Assisi In Roman Times
Present Day Piazza - Assisi Italy
The church you are visiting is called «Santa Maria above Minerva» because it is
constructed upon the ancient Roman temple dedicated to Minerva, queen of wisdom and of
peace in the pagan era.
With the document
dated April 5, 1613, the bishop of Assisi, Marcello Crescenzi, with the consent of the
municipality, donated the temple to the Friars of the Third Regular Order of St. Francis
to ensure a better liturgical service. The friars took possession of the temple on April
The six splendid Corinthian
columns and the entire façade are still intact after nearly 2025 years. The pilgrim
climbs the steps to the entrance and is deeply moved. Even the lateral walls of the
building are well preserved, but they are only visible from the outside.
From the year 295 BC, Assisi became part of the comune of Rome, the latter having been
victorious over the Italian confederacy. In the year 88 BC, the city became a
"Municipium romanum" (Roman municipality), with all the rights and regulations
afforded to Rome.
During the reign of the emperor Augustus, the city of Assisi was transformed into a well
organized residential and turistic centre (during the years 28-25 BC).
The grand Forum (a rectangle measuring 44 x 88 meters inside) was constructed; various
temples were built, the city walls were completed, the baths and the (healing) springs of
mineral waters were opened, and the theatre was constructed alongside the amphitheatre.
Among the many monuments constructed was the Temple of Minerva, which at that time
dominated the Forum complex and even today, still dominates the "Piazza del
Comune", the heart of Assisi and a wonderful example of medieval architecture.
|Situated in the town centre, as if
set on a podium, the Temple of Minerva has stood for centuries as a witness to life in
Assisi during both the imperial period and the gradual decline of the Roman empire.
With the ascendance of
Christianity, the temple, for a long time, a centre for pagan cultism, the temple,
witnessed the heroism of the first martyrs condemned in the Tribunal courts in front of
its silent columns.
Some important dates of this new era, which paved the road for Christian Assisi are as
follows: In the year 313 AD, the emperors Constantine and Licinius published an edict of
tolerance towards Christianity. In 341, Constantine II and Costanzo prohibited paganism
and pagan celebrations in the temple, both of which were punishable by death. In 380,
under the emperor Theodosius, Christianity became the state religion. In 435, Theodosius
II ordered the sign of the cross to be put everywhere.
The pagan cult was brought to an end and the Temple of Minerva remained abandoned and
silent for over a century, its importance destroyed, owing to the changed political and
The precise date is not known, but probably in the second half of the sixth century, the
Benedictine monks restored the temple and made use of it. The divided the cella into two
floors, creating living rooms in the upper part and the church of "San Donato"
in the lower part. Even the pronao was divided into two floors. It became a comfortable
and secure home!
With the act of May 24, 1212, for one hundred years, with the option of renewal, the
Benedictines leased the temple to the Comune of Assisi (which was created in 1198, but
only truly thrived after the peace with Perugia in 1210). However, they kept the rooms of
the upper floor of the pronao as a home for themselves.
The magistrates of the Comune transferred their offices into the rooms of the upper
section of the cella of the temple (from the former headquarters, located in San Rufino).
On February 23, 1215, the head of the Comune began to function from its new base, and
remained in the temple until 1270.
The "sigillum" of the Assisi municipality bears the image of Minerva. That is
why the Magistrates certified as authentic the stone coffin of Francis who died with the
image of Minerva imprinted on his signature ring.
In the spring of 1270, the head of the Comune took up office in the "Palazzo del
Capitano del popolo", where he remained until 1300 when his duties came to an end.
It should be noted that in the time from 1200 to 1300 the pronao functioned as the
Tribunal court and the little church of "San Donato" was used as the municipal
jail at least until the beginning of the fifteenth century. One can see this when looking
at the fresco by Giotto (which depicts windows with strong iron grillwork, etc.), which
forms part of the pictoral history of Saint Francis located in the upper part of the
In 1456, when no longer a jail, the church of "San Donato" was reopened. In the
meantime, the Italian Renaissance culture had been growing and was a culture that
celebrated the worlds classical arts (Greco-roman literature, sculpture,
In the years 1527-1530, the magistrates of Assisi, following requests and complaints by
the citizens, ordered some urgent restoration projects to be undertaken. In 1539, Pope
Paolo III, making a visit to Assisi, ordered the Temple of Minerva to be completely
restored and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, queen of true wisdom. The temple then took the
name of "Santa Maria sopra Minerva".
Therefore, there is an interesting continuity between the dedication of the Temple of
Minerva, "the goddess of pagan wisdom" and the dedication to the Virgin Mary,
"the queen of Christian wisdom".
With the document dated April 5, 1613, the bishop of Assisi, Marcello Crescenzi, with the
consent of the municipality, donated the temple to the Friars of the Third Regular Order
of St. Francis to ensure a better liturgical service. The friars took possession of the
temple on April 15, 1613 and remained there uninterrupted for 145 years.
In 1634, the friars undertook great projects of restructuring the space, under the
direction of the Assisan architect, Giacomo Giorgetti.
He eliminated the rooms in the upper part of the cella of the temple, ordered the
construction of a barrel vault, elongated the area of the cella beyond the support wall
(5.45 meters) and designed the main monumental altar.
|The four Corinthian columns, the
cornices and the frontispiece of the altar are made of terracotta with a façade of stucco
and embellished with gold. The other parts and the putti are made entirely of stucco.
In the middle of the frontispiece, a painting by Giorgetti depicts God the creator,
encircled by angels in the act of embracing all of creation.
Over the painting, there was a
Latin inscription (now preserved behind the altar): «This glorious temple, already
dedicated to Minerva, the goddess of false wisdom (now consecrated) to the Mother of true
On the cornice, in relationship with the Corinthian columns, there are symbolic statues of
Purity and of Charity, as well as two very great angels. The other two smaller angels sit
upon a small semi-circular cap, above which is the radiant monogram of the Virgin, between
two small putti.
Halfway up, from column to column, flutter two putti of good workmanship that stand in
relief on every side.
At the top, on the ceiling, in the rear, one can admire many putti in glorious form,
carrying flowers in a lively and festive manner.
On May 8, 1758, the Third Regular Order, having built the new convent of San Antonio with
an attached church, left the temple to the Congregation of the Oratory of "San
The Fillippines immediately constructed a large convent (actually the Bozzoni palace) and
dismantled the little rooms that still burdened the upper part of the pronao.
Giorgettis altar was redesigned according to controversial opinion, inspired by the
style of the era. The refectory, already in Romanesque style, was remade and designed like
a sarcophagus, like the two lateral altars.
On the sides of the altars are two large medallions by Giorgetti (the birth of the Virgin
and presentation to the temple and the Virgins annunciation and messenger angel)
that were removed and replaced by two small ornamental choirs.
The two statues below, of San Rocco and San Sebastian, were replaced with plaster statues
of St. Peter and St. Paul, with their symbols (keys and the papal tiara, the sword and
book). Even the Virgin Mary with baby has been removed from the centre of the altar and
has been replaced with a large painting by San Filippo Neri. The three statues were
transferred to the Cathedral of San Rufino. Now, there is no trace of their evidence.
The inscription at the top of the main altar was replaced by the following: «To the very
great and omnipotent God in honour of the Holy Virgin Mary, Mother of true wisdom and of
San Filippo Neri».
On the vaulted ceiling (1760), there is a medallion with "San Filippo" in glory,
supported by four angels made of golden stucco standing in relief; the allegory of the
four cardinal virtues (justice and fortitude on the right, prudence and temperance on the
left) are seated on clouds and encircled by small golden putti. They are temperas by F.
Over the main altar (1760), there is a medallion with the three theological virtues
(temperas by F. Appiani). On the opposite façade, over the organ, there is a medallion
with musician angels (temperas by F. Appiani).
The two lateral altars were added in an essential composition. Two rose-colored columns,
with golden capitals, are enclosed within triangular pilaster strips and are placed in an
oblique line in respect with the ground surface. On this line, rests the cornice with many
varied edges. Above it is a semi-circular scroll, surrounded on every side by angels of
golden stucco. In the centre of the mirror, two small fluttering putti support the crown
of glory. The architecture is of wood and painted to appear as marble.
The paintings in the lateral altars (1764): the passage of "Sant'Andrea
Avellino", painted by A. M. Garbi (at right); the passage of "San Giuseppe"
painted by the Austrian Martino Knoller (at left).
By design of the Perugian Pietro Carattoli, there was constructed the large sacristy (1658
1659). In the sacristy, we can admire: The Crucifixion (painting by F. Appiani); the
messenger angel and Annunciation (by G. Martelli); "San Francesco di Sales",
"San Nicola di Bari", "San Liborio", The Nativity, The Announcement to
the Shepherds, the Derision of Christ (by Bassano); "San Girolamo penitente" (G.
Giorgetti); the descent of the Holy Spirit (Sermei, 1630); and the Vision of "San
Filippo" (B. Orsini).
For the first time, there was installed a pipe organ (renewed in 1957 by the Ruffatti
firm, and restored in 1997 by the Valentini firm).
The actual space of the church measures 11.55 meters in width and 20.20 meters in length
(that is 1.80 meters more narrow and 5.45 meters longer than the ancient cella of the
With the Napoleonic suppression of 1810, the Filippines had to abandon the Temple of
Minerva, which passed to secular clergy.
In 1896, at the centre of the main altar, the painting by San Filippo was replaced by the
statue of Madonna of Lourdes, a gift from France to the city of Assisi.
With the notarised deed dated April 14, 1918, the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva,
after a time of 160 years was once again entrusted to the Friars of the Third Regular
Order of St. Francis, who still lovingly and faithfully watch over it today.
From 1989-1995, the following important restoration and renewal projects have been carried
out: the cleaning of columns and of the roman façade, cleaning of the main altar,
repainting of the interior, reflooring, electrical and microphonic installation, heating
installation, remodelling of the liturgical spaces according to the new likings.
The large central altar symbolizes Christ, around which the Christian community
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Convento S. Antonio Via San Paolo, 2 06081 ASSISI PG ITALY
Telefono: +39-075-812268 Fax: +39-075-816340
History of the city
by Paolo Rossi
|Assisi, wonderfully set on the eastern slopes of
mount Subasio - 424 metres above sea-level -, stands guard over the mouth of the Umbrian
Valley, at its widest opening.
Having been the place of pre-Roman settlements, it defined its urban structure in the II
century B. C., according to a scenographic design derived from Hellenistic models. The
great difference in level, in fact, suggested the erection of a terraced town, supported
by walls, on which the public and religious buildings are standing.
The town acquired a typical graded aspect, the Latin poet from Assisi Propertius refers
to, when he states to have been born "where Bevagna, in the low plane, is wrapped up
in foggy vapours, while the Umbrian lake gets warm under the summer sun, / and the wall of
salient Assisi rises towards the peak, / that wall made more famous by your wits".
The original structure is still visible in the medieval urban texture, which has
maintained the ancient massive walls.
In the I century B. C. , having become a Roman Municipium, Assisi developed greatly after
the foundation of a sanctuary dedicated to the cult of the Dioscuri.
The urban walls (II - I cent. B. C.), made with small limestone blocks from the
Subasio, would enclose the built-up area within a 2500-metre perimeter.
The Roman town had got its centre already: the Forum, where the present square of
the town hall lies, to which the main streets led to, and on which the well kept temple of
Minerva is still facing.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Assisi fell into the hands of Totila, of Charles the
Great and, afterwards, of the Longobard Dukes of Spoleto.
The perfection of the urban structure and the difficulties in being expanded, got
the first medieval town to reutilize the Roman structure, and therefore, down to the
middle of the XIII century the medieval expanse perfectly overlapped the Roman one.
In the XII century, having become a free Comune, Assisi experienced a happy period of
building fervour, which, through the two following centuries, caused the formation of the
Towards the middle of the XII century, Giovanni da Gubbio was entrusted with the erection
of the new Cathedral of San Rufino, which, with its austere façade and the powerful bell
tower on its side, is the most important Romanesque monument in Assisi.
In 1197 in San Rufiino's there was the solemn christening of Frederic II of Svevia , who
was then under the protection of Conrad of Lutzen, duke of Spoleto, to whom the Barbarossa
had given the investiture of the town, after submitting it. In the following year there
was a popular rebellion against the imperial power and since then Assisi remained of the
Guelph party; the citadel was entirely destroyed and no longer rebuilt until the XIV
century, under Cardinal Albornoz.
The town must have been still made of different parts, separated by kitchen-
gardens, when, at the beginning of the thirteenth-century, Saint Francis started
preaching. In 1209-1210, having gathered together his first followers, he obtained by Pope
Innocent III the approval "solo verbo" of his first Rule.
On the Saint's death, the spiritual fervour he
had aroused took shape in the building of the great Basilica, destined to celebrate the
glory of the "Poverello di Dio" and of his Order, and to characterize the
physiognomy of the town with its imposing massive structure. The plant of the buildings,
inclusive of the large Monastery standing on enormous arcades, looking like a grandiose
fortress, and the two superimposed churches, was started on a hill to the west of the
town, outside the city walls, in 1228, two years after Saint Francis' death. If not the
architect, the first conceiver of it all was Friar Elias, who had been appointed
Vicar-general of the Order. The building went on very rapidly, with the help of offerings
collected from all over the Christian world; as early as 1230 the lower church, whose
crypt housed a sarcophagus with the Saint's body, was almost finished.
The huge Basilica was completed in 1253: the church was still outside the walled
perimeter, but it will condition the successive development of the built-up area, which
was attracted by it to the point of becoming one with the convent premises.
While the basilica was being erected, Assisi, too, experienced a great fervour of
life. The town became larger, and in 1260 the walls, too narrow by then, widened at the
eastern far end, where in those years the Church of Saint Clara was standing, a copy of
the upper church of Saint Francis.
In the early fourteenth century (1316) a still extant far wider boundary wall was
built, including all the points of housing development (from the Roman amphitheatre, to
the high-medieval fortress, to the Franciscan basilica); within it the residential areas,
such as the Aretino village, were filled.
The rebuilding of the Major Fortress (1367) signalled the end of the communal
autonomy and the reconquest of the town under the Church domination.
The political events of the XIV and XV centuries, with their inner struggles
between the factions, the wars and the sacks Assisi underwent from Braccio Fortebraccio,
Biordo Michelotti and, finally, from Valentino, caused the ruin of the last towers and
damaged parts of the built-up areas, but, altogether, they didn't alter its physiognomy;
neither was it altered, but very little, in the three following centuries, by the
restorations and re-makings of medieval buildings and by the building of great baroque
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in fact, many aristocratic palaces and sacred
buildings were erected within the urban structure, already fixed by the previous expansion
(Chiesa Nuova, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, oratory of Santa Caterina,; Giacobetti,
Bernabei, Fiumi-Roncalli, Locatelli, and episcopal palaces).
The nineteenth century was characterized by the secularization of monasteries,
often altered by their new functions and by a heavy depauperation of their artistic
After annexation to Italy, the improvement in communications, due to the railway
connection, brought new life to the town, still deeply bound to agriculture, breaking off
its isolation, by the coming of the first tourists and the rising of the first receptive
Thus Assisi became an essentially religious tourist centre, and even more so after the
first post-war period.
In 1926, on the seventh centenary of Saint Francis' death, over two million
pilgrims poured there from all parts of the world.
Already at the beginning of the twentieth century the town
started expanding outside the walls, where new houses, monasteries and religious
institutions were built. The inner part was characterized by the revisiting of the
mediaeval image of the town, by restoring the style and decorticating many façades: a
heritage still weighing upon the policies for the safeguard of the historical centre!
by Paolo Rossi
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