The underground secrets of Perugia, Umbria

Perugia is the largest city of Umbria and has a long and important history, not least because of its strategic position on a hill overlooking lake Trasimeno, guarding the passes into the apennine mountains.

Unusually, many of the layers of history can still be seen, making Perugia a city that's just as worth exploring underground as above ground. You can see traces of Etruscan and Roman temples, ancient churches, and whole sections of the medieval city frozen in time under the expansion of the city's fortress in the sixteenth-century.

The escalator to the middle ages

Let's start with your arrival in the city. If you're arriving by car, be aware that you can't drive into the city centre, but you can head for the car park in:

Piazza Partigiani, Via Baldassarre Orsini, 06128 Perugia

for an unexpected delight: escalators will take you up the hill from the car park, heading underground half-way up and delivering you to a section of the old city that was covered by the extension to the "Rocca Paolina" in the sixteenth-century, a fortress built by order of Pope Paul III.

What is the origin of the underground city in Perugia?

Perugia-Rocca-Paolina
Rocca Paolina - Photo by Gianni Careddu, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The streets are a physical reminder of a battle between the local powerful families and the papacy in Rome. During the 16th century, the Baglioni Family, who held absolute power in Perugia, were fighting among themselves. Unlike Florence, the town did not have a single governing authority, making the city vulnerable to a Papal interference. In 1540, the Pope exacerbated the issue by mandating that Perugia purchase their salt from Papal saltworks, at a significantly higher cost compared to the salt from Siena, Tuscany.

Since salt was crucial for food preservation before the invention of refrigerators, this increase in price resulted in widespread starvation among the population. In response, Perugia declared itself a Republic and resisted the Papal troops, but was eventually defeated. It was during this period, known as the "war for the salt," that the custom of consuming unsalted bread, called "pane sciapo," emerged. Currently, both salted and unsalted bread are available in Perugia's bakeries.

Perugia Rocca_Paolina
Perugia, Rocca Paolina. Photo by Roberto Favini via Wikimedia Commons

It was during this period that Pope Paul III asked Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane (1484 - 1546) to speed up the construction of a fortress in the city that was already underway. The project incorporated a very visible and impressive stamping of the Papal authority on the city by requiring the demolition of the Baglioni family's main houses and fortified towers. The roads you walk along today are original medieval roads roofed with impressive vaults to support the load of the "Rocca Paolina" fortress above. There was also an Etruscan wall with monumental gates in the area covered by the Rocca; Sangallo had this arched gateway, the Porta Marzia, moved and re-assembled on the outside walls of the fortress.

While today you can walk in the old streets of Perugia below the Rocca, not much of the fortress remains above ground; after the unification of Italy in 1860 the fortress was destroyed in a solemn civil rite, removing a despised symbol of Papal power.

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Underground streets of Perugia

After walking through this section of medieval and renaissance history you will emerge in Corso Vannucci, the main street of Perugia.

The Etruscan well

Head up hill along Corso Vannucci, passing the impressive Cathedral of San Lorenzo on the way, and visit the Etruscan well, set underneath Palazzo Sorbello. This impressive piece of engineering was built around 2400 years ago and is 37 metres deep and 5 metres wide. Unusually, it has a bridge that crosses the well that gives you a close-up perspective on the construction.

You can gain entry to the well via the seventeenth-century Palazzo Sorbello, built over the well itself. Tickets are around €6.

Pozzo etrusco passerella

San Lorenzo and Roman Perugia

The Cathedral of San Lorenzo is an impressive building, with frescoed ceilings supported by tall marble columns; but we're here for underground Perugia so we should head for the entrance to the archeological digs, the "Museo del Capitolo di San Lorenzo" which you'll find along an alleyway between Piazza IV Novembre and via Maesta delle volte.

You have to follow a guided tour and they generally run every 30 minutes on weekends, and every 60 minutes on weekdays, between 10:30 and 12:30 and then 14:30 to 17:30.

Because the Cathedral, as often happens, was built on what was historically the most sacred spot in the city, the site of the Etruscan and Roman acropoli, when archeologists starting exploring they found Roman and Etruscan remains and it is these you can see today.

Perugia has been continuously occupied since its founding in about the sixth-century BC, so digging down reveals the layers of history in the most important area of the city.

Etruscan Temples

Beneath the surface, precisely aligned with the location of the high altar in the Cathedral, the remains of two temples' foundation walls have been unearthed. These walls are believed to date back to the sixth and second centuries BC. Additionally, upon these ancient layers, the foundation wall of the older Medieval cathedral, possibly constructed in the 12th century, has been recovered.

Etruscan city walls

During the second century BC, the Etruscans of Perugia constructed a series of walls encircling the acropolis with the intention of both containing the hill and creating a grand spectacle. One of these walls, which remains remarkably well-preserved to this day, supports a section of the town that corresponds to Piazza IV Novembre, the primary square in the historic city center. Made of travertine, the wall stands at a height of approximately 15 meters (45 feet) and stretches for 40 meters (120 feet) in length. Unlike the foundational materials that are buried underground, these blocks are precisely squared and arranged in parallel rows without mortar. Each successive row is set about two centimeters (an inch) further back than the row beneath it. Consequently, the wall is not perpendicular to the ground but slightly inclined, strategically designed to withstand the pressure exerted by the hill's soil.

Etruscan-walls
Etruscan walls of Perugia - image by Sofocle77, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When viewed from below, the acropolis, adorned with vibrant colors, would appear enveloped by formidable walls; the sight must have been truly awe-inspiring. Adjacent to this wall, remnants of a pedestrian ramp leading to the hilltop are still visible. In the sixth century AD, during the Gothic threat to Perugia, a portion of the ramp was demolished to make way for a Byzantine tower, the foundation of which has managed to survive.

Roman road

During your guided tour you will also see a section of the old Roman road, the Decumano, still showing the tracks left by cart wheels. The road connected the east and west sides of Perugia.

Roman Domus

Along the route of the Decumano there are the partial remains of a "Domus", a Roman private house belonging to an upper class family. Impressively, the remains of the house still bear the marks of the fire that destroyed Perugia in 40 BC after the city fell into the hands of the Roman army during the civil war.

And there we have it, a walk through time via the historical sites of Perugia.

To complete the set, there is one last place that you should see, but it's outside the city, so it's an optional extra - the Volumni Hypogeum

Volumni Hypogeum

Just outside the city there is a necropolis called "Palazzone", a burial ground dating to the 6th–5th century BC. The main volume is the Roman-Etruscan tomb of Arnth Veltimna Aules, with numerous secondary subterranean tombs that can be seen along paths in the site's grounds.

The Volumnus tomb itself is entered via a staircase which leads several metres underground to a doorway leading to a vestibule. This then opens into four small side chambers and three larger central ones, the middle of which housed the remains of the family's main members. Only this chamber now displays burial urns and artifacts but there would have been many more that have now been removed and placed in the nearby museum.

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Volumni Hypogeum

Where to stay near Perugia

To find a villa close to Perugia have a look here:

Villas near Perugia