Panicale, a village in the countryside of Umbria a few kilometers off the shores of lake Trasimeno, gets fascinating right from the first thing you’ll read about it - its name. The origin and original meaning of it is not yet certain and this created, little by little, a solid number of legendary stories explaining the reasons for the name: some say it means “where they celebrate Pan” (Pan is an ancient god of everything) or “where everything is beautiful”, or “hill of Pan”, all of them suggesting that pagan rituals and ceremonies were once taking place. Others link the origin of the hamlet’s name to the nature of the place by pointing out that 'panico' indicated a type of cereal and therefore the meaning of the name would be “where panico grows” - the conversation still goes on. Other stories you might hear when visiting Panicale could be: Roland the Paladin, the mythological knight that served Charlemagne, passed through here after his greatest defeat and (maybe because he needed time to think about what happened?) and built a tower in the next town, Paciano. Another one is how a little green area right outside the town, now known as Ceraseto, has the old, mysterious goddess of agriculture Cerere to thank for its name. My grandma, 91 years-old and born in Ceraseto, has been telling me about the cherries she was grabbing from the trees around her house for a while now. Cherries as also called “cerase” in Italian.
But besides stories and legends there are plenty of factual things to notice and appreciate in Panicale, starting from its simple yet imposing shape. The hamlet still preserves the structure of the medieval castle, once surrounded by a moat: there are the two entrances towards Perugia and two towards Florence, and inside the walls there are three squares. Entering from Porta Perugina, you immediately meet Piazza Umberto I, where the beautiful octagonal travertine cistern from 1473, now a fountain, stands out, along with the fourteenth-century Palazzo Pretorio. This is the first of the three levels on which the village sits, each with its narrow streets that converge towards one square. On the second level there is the religious square and at the highest point of Panicale you’ll find the 14th century Palazzo del Podesta, home of the historical and noted archive, built in Lombard-Gothic style by the Comacine masters. Here the view sweeps over Lake Trasimeno and the border lands between Umbria and Tuscany.
San Sebastiano church is really worth the visit, and here you'll find a great masterpiece of this small Umbrian village: the fresco painted by Perugino in 1505, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, which occupies the back wall of the Oratory of San Sebastiano. A huge (5.7 x 4.7 meters) architectural scene painted at the bottom end of the church. The natural landscape inspired Perugino to enhance the rhythmic gestures creating “more than a scene of martyrdom, an atmosphere that suggests a theatrical performance, the dance of the archers around the naked and suffering body of San Sebastiano”.
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