x Palazzo dei Priori in Perugia, headquarters of the GNU - Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria

Perugia’s most iconic landmark, and among the greatest examples of Gothic architecture in Italy, the Palazzo dei Priori has towered over the city centre, eternally majestic, for more than 700 years.

Palazzo dei Priori Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria

The Palazzo dei Priori in Perugia

The Gallery Nazionale dell’Umbria counts on an art collection with few equals in Italy, and it is also the only Italian state museum to be hosted in the city’s municipal palace: the Palazzo dei Priori in Corso Vannucci.

A combination of art and civic life was first initiated in this location in 1879, after the relocation of the Civica Pinacoteca Vannucci, previously situated in the former convent of Montemorcino Nuovo since 1863. A hundred and sixty years later, the Galleria  keeps growing from strength to strength, evolving alongside the changing times. 

The history of Palazzo dei Priori has a very old voice: its stone walls, punctuated by its colourful “embroidered” three-mullioned windows, have been keeping an observant eye on Perugia’s vibrant and ever-evolving cultural scene since 1292.

Palazzo dei Priori Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria
La storia di Palazzo dei Priori

Perugia’s most iconic landmark, and among the greatest examples of Gothic architecture in Italy, the Palazzo dei Priori has towered over the city centre, eternally majestic, for more than 700 years.

Its first architectural nucleus dates back to 1292, when the ground and second floors were built. Over the following centuries, this initial hub would incorporate adjacent buildings, such as the church of San Severo di Piazza and the house-tower of Madonna Dialdana, the tower of Cola di Benvenuto Servitori with the adjoining domus and, finally, the house of Ottaviano Boncambi.

In 1294 the great reception hall of the Capitano del Popolo (today Sala dei Notari) opened its doors, directly communicating with the magistrate’s residence.

Another large room, whose original function is unknown, was on the upper floor: until 1969 it housed the Augusta Municipal Library and is now known as the Podiani Room. Today, this frescoed room is used to host the highest profile exhibitions and cultural events organised by the Galleria. 

Palazzo dei Priori Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria

The palatium priorum is born

It was during the 14th century, with the institution of the new governing body of the Priors of the Arts, that the palace began to expand and gradually achieve the monumental scale that we still admire today.

Between 1317 and 1326, its second main block, the palatium priorum, was erected to house the apartments of the priors and their meeting room (known as the ‘Malconsiglio’, literally the ‘ill-council’ room). The first city consuls lived in the palace for about two months, in a sort of self-imposed seclusion entirely dedicated to their role as public administrators.

The majestic main portal of the Palazzo in Corso Vannucci, headed by the lunette with statues of the three patron saints of Perugia – Lorenzo, Ercolano and Costanzo – belongs to this architectural phase.

In the meantime, the church of San Severo ‘di piazza’ was also annexed to the Palazzo: the church was rebuilt on another site, and the warehouses rented out to finance the Palazzo’s expansion.

In 1323, the Palazzo Pubblico got as far as present-day Via dei Priori; at that time, a chapel was built for the Priors for the first time. The only extant evidence of this building are two walled-in windows with decorated splays.

Palazzo dei Priori Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria

Aesthetic harmonisation and frescoed rooms

In the mid 14th century, the expansion of the Palazzo’s surface area and the annexation of surrounding buildings required harmonisation work. The aim was to make the building aesthetically more coherent and organic, both from the side facing the ‘fonte di Piazza’ (today’s Piazza IV Novembre) and along Corso Vannucci, ending with the bell tower.

In the first half of the 15th century, the growing needs of the developing city called for a further extension of the Palazzo, which now also housed a delegation of the guild of money changers.

The decorated portals of the headquarters of the Arte del Cambio are the same ones that can still be visited today in Corso Vannucci 25.

The Collegio del Cambio was completed between 1498 and 1500, when Pietro Perugino decorated its interiors, providing posterity with eternal wonderment with the cycle of frescoes in the Sala delle Udienze.

The decoration of the new Cappella dei Priori also dates back to the second half of the 15th century. Benedetto Bonfigli frescoed the chapel with a cycle of seven episodes dedicated to the stories of St. Herculaneum and St. Louis of Toulouse.

The frescoes decorating the “Sala della Congregazione governativa per la state”, by Tommaso Bernabei known as Papacello, date back to the mid-16th century. The cycle was executed in the years between 1545 and 1548, when Cardinal Tiberio Crispo was appointed papal legate in Perugia by Pope Paul III Farnese. The Pope took symbolic possession of the Palace with a luxurious flat on the second floor for his legate.

The frescoes that brought dazzle to the palace between the 15th and 16th century have retained their splendour and can still be admired today in the course of a visit to the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria.

During this period of papal magistrates installed in the Palace, two great Perugian architects – Galeazzo Alessi and Vincenzo Danti – were commissioned to embellish and enlarge the building. Alessi built a new castle for the bells (1570) and an elegant three-arched loggia (1572) to decorate the side of the Palazzo that today opens onto Via dei Priori. Danti, on the other hand, was responsible for the design of a large internal staircase and the enlargement of the flats.

The annexation of Ottaviano Boncambi’s house to the Palazzo also dates back to this period, thanks to which the building was extended to house Prospero Podiani’s precious book bequest: the Augusta Library, now located in Via delle Prome, was born.

Palazzo dei Priori and corso Vannucci seen from the adjoining square

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, a phase of decay began for the Palazzo dei Priori. Its architectural balance was upset with the demolition of the battlements, the plugging of the three-mullioned windows, the opening of new windows and the transformation of the external staircase.

It was only after the Unification of Italy, also thanks to the opening of the Vannucci Art Gallery – now the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria – that Palazzo dei Priori regained its splendour with the reconstruction of the battlements, the restoration of the Main Doorway and the frescoes in the Sala dei Notari, and the reconstruction of the great fan-shaped staircase overlooking the square.

Today, Palazzo dei Priori is the symbol of Perugia’s multifaceted cultural and civic identity: it evokes its glorious mediaeval past – the Noble Collegio della Mercanzia and the Noble Collegio del Cambio still have their seat here – and strengthens its look towards the future, housing the Municipality of Perugia and the National Gallery of Umbria.

Plan your visit to the GNU.