7 November 2017

Feast day of Ercolano – patron saint of Perugia

Bishop was martyred after trying to save city

Herculanus, Bishop of Perugia, in a painting by the  artist Pietro Vannucci, known as Perugino
Herculanus, Bishop of Perugia, in a painting by the
artist Pietro Vannucci, known as Perugino
Today sees the Umbrian city of Perugia celebrate one of the two annual feast days of one of its patron saint, Ercolano, who according to legend was martyred on this day in 549 at the hands of the Ostrogoths, who ruled much of Italy at that time and had placed the city under siege.

Herculanus, as he is also known, was the Bishop of Perugia and as such was charged with trying to bring comfort to his flock in the face of inevitable capture by the Ostrogoths, the tribe, thought to have originated in Scandinavia, which had swept into Italy at the beginning of the sixth century.

They had a large, well-equipped army – more powerful than the army Perugia possessed, although it had enough soldiers to deter an advance – and the Ostrogoth leader, Totila, was prepared to wait outside the walls of the city for as long as it would take to starve the population into surrender.

Perugia’s authorities did all they could to prolong the siege, rationing supplies and ensuring none were wasted, but days passed into months and years and there was no evidence that the amply fed army at the gates of the city was planning to move on.

Perugia's Etruscan walls were a formidable barrier
Perugia's Etruscan walls were a formidable barrier
Ercolano knew more than the ordinary people about how much longer the stalemate could be maintained and inevitably the point was reached at which there was nothing left for anyone to eat.

He knew that his own soldiers, while capable of maintaining guard on top of the walls, would be no match for Totila’s men in close combat, and he was also aware that even if all the money held in the city was gathered together, it probably would not be enough to persuade Totila to look for somewhere else to capture.

In a desperate gamble, Ercolano fell back on a traditional ruse in sieges – the art of deception.

Hoping he could fool Totila into thinking they were still well off for supplies, he wandered outside the walls, under the cover of archers, to feed the sheep that had until that point remained untouched by the besieging forces, who were reluctant to risk coming under arrow fire.

He hoped that Totila might assume that if the Perugians could still feed their animals they must have plenty left for their people.

Ercolano and Lorenzo, the twin patron saints of Perugia, venerate the Madonna
Ercolano and Lorenzo, the twin patron
saints of Perugia, venerate the Madonna
Ercolano retreated inside the walls and waited.  But there was no immediate movement from the Ostrogoths, nor was there any in the days ahead.  By now at the point of starvation, the city had no alternative but to surrender.

It is said that on learning who was behind the attempted deception, Totila ordered Ercolano’s execution, but only after putting him through the agony of having a length of skin torn from his body, from head to toe.

Some accounts have it that he was spared that torture by being beheaded directly and his body thrown over the wall.  Either way, according to the legend, his body was recovered by some brave citizens and hastily buried where he lay.

Some 40 days later, when Totila allowed them to recover the body in order to have a proper interment, they are said to have found it was miraculously intact, the head reunited with the body, and with no evidence of any injury.

The legend also has it that a another miracle took place, either when his body was found or at a later date, in that a boy, a victim of disease, who was buried by his mother at the side of the Bishop, came back to life.

The church of Sant'Ercolano in Perugia
The church of Sant'Ercolano in Perugia
Travel tip:

The remains of Sant’Ercolano originally resided in Perugia’s Duomo, which was originally dedicated as the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo and Sant’Ercolano, but were transferred to a new church, the Chiesa di Sant’Ercolano, which was built between 1297 and 1326 on the spot on which he was believed to have been martyred.  The altar is a Roman sarcophagus taken from the original Duomo, which contains his remains.

Travel tip:

Perugia is a city of around 170,000 inhabitants built on a hill in Umbria, of which it is the regional capital.  Established in the Etruscan period, it remained an important city, always a target for invading armies because of its strategic value.  Nowadays, it is home to some 34,000 students at the University of Perugia and is a notable centre for culture and the arts, hosting the world-renowned Umbria Jazz Festival each July. It also hosts a chocolate festival – Perugia being the home of the Perugina chocolate company, famous for Baci.  The artist Pietro Vannucci, commonly known as Perugino, lived in nearby Città della Pieve and was the teacher of Raphael.

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