Off the beaten track in central Italy

a day in Città della Pieve  in Umbria

Città della Pieve, Umbria, Italy
Città della Pieve

Tuscany is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy. Florence, Pisa, Siena or Lucca can get really crowded during the high season between April and September. While many of us dream of a relaxing holiday, far from the crowds, everyday rush and confusion, often this dream fades away if confronted with the reality.

Luckily, there are many ways how to avoid crowds during your Italian holiday! First of all, you can organize your cultural trip to Florence and Tuscany during the winter, between November and March, when the Tuscan cities are pretty empty and much, much cheaper. If you want to visit central Italy in the spring or summer instead, try to get off the beaten track. It is easier than you think! If you prepare your itinerary carefully, you will have a dream holiday!

This is my second article from the series “off the beaten track”. Few months ago we visited together the park of Pratolino near Florence, known to very few tourists. This time we move to Northern Umbria, just across the Tuscan border, to discover Città della Pieve, a unique little hilltop town, the birthplace of the painter Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci, known as Perugino, where you can spend an entire day enjoying art and some delicious food at a very relaxed pace.

Città della Pieve and art by Pietro Perugino

Città della Pieve is a medieval hilltop town developed around year 1000 in proximity of the parish church (the Pieve) dedicated to Saints Gervasius and Protasius. Its original form of a fortified castle gave name to the city, in Latin called Castrum Plebis Sancti Gervasii, which in modern Italian became Castel della Pieve and then, when the town received the city rights in 1600, Città della Pieve. The hamlet was placed in a truly strategic position, at the border between the Sienese state, incorporated later into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and the Pope’s estates in Umbria. For this reason, it often fell in the hands of the mercenary commanders and in 1527 it passed under the control of the Holy See.
Here, in 1452 (?) Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci was born. He will become a famous painter, known as Perugino.

Città della Pieve, Umbria, Italy door decorated with florwers
Umbrian hilltop town, Città della Pieve is where you can relax without crowds.

The artist first trained in Perugia and then he moved to Florence. There, 1472 he became member of the Confraternity of St. Luke, which functioned as artists’ guild in the city at the time. In Florence Pietro Vannucci trained possibly in Andrea Verrocchio’s workshop, where he met young Leonardo da Vinci and other artists from Verrocchio’s circle.
During his career, Perugino decorated with his paintings the walls of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican and the altarpieces of various churches in Florence and Perugia. Despite his multiple travels and notable success, Perugino always maintained contacts with his hometown. In fact, during your visit to Città della Pieve you can admire some of Perugino’s works produced for the local religious institutions.

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Duomo in Città della Pieve

Cathedral in Città della Pieve, Umbria, Italy
Interior of the Duomo with Perugino painting in the main altar.

The cathedral was built during the sixteenth century replacing the medieval pieve. The church is dedicated to Saints Gervasius and Protasius. Its architecture is a good example of high Renaissance style, with the Latin cross floor plan and the chapels on the side of the main nave.
In the first chapel on the left, you will find Perugino’s Baptism of Christ from ca. 1510 and in the main altar his Virgin with Child and Saints Peter, Paul, Gervasius and Protasius.

Pietro Perugino, Baptism of Christ, Città della Pieve, Cathedral.
Pietro Vannucci, called Perugino, Baptism of Christ.

Oratorio di Santa Maria dei Bianchi

One of the most beautiful paintings left by Perugino in Città della Pieve is the Adoration of the Magi. It was painted for the Confraternity of White Penitents, the Bianchi. You can admire it in their Oratory dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The movement of the White Penitents started in 1399 when many people living on the Italian Peninsula convinced themselves that the end of the world would happen in 1400. They were terrified by the idea and, thus, in just few months thousands of pious believers started to join numerous processions of flagellants. They were asking for God’s mercy by mortifying their own flesh and whipping themselves.

White robes of the white penitents
White robes of the Confraternity members

After the year 1400, when it was clear that the world did not end, these penitent confraternities continued to exist and often started to support their communities with charity activities. The Bianchi confraternity in Città della Pieve, in fact, run a hospital, a sort of shelter for pilgrims, poor and sick.

Pietro Perugino and the Bianchi confraternity

In 1835, in a can buried under the floor of the oratory, the brothers found two original letters sent by Perugino to the syndic of this pious association in 1504, when the painter was working on his fresco here. Thanks to this precious finding we can fully understand different passages of the commission.

One of Pietro Perugino's letters transferred into the wall.
The texts of Perugino’s letters to the syndic of the brotherhood were transferred on marble plaques.

The contract for this fresco was signed in 1504 and initially the artist was supposed to be paid 200 florins for the entire decoration. In his first letter Perugino, who declared to be the syndic’s “paisano” (fellow citizen), agreed to reduce his salary to 100 florins, paid in 4 different payments. First, 25 florins were supposed to be paid immediately and the rest was distributed across the flowing three years. Few months later, in his second letter, the artist agreed to reduce his salary of another 25 florins in exchange for a mule, who would bring him to work every day. Perugino painted the fresco in just 29 working days. Three years later, in 1507, when the last payment was due, the brothers did not want to clear the remaining sum and promised to give Perugino an apartment in the town in exchange of some fresco decorations painted in the brothers’ homes. So, in the end , Perugino got only 50 florins, a mule and an apartment, and he even had to do some additional work!  

The Adoration of the Magi

Pietro Perugino, Adoration of the Magi, Città della Pieve.
Pietro Perugino, Adoration of the Magi, 1504, fresco painting, Oratorio di Santa Maria dei Bianchi, Città della Pieve.

Perugino’s fresco in the oratory represents the Adoration of the Magi. We see the Virgin holding Baby Jesus on her laps and the Three Kings bringing their gifts. Behind them, there is the wooden structure of the nativity hut and a beautiful landscape with a view on the Trasimeno Lake. In the background you can see the shepherds, and the moment of the Adoration is observed by varied and colourful crowd of bystanders.
The balance of forms and the harmony of colour composition in this fresco, confirm Perugino’s exceptional skill. The overall impression of peace and joy, which characterizes many of Perugino’s works, would pass from his art, into the painting of his great pupil, Raphael. In fact, it is possible that young Raphael assisted his master in the production of this decoration.

Cross carried in procession by the confraternity members
Procession cross carried by the confraternity members during religious feasts.

Coming to Florence?

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In the oratory you will also find the dresses of the confraternity members and the gigantic crosses carried by the brothers during the religious processions. On the walls you will see the texts of the two letters written by Perugino transferred on marble plates.

Città della Pieve and its narrow streets  

Città della Pieve is very famous for its narrow streets, called vicoli in Italian. One of them is so narrow that two people cannot possibly pass next to one another without touching each other. The legend says that this narrow street was used by lonely man to steal kisses from women passing through. This is why it is still called Vicolo Baciadonne, Kissing-women street. 

Vicolo Baciadonne, Città della Pieve, Italy.
Vicolo Baciadonne

In June, on the day of Saint Louis Gonzaga, patron saint of one of the districts, the citizens organize the Infiorata. During this flower festival, streets are literally covered with colourful carpets of flowers. Moreover, during every spring and summer Città della Pieve organizes the competition for the most beautiful flower decoration of windows, doors and balconies. The city is thus beautifully decorated with hundreds of flowers and plants.

Flower decoration in Città della Pieve.
Beautifully decorated door in Città della Pieve.


How to arrive? Take the motorway A1 until Chiusi. Then continue South with SP146 and SR71.
Tourist information office:

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