GUBBIO, Umbria

Gubbio is one of the many beautiful towns in Umbria in the centre of Italy. Like so many of the other cities of the region, its central area still consists of mainly medieval buildings as it sits on an ancient site of humanity on the slope of Mount Inginio. People have been living on the slopes of the Appennine mountains since the bronze age (3000-1200 BCE). There was a town here called Ikuvium before the conquering Romans arrived; a set of bronze tablets was uncovered in Gubbio in the 15th century that contains the largest surviving text of the original Umbrian Language. It also has extensive ruins of a Roman theatre on the edge of town dating from around the first century BCE, said to be the second largest theatre surviving in Europe. Gubbio became a powerful and wealthy town during the Middle Ages and its citizens were involved in the crusades and the 12/13th century conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibelines factions that quarrelled over power in Northern Italy.

But for many people, Gubbio is a must visit town due to it being a significant centre of the story of St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), the famous saint of the early Middle Ages whose followers are still running schools and monasteries throughout the world in the 21st century. Francis came to Gubbio in 1207 and spent some time living with friends here. This town is the home of the famous Franciscan story of the ‘Wolf of Gubbio’ and you can’t go far in Gubbio without coming across representations of Francis and his wolf.

Above is an approximate outline of our 2015 visit to Gubbio after making the 52 kilometre drive from Assisi. Our first stop was at a park on the edge of Gubbio where there was a small church, Chiesa della Vittorina. It was built in the 9th century to commemorate a victory over the invading Sarcens but was given to the Franciscans in 1213 as the group’s first monastery in Gubbio. This site is also considered to be where Francis met the wolf who had been terrorizing the citizens of the town for many months. There is a large park around this small ancient church and an impressive statue of Francis meeting the wolf.

Our early target to visit on our trip was the Roman Theatre but we decided we should make a quick detour into the centre of town and have a look at the Church of San Francesco as well as having some necessary morning tea nearby. I remember finding myself in the center of Gubbio in 2009 looking for the Tourist info shop not far from the Church of San Francesco. I was puzzled by the building on the other side of this piazza, a very old colonnaded structure, that was a hospital in the middle-ages and still stands here today. Unfortunately in 2015 when I returned with friends, there was a large wedding occurring in the Church of San Francesco so we had to be happy with our morning coffee.

Between the Church and the ancient hospital is situated the ‘Piazza of 40 Matiri’ and there is a large memorial next to the church commemorating the WWII martyrs referred to in the Piazza’s name. On June 20, 1944, partisans killed a German lieutenant and wounded a soldier in Gubbio. As a result, even though the German soldiers were withdrawing from Gubbio, they shot in reprisal 40 locals of all ages and sexes. Apart from this memorial, there is a mausoleum to these victims south of this Piazza, not far from the Roman theatre. This piazza was the site of the town’s medieval markets.

From the Martyr’s Piazza, we drove down the road to the large parkland where the Roman Theatre is situated. There is a car-park for weekend markets here so there is plenty of parking spaces. We spent some time inspecting the remains of this impressive theatre. There is still plenty to see here but it is curious to note that the stones that are missing from this building no doubt can be found elsewhere in Gubbio as the theatre was mined for stone in later centuries, used to build town walls, churches and palaces for local nobles. The curious bee-hive structure to the right was located not far from the theatre and was worth a photo. (I wasn’t able to establish its original usage).

There was a small museum next door to the Roman theatre (an ‘Antiquarium’) which we visited and were surprised at the number of impressive archaeological finds made around the ruins of the theatre. There were quite a few large tile murals on display in the museum that must have once adorned Roman houses built near the theatre.

By referring back to the map of our tour around Gubbio at the start of this blog, it shows that when we left the Roman Museum we drove up to the northern side of town, found a park and then proceeded on foot for the rest of our tour of Gubbio. This section of town is where the significant administrative buildings of the town are located and a number have served this purpose since the middle Ages (See image above). The major public square of Gubbio, Plaza Grande, is a huge, paved area set between the Palace of the Consuls on the left and on the right, the Palace of the Podesta. The Palace of the Consuls is a 14th century building that today is a museum which houses the town’s ancient treasure, the Iguvine Tablets, bronze tablets written in the old Umbrian language. Almost a twin palace on the other side of the square, the Palace of the Podesta was referred to in statutes in 1338 but with a long list of work that hadn’t been completed. Some external sections of this building are still unfinished. This ‘palace’ was used as a prison up until the 19th century and today houses the municipal administration of Gubbio. On the day we strolled around the Plaza Grande, we were surprised to see a bridal couple arriving in the square for their wedding photos.

From the Grande Plaza we had decided we would walk down the long street, Via XX Settembre, to its end and catch the funicular up Mount Ingino. This would enable us to wander over and check out the church on the top of this mountain, the Basilica of Saint Ubaldo. The ‘cages’ that were our receptacles on the funicular were not initially very attractive or safety inspiring. They reminded me of the metal cages that condemned prisoners used to be placed in and hung from city walls. However they were surprisingly effective both at carrying us to the top of Mount Ingino as well as allowing us grand standing views of the valley below.

The Basilica of the patron Saint of Gubbio, Sant’Ubaldo was well worth the journey. It was built in the early 1500s and today houses the body of the saint himself on top of the high altar. Like so many other churches in Italy during the second world war, this church was bombed and there has been significant reconstruction of the Basilica since that time. Every year the city celebrates its history on Saint Ubaldo Day and a long procession makes its way up Mount Ingino to finish at this basilica. The other grand event that incorporates Saint Ubaldo’s basilica is the Christmas lights that decorate the mountain every Christmas season with the basilica bearing the star at the top of the ‘tree’ on the top of the mountain.

After descending the mountain via the funicular, we had to make our way back across the top of Gubbio by Via Savelli della Porta. This enabled us to finish our tour of Gubbio with another reminder of St Francis and his friend the wolf. There is a small church on this street that is a block away from the palaces adjoining the Piazza Grande. Its name is the Church of San Francesco della Pace (the Peace Church of St Francis). Town historians claim that this small church was built over the original lair of the wolf. Another story associated with the church is that wolf bones were dug up nearby in the 17th century, buried in a sarcophagus and placed in this church. A curious tale for us Australian visitors but one that was typical of our very interesting day in Gubbio!

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