Insight Vacations Luxury Gold tour of Italy gets exclusive look at the making of Renaissance-worthy textiles

"This is a definitely a passion, not a business," says elegant Marta Cucchia as she welcomes us into the former 13th-century church in Perugia that's now Italy's most celebrated hand-made textile and weaving workshop.

When the church was finished in 1212, Cucchia explains, it was the first Franciscan place of worship in Perugia (and St Francis himself lived just across the valley in Assisi). Later the church was passed on to the Benedictine Sisters of Sant'Angelo.

But it was a different bunch of women – mothers and daughters – who turned this same spiritual space into a unique memorial to both past traditions and contemporary presents.

In 1921, Cucchia's great-grandmother Giuditta Brozzetti founded the business that became the textile museum named after her – Museo-Laboratorio di Tessitura a Mano Guiditta Brozzetti.

During World War I, Brozzetti had been a primary school director travelling by horse and cart to Umbrian villages, overseeing small rural schools. There she heard a repetitive clack-clacking sound coming from a few of the farmhouses. Curious, Brozzetti discovered the source. Housewives were still toiling away at traditional hand looms to supplement their meagre family income.

Brozzetti knew that during the Renaissance, Perugia had been one of Europe's greatest textile centres (the white tablecloth in Leonardo's famous fresco of The Last Supper in Milan is said – by locals – to be "definitely Perugian").

But, by 1918, those ancient skills had supposedly died out, replaced by mechanical looms, cheaper textiles and industrialisation.

Brozzetti recognised her calling, forming a workshop/school to recreate high-quality textiles worthy of the Renaissance. Her passion was then handed down to daughter Eleonora, granddaughter Clara, and now Marta Cucchia.

In 1993, Cucchia was studying art at university, with no desire to carry on the family tradition.

"Then one holiday I decided to learn how to weave," she tells us. "Big mistake. I fell in love."

Three years later she transferred what had become her textile workshop to the vacant Church of San Francesco delle Donne (a pleasant 10-minute downhill stroll from Perugia's dramatic hilltop centre).

It's been a huge financial and physical struggle to keep the skills alive, Cucchia admits. But in 2005, the operation earned museum status, and today it is partly funded by the TreadRight Heritage Initiative, established by The Travel Corporation (owners of Insight Vacations) to support worthy projects like hers.

That's why our group, on an Insight Vacations Luxury Gold tour of Italy, has special access to watch Cucchia and her team create their Medici-era magic.

She demonstrates how the various antique looms work, including a rare Jacquard which dates back to 1836. She explains the different materials used: cotton, linen, cashmir, gold thread, silver thread. And she points out how Renaissance designs inspire her own work. For example, in 2014 she made an enormous, and exquisitely beautiful, tapestry based on the cloth the infant Jesus is wearing in a painting by Pintoricchio in Perugia's Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria.

Our guide for the rest of our Perugian stay is the theatrical Marco Bellanca, a storyteller who manages to cram a huge amount of information into each stop, always ending on a cliffhanger.

We know Perugia, the capital of Umbria, is one of Europe's greatest and most ancient university cities. Yet for centuries it has had a fierce rivalry with Assisi, and Bellanca tells us 60 per cent of all tourists to Umbria choose Assisi over Perugia – largely because of St Francis.

Today, Bellanca's task is to show us Perugia is an Italian destination worthy of anyone's attention.

We visit the city's three principal sites: Palazzo dei Priori (or Town Hall); the imposing Cathedral of San Lorenzo; and fabulous Fontana Maggiore, a 13th-century fountain gloriously decorated with both biblical stories and scenes depicting labours of the field.

We learn about Perugia's contribution to Renaissance art: Raphael worked here at a crucial time in his career, while Pietro Perugino – the city's most famous artist son – is well-represented in the city's gallery.

Bellanca races through the city's turbulent history, explaining how Perugia was one of the most important Etruscan towns before that rich culture fell to the Romans; how Charlemagne allowed it to become a papal city; how the Perugians valued their independence from the Vatican; and how that all blew up spectacularly in 1540 when Pope Paul III's illegitimate son, Pier Luigi Farnese, captured and plundered the city.

Now Bellanca leads us on to perhaps Perguia's most mysterious historical precinct. Determined to quash the city's independent streak, Pope Paul III commissioned architect Antonio da Sangallo the Younger to demolish the tall hilltop towers that were homes to Perugia's wealthiest merchants.

Over the top of them, Sangallo built a new fortress, the Rocca Paolina. Ironically, nothing remains of the Pope's citadel today.

Yet Bellanca takes us through a warren of tunnels which open up to reveal a secret underworld – the foundations of the city Sangallo destroyed, including the bases of some of the world's first skyscrapers.

"It's a medieval Pompeii," he tells us, and it comes alive during the many festivals held in Perugia – including the Umbrian Jazz Festival and Eurochocolate Festival.

That's Perugia – a city of ancient art forms, intellectual excellence, and always sweet, sweet surprises.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/italy

italia.it/en

FLY

Emirates and Qantas operate daily flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Rome and Venice via Dubai. See emirates.com/au or qantas.com

TOUR

A tour of Perugia, including a visit to the textile museum, is included on a 12-day Ultimate Italy trip by Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations from $7325 per person, with accommodation at Perugia's five-star Brufani Palace Hotel. Phone 1 800 001 771; see insightvacations.com

WEAVE

Museo-Laboratorio di tessitura a mano Giuditta Brozzetti is at Via Tiberio Berardi 5, 06123 Perugia; see brozzetti.com

Steve Meacham travelled as guest of Insight Vacations.

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