Unsalted: A Story of Perugia, the Pope, and Pane

Unsalted: A Story of Perugia, the Pope, and Pane

Is there anything better than bread? I don’t think so. Of course, this begs the question: is there anything worse than unsalted bread? Again, I don’t think so.

The other night I made a hearty stew for dinner, a dish that just begs for bread so you can fare una scarpetta, or “do the little shoe.” It doesn’t translate well from the Italian… But it’s when you use bread to sop up leftover sauce from your plate. Or in this case bowl.

Instead of driving the five minutes to the grocery store, I decided to crank out a loaf of bread myself while the stew was simmering. Crusty and fragrant, I expected the loaf to be a success. But as I took a bite of the still piping hot bread, I realized my mistake. Unsalted. I had used kosher salt in lieu of regular and vastly underestimated how much I would need. Fortunately, the stew was flavorful enough to offset my mistake, but by the end of dinner, I still had three quarters of a loaf of very bland bread.

My mini tragedy reminded of Perugia, a city that fought a war over unsalted bread.

Unsalted Bread: A Saga

So, I’ve said before that food will teach you the history and culture of a place. Perugia’s no exception. Food, travel, and story-telling are three of my favorite things, so let me tell you the story as it was told to me by Stefania (Yes, she of the pelotas de burro).

Italy is probably the most Catholic nation in Europe, except for maybe Spain. This isn’t a secret or a surprise by any means, but as with most things, there are always exceptions to the rule. One such exception happens to be the city of Perugia, snuggled down into the foothills of mountainous Umbria.

…literally ALL the stairs…

Brimming with history, Perugia boasts architectural marvels spanning the ages. From the Etruscan city wall still intact to the ancient Roman aqueduct and the weather worn stairs that rise to greet it (more than 270 steps total, which I know because I climbed those steps every day during the two months I lived there). One of the most contentious pieces of architecture, however, is la Rocca.

Oddly, it’s mostly underground. Presently used as a thoroughfare between centro and the newer sectors of the city further down the mountain, the cool, dark tunnels feel like time travel. Thoughts of dungeons and warring monarchs come to mind. But the old castle has an infinitely stranger history. The Rocca Paolina – so named in honor of Pope Paul III – is a testament to the immense papal oppression that resulted from the Salt War.

No, you didn’t misread that.

The Salt War

Prior to the late 14th century, Perugia kind of did its own thing, separate from the Papal State. And everyone was cool with that. Then, in 1370, they were formally annexed. However, they managed to keep much of their autonomy and were even exempt from the hefty salt tax. Some of the following popes tried to change this and bring Perugia and the surrounding areas into the fold – which is to say make them good taxpaying citizens – without much success. Things pretty much stayed this way until the 16th century. A disastrous harvest threw Perugia and most of the rest of Umbria into economic upheaval. At this crucial juncture, Pope Paul III decided to strike. By levying an outrageous salt tax against them he sunk the papal teeth into the last free Italian city.

Well, i Perugini were not going to just sit there and take it. In protest, they stopped buying salt. They traded illegally for what they needed and cut back wherever they could. To this day, the bread in Umbria is unsalted. Either by force of habit or as a continued middle finger raised to the Vatican all these centuries later. To be honest, it makes for a good story but not very good bread.  Either way, they didn’t buy salt from the Pope, and that pissed him off.

Fast forward just a little bit to find Pope Paul III’s army knocking on Perugia’s gates. He was ready to strike down the economic rebellion and instill the fear of God, or at least the Pope, into the secular city on the mountain. Legend has it that the people of Perugia, although hopelessly outmanned and outgunned, marched against the Pope’s army with the crucifix from their cathedral as their banner. What inspiring symbolism! – the Perugians hadn’t lost faith in Christ, just in the Pope and  his corruption. Obviously the Perugians were completely decimated. I guess God isn’t as much of a romantic as I am.

Thus ended the Salt War, although the ramifications lasted much longer.

After the War

Pope Paul III destroyed an entire sector of the city to make an example of the Baglioni family – one of the oldest and wealthiest Perugian families. Then over the rubble, he erected a citadel in his own honor: Rocca Paolina. He spent a pretty penny on it, too, hiring the famous architect Antonio da Sangallo to make it as impressive and oppressive as possible. Sangallo used the remains of the destroyed buildings in his construction, even transporting the facade of the ancient Etruscan Porta Marzia for the eastern entrance to the Rocca. The result is, well, impressive.

To the people of Perugia, however, Sangallo’s masterpiece was just a reminder of the Pope’s brutality. And that reminder loomed over them until the late 19th century when Garibaldi “united” Italy and the Perugians were free of the papacy once again. To celebrate, they trashed the Rocca.

Fortunately for all of us, the demolition didn’t entirely destroy the building.

Stepping Into the Present

During the late 1980’s the city voted to clear the rubble out from inside the lower vaults of the citadel. The extra space helped solve that most urban of problems: not enough parking. Now, a series of escalators lead up into centro storico. This cuts back on the traffic in the city center and makes it a pleasant place to fare una passeggiata,  or in English “take a turn about the city,” in the evening.

So in the end, I guess the Perugians won. No longer a monument to corruption and oppression, the Rocca is both an urban solution and a kind of kick-ass art gallery. They even sell seasonal crafts in the tunnels at Christmastime. You still won’t see the kind of devotion among the Catholic population that you would in other cities. Many Perugians prefer drinking a beer on the steps of the Duomo on a Thursday night to downing a thimbleful of wine there on Sunday morning.

I suppose that the Perugians are all still just a little salty over the papacy. Unfortunately, their bread isn’t.


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