Rome And Etruria – Perugia

The most tragic moment recorded in the history of ancient Perusia is that of its surrender to the young Octavian early in March of 41 B.C., after the city had fought obstinately in the cause of Lucius Antony in that earliest of the struggles between the two claimants to Caesar’s succession that is called the “Perusian War.” It is said that after capturing and burning Perusia, Octavian offered up a human sacrifice of the senators and knights and the principal inhabitants to Caesar’s manes on the anniversary of his death. If so, we must believe that Octavian was still too young to have shaken off the yoke of the cruel-ties traditional since the wars of Marius and Sulla. As Sulla did to Praeneste after destroying it, so Augustus is supposed to have done to Perusia, making of it the last example of a tragic chain of vengeance by which nearly all the flourishing antique cities of Italy received their death blow, leaving Rome almost solitary for a while.

He afterwards rebuilt and perhaps colonized it. The inscription Augusta Perusia cut in the voussoirs of the present main city gate is sup-posed, with the gate itself, to be a record of this Augustan reconstruction. Even then it is considered to have remained a municipium and not to have become a colony until after the middle of the third century. A native of the city, the Emperor Trebonianus Gallus, during his short reign then gave it the title of Colonià Vibia after his family name, and had the fact recorded in an inscription on the other principal ancient city gate, the so-called Porta Marzia, where we read Augusta Perusia Colonia Vibia.

Until my last visit to Perugia I had accepted the usual view that attributes to Augustus most of the existing gateway and to a restoration under Gallus the decorative features of the remnants of Porta Marzia. But now I believe I have gathered conclusive evidence in support of the opinion that these magnificent gateways are not Roman at all but are remnants of the pre-Roman Etruscan city. Both the architecture and sculpture of Etruria in the fourth century must be enriched by these two masterpieces.

Perusia was already, in the fifth and sixth centuries, one of the league of twelve principal Etruscan cities. It was not among the earliest; perhaps it was the latest accession, facing as it does the Umbrian cities across the Tiber, and holding part of the land recently wrested from the Umbrians. Though archaic works of art point to it as a highly civilized center in the sixth century, the contents of the necropolis and the city itself show that its period of greatest material and artistic prosperity extended from the fourth to the second century B.C. It seems not to have been affected by the incoming tide of Roman supremacy which left it free to pursue its normal course.

The colossal circuit of walls, in beautifully laid course-masonry, and showing splendidly in the neighborhood of both the Porta d’Augusto and the Porta Marzia, may be of the fifth century; but from the style of the gates, I should hardly place them earlier than the fourth. My examination of what remains of the Etruscan gates now called Porta Eburnea and Porta San Severn, almost entirely rebuilt in the Middle Ages, showed that they followed exactly the same structural methods as the better preserved Porta Augusta and Porta Marzia, so they need be merely mentioned here as part of the general scheme, and I shall concentrate on the two latter gates.

These gates make us feel that in the fourth century B.C. Perusia, like other great cities of Etruria and Umbria, was monumentally and artistically more advanced than Rome. We must ‘not imagine for a moment that such gates could have existed in Rome at any time before Caesar. The perfectly plain Janus gateway of the city of Aquinum and the equally plain earlier gate-ways at Ferentino, Falerii and Ascoli which I describe elsewhere, give the type of the gates of Rome and of the Volscian and Latin cities, de-void of architectural memberment or decorative sculpture. There do not remain even in any of the other Etruscan cities, gates comparable to these at Perugia. Those at Volterra and Cosa are almost as simple as the gateways farther south.

These Perugian gates, therefore, seem unique and well worth studying in detail. I shall begin with the one in the best condition, although it was not originally the most artistic—the Porta or Arco d’Augusto. It is a massive structure between sixty and seventy feet in height flanked by two enormous projecting square towers and set in an angle of the city walls. The single archway was originally about twenty feet to the center of its tunnel vaulting which ran, as was so often the case, not straight but diagonally to the façade of the gate. There are two stories above the archway. The first is narrow and corresponds to the frieze on triumphal or colony arches; it is in the form of a false gallery in which pilasters take the place of the Doric tri-glyphs and shields are set in the intervals that correspond to the metopes. Above, is a second and wider story, the center of which is occupied by a single broad arcade now closed but originally open, by means of which the garrison could defend the gate—a feature that was perpetuated in the Roman imperial gates from Aosta to Trier, with the substitution of numerous arcades for the single one.

It has been quite generally conceded that the lower part of the gate up to the spring of the arcade was Etruscan and had survived the fire of Octavian. I placed this beyond a doubt by finding at the base of the masonry in the passage-way a number of mason’s marks mainly in the form of Etruscan letters of the alphabet. The gate is now uncovered to a depth of 1.75 meters below the antique level, so bringing to light these Etruscan quarry signs which had been removed from all the stonework that originally showed above the ground when it was finished off after construction. It is very seldom that one finds these mason’s marks, as they were always removed when above ground.

But is there any reason to assign the upper part of the gate to a later period? I believe not. Any supposed divergences between the masonry of the upper and lower portions are due either to the easy habit of studying monuments from photographs or to the lack of recognition of the fact that the difference in the surface condition and coloring of the lower part is due to buildings which for centuries were addossed to the walls and towers up to a certain height, so that the weathering of the upper and lower portions necessarily differed.

As for the architectural features I can give here only a brief analysis of the results of a study of Etruscan monuments, especially the urns and sarcophagi, as well as the city gates and other architectural works. The use of plain voussoirs such as these to form the arcade, surrounded by curved moldings carved on separate strips of stone, is Etruscan and not Roman. The two heads of protecting genii that project from the spandrels of the arch appear on representations of Etruscan gates on the urns and sarcophagi and are paralleled in the Etruscan gate of Volterra; they also are not Roman. The false gallery or frieze of psuedo-Ionic pilasters with shields or rosettes occupying the intervals is one of the commonest forms of decoration on Etruscan urns and sarcophagi. The upper gallery filled with defenders of the gate can be seen on more than one carved representation of a city gate on Etruscan urns.

This covers every feature of the gate. Not one appears on a Roman gate except as a derivative from Etruscan sources; every one occurs on Etruscan works of the fourth to second centuries B.C. Of course Etruscan gates had no inscriptions and provided no place for any, and no better proof of the pre-Roman construction could be asked than the fact that when Augustus set his seal on the reconstructed City and wished to christen it anew after himself as Augusta Perusia, his epigraphists were forced to cut the letters recording this fact most awkwardly and ineffectively on the voussoir blocks. In Roman gates and arches of the Augustan age and later a place for a horizontal inscription was provided.

The Arco d’Augusto just described corresponded to the Porta Decumana of a Roman colony,—at one end of the main street. At the other end, corresponding to the even more important Porta Praetoria, was the gate that has always been popularly called “Porta Marzia.” When in 1540 the younger Sangallo was called upon by the pope to build him, at this point, an immense fortress to overawe the Perugians, he was obliged to tear down the Porta Marzia; but as he came of a family of architects that for three generations had loved and copied antique monuments, he did what was perhaps unique at this time,—took it down and reconstructed all its essential and artistic parts, stone by stone, in the new fortress wall only a few yards in front of its old position. How accurately it was done can be seen by an historical fresco of the Umbrian painter, Bonfigli, which shows the gate before it was torn down, standing in its section of the original Etruscan wall. I also found at the Uffizi the drawings made by Sangallo at the time, before he tore down the gate, and an almost contemporary sketch of the Arco d’Augusto. So I speak with this material in mind.

The Porta Marzia was more highly decorated than many a Roman triumphal and memorial arch, though as in the other gate none of the decoration was below the spring of the arcade. This was perfectly logical because in those strenuous days when such a gate was really for defense anything decorative would have been out of place below, subject as it would be to continual defacement at times of attack. But, beginning at the base of the arcade, the gate was framed by two pilasters whose capitals supported the architrave of a false gallery. Inside the spandrels the heads of the two protecting genii project from the masonry, in the same way as on the Arco d’Augusto, while over the keystone a weathered block was inserted by cutting into the gallery above, and on it was originally carved an ox head, long since worn away. Now, the ox head is recognized to be the sign manual of Rome, carved on gates or stamped on local coinage, wherever Rome took possession. Therefore, if it is here a patent addition to the original structure, made by a most inartistic disfigurement, the gate itself must antedate Roman dominion.

The gallery thus disfigured by Augustus is a most original—in fact a unique—feature. It is made to produce the effect of a sort of ringhiera or balcony with a balustrade running about half way up, between the four small and two large pilaster piers that support the balcony’s architrave. Over the balustrade there peers a single figure in the center of each of the five spaces between the pilasters. The artist carved them so that they are half hidden by the balustrade as if they stood behind it on the floor of the balcony. These five figures are evidently the guardians of the city. What are they? Helped by the early drawings we see that the central figure has the type of Jupiter. Then on either side of him stood one of the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, while at each end were their horses. These sculptures should now be classed as among the few large sized Etruscan marble sculptures of the fourth or third centuries B.C., and to judge from the fairly well preserved Jupiter, the workman-ship was in its way as good as the charming terra-cotta figures of the temple gables of Luna, Falerii and Telamon. From Etruscan mirrors and urns it is evident that the Dioscuri were the escorts of their father Jupiter, his messengers and active agents. Even from as far as Thessalonica, where the Dioscuri occupy the jambs of the early city gate, comes proof that they. were regarded by Greeks as well as by Etruscans as the guardians of the city. Their statues stood at each end of the stairway of the Capitoline temple and of other temples in Rome itself. We shall find them as the main decoration of the forum of Assisi.

As far as the architectural features of the Porta Marzia are concerned they are as clearly Etruscan as those of the Arco d’Augusto. The peculiar pseudo-Corinthian capitals of the pilasters have their analogies in numerous Etruscan monuments; for example, in Perugia itself on the urns of the Volumni and other tombs of the necropolis. Nothing could be farther from the normal Roman type. The upper open gallery which must have crowned the arch has left no trace, and had entirely disappeared even in the sixteenth century.

How the gate was related to the medieval city is shown most fascinatingly if we do a thing that every visitor to Perugia should experience: penetrate through the entrance now cut in the fortress wall below the Porta Marzia stonework into the bowels of San Gallo’s fortress. He incorporated a quarter of the medieval city within the foundations of the fortress, leaving its streets, houses, alleys and towers, just as they were, to be subterranean storerooms for the soldiery! It is a ghost-like progress that one makes, by torch-light, in the dead silence, along the street that once wound up into the city from the Porta Marzia, following probably the line of the ancient street, and coming out on the crest of the hill to cross the rest of the city, past the cathedral square and ancient forum, in an almost straight line to the Porta d’Augusto.

An interesting analogy may have existed between these gates of Perugia and those of Siena. At Siena there lasted through the Middle Ages several of the gates of the ancient city which were still decorated with carved figures of its guardian deities and heroes, probably as at the Porta Marzia. A medieval chronicler tells us how the Sienese, not daring to destroy these images, but regarding them as evil demons, would every year on a certain anniversary walk in pro-cession through the city, headed by the bishop and clergy, singing hymns and swinging incense-burners, and that they would visit these ancient gates, pausing to recite formulas for exorcising their demons and averting their spells during the coming year. So the decorative statuary of the Porta Marzia seems to have been matched in other Etruscan cities, though no others remain.

As at the Arco d’Augusto the hand of the Roman is traceable only in the words “Augusta Perusia” in the voussoirs of the arcade, so at the Porta Marzia all I can find that is Roman is the vanished ox head over the keystone and the two inscriptions that are here carved not on the voussoirs but, with almost equal incongruity, on the two narrow architrave bands above and below the balcony. On the upper band is Augusta Perusia, cut, I believe, at the time of Augustus’ reconstruction ; on the lower band is Colonia !Vibia, added under Trebonianus Gallus, nearly three centuries later. It has always been sup-posed that all this lettering was done at the same time, in the third century, but the cutting of “Augusta Perusia” is deeper and firmer, showing its earlier date, while the shallowness of the “Colonia Vibia” shows quite a different and later hand.

There are other architectural features at Perugia. The sarcophagi in the museums give a quantity of details. The “tempio di S. Manno,” two miles outside the city on the road to Florence, is the only Perugian structure which belongs to the type of vaulted constructions. It is a barrel vault of beautiful travertine blocks, twenty-seven feet long and about thirteen feet (4.10 meters) in diameter ; one of the largest in existence of this age. A long Etruscan inscription in three lines makes its antiquity certain.

The tombs that have been found, of which the richest is the famous tomb of the Volumni, all belong to the later period; those of the fourth and previous centuries appear not yet to have been discovered. But one of the most interesting features of this tomb of the Volumni is the way in which it illustrates the type of developed Roman house as I have pictured it. The description of it, its contents and its discovery is one of the most vivid parts of Dennis’ ever fascinating book, Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria.