Key to Umbria: Assisi

Temple "of Minerva" (ca. 20 BC)

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This temple, which stood in the forum of Roman Asisium, was probably built soon after the Perusine Wars (41 BC).  It is probably the most complete survival of its kind after the Pantheon in Rome, and it survived for the same reason: it was later adapted as a church.   

The French archaeologist Charles Victor Famin carried out the first excavations here in 1836.  His work revealed the original pavement (early 1st century BC) of the Roman forum some 5 meters below the Piazza del Comune and the original setting of temple.  Access from the forum was via two flights of steps that converged in front of the pronaus.  This substructure is under the present street level can be visited in the Archeological Area that now forms part of Museo Civico.

The holes that held bronze lettering across the architrave of the Temple have made it possible to deduce the content of an inscription (CIL XI 5378) that recorded the names of the brothers who built it, both of whom were quattuorviri quniquennales (i.e. two of the four magistrates charged with carrying out the five-yearly census):

  1. Cn(aeus) Caesius Tiro; and

  2. T(itus) Caesius Priscus, the sons of Cn(aeus). 

The EAGLE database (see the CIL link above) dates the inscription to the period 40-20 BC.

The use of temples for the celebration of pagan rites became illegal in 341 AD, and it is likely that the building then fell into disuse until its conversion (perhaps as early as the 6th century) into a church (see below). 

Surviving Fabric of the Temple

The six  Corinthian columns of the front of the pronaus survive.  Two further columns on each side, which are visible in a plan (ca. 1538) by Andrea Palladio that he later published in "I Quattro Libri dell Architettura" (see below), have been destroyed, along with the original paving and coffered ceiling.  The lateral walls of the cella  survive, although they are not visible from the interior.  (The left wall can be seen from the inner courtyard of the Convento di Sant Antonio at number 2 Via San Paolo, which is sometimes open for exhibitions).  The back wall was demolished in 1634 (see below).

Original Inspiration for the Temple

According to John Stamper (referenced below, at p. 242, note 47), the plan of the temple at Assisi, which he dated to the period 28-15 BC, was similar to that of the Temple of Divus Julius, which Octavian (soon to become the Emperor Augustus) had built in the forum of Rome in 42-29 BC, in honour of the deified Julius Caesar:

  1. “Both had a single cella with walls framed by corner pilasters that extended as antae into the first bay of the pronaos.  Both had six columns across the front, although the pronaos [at Assisi] was shallower, two bays instead of three.  Both had a high podium with lateral stairs and, in both cases, stairs leading to the podium penetrated the intercolumniations.  The [temple at Assisi] was, in all likelihood, an imitation of the Temple of Divus Julius, the latter being an important paradigm for numerous Augustan temples from this period.”

In "I Quattro Libri dell Architettura" (translated by Robert Tavernor and Richard Scchofield, referenced below, at p. 315), Palladio commented on the unusual fact that the columns of the temple at Assisi rest on pedestals: the reconstruction of the elevation of the Temple of Divus Julius reproduced by John Stamper (referenced below, at p. 109) suggests that this was another feature shared by both temples.   Thus, it seems that the Caesii brothers adopted many features of the design of Octavian’s Temple of Divus Julius, presumably as a means of demonstrating their allegiance to him. 

Dedication of the Temple

The earliest surviving documentary reference to the original dedication of the temple is in the “Descrizione della Basilica di San Francesco e di Altri Santuari di Assisi”, which Fr. Ludovico da Pietralunga wrote at the Sacro Convento in the period 1568-80.  He writes of “un tempio della dea Palles” (a temple of the goddess Pallas Athena), a Greek form of the Roman Minerva.  This attribution was probably the result of the discovery of part of a statue (ca. 100 BC) of a female goddess during the construction of the nearby  Palazzo Bonacquisti in 1572.  This fragment is now in the Museo Civico (exhibit 182). 

Two later finds of fragments from statues of a female goddess in the area near the temple (now exhibits 184 and 183 respectively in the Museo Civico) support the hypothesis that the temple was dedicated to Minerva:

  1. A fragment of Greek marble statue (5th century BC) was probably found in the excavation of 1839-41.  It was probably a copy of the famous statue  (ca. 448 BC) of Athena Nike (Athena as the goddess of victory) in Athens.  The copy was probably made in Athens soon after the original and reused in Assisi some 5 centuries later: it could however have been a Roman copy made specifically for the temple of Assisi.  The back of the statue is unfinished, and it was probably fixed to a wall (perhaps to the timpanum).

  1. Two marble fragments (one of which is illustrated here), which seem to come from another statue (ca. 100 BC) of a seated female goddess were found during the excavation of 1969.

However, the inscription on the tetrastyle in front of the temple (shown in the model illustrated above) revealed that it had housed statues of Castor and Pollux: it is possible that the Caesii brothers were twins and that they dedicated the Temple to these twin divinities.  (The inscription survives in situ in  the Archeological Area). 

San Donato and Palazzo del Podestà

The earliest surviving documentary reference to the temple dates to 1212, by which time it had been adapted as the church of San Donato and belonged to the Abbazia di San Benedetto al Monte Subasio.  The document of 1212 recorded the transaction in which Abbot Maccabeus sold it to the Commune.  Guidone di Giovanni del Papa, who was the leading Consul and also Podestà, exercised his offices from this building by 1215.   From about this time, the piazza in front of the temple became known as Piazza del Comune.

The temple was now divided into four distinct areas:

  1. the lower part of the pronaus housed shops or workshops until ca. 1313, when it was first documented as the seat of the legal tribunal;

  2. the Podestà probably used the room above it;

  3. the Consuls used a room over the cella for their meetings; and

  4. the lower part of the cella served as a prison.

This fresco (ca. 1290) of a simple man paying homage to St Francis, which is in the upper church of San Francesco.   A larger view is available of Wikimedia:
  1. The columns of the pronaus are cleared of any structures that actually existed at this time.   Only five of the six columns across the front are depicted, but the two columns on each side, which no longer survive, are visible.

  1. A rose window inserted into the tympanum let light into the room above the pronaus, although the room itself is not shown.  The winged Victories to the sides of the window in the fresco (which might actually have existed) are reminiscent of those commonly used in the spandrels of Roman triumphal arches. (The structure above the tympanum and intrusion from the remains of the rood beam that originally spanned the nave of the upper church).
  2. The barred windows of the prison can be seen in the fresco in the front wall of the cella, although the lower portal and steps up to the upper entrance are absent. 

In 1340, for an unknown reason, the Capitano del Popolo and the Podestà exchanged premises, and the temple became known as the Palazzo Vecchio del Podestà.   

SS Donato, Sebastiano e Bernardino da Siena

In 1456, Fra Cherubino da Spoleto, a Franciscan preacher, persuaded the Commune to re-open the church, which involved removing the prison.  The re-opened church was dedicated as SS Donato, Sebastiano e Bernardino da Siena.  A complicated arrangement allowed for:

  1. monks from San Pietro to officiate at the feast of St Donatus;

  2. canons from San Rufino to officiate at the feast of St Sebastian; and

  3. friars from San Francesco to officiate at the feast of St Bernardino of Siena.

The rest of the space functioned as a public palace until ca. 1471.

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

By 1527, the church was in a state of decay, and the Commune resolved to restore it.  Apparently at the behest of Pope Paul III, it was transferred to a Marian confraternity and re-dedicated to the Virgin in 1539.  It later became known as Santa Maria sopra Minerva.  The history of this church is described on a separate page, but aspects of it relevant to the structure of the temple are summarised here:

  1. In 1613, Bishop Marcello Crescenzi transferred the church to the Franciscan Third Order.

  2. In 1634, Giacomo Giorgetti remodelled the church by extending it backwards, which required the demolition of the back wall of the temple.  The pavement that was originally outside the temple can now be seen in the presbytery.   He also removed the room that had been built in the upper part of the cella and built a new barrel vault.
  3. In 1758, the Franciscans sold the church to the Oratorian Fathers, who demolished the building above the pronaus, restoring the façade to something like its original appearance. 

Appreciation of the Temple

Although the structure was documented in 1212 and thereafter as a church or public palace, it seems only to have been studied as a temple from the 16th century:

  1. Sketches (ca. 1522 ) of the temple by Baldassarre Peruzzi survive in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. 

  2. As noted above, Andrea Palladio included it in his "I Quattro Libri dell Architettura" (1570). 

  3. Goethe, who visited Assisi in 1786, recorded:

  4. "From reading Palladio  I knew there was a Temple of Minerva [in Assisi], built during the reign of Augustus and still perfectly preserved.  When we got near Madonna degli Angeli, I  climbed the road to Assisi on foot.   I turned away in distaste from [San Francesco and went instead to Santa] Maria della Minerva.  Lo and behold!  There it stood, the first complete classical monument I have seen.  A modest temple, just right for such a small town, yet so perfect in design that it would be an ornament anywhere.  One could never tire of looking at the facade and admiring the logical procedure of the architect.    I cannot describe the sensations that this work aroused in me, but I know they are going to bear fruit for ever.” 

Read more

J. Stamper, "The Architecture of Roman Temples", (2005) Cambridge 

  1. (See page 109 for an illustration of the Temple of Divus Julius).

R. Tavernor and R. Schofield (Tr.), "Andrea Palladio: the Four Books on Architecture",  (2002) Cambridge, Massachusetts

F. Coarelli, "Assisi Repubblicana: Riflessioni su un Caso di Autoromianzzione", Atti Accademia Properziana del Subasio, (1991) Assisi

H. Auden and E. Mayer (Tr.), “Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Italian Journey”, (1962) London

The Lacus Curtius site of the Temple has interesting additional information on its architecture and on the Roman inscriptions in the pronaus.

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