Perugia history 101

A brief summary of the history of Perugia

Perugia was one of the 12 cities of the Etruscan confederation, and though it submitted to general Roman authority in 310 b.c., it remained a fractious place, always allying itself with a different Roman faction. It chose the losing side in Octavian’s war with Marc Antony, and when the future emperor defeated Marc Antony’s brother here in 40 b.c., a panicked Perugian noble set fire to his house in a suicide attempt. The flames spread quickly, and most of Perugia burned to the ground. Soon after, Octavian, now Emperor Augustus, rebuilt the city as Augusta Perusia. Throughout the Dark Ages, Perugia held its own against the likes of Totila the Goth, but it became subject to the Lombard Duchy of Spoleto in the later 6th century.

By the Middle Ages, Perugia was a thriving trade center and had begun exhibiting the bellicose tendencies, vicious temper, violent infighting, and penchant for poisons that would earn it such a sunny reputation among contemporary chroniclers. When not out bashing neighboring towns into submission, Perugia’s men would put on minimal padding and play one of their favorite games, the Battaglia dei Sassi (War of Stones), which consisted of pelting one another with hefty rocks until at least a few dozen people were dead.

What they did to others didn’t even come close to the nastiness that went on among Perugini themselves. The Oddi and Baglioni were just two of the noble families who waged secret vendettas and vied with the middle-class burghers for absolute power. Burgher Biordo Michelotti, egged on by the pope, managed to seize power in 1393 by murdering a few rivals from the Baglioni family. Five years later, his despotic rule ended with a knife in the back. A period of relative calm came in 1416 with the stewardship of Braccio Fortebraccio (“Arm Strongarm”), under whose wise and stable rule the city’s small empire expanded over the Marches region. In the end, he was done in by a fellow Perugian while he was besieging L’Aquila in 1424. And then there were the Baglioni.

When their rivals, the Oddi, were run out of town in 1488, the field was more or less clear for the Baglioni to reign in all their horrible glory. The family turned assassination, treachery, and incest into gruesome art forms. When not poisoning their outside rivals, they killed siblings on their wedding nights, kept pet lions, tore human hearts out of chests for lunch, and married their sisters. In a conspiracy so tangled it’s almost comic in its ghastliness, the bulk of the family massacred one another on a single day in August 1500.

The last of the surviving Baglioni, Rodolfo, tried to assassinate a papal legate in response to his uncle’s murder at the hands of the pontiff. All that did was tick off Pope Paul III, who upped the salt tax a year after promising otherwise. The rebellion Paul was trying to provoke ensued, giving the pope the excuse he needed to subdue the city. Papal forces quickly quashed the city’s defenses and leveled the Baglioni’s old neighborhood. After riding triumphantly into town, the pope had all Perugia’s nuns line up to kiss his feet, an experience he reported left him “very greatly edified.”

The enormous Rocca Paolina fortress he built to keep an eye on the city quelled most rebellious grumblings for a few hundred years, during which time the Perugini slowly mellowed, save for the uprising in 1859. The pope sent his Swiss Lancers to teach the town a lesson, a task they accomplished by pillaging the shops, torching the houses, and murdering citizens in the streets. Within a year, though, Italian unification hit town. King Vittorio Emanuele prudently sent a contingent of troops to protect the Swiss guards as they hastily retreated from a Perugia finally free from papal control.

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