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The tempietto sul clitunno

An Ancient Temple on Clitunno’s Springs

The Tempietto sul Clitunno is what the ancient Romans used to call a sacellum—a small chapel in the shape of a temple—a worship site. It is located in the Municipality of Campello sul Clitunno—precisely in the locality of Pissignano—approximately one-kilometer down-stream from the springs of the Clitunno River. It is considered to be one of the most interesting early-medieval monuments of Umbria and is one of the seven jewels of Longobard art [1] and architecture in Italy, which—just recently reunited into a sole serial—were included in the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage list [2].
Built above one of the many springs of the Clitunno River—mentioned by Pliny the Younger [3]—it stands upon a steep declivity of San Benedetto hill dominating Spoleto valley.
For a long time thought to be an ancient Roman shrine, this building, whose architectural design recalls the form of a tetrastyle Corinthian Temple in antis, was the object of a number of interpretations concerning the phases of its construction. A first dating hypothesis sees it built around the 4th-5th century A.D., as a church dedicated to St Salvatore, where a refined classical language and the symbolism of the first centuries of Christianity cohabit. The presence of a monogrammatic cross—the ‘Chi Rho’, Greek letters X and P fused together—at the center of the tympana, coherent and integrated with the rest of the sculpted decoration should be proof of this. Recent studies, instead, have allowed circumscribing the chronological period of construction of the building to around the Longobard supremacy age, with an oscillation that goes from the beginning of the 7th to the midst of the 8th century. Also the frescoes of the apse depicting Jesus Christ Pantocrator, St Peter, St Paul and the Angels with the gem decorated cross are attributed to the Eighth century.

The monument, built in large part with salvaged Roman construction material collected in the area along the Clitunno river—where there were numerous villas, thermal baths and temples erected in honor of the God Clitumnus—shows at least two very close phases of construction. Originally there should have been a sole room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, corresponding to the cell of the current building. On the Western wall, a door—surmounted by a frame of spolia in Ionic style—opened. Five masonry arched windows were set laterally, while a narrow terrace assured the entrance to the inside room. Later the terrace area was enlarged in order to realize a vestibule, and two lateral porticos were built. They consisted of a high podium with a socle and a cornice, an opening at the center of the podium, an in antis frontal Corinthian colonnade surmounted by a Ionic entablature and the above pediment which concealed the marvelous bas-relief sculpted tympana with spiraling vine volutes and foliage that framed the centrally positioned Latin cross. The access to the terrace was made possible by the two lateral staircases under a cusped porch, originally preceded by their own vestibule, which was demolished—to reuse its components for construction purpose—in the 18th century. The construction of the apse is attributed to this second phase, which meant the demolition of the old original wall to build the new one in which the apse stands now, with the consequent apposition of a Pediment iconographically near the one on the main façade. The presence of continuous trabeation that covers the entire monument has the evident intent of formally incorporating the new parts into the original structure. A tiled roof covered the entire building including the entrance porticos. All supporting structures come from re-used materials, as it is possible to see from the numerous spolia integrated into the texture of the walls, on the floors, in the cornices and in the architectonic decoration of the cell.
Inscriptions, epigraphically ascribable to the Longobard capital, can be found along the architrave, respectively on the western, southern and northern sides; they are a rare example of early-medieval monument epigraphy. Below the tympana, there is the inscription dedicated to “the God of the Angels”. Inside the cell, circumscribed by the apse, there is an aedicule of marble built with re-used sculptural elements from the 1st century A.D. At the center of the wall there are frescoes from the 8th century A.D.—the Pantocreator and the apostles St Peter and St Paul—similar to the ones in Santa Maria Antiqua al Foro in Rome. These paintings are considered to be the most ancient of Umbria.
The general style, in which the temple is conceived and the classical language emerging from both the re-used materials and the appositely designed and executed ornaments, suggests that those who commissioned its construction were probably members of the Longobard ducal family, who thought that through the evocation of Rome’s grandeur they proclaimed their status of prestige.


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