Italy – Assisi

If we now return to Umbria, it will show us several interesting commonwealths of this transitional age, thanks to the conservatism that made her loath to join the quixotic heroes of the social war. It is at Assisi that we find a picture of an old Umbrian town satisfied to be an ally of Rome. It is as representative of these municipalities as Spoletum is of the Roman colonies.

It is not often that one can extract a smile out of a perusal of Baedeker, but my sense of humor was touched each time that my eye caught the single word “uninteresting,” set in parentheses, as the only guide-book reference to the remains of the ancient forum of Assisi. They can be visited underground from the square in front of the so-called temple of Minerva, which originally stood at the head of the forum on a slight eminence. It so happens, pace Baedeker, that it is quite one of the most interesting and earliest of extant forums and one that furnished me with the best answer to a puzzling question that I had been asking myself as well as others in regard to the Roman forum.

Could the Roman forum be closed to access on all sides? Were there gates across each entrance? I thought that it must have been so, but asked in vain of philologians and archæologists for passages in literature and for material evidence of the fact. Even Dr. Hülsen seemed not to have taken this question into account in his forum studies. My explanation of the hitherto unexplained thin Janus archways (iani pervii) that spanned the vicus Tuscus and vicus Jugarius as they open into the forum is that they were in-tended to frame and support gates by which the forum could be closed. The other approaches: the Clivus Argentarius, the Argiletum and the Via Sacra, were also all spanned by archways which could have served and probably did serve the same purpose.

In Republican times, when games and shows were so often given in the forum instead of in special structures like circus and amphitheater, it must have been quite necessary to close the forum, but the real origin of the custom was, I believe, different.

I found confirmation of my theory in the forum of Pompeii, where Mau notes the traces of gates; and this testimony of about the Augustan age needed just the strengthening which I now found at Assisi, in the earlier simple type of the forum of the Republican age, which gives, on a far smaller scale, some idea of what the Roman forum may originally have been.

Before describing it I must speak of its crowning glory, the – Capitoline temple, at the upper end of the forum, because though well known and admired ever since the Renaissance for the exquisite beauty of its wide portico of Corinthian columns in extraordinary preservation, I was able to make at the time of my visit a rather important addition to our knowledge of its history and vicissitudes. It has always been called the Temple of Minerva and was preserved by being converted into a church. It really must have been dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, like other capitolia, and in style warrants the attribution, in its present form, to the reign of Augustus, a date which is commonly given it on the strength of its building inscription. What I believe I have discovered is its pre-Augustan form and date.

Assisi is built on so steep a sloping hillside that the temple backed against the hill, which towered above it, behind a retaining wall, and yet stood high above the pavement of the forum, stretching at its foot at a distance of about four meters. The forum had a decidedly oblong form, with the long side parallel to the façade of the temple.

The level space below was artificially secured by excavation and by the use of an upper and a lower retaining wall for the forum square. This gave to the Capitolium that effect of being on a hill above the forum, aimed at in cities that sought to imitate the topography of Rome.

The municipal guards have their office next to the old temple and by going back of it one may study the left side of the antique cella and the spectacular early retaining walls back of it. In trying to find some trace of a temple arch such as the one next to the capitolium of Spoleto I examined at the rear angle the very hard and marble-like stucco Corinthian pilaster 1.04 meters wide which showed how the sides and rear were decorated with pilasters that corresponded exactly to the columns of the portico and showed also how the deep channels of these columns were originally stuccoed, though this heavy incrustation has now disappeared.

Then, as I followed the line of cella wall toward the front, I came across an aperture cut in it which had brought to light a peculiar fact the meaning of which was at once clear to me, though I found it had not been noticed by local or visiting archæologists and architects. At a certain point in the thickness of the wall there appeared a second inner wall of earlier and careful course masonry, not intended, like the Augustan rubble wall, to be covered with stucco or marble slabs. There was even at this point, to prove the original independence of this inner wall, a small round-topped door with an opening of 1.05 meters, which originally opened into the cella and which was covered up when the Augustan architects added their facing around the entire cella and built the present colonnaded portico. This Augustan facing was only sixty-five centimeters thick.

Here, then, was the cella of the early, pre-Augustan temple, dating either from the second or third century B.C., when the forum of the city was laid out in the form in which we see it, and the retaining wall below the temple was built or rebuilt, or from the date of its earliest form.

This is, I believe, the first cella of a temple of the Republican era that has been noted north of Rome. It is, of course, considerably later than that of Signia, which I have already described.

This will explain the peculiar arrangement of the steps that lead up to the temple. Instead of terminating, as is usual, in front of the columns they pass between them and terminate inside the pronaos or portico. This was due to the impossibility of throwing the steps farther forward toward the retaining wall of the forum when the Augustan (or post-Sullan) architects decided to remodel the temple according to their more sumptuous norms, which involved, as usual, a considerable enlargement of the portico. The cramped space made this makeshift in the arrangement of the steps necessary, in order to keep in front of them the small free space for the altar, immediately on the axis of the temple, above the retaining wall. This wall is pierced at this point to allow of two staircases, which descended to the forum level on either side of the altar.

The porticoes of most of the earlier capitolia seem to have had only four columns; even in the Augustan age that of Pola retains this number. But here at Assisi, in emulation of the later Roman model, there are six columns which were originally faced with very fine stucco. This has disappeared, leaving the travertine exposed.

We, however, must descend through a trap-door in the square, and visit the old forum by torchlight. It has been excavated and made accessible under the modern square as far as is possible without interfering with the foundations of the houses, but at different times trial diggings, and in particular the excavations of about 1820, have given the size and shape of the original area, which is over three times as large as what we can see. However, what we do see is the central and most interesting section, with the tribunal for the magistrates and the base for the monument decorating the center of the square.

First of all I must describe the way the forum was bounded. It contained about three thousand eight hundred square meters and measured, roughly, eighty-five meters from east to west and forty-five meters from north to south. On every side except the one facing the temple, the forum was not only surrounded by a high and solid wall of masonry but this wall was faced with a Doric portico sustained by columns and pilasters, some fragments of which may still be seen in the square above. This gave a cloistered effect to the square and followed what was probably a general norm in forums of this time. In the center of each of the three sides was an entrance corresponding to a city street, the main one leading down the slope opposite the temple, being said, on an old local tradition, to have led to the Janus arch of the city, in the present Vescovado square. This corresponded apparently to the Janus with which each early settlement in Rome was provided.

These three Janus gates of the forum remind one of the passage in Livy about the founding of the Roman colony at Sinuessa, in 174 B.C., and the laying out of its forum with three Janus archways by the Roman magistrates. In this and in other forums of the Republican age Livy speaks of the shops and halls built around the square and inclosing it. Here then is a proof that the early fora were inclosed and even walled in. Of course the walling-in was not nearly as apparent in other and later cases where there were basilicas, theaters, market-halls and other buildings to form the façades of the forums, and the habit of having gates may easily have been abandoned after the early Empire.

Another difference between the early forums of Assisi and Rome was that in these Umbrian fora there probably were never any of the gladiatorial fights and other games that were so common in Capua and other Campanian cities and from them borrowed by Rome.

Another peculiar, if not unique, feature of this forum is the judgment seat for its magistrates and the wall behind it for the affixing of their decrees ! Assisi was not a colony, but enjoyed autonomy as a municipality under Roman control, until 90 B.C. We know that the municipium was governed by a body of six local magistrates called marones, before it received burgess rights along with the other loyal towns of Umbria which resisted the lure of the civil war. Instead of delivering judgment in a separate basilica, as was done later in Rome, these judges sat on a judgment seat in the open air built just between and in front of the steps that led down from the temple. They sat with their backs to the temple on seats of marble or metal the attachments for which still show on the large travertine blocks forming the basement of the platform. This platform has two short wings beside the main body and is reached by two long steps from the forum area. This original area is still preserved with its pavement.

The length of wall between the two stairways immediately behind the tribunal is full of holes. They are too far apart to have been used for the nails by which metal letters were fastened, and it is tolerably certain that they served to attach the various decrees, regulations and announcements passed at the meetings of the magistrates. In this wall surface and in this tribunal we have, I believe, the only known material data for reconstructing in our minds the scenes relating to public affairs in pre-imperial times, in such ancient municipalities as Assisi.

The time and manner of the remodeling of the forum are approximately given by an inscription cut farther along on this same upper wall which was discovered in April of 1907. It gives the names of the five magistrates who oversaw the work, and its archaic characteristics date it from about the second century B.C. Immediately under this line is a second line which I believe,—though I am not aware whether this has been noted; to belong to a later date, for it is cut more deeply and with letters that are more germane to the beginning of the Augustan era. This second line states that the stuccoed and’ painted work was done by decree at the expense of C. Attius Clarus. C. Attius. T. f. Clarus. opus albarium pictorium sua pecunia S. C. fecit. Evidently when the temple was remodeled, on the approach of the Augustan age, the forum itself was restored, the columns and decorative work stuccoed and tinted in accordance with the more decorative taste of the new era.

But we can hark back to an even earlier date than the second or third centuries B.C. for the origin of this forum, for at a certain point close to the stairs a bit of inner wall is visible, which shows that the present wall, erected by the magistrates named in the inscription, was a facing added to an earlier wall that had served the same purpose and which perhaps dates before the age of Roman supremacy.

There is one more feature of the forum,—the monument in the center. It was added, apparently at about the time of the early Augustan remodeling, and consisted of a high square basement supporting a four-sided marble canopy or tetrapyle under which were statues of the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, presumably standing by their horses. The statuary as well as the four double-faced corner piers with their architraves and covering have disappeared, though they were found when the forum was excavated. But the large inscription covering the entire face that looked toward the main entrance on the Street of Janus remains, telling that Galeo Tettienus Pardalas (a thoroughly Umbrian name) and his wife Tettiena Galene gave to the city this tetra-style and the statues of Castor and Pollux, and at the dedicatory festival distributed money to the decurions, the seviri and the people. This association of Castor and Pollux with the forum and capitolium is very characteristic and in the chapter on Perugia I have already shown how the Dioscuri, sons of Jupiter, were regarded, not only by the Romans but by the Umbrians and Etruscans, as the patrons and protectors of the city, the body-guard of Jupiter-Juno-Minerva, and the guardians of the capitolium.

Leaving the forum and ascending, in the direction of the old Umbrian citadel, toward the upper right-hand edge of the town, to the cathedral square, I saw a bit of early architecture that seems to be even less appreciated than the forum itself. Entering the cathedral, a diligent and persistent inquiry led the sacristan to open an inconspicuous door near the beginning of the left-hand aisle. I found myself, on descending a few steps, carrying a taper, in the vaulted interior of a large cistern which originally supplied the Umbrian city with water, and on whose solid vault the cathedral tower was erected. On the wall next to the cistern there still remains a long building inscription which is the most archaic yet found in Assisi, showing the cistern to ante-date the forum in its present state. The six city magistrates or marones report in it that they have built the wall from the arch to the circus. including the arch and cistern; murum ab fornice ad circum et fornicem cisternamq. d. s. s. faciundum coiravere.

Arch and circus have disappeared, but the cistern mentioned in the inscription remains in as perfect condition as when it was built. The hall is not subterranean but built against the rising hillside from which the water was conveyed, through a window in the upper part, by a conduit that is even now usable ; while the outlet on the opposite lower end, next to the cathedral, is also still in perfect condition. At this end is a wide platform above the water level from which a flight of steps led to the bottom of the cistern, which was encircled by a groove for draining off the water.

The covering of the hall is the most remark-able part of the structure : a single bold tunnel vault, 5.10 meters wide and 6.60 meters long, rests upon a heavy molded cornice, 2.35 meters from the floor, which formed a continuous ledge. The entire structure is of blocks of travertine perfectly cut and in regular courses.

In the history of vaulting before the age of Augustus this cistern of Assisi should take a prominent place for it has, I believe, the widest known span of any vaulted structure of this period, even larger than that of the famous Tomba di San Manno near Perugia, which measures only four meters. A cistern near Frasso is even more colossal, with a vault 6.80 meters wide. It should be compared with others of this interesting class, the cisterns of Norba, Cora, Anagni, Volterra, Praeneste and especially with others in Umbria itself, built either on the same type of single vault or in a series of parallel vaulted chambers, as at Amelia, Bevagna, Narni, Todi and other cities, for it is in just such works of engineering that the science of construction was developed which made the great vaulted structures of the Empire possible and added a new chapter beside that of the Greeks to the his-tory of architecture. The Umbrians seem in this particular to have excelled even the Etruscans. I hope shortly to publish something on this subject.

Thus far it is only from two Assisi inscriptions that we learn of the marones as the magistrates administering the Umbrian cities which became civitates foederatae under Roman rule. It may seem strange that we know so little of Umbria and her cities in any definite way during the pre-Roman and even the pre-Augustan age. But as a rule the efforts of excavators have been concentrated only on the necropoli of ancient Italy because they repay well in salable material. It may not be commonly known, but it is a fact, that hardly a single Etruscan or Umbrian city has been thoroughly explored, otherwise we would know much more of the pre-Roman architecture. The work would be expensive and only scientifically and historically valuable.

To return to Assisi. It is natural to pass from here to the rest of a group of characteristic Umbrian cities : especially northward to Iguvium (Gubbio), and southwest to Tuder (Todi) by way of Vettona. In fact, just across the valley from Assisi is Mevania (Bevagna), which disputes with it the right to call itself the birthplace of that exquisite elegiac poet of the Augustan age, Propertius. It must have been an important center for it was here that the Umbrian clans gathered in the only concerted attempt they made to oppose Rome at the beginning of her intrusion. While one can find some traces of Umbrian city walls with Roman repairs, the travertine basement of a temple with Republican cella and early columns of stuccoed brick, there is hardly enough to warrant a visit, if it were not that we can add as a splendid side-show two of the most imposing medieval churches in Umbria—S. Silvestro and S. Michele. They are signed and dated and their dark interiors and colossal tunnel-vaulted naves carry one back to Provence and Burgundy; for such things are almost unknown in Italy.

At Vettona (Bettona), which is near both Bevagna and Assisi, there are better-preserved and quite interesting city walls which seem to be of the time when Rome was first entering the province. They are of carefully jointed courses of tufa, but their early date is shown by the fact that quite frequently the courses are interrupted by larger blocks. The courses are usually .58 m. high and the longest blocks measure 1.70 m. In style the work resembles that which is placed over the polygonal work in the walls of Spoleto.