The Duomo of Perugia, also known as the cathedral of San Lorenzo, is an excellent example of a church of which the exterior is more interesting than the interior. ‘Exterior’ in this case mostly refers to the left flank of the building, as the façade at the front was clearly never completed, while the eighteenth-century portal there is hardly worth mentioning. By contrast, the left side of the building is beautifully decorated with marble quadrilobes, a fifteenth-century pulpit, the remains of a fifteenth-century loggia and a sixteenth-century side entrance. From the steps on this side of the cathedral one has a nice view of the Fontana Maggiore on the Piazza IV Novembre.
The predecessor of the current church probably dated from the tenth century. Inside the building were enshrined the relics of Saint Herculanus. He was the bishop of Perugia who was murdered in 549 by Totila and his Ostrogoths. Herculanus then quickly became patron saint of the city. No fewer than three popes were interred in the old cathedral in the thirteenth century: Innocentius III (1198-1216), Urbanus IV (1261-1264) and Martinus IV (1281-1285). Unfortunately virtually nothing remains of their funerary monuments, at most a few pieces of sculpture. In the year 1300 the decision was taken to build a new Duomo. However, the construction of a new cathedral did not actually commence until 1343. Bishop Francesco Graziani, whose episcopate lasted from 1337 until 1352, had convinced Pope Clemens VI (1342-1352) to grant a full pardon to those who contributed to the new cathedral. The promise of a pardon probably did not help much, as progress was slow in the fourteenth century. The notorious outbreak of the Plague in 1348 and the confiscation of building materials by a papal legate in 1373-1375 cannot have been beneficial to the project.
In the next century things fortunately changed for the better. Thanks to the efforts of bishop Giovanni Andrea Baglioni (1435-1449), whose tomb can still be admired in the Duomo, much headway was made between 1437 and 1452. In 1481 a transept was added to the Duomo, an addition which unfortunately intruded upon the beautiful loggia that runs along the left flank of the cathedral. The loggia had been built in 1423 on the orders of the condottiero Andrea Fortebraccio (1368-1424), also known as Braccio da Montone. He was lord of Perugia between 1416 and 1424 and used the loggia to connect his palazzo with the Duomo. In 1487 the relics of Saint Herculanus were enshrined under the high altar, which basically meant that the Duomo was finally completed. For some reason the building was not consecrated until 1587. In 1609 the aforementioned relics were translated to the church of Sant’Ercolano in Perugia, which is specifically dedicated to Herculanus.
Things to see
The façade of the Duomo has a Baroque portal that was added in the eighteenth century by Pietro Carattoli (1703-1766). As the portal is the only decoration on this side of the cathedral, let us quickly go to the far more interesting side facing the Piazza IV Novembre. The lower part of this side has been decorated with white and pink marble, with series of highly conspicuous quadrilobes. The pulpit attached to the cathedral dates from 1439 and was used by the famous Franciscan preacher Bernardinus of Siena (1380-1444). One of the most important chapels in the Duomo, the Cappella di San Bernardino, is dedicated to Saint Bernardinus, who was canonised in 1450.
The portal to the left of the pulpit dates from 1568 and was designed by Galeazzo Alessi (1512-1572), who is perhaps best known for designing the interior of the cathedral of Assisi. In a niche above the portal, we see a wooden crucifix behind glass. The crucifix is closely associated with the so-called Salt War of 1540, a short-lived rebellion of the city of Perugia against Pope Paulus III (1534-1549). At the time, the citizens of Perugia laid the keys to the city at the feet of the crucified Christ, hoping and praying that he would protect them against papal wrath. Unfortunately it was all in vain: the rebellion was quickly crushed. To the left of the portal is a bronze statue of Pope Julius III (1550-1555), who gave back to the citizens of Perugia the right to appoint their own magistrates. The statue is a work of Vincenzo Danti (1530-1576), a talented local sculptor who died at a fairly young age.
The interior of the cathedral is mostly eighteenth-century. I do not have many pictures to show, as photography was prohibited when I visited the Duomo several years ago (this may be different now, because everyone nowadays has a smartphone). The most interesting work of art is a painting of the Deposition by Federico Barocci (ca. 1535-1612). Visitors will find it in the aforementioned Cappella di San Bernardino. According to tradition, the wedding ring of the Virgin Mary or Santo Anello is kept in the other large chapel. An image of the object can be found here. The ring is a problematic item in many respects. First of all, in 1473 the Santo Anello was stolen from Chiusi (the Clusium of Antiquity), a town situated some 35 kilometres west of Perugia. But a much bigger problem is the fact that the ring simply cannot be authentic. When Mary married Joseph, wedding rings were still an unknown phenomenon in Judaism. According to this website they were introduced over 1,400 years ago, so let us say about six centuries after Mary and Joseph’s marriage took place.
Those who want to see more art can visit the cathedral museum. Here you should be able to admire the Pala di Sant’Onofrio, a work by the famous painter Luca Signorelli (ca. 1450-1523) from Cortona.
- Capitool travel guide Umbria 2016, p. 95;
- Cattedrale di San Lorenzo (Perugia) – Wikipedia
- Key to Umbria: Perugia