The Duomo of Perugia, an Uncompleted Chef-d’oeuvre
We spent in Perugia about three days and we got a habit to begin and finish our day in the cathedral of Saint Lorence. When entering an enormous and obscure interior, we felt cloaked in wonderful tranquility. It was like returning home from faraway countries. Every time we saw small groups of pilgrims with back packs and sometimes with baby carriages, who were praying in small chapels. Once we listened to a beautiful spiritual singing performed by a small choir and accompanied by low organ chords.
The Cathedral is situated on Piazza VI Novembre facing the magnificent Palace of Priors. Curiously enough, Duomo’s lateral but not the main façade looks over the Piazza. The main front is directed to tiny Danti Piazza. When we visited the Duomo for the first time, we entered the lateral door and get out through the front entry. After a short walk about side-streets we saw an austere gothic church with an ornate baroque portal. We were greatly surprised when we once again found ourselves in the Cathedral!
In 1300, the leading citizens of Perugia decided to build a new Duomo at a meeting that was held in the cloister of San Francesco al Prato. However, work did not begin until 1345, when Bishop Francesco Graziani persuaded Pope Clement VI to grant a plenary indulgence to donators. Bishop Graziani laid the foundation stone soon after.
Unlike an ascetic main façade, the western front is rather interestingly decorated. A broad staircase leads to the lateral portal. Together with the stairs of the Priors’ Palace, they form a kind of auditorium in the open air. On the left, the Duomo borders with a covered arched gallery. The so-called Loggia di Braccio was built by condottiere Braccio Fortebracci in 1423 to link the new Duomo to his palace. The Loggia was created by Bolognese architect Fioravante Fioravanti in the early Renaissance style.
The façade decorated with eight lancet biforas is far from being a symmetric one. On the lower tier, there are situated three high and narrow windows, and five smaller windows – on the upper one. A rather modest portal was created in 1568 according to the design of Galeazzo Alessi. An ancient wooden Crucifix by Polidoro Ciburri (15th century) is held in a glass niche above the portal. During the revolt of 1540 (Salt War), the Crucifix became a symbol of the city’s resistance to Pope Paul III. The leaders of the revolt deposited the keys of the city at the foot of the Cross, and held regular penitential processions to implore Christ to protect them, but all in vain. After the failure of revolt, the Perugians lost their privilege of self-rule until Pope Julius III restored it. He was therefore particularly popular in the city. His nephew, Cardinal Fulvio della Corgna, Bishop of Perugia, commissioned the magnificent statue of Pope Julius III to Vicenzo Danti (1555). The sculptor casted the whole work as a single piece except for the hood of the cope.
The lower part of the lateral façade is faced with white and rose diamond-shaped marbles. The original design provided that the entire Cathedral would be covered with facing but due to a banal short of money it was not completed.
The Duomo was consecrated in 1587, as an inscription above the entrance to sacristy tells. The interior decoration with moulding, gilding, marbles and painting was completed only in the 18th century.
The Duomo has the so-called “Hallenkirche” (hall church) layout, because the nave and lateral aisles have equal height (24.9 m). The nave culminates in a polygonal apse while the aisles lead to small rectangular chapels.
Every time visiting the Duomo, I caught sight of still new details. I think these small discoveries won’t ever end since the church is very richly decorated and houses many relics. The main treasure is a simple wedding ring made of chalcedony and onyx. The legend has it to be the genuine wedding ring of Saint Mary. In fact, this ring was stolen from the Duomo of Chiusi in 1352 by a German monk, who give it as a gift to the Bishop of Perugia. It is venerated each year on July 31st by pilgrims en route for Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi, to celebrate the Festa di Perdono on August 2nd. The relic is housed in a reliquary (1498-1511) that is usually behind curtains above the present altarpiece.
The processional banner by Berto di Giovanni (1526) now forms the altarpiece on the neo-Gothic altar in the Cappella del Gonfalone. It was painted during an outbreak of plague, and was one of the last votive banners of this sort to be painted in Perugia before the Council of Trent. The painting has a very interesting composition. On the top, the Virgin and SS Herculanus and Joseph are pleading for Perugia before the vengeful Christ. In the center, there is the magnificent panorama of medieval Perugia and in the bottom Perugian citizens are pleading the Saints.
I believe that the real heart of the Duomo is a very affecting image of Madonna delle Grazie (ca. 1515). The highly venerated icon is depicted on the octagonal pillar and is enclosed in the gilded neo-Gothic tabernacle (1855). We always saw kneeled figures of believers before the icon. They were praying passionately or whispering something to the Madonna. The icon’s composition is utterly simple. The Virgin’s upright figure occupies the entire space of the painting. Her face is very young and even childish. Her head is crowned with a golden crown decorated with little diamond crosses and jewels. She holds her open palms near the breast in a gesture of complete openness and acceptance. She is dressed in a crimson dress and night blue cloak with a hood. The image is very simple and laconic but I could not tear myself away from this celestial harmony. I wish to return to this icon again and again.
For more details about Duomo’s history you can visit a very interesting site City Walks in Umbria.