Also known as the ‘green heart of Italy’, Umbria contains a vast and varied array of what visitors most love about central Italy: ancient streetscapes crammed onto hilltops, exquisitely undulating countryside of olive, cypress and vine, and an abundance of wonderful art.
Rarely can the spirit of the Middle Ages be so potently felt as in the hill towns of central Italy. That such small communities could have built each dwelling so massively, raised churches and public buildings of such magnificence and created works of art of such monumentality inspires awe bordering on disbelief among today’s visitors.
This is also the heartland of the Renaissance, and several of the leading artists of the era were natives who worked here before being inveigled to the great metropolises of Florence and Rome.
Many of the most important and beautiful of Italy’s incomparable patrimony of paintings and frescoes are included on this tour. The great Giottesque cycle at Assisi stands at the beginning of the modern era of art, and the Last Judgement frescoes by Signorelli in Orvieto are on the cusp of the High Renaissance. While in the field of architecture Romanesque and Gothic predominate, there are many major Renaissance buildings, including the centrally planned church at Todi.
The man-made environment melds with the natural in a picturesque union of intense beauty. It is a landscape of rumpled hills, sometimes rugged and forested, sometimes tamed in the struggle to cultivate, always speckled with ancient farmsteads, fortified villages and isolated churches. Even from the central piazze of many of these towns there are views of countryside which seems scarcely to have changed for centuries.
Fly at c. 10.45am (British Airways) from London Heathrow to Rome Fiumicino. Drive to Spello, the small, quiet town which is the base for this tour.
Assisi. Drive the short distance to Assisi and spend much of the morning at S. Francesco, mother church of the Franciscan Order. Here is one of the greatest assemblages of mediaeval fresco painting, including the controversial cycle of the Life of St Francis. In the afternoon, walk through the austere mediaeval streets and visit the church of Sta. Chiara and the Romanesque cathedral.
Todi, Spello. Visit Sta. Maria della Consolazione in Todi, a centrally planned Renaissance church influenced by Bramante’s ideas. Walk through the town, seeing the cathedral and the church of S. Fortunato, with its richly decorated central doorway and frescoes by Masolino. Return in the afternoon to the small hilltop town of Spello, which has fine Roman remains and richly coloured Renaissance frescoes by Pinturicchio in the church of Sta. Maria Maggiore.
Perugia, capital of Umbria, is one of the largest and loveliest of Italian hill towns and has both major works of art and architecture and the authentic, age-old liveliness of a prosperous market town. Morning visits include the Palazzo dei Priori, the mediaeval town hall now housing the National Gallery of Umbria, and a merchants’ hall. An afternoon walk includes an impressive Etruscan city gateway, the mediaeval walls and the richly carved façade of the Renaissance church of S. Bernardino.
Foligno, Montefalco. Known to the Romans as Fulginium, Foligno lies on the banks of the river Topino. It offers a range of exceptional attractions and yet is little known to tourists. See the restored palace of the Trinci family, lords of Foligno, and home to extensive frescoes now known to be the work of the greatest Italian master of International Gothic, Gentile da Fabriano. Continue to Montefalco, a delightful hilltop community with magnificent views of the valley below and hills around. In the deconsecrated church of S. Francesco are frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli. Return to Spello for some free time.
Gubbio. Spilling down a hillside and offering sensational views across Umbrian countryside, Gubbio is one of the most beautiful and well preserved ancient towns in Italy. The Palazzo dei Consoli is an austerely magnificent mediaeval town hall located beside a square with one side open to the view; it houses the art gallery of the Museo Civico. Higher up, the Palazzo Ducale was built by warlord Federico da Montefeltro, one of the greatest patrons of the arts in the Early Renaissance.
Orvieto. Spend the day in this entrancing hilltop town, with its glistening marble Gothic cathedral. Among its treasures are the low relief sculptures by Maitani and the apocalyptic Last Judgement frescoes by Signorelli (1505). Visit also the cathedral museum, richly endowed with art, sculpture and religious artefacts.
A morning walk in Spoleto includes the Ponte delle Torri, a mediaeval aqueduct famously painted by Turner, and finishes at the cathedral square. One of the most imposing in Italy, it slopes like an auditorium towards the cathedral façade with its mosaics and rose windows; inside there are frescoes by Pinturicchio and Filippo Lippi. Drive to Rome Fiumicino airport for an evening flight arriving at Heathrow at c. 7.15pm.
Dr Michael Douglas-Scott
Associate Lecturer in History of Art at Birkbeck College, specialising in 16th-century Italian art and architecture. He studied at the Courtauld and Birkbeck College, University of London and lived in Rome for several years. He has written articles for Arte Veneta, Burlington Magazine and the Journal of the Warburg & Courtauld Institutes.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,480 or £2,260 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,640 or £2,420 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus A319); travel by private coach throughout; hotel accommodation; breakfasts; 1 lunch and 4 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Hotel La Bastiglia, Spello: a well-appointed 4-star hotel at the apex of Spello, with wonderful views from the terrace. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
Many visits take place in hill towns, with very steep, uneven inclines leading from the coach park. Agility and sure-footedness are particularly essential. There is a lot of coach travel. Average distance by coach per day: 72 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Combine this tour with
Flemish Painting, 4–8 September 2019; Walking to Santiago, 17–27 September 2019; The Cathedrals of England, 18–26 September 2019; Gardens & Villas of the Italian Lakes, 19–25 September 2019.
We are happy to advise on linking accommodation and transport.
'Our lecturer and tour manager were excellent – complementing skills but both contributing greatly to the positive feel of the tour.'
'Very much enjoyed the balance between holiday and study!'
'Excellent. I had wanted to visit some of these hill towns before but wasn't aware of any way it could be done.'
'Well planned, each destination easily reached, allowing ample time for official guiding and personal exploration; enjoyed each day very much.'
'Michael has a wonderful way of bringing to life centuries old sights. Never boring or dull, but always witty and on point.'