A Perfect Medieval Setting: Tuscania’s Basilica di San Pietro
North of Rome and not far south of Lake Bolsena, Tuscania’s origins are unknown though archaeological testimonials trace the town at least back to the Bronze Age.
Already in the 6th-century B.C. the town was a thriving Etruscan town, prosperous and powerful tide to its advantageous geographical position, at the centre of an important road network connecting the coastal cities to the hinterland.
With the arrival of the Romans in the 2nd-century B.C., the town expanded also thanks to the passage here of the Via Clodia. The wealth of Roman Tuscana increased thanks to the construction of aqueducts, baths and residential edifices and in in 19 B.C., Tuscana merited the Roman appellation of municipium.
One of the first areas to adopt Christianity, Tuscania was one of the first episcopal seats. The town was conquered by the Lombards in the late 6th-century by Charlemagne in the 8th-century and finally became a libero comune in the 12th-century; at that time, the building a circuit of defensive medieval walls was undertaken.
In about the same period, extensive work was undertaken on restoration of the Basilica di San Pietro.
On the hill of the ancient Etruscan necropolis, the Basilica di San Pietro rises in majesty, flanked by fortified towers and walls, sign of the violence of the period:
The monumental complex of the Basilica di San Pietro, founded in the 8th-century, was rebuilt and amplified in both the 11th and 12th centuries when the naves were lengthened and the facade redone.
According to archaeologists and medievalists, the Basilica is a milestone in the history of Italian architecture, representing the passage from the paleo-Christian basilica to medieval architectural forms and in particular, the Romanesque.
Most historians are in agreement that San Pietro’s architectural splendor is merit of the magistri comacini (stonemasons from the area of Como), some of whom may have stopped here on their way to Rome and commissions there. Built of volcanic stone, tufo – for not far away is Lake Bolsena, Europe’s largest volcano lake – the facade comprises several levels, attesting to the various stages of construction. The facade as we see it today dates to the 13th-century with restoration also done at the end of the 19th-century. The church was the cathedral of Tuscania until the 15th-century.
When we visited recently, an Italian group was gathered in front of the church listening attentively to their guide’s detailed interpretation of the facade:
The central portal, a masterpiece in marble of Roman masons (and restored in the late 19th-century), is articulated with a great sense of depth in three recessed archivolts resting on marble columns topped with a variety of sculpted capitals.
Stone mosaic Cosmatesque (that is, the work of the Cosimati brothers, Lombard masters) borders the door, fills the lunette above the door and also the tips of the main arch over the door:
The columns are probably marble di recupero (that is, taken from pre-existing structures, including Roman ones).
Above the door, ten marble columns with Ionic capitals support a graceful loggia in white marble, winged griffins in relief in volcanic stone at each end:
Scultped beast and human figures to deduce fear (of hell, the devil, evil ways) surmount the loggia and support the architrave below the rose window where marble and Cosmatesque join to create splendor:
In the architrave above the beastiary figures, a human figure symbolically lifts up the church, representing salvation:
The symbols of the Four Evangelists surround the rose window as is typical of the medieval architecture of central Italy: in the upper lefthand corner, the eagle of John and in the lower righthand corner, the lion of St. Mark.
Below these images representing the Evangelists and flanking the rose window, winged dragons, aggressively chase away a dog, representing guardians of the sacred edifice.
On the left, an elegant trifore (tripartite window) with mable columns is topped with an image of the Lamb of God and sculpted images in relief border the window:
To the right of the rose window, an indicating angel in graceful tunic symbolizes St. Mark and the oxen below symbolizes St. Luke. Here, too, a winged dragon chasing a dog is guardian:
Medieval fortification towers of volcanic rock flank the Basilica…..
….and therefore the overall impression of the Basilica complex is certainly one of grandiosity but also of an almost oppressive sense of enclosure.
That sensation disappears upon entry into the spacious splendor of the three-nave basilica with a capriata (vaulted in wood) ceiling stretching out over a Cosmatesque floor, masterpiece of the maestri comacini:
In the left transept Etruscan tombs border the nave. As is typical of Etruscan tombs, the deceased is sculpted reclining on the tomb lid. Those etruschi in the Basilica seemed to me to be admiring the floor near them:
Characteristic of the central Italian Romanesque churches is the elevated presbytery (area of the altar):
Marble columns – perhaps di reimpiego (taken from pre-existing structures) – topped with sculpted capitals, line the nave and lead up to the presbytery:
In the presbytery, a ciborium in stucco – much-restored – arches over the altar, bishop’s throne against the wall of the apse with remnants of a fresco of St. Peter, first Pope, above the throne:
Looking from the altar towards the door, the ccsmatesque floor spreads out…
As you stand to the left of the altar looking back at the entrance,….
….you’ll be close to the door leading to the 12th-century crypt, the most ancient part of the church. Narrow steps lead into the crypt:
The nine naves of the crypt are formed by twenty-eight columns – almost all of reimpiego (recycled) from Roman edifices or the early Middle Ages – which sustain the cross vault of the ambience..
That crypt was the setting for the renunciation of his earthly patrimony by St. Francis before the Assisi bishop in the 13th-century.
In a film.
In 1989, Liliana Cavani had decided to shoot much of her film, “Francesco,” in the Basilica di San Pietro in Tuscania:
Could there have been a more perfect setting?
Click here to read about another Tuscania gem of medieval art and architecture
Read about Montefiascone, Latium hilltown, with many a hidden secret
Read about the treasures of Marta, charming Bolsena lakeside town