Under the Umbrian Sun

Article excerpt

Perugia Classico offers living music history in Central Italy

MOST PEOPLE THINK of the small Italian town of Perugia, if at all, as either the birthplace of the world-famous Perugina chocolates or the location of the Umbria Jazz festival. Avid history buffs, however, may be aware of the important role of the town in Europe's political and religious history. A look around the central piazza is sufficient to reveal that, from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, Perugia served as an important center of Italian culture and economy. Now overshadowed by its larger, more bustling neighbors, Milan and Florence, this beautifully preserved Medieval town draws visitors today who are more likely to admire history than to make it.

Each year, in the early days of autumn, the town is host to the Perugia Classico, the nation's only festival dedicated solely to Italianmade acoustic instruments and music. This weeklong festival in one of Umbria's most picturesque hill towns brings together enough of the region's top instrument makers to create a destination for devoted collectors, players, and dealers while providing an atmosphere that encourages dawdling, playing, and getting to know the makers. The festival also boasts exhibits by performers and schools, and events ranging from impromptu recitals to well-organized concerts.

Whether viewing and playing instruments made by the direct heirs to an ancient tradition, or exploring rediscovered music and instruments with scholar-performers, visitors to the 2004 Perugia Classico, held in late September, encounter a different kind of history from that which attracts historians and casual tourists: the living kind.

By day, visitors to the Perugia Classico visit the booths lining the vaulted hallways of the Rocca Paulina, the town's ancient fortress and central landmark. The exhibits, by 16 violin makers and one bow maker, include those of the Associazione Liuteria Toscana (Tuscan Violinmakers' Association), the Scuolo Maestri Liutai de Gubbio (a regional violin-making school), and Dramsam, an early-music research and performance group, among others.

Each night, the Perugia Classico presents a concert in one of the town's excellent venues. The theme this year was Italian acoustic-folk music, with concerts featuring performances by groups from throughout Italy.

The Musica Sacra Umbra festival, which presented concerts of ancient and modern sacred music in Perugia and nearby towns, coincided with the tenth annual Perugia Classico. Especially, notable was a concert of works by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, performed by the Choir of the National Academy of St. Cecilia and director Roberto Gabbiani in the San Francesco Basilica in nearby Assisi. Featuring a performance of Renaissance masterpieces by living, breathing artists in a historic setting, this concert was an apt analogy for what stringed instrument aficionados experienced at the Perugia Classico.


Violin making in the area surrounding Florence dates back to the beginnings of the craft in Italy. Unlike the more recognizable lutherie traditions of Cremona, Milan, Bologna, Turin, and others, Tuscan Associazione Eiuteria Toscana looks back on a 16th-century foundation built largely by makers from abroad. These luthiers imported a broad mix of personal and regional styles and coexisted comfortably and successfully for generations despite their many differences.

Leandro Bisiach instigated the revival of Tuscan lutherie. It is to this late 19th-century master that most of today's Tuscan makers look, if not specifically for stylistic inspiration, then for his ethos of thorough knowledge of a wide range of past masters along with a connoisseur's sense of the virtues of both greater and lesser forebears.

Notably, there is no monolithic violinmaking school in Tuscany. Luthiers in the region generally preserve the ancient techniques and tools of Italian lutherie in preference to modern innovations in machinery and materials. …