The city of Spoleto and the sense of beauty over the centuries

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It is not easy to find a place that takes on the value of a monumental complex [1] as in the city of Spoleto. It is a site of historical, artistic, ethno-anthropological importance that preserves buildings from different eras, admirably integrated with each other. Often, however, the opposite happens: archaeology shows how easy it is to find complex stratigraphies in which ancient buildings were overlaid by more recent ones, sometimes forgotten or even destroyed. The idea of a careful preservation of cultural heritage is only a modern paradigm; before, it seemed perfectly normal to renovate the beauty, the architectural and topographical forms of a city according to emerging styles.

The Longobards and the dimension of universal beauty

Yet, there is an extraordinary exception in history: it is that of the Longobards in Italy, a people with long beards and also with great respect for the tradition of the ancients. The Longobards were supposed to feel a solemn admiration for the sculptural and architectural works of the Romans, they who had belonged to a nomadic race for centuries and whose wooden dwellings had always been transitory. Classical stylistic features were not only associated with a generic perception of beauty, but instead took on the dimension of an ideal to be reached, of a grandeur of the past that had to be imitated and rediscovered.

Otherwise, there is no explanation for the tendency of the Longobards to reuse in new buildings everything ancient they found: carvings, columns, friezes and capitals, even tombstones. Alternatively, since they aspired to be heirs of ancient Romanity more than the Byzantines, they sometimes preserved the architecture in its entirety. The Umbrian Spoleto, a place therefore exceptional in its monumentality, is a perfect example of this. There, Roman and Longobard remains have coexisted for centuries, and have paved the way for many different styles and artistic visions to concur in the city over the centuries.

In Spoleto the sense of beauty has taken on a universal dimension, as if to reject the historical ethnocentrism prevailing all around. Spoleto, its Roman and Longobard buildings, as well as the nearby Temple of Clitumnus, are evidence of a historical integration and a transcending beauty.

Origins of the city of Spoleto

Sant’Elia hill is a nice promontory located on the slopes of Monteluco, not far from the river Clitunno and its famous springs. Here, more than three thousand years ago, the first human settlements were established. Since the Iron Age, the ancient Umbrian people colonised the area.

«The Umbri are thought to have been the most ancient race in Italy, it being supposed that they were called “Ombrii” by the Greeks, from the fact of their having survived the rains which had inundated the earth.»

Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, III, translation by Henry T. Riley and John Bostock (1855)

This is attested by numerous archaeological remains. In particular, the Umbrians’ custom of burying the dead is confirmed by the finds discovered in Spoleto in the necropolis of Piazza delle Armi (8th-6th century BC) [2].

Likewise, the importance of the ancient settlement in the city is evidenced by the ruins of the so-called Cyclopean walls (5th-8th century BC) made of giant polygonal boulders.

The Roman domination

During the 4th century BC, the Umbrians first came into contact with the Romans [3]. At that time the Roman Republic represented a rapidly expanding power and aimed to establish territorial hegemony over central Italy. It had first subdued the Samnites (first Samnite war, 343-341 BC), then the Latins (340-338 BC), then the Samnites again (second Samnite war, 326-304 BC) and finally the Etruscans (310-309 BC) [4]. A strong feeling of anti-Roman hostility and justified fear had therefore arisen among the populations of central Italy.

The Samnites took advantage of this position and in 296 BC created an Italic coalition that opposed the power of Rome. The alliance was formed together with the Etruscans, the Senones Gauls and the Umbrians. On the other hand the Picenes sided with the Romans. The decisive battle took place at Sentinus and determined the final defeat of the Italic peoples. Henceforth, Rome began to expand into the territories of central Italy through the formation of new colonies. This process was also followed by the Umbrians, who decided to peacefully accept coexistence with the invaders. In 241 BC, the Romans therefore founded the city of Spoletium.

Hannibal’s siege of Spoleto

Spoleto is remembered by Roman historians for preventing the conquest of Rome by Hannibal during the Second Punic War. The episode, narrated by Livy, took place when the Carthaginian leader, having crossed the Alps with a multitude of soldiers and even a few dozen elephants, reached the city gates.

Hannibal marched straight on through Umbria as far as Spoletium. But when, after systematically ravaging the country, he attempted to storm the town, he was repulsed with heavy losses; and conjecturing from the strength of a single colony which he had unsuccessfully attacked how vast an undertaking the City of Rome would be, he turned aside into the Picentine territory […].”

Livy. Book XXII, chapter 9, translation by Benjamin Oliver Foster, Ph.D., Ed.

Rome rewarded Spoletium‘s loyalty over the centuries with the title of municipium in 90 BC.

The Roman remains of Spoleto

Spoleto’s Roman past is still clearly visible. Within the city walls are the remains of the ancient theatre (1st century B.C.) with a semicircular plan, provided with a cavea and accessed via three entrances.

Also in the city, along the route of the Via Flaminia, one of the most important consular roads that connected Rome and Rimini, is the Arch dedicated to Drusus and Germanicus.

The Arch of Drusus and Germanicus

The monument was erected in honour of the natural son and adopted son of the emperor Tiberius in 23 A.D. to commemorate their death, as the inscription above the fornix states:

[CO(n)S(uli) II] IMP(eratori) II AUG(uguri) FLAMINI AUG(usti) CO(n)S(uli) II TRIB(unicia) POT(estate) II PO[NT(ifici)]
EX S(enatus) C(consulto)».

The arch, made of local limestone in opus quadratum, has a fornix and a single pillar, as the left one is now an integral part of the surrounding dwellings. Originally, the fornix was decorated with Corinthian capitals and pilasters; the arch represented the entrance to the city forum and was also adorned with a typically Doric entablature with friezes and metopes. It gave access to the cardo maximus.

The Roman temple of Spoleto

Near the Arch of Drusus and Germanicus is the so-called Roman temple, now incorporated within the walls of the Church of Sant’Ansano. The building was most probably part of the ancient city forum. It had a rectangular cella and an elegant peristyle, part of which is still visible. To this day, the deity to whom it was dedicated is unknown.

The Arch of Monterone and other Roman remains

The ancient entrance to the city of Spoleto is still witnessed by the Roman Arch of Monterone. It was located along the Via Flaminia and represented the most important gateway to the city in a southerly direction. The arch dates back to the 3rd-2nd century BC and is built of travertine and limestone. With a single fornix, the monument is still in good condition and allows us to imagine what Spoleto could look like for the Roman citizens who went there.

Also of interest are the Roman domus located under the town square and the remains of the Roman amphitheatre, not far from Porta Garibaldi, both dating back to the 1st century AD.

Longobard Spoleto and the reuse of ancient beauty

After a period of transition, following the fall of the Western Roman Empire and Byzantine rule, Spoleto flourished again under the Longobards. The city was in fact the capital of the important duchy, the centre of power and worship of Langobardia minor. The Longobards did not overwrite the ideals of beauty and Roman civilisation but integrated them through new perspectives. Evidence of this in Spoleto is the exceptional Basilica of San Salvatore. This artistic tendency developed throughout the history of the Duchy, which was established from the years following Alboin’s descent into Italy (568) and lasted well beyond the end of the Longobard Kingdom (774). Historical sources identify Faroaldo as the first duke of Spoleto [5].

The Basilica of San Salvatore

Just outside the Medieval walls, near today’s monumental cemetery, stands the Basilica of San Salvatore. It was built in the 8th century on the remains of an ancient church of early Christian origin. The primitive building, dating back to the end of the 4th century, was dedicated to Saint Concordius and Saint Senzia, martyrs during the empire of Marcus Aurelius and buried there. To both saints, the people of Spoleto recognised the “miraculous power” of healing.

With the arrival of the Longobards, the church was rebuilt and most probably renamed San Salvatore, as it is already attested in a Benedictine document from 815 [6]. A careful analysis reveals a massive re-use of architectural elements from the classical period, testifying to the newcomers’ respect and admiration for ancient beauty.

The interior of the church

San Salvatore has a basilica plan with a nave and two aisles and no transept; the presbytery is tripartite and is covered by a vault with an octagonal base. A rich entablature with Doric frieze decorates the naves and is supported by Doric or Corinthian columns in the presbytery.

The apse, on the other hand, is flanked by two ambulatories: this is an architectural element of the Syriac liturgical tradition that testifies to the presence of Eastern stylistic influences. It also houses a niche frescoed with a twin cross, typically Longobard, with the Alpha and Omega. On the sides are painted fictitious marble panels enclosing clypeus, similar to those in the cell of the Temple of Clitumnus. More recent, however, is the 16th-century painting of Christ on the Cross, which is why the church was called “of the crucifix” until the 20th century.

Façade of San Salvatore

The façade of San Salvatore dates back to the 8th century and was also built with reused Roman materials. The original portals with richly carved entablatures and the primitive spatial arrangement, marked by pilasters and structured on two orders separated by a string-course cornice, still survive. Also original are the three windows of the upper order with fluted pilasters and capitals with phytoform motifs. All this gives the façade of San Salvatore an important classical verisimilitude, which is a characteristic element of Longobard art as a whole [7].

The Cathedral gathers the tradition of monumental integration

The path of artistic and historical integration initiated in Spoleto by the Longobards has found, over the centuries, its greatest fulfilment in the wonderful city cathedral. It is no coincidence that today’s building stands on a primitive edifice of Longobard origin, enriched over time with new architectural elements belonging to different styles. Yet, the building has a great monumental perfection, with a harmony of extraordinary refinement.

The Cathedral of Spoleto over the centuries

The area where the Cathedral stands, close to the city walls, is known to have first been used by the Romans as a defence post. In fact, it is located near a steep slope, which made it difficult to attack the city from that side. Archaeological and topographical investigations have shown that, from the 7th century onwards, the esplanade was used as a place of worship.

This is evident from decorative architectural elements located under the present-day portico, in particular some fragments of plutei. Moreover, scholars today agree that a domus episcopi already existed in this area at that time, which included the church of Santa Maria del Vescovato and a martyrium dedicated to Saint Primianus. The latter room can still be visited and corresponds to the crypt, located beneath the cathedral, with pictorial decoration from the 9th century.

The Romanesque reconstruction and Baroque renovations of the cathedral

Then, the cathedral was rebuilt between 1151 and 1227 in Romanesque style. To the typical gabled façade, divided into two orders, with blind arches and eight rose windows, was added the striking Renaissance portico from 1491. The upper order houses, in the central niche, the mosaic Christ Enthroned between the Madonna and St John the Evangelist, a masterpiece by Solsterno from 1207. It is interesting to note how the mosaic embraces Gothic forms in a Romanesque façade.

The interior of the cathedral is in 17th-century Baroque style, with several 18th-century neoclassical chapels by Giuseppe Valadier.

In the shape of a Latin cross, the cathedral has a nave and two aisles with a transept and a dome.

The Renaissance apse features a cycle of frescoes by Filippo Lippi: the Scenes from the Life of the Virgin Mary. The famous Florentine painter died in Spoleto and painted this extraordinary masterpiece in the last years of his life, and was buried inside the cathedral.

Among the extraordinary artistic treasures it houses, difficult to mention them all, are the frescoes by Pinturicchio (1497) that can be admired in the chapel of Bishop Eroli, located at the beginning of the right aisle.

The cathedral Romanesque bell tower of the city of Spoleto was completed at the end of the 13th century and incorporates reused elements from classical antiquity. These include metopes, triglyphs, friezes and even some sculpted winged phalluses from the nearby Roman theatre.

Over the centuries, Spoleto Cathedral has reached a universal balance between different styles and cultures, between ancient beauty and new perspectives, heir to that historical and artistic integration inaugurated by the Longobards.

Samuele Corrente Naso


[1] The notion is taken from Codice dei Beni Culturali e del Paesaggio (D.lgs. 22 gennaio 2004, n. 42).

[2] Laura Manca, Joachim Weidig (a cura di), Spoleto 2700 anni fa. Sepolture principesche dalla necropoli di Piazza d’Armi. Guida alle mostre (Spoleto 2014).

[3] Sabatino Moscati, L’Italia delle regioni: l’Umbria

[4] Tito Livio, Ab urbe condita

[5] Sergio Rovagnati, I Longobardi, Milano, Xenia, 2002; Jörg Jarnut, Storia dei Longobardi, Torino, Einaudi, 2002

[6] The Longobards in Italy. Places of power (568-774 A.D.), Dossier di candidatura UNESCO 2010.

[7] Pierluigi De Vecchi, Elda Cerchiari, L’arte nel tempo, Milano, Bompiani, 1991


Samuele avatar

Samuele is the founder of Indagini e Misteri, a blog on anthropology, history and art. He has a degree in forensic biology and works for the Ministry of Culture. For pleasure he studies unusual and ancient things, such as unclear symbols or enigmatic apotropaic rituals. He pursues the mystery through adventure but inexplicably it is is always one step further.

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