Italy – Spoleto And Ascoli

We can go to Spoleto with no such misgivings. In no small Italian town are one’s creature comforts and one’s esthetic pleasures more harmoniously blended. Many years ago, while ransacking Umbria for early Christian and medieval art I had found Spoleto decidedly the most fruitful field, but I was far from suspecting it of especial interest as a Roman city. As a matter of fact it is only quite recently that most of the discoveries have been made in this field.

It is reached after quite an abrupt rise from Terni after topping the ridge that connects the Umbrian with the loftier Abruzzi Apennines, and descending into the plain of Central Umbria. Spoleto, set on its hill against the mountain background, was always one of the main Umbrian strongholds. It was accessible only on one side, by a narrow neck of land. Even in the early Middle Ages, when it was the capital of a Lombard duchy, it was a grievous thorn in the side of papal Rome until Pepin and Charlemagne stamped out Lombard independence.

It was in 241 B.C. that Spoleto received a colony with Latin rights, one of the last group of twelve genuine Latin colonies sent out by Rome, the first of which was Rimini (268 B.C.) and the latest Aquileia (181 B.C.). At that time, probably, the polygonal city walls of the older Umbrian town were remodeled in the way we can best study along the tract recently uncovered in front of the main approach to the city. There is here an interesting juxtaposition of the cyclopean and the straight-course masonry which was done either then or after the sacking of the town by Sulla’s troops during the civil war.’ For Spoleto, like most Italian cities, took the side of Marius and suffered severely, though not as drastically treated as Praeneste. The walls rise here to a most unusual height and are clearly polygonal in their lower section. This polygonal portion of the walls must certainly antedate 241 B.C. In 90 B.C. Spoleto, with the rest of the Umbrian and Etruscan cities that had not taken part in the civil war, received full rights of Roman citizen-ship in place of those of a Latin colony. Almost at once came the sack by Sulla.

The reconstruction of the city that seems to have followed this disaster, makes of the half-century between Sulla and Augustus the golden age of Roman art at Spoleto. It is due almost entirely to the energy and knowledge of a most unusual local inspector of antiquities, Cav. Giovanni Soldini, that Roman Spoletum is ceasing to be a myth and a puzzle. It is to be hoped that he may find the means to carry out a clear scheme of his which will open it up still further, for several sections of the modern town stand on artificial levels formed entirely of ancient ruins in varying states of preservation and we know that even Renaissance humanists saw buildings that are now not destroyed but hidden.

We can already see that while the natural development of public life led, at later times, to the addition of such buildings as the amphi-theater and a new theater to supplement the older one, our interest must center around the pre-Sullan and post-Sullan monuments of that rare and interesting period preceding the Augustan efflorescence, about which we know so little—the age of Caesar and Cicero. To this time seem to belong such buildings as the Capitolium or temple of the Roman triad, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva; the memorial arch attached to the Capitolium and dedicated to Germanicus and Drusus ; the basilica or colonnade at the north end of the forum; the great bridge at the city gate; the old theater that adjoins the forum.

The Capitolium became in Lombard times the church of S. Ansano, and was probably the earliest cathedral of the city. Only Soldini appears to have realized that in the present walls of the church are incorporated the walls of the ancient cella and that part of its beautiful frieze, perhaps of Augustan art, perhaps earlier, is still in place. Hidden in the church walls were also some of the large Corinthian columns of the pronaos, two of them in situ.

It is quite an unusual treat to visit the excavations that have laid bare the podium of the Capitolium underneath the church. The wide subterranean trench opened around the foundations is well lighted by electricity. The double stepped basement of the temple is one of the most perfect pieces of early Roman stonework I have ever examined. The blocks of travertine are sometimes enormous—one cornerstone is over twelve meters long ; the joints are fine and the surfaces perfectly worked.

The width of the basement is ten meters, al-lowing for a gable with four columns on the front and two on the sides. A most curious feature are two parallel vaulted passageways in the front part of the basement, which perforate it on a line parallel with the façade. It would seem as if they corresponded to a street which ran into the forum at this point and were made ‘for traffic. If so they are unique. Perhaps they are explained by an interesting feature in the basement, a break in the masonry where these passages occur, which shows that at some period the basement was lengthened toward the front in order to make it possible to add, we may imagine, the more stately and spacious portico of Corinthian columns which still partly remains. As there is no great difference in the masonry this addition cannot be dated very much later than the original structure. Another explanation of these passages is one that is suggested by a few other cases of sub-cella chambers, namely that they were storerooms for sacred objects or annexes to the temple, like the chambers in the podium of the temple of Castor and Pollux in Rome. Cav. Soldini is planning to complete the freeing of the substructure and to dig into the core underneath the cella, in the hope of finding the favissae and their contents. There is every reason to believe, from early texts and drawings, that until the seventeenth century one side of the cella wall was practically intact with its marble decoration !

At a distance of only a meter and a half from the temple there rises, parallel with its façade, a memorial arch. To both Soldini and myself it seems probable that a corresponding arch once stood on the other side, as was the case at Pompeii and in the forum of Augustus at Rome; it has not yet been possible to test this theory by excavation but this he is anxious to do as soon as possible. The arch has its foundations on the same level as the temple and emerges on the present narrow street that skirts S. Ansano. Its piers are imbedded in the walls on both sides so that little more than the arcade is visible ; but half buried as it is, shorn of its frieze and attic and with its piers hidden, it is of extraordinary interest on account of its age and position.

It is a plain structure of travertine and the large blocks above the single archway bear two inscriptions, in honor of those idols of the Roman populace, Germanicus and Drusus. Above each inscription the attic was once crowned by statues of these two generals, when, after their death, the Roman senate voiced the popular feelings of sad enthusiasm by voting the erection of arches and statues in their honor. The arch has for this reason been dated in about the year 23 A.D., when Drusus died, — Germanicus having pre-ceded him about four years.

I never doubted this date until recently when I studied the arch in detail for my volume on monumental arches, and was forced to the conclusion that it was much earlier and that the inscriptions were a later addition. Pliny tells us that it was in the time of Augustus that it first became the custom to use arches as bases for honorary statues, and there can be no objection to the theory that this arch at Spoleto was turned into such an honorary base when the fashion was set by the arches to Germanicus and Drusus in a similar position at Rome in the forum of Augustus on either side of the temple of Mars.

In fact the primitive forms of this arch forbid us to attribute it to anything but a pre-Augustan date. Its quasi-Corinthian pilaster capitals follow not Greek but Etruscan models, and there are as yet no cornices under and above the frieze, nor any of the usual memberment of Augustan arches. A perfectly plain pair of pilasters decorate the corners and another pair receive the archivolts of the arcade, after the early manner of the arches at Pompeii, Philippi and Aix-les-Bains before the engaged columns had become so universally popular in the designs for Augustan arches. We therefore can call this arch at Spoleto not only the earliest extant Roman memorial arch, but the most interesting instance of a sacred or religious arch, a class prevalent in the earlier days of Rome, but which under the Empire became overshadowed by the civic and political arches.

We should naturally date the original building of the Capitolium and its arch in about the year 90 B.C. when the granting of burgess rights to the city made it possible and necessary for it to have its Capitoline temple modeled on that of Rome itself. This agrees entirely with their architectural characteristics. Some day I expect to show the fallacy of the current theory that the blocks belonging to an arch now lying in the Roman forum, almost opposite the temple of Antoninus and Faustina, once formed part of the famous memorial arch of the Fabii. This arch, mentioned by Cicero and other ancient writers, formed the upper boundary of the forum, and commemorated great men and great victories of the Fabian generals. It was built in 121 B.C. and restored in 85 B.C. It stood in the neighborhood of the spot where the above-mentioned blocks were found; but I believe I can prove that these blocks not only never belonged to the arch of Fabii, but must be over a century later. To get some idea of the real appearance of the arch of the Fabii, I think the best criterion is this arch at Spoleto, which is contemporary with the restoration of the Fabian arch. Of course it is simpler because the arch in Rome, if we are to believe the stories as to the fragments discovered in the sixteenth century, was decorated with reliefs of arms and armor; but the constructive lines were probably the same, as well as the methods of construction.

Other buildings can be traced along other sides of the forum square of Spoleto. A colonnade and perhaps a basilica at the north end have not yet been excavated. Here and in other parts of the city it becomes quite an exciting game to descend, with Soldini as guide, into the cellars and substructures of the modern buildings, locate sections of the Roman structures, and try to piece them together so as to make out their plan and style.

The most interesting of these hunts was after the two theaters. The older one adjoined the forum and in its primitive construction of large blocks with careful tooling gave probability to the conjecture that it was not later than the Augustan age. It still exists in large part under the streets and houses and merely awaits excavation—which would be more expensive than difficult. It is most unusual to find two theaters in a town of anything like the size of Spoleto, and yet there is no doubt that Soldini has identified, under the large municipal building, a second theater, which its style of construction seems to date not earlier than the Antonines. It lies at a considerable distance from the forum and is easier to excavate than the older structure. I was much interested to find, only a week after leaving Spoleto, at the Uffizi in Florence a drawing by the famous renaissance architect Baldassare Peruzzi, in which the theater is given as complete, with all its measurements, showing that it must have been accessible at that time even though underground. Peruzzi says that it was to be seen “in a monastery (in uno monasterio) .”

It would be well worth while to examine these two theaters more carefully, because it may be that here, as at Pompeii, the larger theater was of the usual type for open-air performances, and the smaller one was a covered theater for winter use. We shall see that farther north, in the high Alps at Aosta, the colder climate led the Romans to make the only theater of the city a theatrum tectum, or covered theater.

Passing down from this theater in the upper part of the town to the city gate that faces the plain, in order to study the old bridge, I went into the military casern to see what remains of the amphitheater. It is unique at Spoleto in being still largely above ground. It is cut up, to be sure, by the casern buildings, and only its concrete core remains, because all the blocks of the facing were torn away by that vandal cardinal Albornoz when he rebuilt the old Lombard citadel on the hilltop that overlooks the city in order that the papal garrison might more thoroughly overawe the populace. Still, even as it is the curved tunnel vaulting, intersected by the vaults of the arcades, is an interesting example of Roman construction, and by its size shows the importance of Spoleto under the middle Empire.

But it is the bridge in front of the gate that produces a most unusual impression. A modern bridge spans the river that passes near the gate and it was here that in Roman times also the main approach must have been by a road that is still exactly followed in the modern highway, as it reaches the city at its only accessible point. A guard opens a trap door in the dust of the esplanade in front of the city gate and one descends, by the light of a lantern, a long flight of steps to emerge on a platform and see a ghostlike bridge over a ghostlike river, an evocation of the age before Julius Caesar.

For here is a bridge of quite large size, nearly, eighty feet long (twenty-four meters), and nearly forty-five feet high (fourteen meters), with three arcades, one of which is larger than the others, still standing in perfect preservation, waiting merely for the magic wand of the excavator to remove the concealing lid and give it back to practical use. Through it the river rushes, hushed by the stillness of the vaults and lapping the steps on which I stood to watch it as a weird evocation. It was not as marvelous a structure as the larger bridge at Narni, but only a small part of that bridge remains and it is of mixed Augustan and earlier structure, while this one at Spoleto is of one style and that pre-Augustan. In fact, considering the many remodelings and disfigurements of the even earlier Mulvian bridge near Rome, and the smaller dimensions of the other earlier bridges along the Flaminian and other highways, one can study here better than anywhere the methods of the pre-Augustan Roman engineers in bridge construction, in the outlines and proportions of their piers, in the use of wide slits in the piers to pre-vent the pressure of the water, and their system of arched structure in its course of evolution toward the more structural forms of the middle Empire. Its perfect preservation when compared with the destruction of the majority of Augustan bridges, would really argue in favor of the skill of these engineers of the previous generation. An inscription now walled into the campanile of the cathedral originally came, I am sure, from this bridge. It gives the magistrates who built it and supports my theory of its date:


The use of the double V in Lucius would indicate as possible an even earlier date than I would have dared to ascribe to the bridge, any-where between about 135 and 70 B.C. I believe this to be the earliest known Roman bridge inscription : no one has connected it with this bridge, so far as I am aware.

Of course there are other Roman buildings in and near Spoleto; the charming house of Vespasian’s mother; traces of the ancient Baths built by Torasius; the mysterious Christian basilica of the Crocifisso with its massive classic fragments worked into the structure, and then, at quite a distance, the picturesque little temple at the poetic sources of the Clitumnus which still give us a glimmering of that feeling that made Pliny so eloquent in describing them and the temple that was, perhaps, the predecessor of the one we now see, which, notwithstanding the glamour that surrounds it, cannot be dated earlier than the fourth century.

It is evident that Spoleto under and after Augustus expanded far beyond its walls, beyond the bridge and the river. It is here that the early Christian monuments are most numerous. I must at least put the visitor to the ancient city on his guard against the notion that the puzzle of the basilica of the Crocifisso is an easy one to solve. Here is a façade with extraordinarily interesting doorways and windows that were held to be early Christian and Constantinian until Father Grisar undertakes to prove them Romanesque products of the twelfth century! I am not sure, now, that Soldini does not believe them earlier than Constantine. The interior is an even greater puzzle. It is a maze of colossal and other antique columns ; of effective classic Roman cornices and friezes set at quite a dizzy height; of a ground plan so remodeled as to leave one in doubt whether or no there was an antique structure on the site, or whether the ancient spoils were brought, possibly, from the Capitoline temple. Finally, but not least, there is the dome over the intersection in front of the apse, which has a pre-Byzantine flavor, if we are to believe some critics, but which would not be so marvelous were it a work of the Romanesque age, which produced the domes of Ancona and Pisa cathedrals. At all events the pieces of ancient architecture in this basilica are the best proof we have in Spoleto of the magnificence and size of some of her imperial structures.

There is also another and even more spectacular mystery in architecture: the high viaduct-aqueduct called Ponte delle Torri that connects Spoleto with the hill behind it. Of course the arcades are medieval, but the piers seem Roman, though I omitted to make a careful enough study of their masonry to feel at all certain of their date. The structure is of brickwork two hundred and six meters long and eighty-one meters high.

Viewed as a whole and as a type, Spoleto exemplified the transformation of an old town into a newer colony at a particularly interesting time—that of Sulla—and has nothing of that regularity of the Roman camp-city which is so soon to come into being and will be exemplified in our study of Turin and Aosta.

From Spoleto there is an excursion of extraordinary interest to Asculum, the modern Ascoli Piceno. Of course it can be visited in ordinary “bromidic” fashion by the railroad on the Adriatic side, but I would appeal to all lovers of beauty to take the motor omnibus which starts from Spoleto every day for Ascoli by way of Nursia (Norcia) . It is one of the most beautiful mountain excursions in Italy. Ascoli is an unspoiled city, breathing at every corner medieval and renaissance art and life, so that the few Roman ruins are hardly noticeable; and yet one of them at least, the Porta Romana, is what a Roman archæologist would go far to see, if he knew of it.

This double gate was, it would seem, the main entrance of the Roman city, as it spans the road where the Via Salaria enters. The ancient pre-Roman city was bathed for nine tenths of its circuit by two rivers, the Tronto and Castellano. It was the capital of Picenum, commanded the mountain passes, the roads to the Adriatic coast and to Umbria. One of these passes is between Monte Vittore (two thousand four hundred and seventy-six meters) and Pizzo di Sevo (two thou-sand four hundred and twenty-two meters) at a height of over three thousand feet. Asculum, though it was the only city to be honored as an ally, seems to have been the leader among the seceding cities of Picenum in the social war of 90 B.C., when it started the movement of revolt of the united Italians against Rome in the claim for equal rights by murdering Roman officials and citizens. There is quite an epic strain in this struggle. We know that then and for some time before, Asculum was a strong fortress, and we have every reason to assign to some period previous to the war of 90 B.C. the double gate of the Porta Romana.

The simplicity of this gate is a warrant for its pre-Augustan character. We have here the finest example of what the early inscriptions call a porta gemina,—a city gate with two openings, one for incoming and one for outgoing vehicles. At Rome the Porta Carmentalis appears to have been of this type. No other pre-Augustan gate, except the Pompeian, has preserved this type, and this Ascoli gate is much finer. The structure of the voussoirs without archivolts and without interpenetration is not only pre-Augustan : it rather indicates a date not later than the third or second centuries before Christ. It is of large blocks of well cut travertine of the severest type, without molding or decoration.

Not far from Ascoli, toward Acquasanta, there is a notable bit of retaining wall of the Via Salaria, in beautifully polished and jointed blocks of white travertine in opus isodomum of the Augustan age, and of the same age is the superb bridge over which the ancient road crosses the Castellano river, west of the city, almost immediately after issuing from the Porta Ro-mana. It is now called “Ponte di Cecco,” and was built about 20 B.C. The wider arch has a span of 14.50 meters and a height of 24.80 meters from the river bed. This entire region, but especially South and Central Umbria, is especially rich in Augustan and earlier bridges.