The Tempietto longobardo of Cividale del Friuli

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The doorway that gives access to the Tempietto longobardo of Cividale del Friuli not only separates the spaces of matter. It also figures that particular moment of transit, in history and in the figurative arts, that characterized the epic of the Longobards in Italy. In the ancient Roman village of Forum Iulii stands the limen crossed by Alboin in 568 to settle in the Peninsula and occupy the Byzantine possessions. The ruler had established the first duchy of Langobardia Maior in Cividale, headed by his nephew Gisulfo. At that time, however, Alboin’s people were nomads and warriors and were still unaccustomed to the pursuit of beauty, except in goldsmithing. After two centuries, a desire emerged to shape the figurative arts according to their own Kunstwollen, giving rise to a style that can be defined as Longobard.

“When Alboin without any hindrance had thence entered the territories of Venetia, which is the first province of Italy – that is, the limits of the city or rather of the fortress of Forum Iulii – he began to consider to whom he should especially commit the first of the provinces that he had taken. […] When Alboin therefore, as we have said, reflected whom he ought to make duke in these places, he determined, as is related, to put over the city of Forum Iulii and over its whole district, his nephew Gisulf, […] a man suitable in every way”.

Paul the Deacon, History of the Langobards, Translation by W. Dudley Foulke, University of Pennsylvania, 1907

It is no coincidence that this occurred in Cividale. Different wishes converged in the Tempietto longobardo of Cividale, a consequence of the royal will of Aistulf and Giseltrude and of that local ferment which, in the middle of the 8th century, expressed the artistic spirit of Liutprand’s renaissance. The Tempietto, with its monumental decorations and stuccoes, stood on a borderline between citation and inventio: the desire to bring back the models of classical art was associated with the revival of Byzantine, and even Arabic, forms.

Origins of the Tempietto longobardo

In the locality called “Valle,” on a rocky outcrop dropping down precipitously to the Natisone River, the Tempietto of Cividale del Friuli was built. Once the area was situated close to the Roman walls of Forum Iulii, but the city was destroyed by the arrival of the Avars in 610. Thus, the Longobards erected a new fortification and, more importantly, established there the Gastaldaga, the seat of governmental representation of the king, who resided in Pavia; we have evidence of this in a diploma of Berengar I, which has come down to us in a 16th-century transcript1.

At the sacrum palatium was therefore conceived the Tempietto, with a rectangular plan and a western entrance, which served as a palatine chapel2. This evidence is supported by the rich grave goods found inside, now preserved in the National Archaeological Museum in Cividale. A document from 1533, the Inventio reliquiarum, attests that in 1242 a case “multum antiqua et modo extraneo fabricata” containing relics was found in the building. It is likely, therefore, that the Tempietto was later used as an oratory and to host remains and fragments of saints.

As a private oratory, the Tempietto was not mentioned by Paul the Deacon in the Historia Langobardorum, although the illustrious historian was born in Cividale. Nor does it appear in a diploma of the Carolingian emperors and Louis II, dated the year 830, by which the patriarch of Aquileia assumed jurisdiction over the monastery of Santa Maria in Valle3, which arose in the mid-8th century to house Longobard noblewomen destined for vows. Only between the 9th and 10th centuries, in fact, did that coenoby also incorporate the Tempietto, until then dependent on the Gastaldaga.

The Tempietto of Cividale between citation and inventio

Few elements remain of the decorative apparatus that once adorned the building, sufficient, however, to catch a glimpse of its original splendor. The interior walls of the Tempietto of Cividale were covered with polychrome stucco and marble, the cross vaults of the roof adorned with gold-leaf mosaics. The floor was in opus sectile with black hexagons and white triangles. These architectural solutions aimed to enlarge the space – the Temple measures in plan only 10.02 meters long and 6.24 meters wide-and to give verticality to the structure. Such perspective momentum, which surrounded the worshippers with ostentatious elegance, is still evident today in the stucco decorations on the western wall.

Here opens the portal that from the Longobard curtis regia of Cividale gave access to the square-shaped Tempietto hall connected to a tripartite presbytery. The hemicycle above the entrance is adorned with openwork stucco, which reproduces plant motifs and intertwining vines with bunches of grapes. This is a masterful work, made as a citation of antiquity in that it draws on the Roman sculptural tradition and has similarities to the friezes of the Arch that Emperor Galerius wanted in Thessaloniki in 3104.

At the same time, however, the inventio of forms is manifested. The style is classicist only in appearance: the vines are developed along the peculiar double inverted S motif; the petals of the campanulas embraced brightly coloured glass cruets. Hence, the figurative syntax tends toward the orderly filling of spaces, of matter as well as of meaning, in accordance with the sense of horror vacui, a characteristic trait of early Medieval art of Longobard origin.

The figures of saints

The Longobards’ tendency to reinterpret ancient beauty in a style contemporary with them is still revealed in the theory of saints and martyrs leaning against the western wall. A belt course is decorated by a frieze with rosettes that housed glass beads. It separates the lower space of the Tempietto, used for the liturgical functions of the pilgrim church, from the upper space, symbolically celestial and metaphysical. Here stand six female statues-columns made of stucco worked in high relief, nearly two meters high. The sculptures are equally divided by a round-arched window. The opening is framed by an aedicule with Corinthian columns and archivolt, whose fleur-de-lis molding seems to revisit the classical theme of the kyma lesbio.

Features of the statues

The saints are dressed in the Greek manner with himation and chiton, some wearing diadems and pearl necklaces. They reveal the manifest inspiration from classical and Byzantine models, given the hieratic posture and the pose of the legs. Nevertheless, the Longobard inventio is also manifest here in the accentuated volumetric sense and in the monumental verticalism of the draperies.

There were originally supposed to be twelve sculptures, but the others, placed on adjacent walls in groups of three, collapsed perhaps during an earthquake in 1222-12235. Today the statues appear snow-white, yet they had bright coloring, as indicated by sparse traces of residual pigments6; the polychromy was lost due to a structural failure that exposed the stuccoes to the atmospheric agents. It was only twenty years later, from 1242, that the abbess Gisla de Pertica could carry out the work to restore the roof and vaults7.

The chancel and choir loft

On the wall opposite the entrance is the chancel, a structure with characteristic forms evoking Christian-Eastern architectural models with a tripartite choir. The barrel-vaulted aisles are bordered by reused columns of Proconnesian marble columns to form a kind of small loggia equipped with an iconostasis. Also the connecting architraves come from pre-existing buildings of the imperial age. The Corinthian capitals in Istrian stone, on the other hand, were carved newly and adapted to the measurements of the shafts. The choice to use raw material or to imitate, that is, to make a completely new piece of furniture, depended mainly on cost. Sometimes just transporting a column required expensive economic efforts.

Near the vault of the central apse is placed the precious fresco of Christ in mandorla. It is the only remaining part of the original decoration with paintings and mosaics. The Pantocrator is flanked by an Adoration of the Magi and depictions of various saints: Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, St. Elizabeth, St. Anthony the Great, and St. Benedict.

In the 15th century, Abbess Margherita della Torre had a wooden chancel added to accommodate the nuns of Santa Maria in Valle. Thus, between 1371 and 1402 the wooden stalls were raised and the floor was elevated.

The Tempietto longobardo of Cividale, a treasure chest full of questions

There can be no more accurate definition to express the historical-artistic uncertainties about the Friulian Tempietto than that used by Tavano, “a treasure chest full of questions”8. The combination of the Longobard citation and inventio, triggered by the revival promoted under King Liutprand (c. 730-740), has generated many interpretative difficulties.

To what age does the Tempietto belong? According to Michele della Torre, founder of the Archaeological Museum of Cividale, the reuse of some classical elements suggested it was originally a Roman cult building dedicated to the goddess Vesta9. For Cattaneo it dates after the year 100010, while Rivoira distinguished the time of construction, placing it in the 8th century, from the time of the stucco work, supposed to be at least three centuries later11. Instead, Carlo Cecchelli argued that the building belonged to the Carolingian age, specifically to the first decades of the 9th century, especially on the basis of the figurative elements it contains12.

It was only with the studies of Hjalmar Torp, Hans Peter L’Orange and Ejnar Dyggve at the University of Oslo that the line of that elusive stylistic unicum could be determined13. Based on numerous stylistic comparisons, the Tempietto of Cividale was recognized as a masterpiece of late Longobard art and architecture, referable to the mid-8th century. Because it was fully Longobard it defined an intermediate and transitional phase. It constituted an admirable point of contact between the old and the new, between classical antiquity and the nascent figurative arts of early Middle Ages. Following the fall of the Regnum Langobardorum in 774, it was the surviving Longobard masters who led the Italian sites of the Carolingian age in the following decades.

The commissioners

While it is ascertained that the Tempietto longobardo of Cividale can be attributed to a Longobard will, the question is who were its rich commissioners. The dedicatory inscription addressed to them, along the presbytery, is now unfortunately incomplete, and it is no longer possible to read their names. But the inscription, in Latin hexameter, shows lavish and well-crafted letters, painted white on a purple-red background; this is a style in vogue at the imperial court of Constantinople and suggests that the Tempietto was commissioned by Longobard rulers. According to Torp and other Norwegian scholars, it could be Aistulf and Giseltrude, who were kings of Italy between 749 and 75614, but more importantly, they were originally from Cividale itself.

The two monarchs realized that art could be an admirable tool to inspire respect in their subjects and thus legitimize power. Through painting, sculpture, and architecture, the king positioned himself as the heir of the Roman Empire and classical antiquity, a magnificent and lost golden age that needed to be rediscovered and renewed. The conversion to Catholicism promoted by Theodolinda and made official by Aripert I in 652, the founding of numerous monasteries, and evergetism also made it possible to smooth out the contrasts between vanquished and victors, the religious and cultural differences between Longobards and Romans.

The builders of the Tempietto longobardo of Cividale

There, craftsmen of different origins and cultures worked at the Tempietto of Cividale, no longer enemies nor distant, but part of a world that aspired to retrace the splendor and customs of ancient Rome. While a certain originality, a distinctive Longobard trait, is recognizable in the work of local craftsmen, the most prominent imprint is of Byzantine formation. Perhaps because of the iconoclastic persecution of Leo III the Isaurian, a number of artists from the East took refuge in Friuli. Of them only one name has come to us, Paganus, most likely the master builder, who signed himself near one of the windows. Again, among the different styles that characterize the Tempietto, we recognize in the stucco faces of the saints and in the decorations the influence of coeval Umayyad sculpture, suggesting the presence of Syro-Palestinian workers at the Cividale site15.

The Longobard king as a figure of Christ and the symbolic significance of the Tempietto

However, the originality of the stucco decorations and frescoes of the Tempietto di Santa Maria in Valle was debated, but this thesis seems to be universally accepted today16. The chapel was conceived according to a unified project that included both the architectural declinations of the structure and the figurative and symbolic ones of the wall paintings. Hence, the frescoes were created according to a precise iconographic program, now in part severely compromised, which reflected the feelings and aspirations of its royal commissioners.

The frescoes in the Tempietto longobardo of Cividale

The western wall still preserves on the portal lunette a worn Christ between Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Here the son of God is depicted as Pantocrator, blessing through the familiar loquel digitorum of Byzantine tradition. Christ’s beardless face, on the other hand, refers to depictions of the sacer vultus of the Roman emperor Constantine.

A decorative band, extending along the walls to the chancel, is developed on the same level, with figures of saints, including a bishop and five warrior martyrs. Of one of them it is even possible to recognize the name, written in letters that are still legible: it is St. Hadrian, a martyred soldier to whom a shrine was dedicated just outside the Longobard capital of Pavia. Aistulf and Giseltrude asked the martyred warriors to intercede for the fate of the kingdom, which was in those years overwhelmed by uncertain war turbulence.

Fragments of frescoes can also be glimpsed on the northern wall, with a Virgin Hodegetria “showing the way” as she points with her hand to the child she holds in her arms17. At her sides still stand out the figures of Archangels Michael and Gabriel, both with sceptre and orb. Completely missing, however, is the fresco once adorning the south wall, which Torp speculates could be St. John between Elizabeth and Zechariah18, since the chapel was dedicated to the Baptist.

Christ, the true light

If, then, the architecture, frescoes, and stuccoes of the Tempietto longobardo of Cividale were made at the same time, according to a precise and meticulous iconographic design, what was the symbolic meaning intended to be communicated? What message did the Longobards Aistulf and Giseltrude wish to transmit by building a chapel in the royal Gastaldaga?

It is by observing the theory of saints, at the stucco decorations on the western wall, that we can discover iconological key to the work. The procession of statues, holding crowns, turns toward the central window. From here comes the light that illuminates the Tempietto, a figure of Christ “Lux Vera, Lux Hominum,” as the prologue of John’s gospel states. The light source, which dispels the darkness, emanates from the upper level of the Temple and invades the presbytery, the place where the liturgy is accomplished.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”.

John 1, 1-5

Thus, the saints donate the crowns of martyrdom to Christ, who is light insofar as he is logos, the Incarnate Word; this is intended to emphasize in the iconography the dual nature of the son of God.

The Longobard king, image of light

At the same time Christ is manifested on earth by means of a representative, who in Aistulf’s view corresponded to the Longobard ruler. On a symbolic level the Tempietto longobardo of Cividale alluded to that process of Christianization of the imperial cult already developed from the time of Constantine. As seen, the effigy of that emperor inspired the stylistic depiction of Christ at the portal lunette. Not surprisingly, Eusebius of Caesarea saw in Constantine “the living image of the Logos, light of the World,”19 a symbolic association evoked in the Longobard aspiration for a dominion that was recognized as an expression of the divine will.

This inevitably conflicted with the temporal power of the pope who, since many centuries already, was by right Vicarius Christi. Soon the dispute even shifted to the military level: Aistulf’s aims concerned all of Italy. Hence, when the Longobard king surrounded the Roman Duchy in 751, Stephen II invoked the help of Pepin the Short. This was the beginning of the decline: Frankish armies descended several times to the Peninsula and finally, following Charlemagne, conquered Pavia in 774. This event brought an end to the grandiose ambitions of the barbarian kings.

The Tempietto longobardo of Cividale del Friuli had thus set an ideal limen from which the Longobard epic in Italy had begun historically, where the artistic will of the Regnum Langobardorum was manifested, and finally, on the metaphysical-symbolic level, the preconditions of its fall were revealed.

Samuele Corrente Naso, translation by Daniela Campus

Map of places

Notes 1

  1. L. Schiaparelli, I diplomi di Berengario I, Roma 1903. ↩︎
  2. P. De Vecchi e Elda Cerchiari, I Longobardi a Cividale, in L’arte nel tempo, vol. 1, tomo II, Milano, Bompiani, 1991. ↩︎
  3. B. M. de Rubeis, Monumenta Ecclesiae Aquileiensis, Argentinae 1740. ↩︎
  4. E. De Franceschi, Cividale e la rinascita liutprandea, in Arte in Friuli. Dalle origini all’età patriarcale a cura di P. Pastres, Società Filologica Friulana, 2009. ↩︎
  5. E. Percivaldi, Il Tempietto delle Meraviglie, in Medioevo, n. 217, febbraio 2015. ↩︎
  6. A. Cagnana, A. Zucchiatti, S. Roascio, P. Prati, A. D’Alessandra, Indagini archeometriche sui materiali da costruzione del “Tempietto” di Santa Maria in Valle di Cividale del Friuli in Archeologia dell’Architettura, VIII, 2003. ↩︎
  7. Ibidem note 5. ↩︎
  8. S. Tavano, Il Tempietto longobardo di Cividale, Udine, 1990. ↩︎
  9. M. della Torre, Descrizione del tempio interno, o sia chiesetta esistente nel Monastero di Santa Maria in Valle, 1807. Appunti conservati presso I’Archivio di Stato di Udine. ↩︎
  10. R. Cattaneo, L’architettura in Italia dal secolo VI al mille circa, Venezia, 1888. ↩︎
  11. G. T. Rivoira, Le origini dell’architettura lombarda e delle sue principali derivazioni nei paesi d’oltr’alpe, I, Roma 1901. ↩︎
  12. C. Cecchelli, L’oratorio delle monache Iongobarde (tempietto longobardo), Memorie Storiche Forogiuliesi XVl, 1920; Arte barbardica cividalese, Memorie Storiche Forogiuliesi XVll, 1921. ↩︎
  13. H. Torp, Lo sfondo storico-iconografico dell’immagine di Cristo nel Tempietto Longobardo di Cividale, Acta ad Archaeologiam et Artium Historiam Pertinentia 28:73, 2018. ↩︎
  14. H.P. L’Orange, H. Torp, Il tempietto longobardo di Cividale, Roma 1977. ↩︎
  15. I. Vaj, Il Tempietto di Cividale e gli stucchi omayyadi, in Cividale Longobarda. Materiali per una rilettura archeologica a cura di S. Lusardi Siena, 2002. ↩︎
  16. Ibidem note 13. ↩︎
  17. John 14, 5-6: “I am the way”. ↩︎
  18. H. Torp, Il problema della decorazione originaria del tempietto longobardo di Cividale del Friuli, Quaderni della Face, 1959. ↩︎
  19. Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine 1,6. ↩︎


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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