The Temple of Clitumnus, sacred center of the Longobards

There are places that, even across the centuries, preserve intact that admirable perception of innate sacredness. A stream of water flowing gracefully in the moonlight on the valley floor; a silent forest of beech and cypress trees, the edge of which declines impetuously along the banks of an ancient spring: the Sources of Campello reveal themselves as a powerful hierophany along the Umbrian route of the ancient Via Flaminia. And near the stretch of water here appears, as in a fairy tale, a graceful cult building: the Temple of Clitumnus can be considered a sacred center of humanity.

Temple of Clitumnus
Giovan Battista Piranesi, the Temple of Clitumnus

The sacred waters of the Clitunno

The Sources of Clitunno are a place of spiritual election, of mystical sensibility, since the earliest antiquity. Even Pliny the Younger [1] exalted its magical-ritual character and sylvan beauty:

“Have you ever seen the spring at Clitumnus? If not – and I think you have not, or else you would have told me about it – go and see it, as I have done quite recently. I only regret that I did not visit it before. A fair-sized hill rises from the plain, well wooded, and dark with ancient cypress trees. From beneath it the spring issues and forces its way out through a number of channels, though these are of unequal size. After passing through the little whirlpool which it makes, it spreads out into a broad sheet of pure and crystal water, so clear that you can count the small coins and pebbles that have been thrown into it…

Hard by is an ancient and sacred temple, where stands Jupiter Clitumnus himself clad and adorned with a toga praetexta, and the oracular responses delivered there prove that the deity dwells within and foretells the future. Round about are sprinkled a number of little chapels, each containing the statue of a god. There is a special cult for each and a particular name, and some of them have springs dedicated to them …”

Pliny the Younger, Letters, VIII, 8

Pliny reports that in Roman times an important pagan cult took place here, as it was believed that a god should dwell in such a beautiful place. It was thus the home of Clitumnus, the tutelary deity of the waters, which once flowed more copiously than today; the deity was supposed to be a fluvial declension of Jupiter. Sacra Clitumnalia were celebrated for him in spring, and the rites officiated were related to the purity of the waters and their believed thaumaturgic properties. Even Virgil, in the Georgics [2], recognizes its crystalline clarity and purifying virtues: some of the oxen destined for sacrifice to the god, by immersing themselves in the Sources of the Clitunno, would re-emerge white as snow.

The continuity of rites

Hence thy white flocks, Clitumnus, and the bull, Of victims mightiest, which full oft have led, Bathed in thy sacred stream, the triumph-pomp Of Romans to the temples of the gods.

Virgil, Georgics, Book II, vv. 146-148

One could suppose that these pagan beliefs were a peculiarity of classical antiquity, forgotten as Christianity spread. Actually, the Sources of Clitunno preserved their character as a sacred center even later, and also the purification rites connected with the the spring waters survived. As was the custom in the first decades after the advent of Constantine, in fact, they were subjected to a transmigration of meaning that allowed them to persist over time. The thaumaturgic waters of Clitumnus were replaced by the salvific waters of the baptismal font; the concept of pagan purification was overlaid with that of eternal redemption through the saving work of Christ.

This was a cult conversion that took a long time to be fully accepted. So that, near the Christian baptistery that was erected at the Sources, yokes of oxen were still found at the time of Urban VIII (1568-1644), a reminder of the ancient pagan rites narrated by Virgil and Pliny the Younger.

The Temple of Clitumnus

We know that a baptistery was built near the Sources and also the Pieve di San Michele Arcangelo in Capite, whose existence is attested by historiography [3]. No trace remains of these buildings, although it is possible to assume that the site had some significance in this part of Umbria. Among the numerous places of worship under the dependencies of the Pieve, there is a small rural church named Ecclesia S. Salvatoris, exceptionally survived to this day. It is surprising to observe its architectural features quite different from a Christian building of the Middle Ages, and rather reminiscent of a pagan temple.

Temple of Clitumnus
The Temple of Clitumnus

Because of its unique architecture the Temple of Clitumnus has for a long time been an inextricable archaeological puzzle. For centuries it was considered a Roman sacellum, connected to the purification rites that were anciently officiated there, and later reused as a church. Only recently have scholars concluded that this was not.

An enigmatic building

The church of St. Salvatore is built like a classical temple, tetrastyle in antis. Its Corinthian columns, like graceful shafts of sylvan harmony, connect the building with the surrounding nature, as if it were a continuum. The central columns are carved with an elegant ornamental scale pattern; the side columns, fluted in a spiral pattern, lean against the pillars that support the entablature and pediment.

This is an evidence about the presumed classical origin of the monument. It could, in fact, be an unusual architectural device for ancient Romanity. Further, the different workmanship of the columns, which appear to be reused elements coming from various places, is visible. In addition, Roman stone materials from the 1st century, found in other buildings and reused on site, are identified at the pronaos. The Temple of Clitumnus is a work of classical revival, done in early Christian or early Medieval times. Next to the Roman original edifices, the Temple incorporates marble artifacts created in a classical manner so similar to the original one, that it is impossible to distinguish one from the other. This finding was universally accepted only in recent decades. Even such famous authors as Palladius mistakenly believed that the Temple of Clitumnus was Roman.

The entablature of the Temple of Clitumnus

The entablature, continuous along the perimeter, shows two close construction phases and has the function of connecting the new parts to the original structure. Further, the architrave of the main façade bears the inscription, in Latin: “Holy God of angels who is risen”. From the analysis of the fragments found – some of them are still on the floor level of the pronaos- it could be assumed that two similar carvings were located on the sides of the Temple.

Originally there were two side stairways to the building, both of which had a porch with a tympanum and pediment, demolished in the 18th century after an earthquake: it can be supposed that the inscriptions were located there. They stated to the south and north, respectively, “Holy God of the apostles who effected the remission of sins” and “Holy God of the prophets who effected redemption”[4]. Interestingly, on the lintel the word sanctus is abbreviated to SCS, a tachigraphy used from the late 5th century onward.

A long-controversial dating

Part of the decorative and architectural elements of St. Salvatore are thus reused. They include, perhaps, parts from the lost pagan sacellum of Clitumnus, as well as from villas and baths in the surrounding area. But by now, who constructed the Temple and when?

The decorations on the pediment, adorned with crosses and the Constantinian labarum with the Chi Rho in a central position, could provide a valuable clue. They are seamlessly integrated into the architectural support, so they were not added later, but conceived together with the structure itself. It can be deduced that the Temple of Clitumnus was built ex novo in the Christian period, and not on pre-existing Roman structures.

Temple of Clitumnus
The apsidal pediment of the Tempietto del Clitunno with typical ornamentation and the horror vacui (tendency to fill all spaces) of the Longobards. Note also the presence of Constantine’s labarum and Chi Rho.

Some authors, including Hoppenstedt, Salmi, and Toscano [5], have proposed an early Christian origin of the monument (5th century); others, such as Deichmann and Bertelli [6], have dated it to the early Medieval period (8th-9th century). A more accurate estimate, however, was provided by Emerick [7]: the Temple of Clitumnus could be an important evidence of the Longobard culture in Italy. Emerick identifies two different construction phases, involving the cella and the pronaos respectively. Then he puts the dating of the building between the 6th century and the fall of the Longobard kingdom by Charlemagne (774). This assumption was adopted by most authors and also by UNESCO. In fact, the Temple of Clitumnus was declared a World Heritage site in 2011 and included in the serial site “Longobards in Italy: places of power (568-774 AD).”

Temple of Clitumnus
Temple of Clitumnus

Temple of Clitumnus cella and its frescoes

The core of the Temple of Clitumnus is the cella, accessed from the pronaos. The room is covered by a barrel vault with stones arranged in longitudinal rows; near the apse is an aedicule with a tabernacle. Composed of reused elements is the 1st-century altar, which consists of a stone slab and a fluted column.

The entire apsidal wall is then covered with frescoes, some of them well preserved, which represent a rare early Medieval pictorial evidence of Longobard influence. Through stylistic comparison it was possible, in fact, to attribute the work to 7th-8th century masters, consistent with Emerick’s statement. Appropriate terms of comparison are the pictorial cycles of Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome and Castelseprio. The apsidal frescoes of the Temple of Clitumnus depict a blessing Christ by the basin; St. Peter and St. Paul on either side of the aedicule; and some angels with a gemmed cross on the back wall.

Cell frescoes

The Temple of Clitumnus, a bridge between centuries, rites and cultures

Critical observation of the front elevation of the Temple of Clitumnus raises other questions. What was the need for such a high podium on which to place the columns, so high that two side staircases had to be raised to access the building? Why not build the church directly on the podium? The answer cannot be trivial and is to be found in the historical and cultural context in which the building was placed. It has to pertain to that symbolic continuity of the rites of the Clitunno as a sacred center ab antiquo.

A possible clue is provided by the narrow, round-arched opening located in the center of the small temple base. Through it is access to some basement rooms that lean against the rock.

The opening on the basement

It is not difficult to assume that such a narrow space, a sort of crypt, was planned at the same time as the construction of the Ecclesia S. Salvatoris. It is reasonable to imagine, therefore, that the chamber could contain some sacred element to be preserved, no longer present today, which at the same time justified the building of a church on that specific location.

In this regard, Gianfranco Binazzi [8] pointed out the presence of small cracks and limestone incrustations on the rock wall. The crypt housed a water spring, and probably flooded in ancient times. Binazzi noted inside the chamber some geometric decorations on plaster – rounds, lozenges, ovals – in overlapping bands similar in style to early Christian paintings of the first centuries. According to the author, these are quite similar to those used in the baths and baptisteries of the early centuries. Then the water, gushing from a pipe, probably flowed into a basin, perhaps with a pool, placed in front of the Temple of Clitumnus.

The continuity of the waters

Binazzi’s assumption reminds the ancient pagan rites of purification through the waters of the Clitunno River. The area, and the spring in particular, was supposed to be already an object of veneration at the time of the building of the Longobard Temple. The elevation of the structure was thus functional to the preservation of the water worship, although now modified in its new Christian significance. This is the same reinterpretation that affected much of the pagan rites following the Edict of Thessalonica (380).

The Temple of Clitumnus was in this sense configured as a bridge between distant worlds. It ensured the continuity of rites through a symbolic and architectural, religious and extra-empirical syncresis. The Temple was Roman and Christian at the same time, it was Clitumnus becoming God the father [9], it ensured the continuity of the purifying power of the waters. The Temple of Clitumnus was also a manifestation of that process of integration between the barbaric Longobards and the Romans, Christians and heirs of classical antiquity, which set the foundations of early Medieval culture in Italy.

Samuele Corrente Naso


[1] Pliny the Younger, Epistulae

[2] Publius Vergilius Maro, Georgics, Book II

[3] Holstenius 1666, p. 123: «Subtus autem duo alia sunt fana, sive sacraria, alterum titulum S. Angeli, alterum Baptisterii, vulgo il Battesimo appellatum: haec quoque eiusdem antiquitatis sunt cum priore ut ostendunt fragmenta quaedam vetusta parietibus inserta»;

[4] (SCS) Sanctus Deus angelorum qui fecit resurrectionem
Sanctus Deus apostolorum qui fecit remissionem
Sanctus Deus prophetarum qui fecit redemptionem

[5] W. Hoppenstedt, Die Basilika S. Salvatore bei Spoleto und der Clitunno Tempel, Malle 1912; M. Salmi, La basilica di S. Salvatore di Spoleto, Firenze 1951; B. Toscano, Spoleto in pietre, Spoleto 1963;

[6] F.W. Deichmann, Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Römische Abteilung, 1943; C. Bertelli, Storia dell’arte italiana, Torino 1983.

[7] J.J. Emerick, The Tempietto del Clitunno near Spoleto, Pennsylvania State University, 1998

[8] G. Binazzi, Considerazioni sulla cronologia del Tempietto sul Clitumno, 2014

[9] According to Binazzi, the figure of Clitumnus converges with that of Archangel Michael.

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