Italy – Todi And Spello

Tuder (Todi), encircled on all sides by hills, is not near any railway but can be easily reached by automobile-bus from Perugia. It is all the more charged with local color and medievalism. The circuit of the ancient acropolis can be traced, built of travertine blocks in regular courses. The outer city walls seem restored and enlarged after the Roman conquest. On the east side, near the acropolis, are some fine foundations of the cavea of quite a large theater. The amphitheater, on the south side, was about 200 m. beyond the ancient walls and has been partly incorporated in the present city walls.

By far the most interesting bit of ancient architecture is what is popularly called the Fora Boario, on the east edge of the city. I am extremely puzzled to explain the stately row of colossal niches surmounted by a Doric frieze with shields, rosettes and other symbols and ornaments in the metopes. Did the niches serve as booths in the market? Did they belong to a sacred inclosure? In the dearth of works of pre-Augustan architecture with any decorative elements, this is a god-sent gift that has not been taken at its true value, for it has all the earmarks of the pre-Sullan era. It might, in fact, be one of the prototypes for the decorative motifs of the Sullan reconstruction of the Praenestine temple. This market square was built on a steep hillside. Its niches are set in a high retaining wall and were surmounted by a second story, now almost destroyed, perhaps with a gallery, while on its lower end, facing the plain, it was itself terraced down.

There is another ancient city in Central Umbria which brings to us echoes of the generation before Augustus and of his earliest years which saw the death of many of the old cities and the resurrection of a few. It is Spello. Spello is now an insignificant town built within the walls of the Umbro-Roman city of Hispellum, not over three miles from Foligno on the road to Assisi, which is six miles further north. It was one of the important towns of Umbria but its later insignificance may have proved the salvation of certain features that we cannot find any-where else.

It neither lies on the plain like Foligno, nor is set on the summit of a ridge like Assisi, but covers a low spur of the long sweeping hillside as it rolls up northward and eastward from the plain. This does not prevent its streets from being among the most precipitous in Umbria.

The theater and the amphitheater set off toward the northwest, outside the city walls, on the flats near the Assisi road, give the approximate measure of the city’s size under the Empire. At one time it was practically the metropolis of Umbria, and had the honor of building a temple of the Gens Flavia. That the early municipality received a Roman colony in the time of the triumvirs, in 41 B.C., is extremely probable, though it may possibly have been established or renewed a few years later by Augustus. It was then called `Colonia Julia Hispellum.’ Then, if not before, the city walls and gates were built. Apparently no archaeologists have realized their age or interest. I found in them the link between the Etruscan and the Augustan gates : the prototypes of the Augustan type of both triple and single city gates such as we can study at Aosta, Turin, Pompeii, Fano, Salona, etc. Beside this, the walls and towers are the most artistically built of any in Italy. To judge merely from their style I should be inclined to date them earlier than the triumvirs.

I found no trace of a colony arch, but should not be at all surprised if its foundations could be uncovered at some point between three and four hundred paces outside the Porta Consolare where the main ancient road entered the town.

On the other hand there does still exist a precious relic of the forum or capitoline arch with a fragment of the dedication to Augustus.

We enter the town from the station through the “Porta Consolare” which still retains almost intact its primitive façade and remains the principal modern gate. But it has been so thoroughly stripped of its marble revetment, and is buried so deep by the raising of the street level, and its upper part is so disfigured by the addition of medieval masonry, that its original proportions must be evoked by a restoration. Three antique statues of different periods are set against its upper part on brackets. It stood at the southeast angle of the ancient wall from which it seems to have projected slightly instead of being recessed and defended, as was the other triple gate of Porta Venere, by projecting polygonal towers.

In a way this is both the best and the worst preserved of the gates. It gives us their general scheme but it is shorn of every bit of decoration and memberment. The construction in travertine blocks is in fairly regular courses, but I found that this was not intended to be seen, but was entirely concealed by marble slabs which have been torn away, leaving the holes for the attachment visible.’ It is not merely a façade but part of a solid structure. Heavy side-walls still project nearly six metres back on the right to form an inside court which must have been terminated by another corresponding triple opening. On the walls of this court we can see even more clearly than on the outside walls the numerous holes for attaching the marble slabs. What this court was like is evident by comparison with the better preserved Porta Praetoria at Aosta, where we find the same technique of a core with course stone-work and a facing of marble slabs. At Aosta enough of the facing remains to show its style.

In fact at Spello itself there are two other gates through which we can reconstruct the architectural memberment of the Porta Consolare, aided by a drawing of the other triple gate, the “Porta Venere” made in the first half of the sixteenth century by the famous architect, Serlio, who saw it when it was almost intact. This gate must have been made even more spectacular by the eleven-sided towers that flanked it, rising to a considerable height even above the gallery of the gate. The three arcades were inclosed in a frame of four shallow pilasters which supported an entablature of a narrow two-stepped architrave and a plain frieze with heavy cornice. Above we can trace an arcaded (?) gallery which was connected with the flanking towers whose windowed galleries were on a level with the gallery of the gate for defensive purposes. Serlio considered these Spello gates of such importance that he published cuts and descriptions of two of them in his classic work on architecture. I saw in the Uffizi his original drawings for these cuts.

The Porta S. Ventura remains in much better condition and though a perfectly simple single gateway, is interesting for the primitive character of its forms. It has the same memberment as the triple gates: a couple of corner pilasters supporting an architrave and frieze. But here the entablature is crowned not by an attic but by a gable, and the gable is free-standing, a type closer to the Greek than the Augustan gable, such as we find later at Rimini, in 28 B.C., where the gable is incorporated in an attic, so losing its fundamental terminal significance.

The section of the city wall between the Porta S. Ventura and the Porta Consolare is particularly perfect, and next to it that which stretches from it to the Porta Venere, all of it on the side facing the plain. I have not seen in Italy any ancient city walls that came so near to giving the impression of a work of art. They reminded me of the reference to the glistening walls of ancient Luna, whose marble quarries made it possible to surround the city with such unique ramparts. Here at Spello the builders produced their artistic effect by the unusual use of both color and memberment. They ran a low base’ of blocks of hard dark peperino all around the foundation, as the lower stratum or basement, letting it follow the natural irregularities of the ground at the base line, but running its upper edge on a perfectly horizontal line from gate to gate and crowning and framing it with a plain projecting plinth-like molding, formed of a single line of long narrow blocks. From this rises the main body of the wall, built in the lighter-colored, yellow-gray, fine-grained travertine, cut in small blocks with extremely clean-cut edges and faces in even courses, closely jointed and almost as smooth as marble. At a distance one gets the impression of a brick or tile wall. Neither at an earlier nor at a later period do I believe that such small stone-work was used; not until it again came into use, in careless form, in the age of decadence. At the towers of the Porta Venere where the work is the most perfect the stones are only from 20 to 35 cent. long by 15 cent. high.

Of course the special interest of these gates and walls centers about their date. Looking at it merely from the historic standpoint we know that it ceased to be regarded as necessary to fortify Italian cities after the early part of the reign of Augustus. It is true that a few cities date the completing of their walls later in his reign,—Saepinum, for instance, in 6 B.C.,—but these were exceptions. So, the presumption is in favor of a date earlier than 23 B.C. If so, then the date of the establishment of the Roman Colony here, in 41 B.C., would seem to give the approximate date, though we can. easily believe that the Umbrian city had previously been fortified. But, the architectural and decorative peculiarities must be our surest guide. The most striking of these is the method used in constructing the arcades of the gates. The voussoirs are plain, unstepped stones and the moldings that frame them, instead of being cut on the voussoirs themselves, are made out of narrow curved strips of stone or marble that follow the outer curve of the voussoir blocks. This is the earlier method of the Etruscan builders followed in the gates of Perugia and Falerii in the fourth and third centuries B.C. It was replaced in the earliest years of Augustus by the stepped voussoirs with moldings. This element, therefore, would indicate a date previous to 41 B.C. Another pre-Augustan element is the basement line, which we find in more primitive form in the walls of Perugia. On the other hand the stepped architrave, the plain frieze and the gable indicate a Hellenistic influence that smacks of the age of Sulla or Caesar.

We may conclude, then, that these Spello gates furnish the earliest known triple city gates, of which I have already mentioned the principal hitherto known examples. Those at Aosta are dated between 25 and 20 B.C. and cannot be earlier, as the city was then built. Nor is there any reason for dating any of the others before c. 25 B.C., while those of Turin are apparently later and that of Fano is dated 9 A.D. It is extremely interesting to be able to place the origin of this type of gate in the pre-Augustan age about which we know so little.

In this analysis I have omitted one of the gates of Spello, the small so-called “Porta Urbana” at the top of the hillside. Nothing remains but the circle of voussoirs and the walls about it are destroyed. But there is also another relic in even worse condition which is of far greater value than would appear. It is the remaining pier of an arch which stood in the central part of the old city, either across the entrance to the Forum or beside the Capitolium of the colony of 41 B.C. Set into this pier is a slab on which are a few letters of large size:—R-DIVI•I. They were evidently part of a dedication of the arch to or by Augustus : Caesar divi filius.