Ruthless Popes & Restless Nobles: The story of Perugia’s Rocca Paolina

Standing in Giardini Carducci, Perugia, with its 360-degree views of the rolling Umbrian countryside, it’s hard to imagine that directly underneath this leafy green canopy a bloody uprising once took place. As the history of this city goes, the story of the Rocca Paolina, one of Perugia’s main tourist attractions, is a real page-turner involving a cast of rebellious locals, a none-too-merciful pope and a common mineral that’s taken for granted today but was once capable of igniting a war.

Occupying most of the present day gardens and Piazza Italia, the Rocca Paolina was a medieval fortress built in 1540 by Pope Paul III (Farnese) after Perugia was defeated in the Salt War. Here’s the quick skinny. In the political tapestry that once governed Italy, Perugia had been a Papal State, meaning it fell under the direct rule of the pope. Despite this designation, Perugia’s ruling nobility still retained a fair degree of autonomy and one huge perk—no tax on salt, an expensive commodity, which was especially important for preserving food.

The Rocca Paolina stood guard over Perugia until Italy was unified

Fast-forward a century or two as successive popes tried to reign in Perugia’s independent-minded elite until finally, our fun-loving Pope Paul III violated a treaty by levying a tax on salt. Never ones to take it on the chin, the audacious Perugians started a rebellion. Naturally the pope responded in a levelheaded manner. He marched in his troops; mowed down the entire Baglioni neighborhood (the ruling family and instigators of the rebellion) then promptly erected a colossal fortress. The Rocca Paolina stood guard over Perugia until Italy was unified in the 1860s, at which point the citizens tore it down—removing forever this symbol of papal oppression.

Today what remains is an evocative maze of underground passageways, including portions of ancient towers, massive chambers, vaulted ceilings and even the remnants of a communal bread-baking oven. One entrance, the Porta Marzia (Mars Gate) incorporates the upper part of an Etruscan gate from the third century BC. Cannons mounted inside remind us this pope meant business, while more recent signage warns visitors to beware of “historical uneven floors.”

The Rocca Paolina is very much a part of modern-day Perugia

Despite its savage history, the Rocca Paolina is very much a part of modern-day Perugia. Used daily as a commuting route to the bus station and the farmers market, it hosts various cultural events throughout the year including a Christmas market in December, which just oozes with charm being set against this backdrop of the once vibrant streets of an ancient, medieval city.

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