor Augustus in the early 1st century AD: according to Pliny the Elder, his Sixth Region included “Umbria and the Gallic territory in the vicinity of Ariminum [Rimini]”.  By this time, the people of the region were thoroughly “Romanised”, and the distinctive Umbrian dialect (like the Etruscan language) had been largely forgotten.  Nevertheless, the Sixth Region seems to have included all of the Roman municipalities that had ancient Umbrian roots.

Modern Umbria was given its regional boundaries in 1927.  These are less respectful of ancient history than those designated by Augustus: thus, while some 20 towns and cities of modern Umbria trace their roots to tribes that were also in his Sixth Region, three have other cultural affinities: 

  1. the Nursini (from Nursia, modern Norcia) were in the Augustan Fourth Region, which reflected their Sabine roots; and

  2. the people of two cities of modern Umbria were placed in the Augustan Seventh Region (Etruria):

  3. the Volsinienses (who had been expelled by the Romans from the site of modern Orvieto in 265 BC and who, by Augustus’ time, probably lived at modern Bolsena); and

  4. the people of Perusia (modern Perugia). 

Almost all of these ancient settlements became dioceses in early Christian times, albeit that (as mentioned above) the smaller ones were subsequently swallowed up by larger neighbours.  The character and culture of each of them is rooted in this ancient history, and all are rewarding places to visit.

The modern region is divided into two provinces:

  1. Perugia, the regional capital in the north, is a bustling university city with great museums and lots of interesting monuments.  

  1. Terni, the provincial capital in the south, is a modern city with excellent transport links, a new museum complex and a number of monuments that miraculously survived the ravages of industrialisation and the bombardment of World War II.

Other Guides to Umbria

If you read Italian, the most comprehensive guide to Umbria is the eponymous volume in the Touring Club Italiano's series on the regions of Italy.  It has been in print (for very good reason) since 1922 - I am using the 7th edition, which was published in 2008.

One of the best English guides to the region is:

Ian Campbell Ross, “Umbria: A Cultural History”. 

There is a lovely new edition (2012) that is now available on Amazon.  It does exactly what it says on the tin: it begins with a cultural history of the entire region, followed by a gazetteer for visitors to the individual towns and cities. 

However, while the printed word is great, particularly for bedtime reading, I find that the web has some important advantages:

  1. content can be quickly edited and republished, which makes it easily corrected and updated;

  2. it is easily searched via the internet, which  removes the need for an index; and

  3. pages can be linked (even off-line if you use an application like Sitesucker, as mentioned above), so you can easily move from (say) a page on a church to one on a particular painting in it and then to another on the artist who painted it.

The best internet resource on Umbria is to be found in the relevant section of Bill Thayer’s personal site, which is hosted by the University of Chicago.  It is of particular value if you want to understand how to appreciate Latin inscriptions.  In addition (like Heineken lager), it reaches the parts that others do not reach: I think that Bill must have travelled and described every Umbrian byroad known to man.   (Bill kindly gave me the HTML snippet for the “search this site” function below, for which I am extremely grateful).

Guides to individual cities are suggested on the relevant city home pages in this site.

About me

I often get emails asking me (almost always politely) who I am.  For the record: I was once a scientist and have a PhD in solid state physics (although these days I can barely remember how to change a plug).  I worked on energy policy for a political party in the UK, before moving to the more lucrative world of investment banking, where I specialised on privatisation.  That allowed me to retire at the ripe old age of 50 and to award myself the “job” of my dreams (albeit that it is unpaid in any way).  The result is this website, on which I have been working for the last 15 years (and counting).

Citation Policy and Proprietary Rights

It will be abundantly clear to any user of the site that I am completely unqualified in history (particularly ancient history and art history), hagiography etc, and that my web design skills are not great.  I do my best to be accurate, comprehensive and up-to-date, but please do not rely on my success.  

Nothing in this site constitutes original research: I rely exclusively on other people’s  published work for the information that I present, but the mistakes I make are entirely mine.  If you want to cite the information in an academic context (e.g. in Wikipedia entries, school or college essays etc), please cite the original work.

I try to provide comprehensive reading lists in the yellow boxes at the bottom of individual pages, and welcome suggestions from authors and others for additions to them.  If you read Italian, the “Nota Bibliografica” in the guide of the Touring Club Italiano (referenced above) is an excellent and more comprehensive resource.

Travel guides like mine generally avoid in-text citations, probably because they distract rather than inform the audience for which guides are designed.  I use them where they add to the interest of the narrative for non-expert readers.  For example, in my page on Pier Matteo d’ Amelia, I use in-text citation to describe the fascinating scholarly process that led to the “discovery” of this important artist.  In addition, I am always happy to use them when a particular scholar asks me to do so.