In the showcase of architectural gems that grace the city of Perugia, Palazzo dei Priori (“Palace of the Priors,” i.e, the medieval governing body of the city state) is arguably the crown jewel of the historic center – and one of the most stunning medieval civic palaces in all of Italy.
The palazzo spreads out along the main thoroughfare, Corso Vannucci (named after esteemed Renaissance painter working in Perugia, Perugino, i.e., Pietro di Cristoforo di Vannucci) ….
…and faces Piazza IV Novembre, backdropped by the Cathedral of San Lorenzo.
The two ruling powers of Perugia are thus counterposed: Palazzo dei Priori, embodying the temporal power of the medieval comune, faces the Duomo, unequivocally seat of the power of the Church, for here five popes were elected and three are buried.
The Palazzo dei Priori towers above the Cathedral, though – perhaps making a statement?
I remember as a student in Perugia years ago that we young people would gather on the steps of the Duomo, sitting and chatting. We’d never reflected though, on the tensions – at times – between the Church behind us and the civic palace in front of us..
Palazzo dei Priori – first built at the end of the 13th-century – was seat of this city-state’s, “first citizens,” the Assembly of the Priori (magistrates), that is, the highest political representatives of the guilds or confraternities – also called “arti “- of tradesmen, artisans, merchants involved in running the medieval comuni.
In Perugia there were 44 arti at the highest peak. The most important of these guilds were that of the Merchants and the Money Changers, both guilds therefore meriting prestigious seats – one decorated with splendid Perugino frescoes and the other with stunning wood inlay – and both ambiences right in the palazzo.
In 1303, a decree set the number of priors at 10: representatives of the 10 major arti (guilds). They would deliberate on all the most important public issues, remaining in office for two months. During that time, they were confined to the palace in a section of the building equipped with dormitory, dining area, kitchen area, and other ambiences of their living quarters.
Remaining closed in the palazzo assured distancing them from anyone wishing to influence political issues. (Note: also in Gubbio, the governing medieval magistrates, i consuli – did not exit their Palazzo dei Consoli for two months. Fascinating to see there the oldest toilets you’ve ever seen)
The first extensions on the building were done in the early 14th- c and later in the mid-14th-c century, comprising the section where seat of the most prestigious guild – Collegio della Mercanzia (Merchants’ Guild) – is located, an ambience of stunning late 13th-c wood-inlay: