The National Gallery of Umbria (Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria) contains an impressive collection of art from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century. In the gallery’s forty rooms, visitors can view masterpieces by Arnolfo di Cambio, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Duccio di Buoninsegna, Gentile da Fabriano, Beato Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli, Pietro Vannucci (a.k.a. Il Perugino) and let’s be honest folks, a bunch of other artists you’ve probably never heard of. But before you write off this popular Perugia museum as just your garden variety succession of one lacquered and gold-leafed altarpiece after another, please consider this: the museum is located in The Palazzo dei Priori—itself an architectural masterpiece that is worth the very reasonable price of admission before you ever lay eyes on a single saint.
An incomparable air of majesty
As I’ve written before, Palazzo dei Priori captivates its audience with an incomparable air of majesty and holds within its walls, the ghosts of centuries long power struggles and countless civic disputes. To enter the National Gallery of Umbria on the Palazzo’s top two floors, visitors enter through a magnificent Romanesque portal, meander across a medieval stone atrium, purchase tickets in the museum’s beautiful book shop then ascend the age-worn, sandstone staircase where many a pauper and potentate have walked before.
Paintings, sculptures, metal work, Umbrian pottery…
On display in the galleries and arranged in chronological order, are paintings and sculptures, gold and metal work, Umbrian fabrics and pottery, intricately carved wedding chests, ivory boxes, jewelry and other decorative arts—all on view in a varied maze of rooms, some with high arches, frescoed ceilings and secret little corners, many of which provide birds eye views of the rooftops and streets below.
The “Sala della Congregazione Governativa per la State”
A gallery called the “Sala della Congregazione Governativa per la State” (a.k.a Room 18) features a coffered wooden ceiling with an elaborately painted frieze. This room was once part of the apartments of the Decemviri (the 10 Men), a group of legislators assigned by the papal legate, who doubtless spent their days devising myriad schemes for the church to mess with the state. A touch screen digital display in multiple languages allows visitors to zoom in on the scenes depicted in the frieze to learn the full story of Braccio Fortebraccio, the appropriately named mercenary hired by good-ole Pope Paul III to repress the Perugians then ultimately crush them.
Perugia’s clock tower and the giant antique clock
One beautiful and quiet room is actually Perugia’s clock tower and was used in the 1500s as the headquarters of the “victuallers” i.e. the people who purchased the priors’ food. With the giant antique clock acting as a window from which to view Corso Vannucci, the room still retains fragments of the coats of arms of some of the priors who governed the free commune during their three-month stints.
The Sala Podiani: A panoramic view
The Sala Podiani, so named for Prospero Podiani, clearly an avid reader who donated 7,000 books to the city library, provides a panoramic view of Piazza IV Novembre, The Fontana Maggiore and the Cathedral of San Lorenzo from expansive Gothic windows. As documented in 1296, this room was originally used by The Captain of the People, the totally baller title given to the person who we might imagine swooping in to settle disputes between nobles and ordinary citizens. The high ceilings here are decked out in dark, mahogany beams. On the tall, buff colored walls hang three enormous altarpieces from the 1500s. Other walls still retain fragments of heraldic symbols with coats of arms related to the Captain.
A dazzling array of wonderfully vibrant works
I’m not going to lie though. There are plenty of angels and rosy-cheeked cherubs on display, interspersed with solemn worshippers and suffering martyrs. There’s a dazzling array of Annunciations, Flagellations, Adorations and Coronations plus more than a few crucifixions and countless versions of the Madonna and Child. But many of these works are wonderfully vibrant and well preserved. They bring to life in rich jewel tones and with intricate details the incredible talents of the artists and artisans whose calling was to document the trials and tribulations, the divine and the ordinary, the glory and sometimes the shame of these hundreds of years of Italian history and culture.