Assisi’s Roman Forum Museum: the Confirmation of an Ancient Spirituality
As of 1826, Assisi’s cultural association, l’Academia Properziana del Subasio, decided to gather together the ancient inscriptions and Roman remnants of the territory. The first nucleus of findings was kept in front of the entrance to the 16th Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva desired by Pope Paul III, wishing to transform the Roman Temple to Minerva (about 30 B.C.) into an ecclesiastical edifice.
In 1899, the Accademia created a veritable museo civico, utilizing the vacant ambiences in the Franciscan monastery, il convento di Sant’Antonio.
In 1926, Assisi’s civic consiglio decided to transform the convento into an elementary school. At this time, a substantial sum was set aside for a new museum as a celebration of the seven-hundredth anniversary of the death of San Francesco (1226).
Medieval and more modern artifacts in the collection were transferred to the Pinacoteca Comunale (then on the ground floor of the civic buildings on the main square) whereas Roman and pre-Roman treasures were to be displayed in the crypt of the 11th-century Church of San Niccolo’ (just off the main square, Piazza del Comune).
In dire need of restoration, this small church was eliminated by the fascist government in 1926 to create a new post office (and the tourist office is now there).
The 14th-century fresco, “la Madonna del Popolo,” by Palmerino da Guido, local follower of the Sienese master, Simone Martini, fortunately was conserved and is now in Assisi’s Pinacoteca Comunale :
A copy is in a niche up a few steps, the only reminder of the small church, San Niccolo’ in Piazza, once here:
Just around the corner from the niche, you can enter the Museo Civico e Foro Romano – also called “the Assisi Underground” – housed in the 11th-century crypt of San Niccolo’.
Massive columns support the vault of the crypt spreading out over the Roman artifacts.
An illustration on the back wall depicts the Temple to Minerva backdropping the Foro in the Roman period, as conceived by archaeologists:
Perhaps not an archaeologist but certainly a font of information, our Giulia’s dear friends, Laura, gave me a fascinating tour of this museum where she often works.
Just below the photo of the temple and forum was a 1st-century A.D. Roman funerary monument in local limestone depicting the deceased framed by an edicola (commemorative niche), called a naiskos, Laura explained to me.
The plaque had been found not far away at all: near the 12th-13-century Romanesque church of Santo Stefano.
Nearby, a limestone funerary urn of the 2nd-century B.C. demonstrated the Etruscan influence in Roman sculpted works as the deceased reclines on a kline (bed used at banquets), a typical image on Etruscan sarcophagi and propitious as an anticipation of a banquet in the next life. On this urn, his wife is seated, however, holding the hand of a child – she is in a subservient position>
A funerary urn of the 2nd-century B.C. – found near Piazza del Vescovado, site of a Roman villa – also depicted a seated wife near her lounging husband (the deceased) holding a wreath in one hand and a drinking cup in the other:
The urn sits above a 2nd-century A.D. sarcofago strigilato, that is, decorated with reliefs of swooping curves thus resembling the strigili, the curved metal objects used by athletes to scrape the oils off their bodies.
Here you can see a set of 1st-century A.D. Roman metal strigili:
Another funerary urn bears an image frequent in sculpted objects of the Assisi area: the head of Gorgon, a Greek mythological monster. The upper part is clearly phallic and was the signacolo signaling its location. The phallic image was in frequent use in the Roman world and considered apotropaico, i.e, for the warding off of evil spirits.
A long corridor lined with steli sepolchrali (tomb-markers) leads from the area of the San Niccolo’ crypt towards the area just below the Temple to Minerva.
Laura pointed out to me the one of a seamstress (1st-c. B.C.)…
….and one of a slave (1st-c. A.D.):
Quite sobering was the 2nd-century A.D. tomb-marker of a loyal young Roman soldier that Laura indicated to me, his weapons and combat helmet incised over the dedicatory inscription.
The soldier’s stele sepolchrale had been found near the Church of San Damiano, a Roman mausoleum not afar away:
With the Piazza del Comune above, the subterranean artifacts continued to astound as we explored. Following the walkway in the midst of Roman funerary inscriptions…
…one comes to the area which would have been at the base of the temple, the limestone tribunale, an area for public speakers – who would be seated after addressing the people – as can be noted here:
Laura pointed out to me the perforations in the limestone where the pins for the seats of the magistrates or officiating priests would have been inserted
A young visitor listened with interest to Laura’s explanations and then watched the video bringing alive Assisi’s foro romano and the Temple to Minerva reigning right above:
On the other side of the tribunal, 26 meters of wall stretched along this eastern end of the forum, this wall probably lined with shops including eating places for street foods. Squared-off openings in the wall suggest to archaeologists the presence of wooden beams so as to create a second floor:Amphorae of wine and garum (that beloved Roman fermented fish sauce) found in the area seem to reinforce the theory of market area here:
Leaving this museo, massive Roman statues mark the exit.
One statue, called “il Togato” (literally, “The Toga-ed one”) – sculpted in marble late 1st c.-B.C/early 1st c-A.D. – probably represented an important local civic personage as indicated by the style of the toga and the area where it was found in 1836, that is, in front of the Temple to Minerva:
A nearby marble sculpture of the 2nd-c. B.C. – also found in this very area of the temple – represents a seated woman, probably a goddess, wearing a thin tunic, the torso missing and thus leaving it impossible to pinpoint her identity. As the back of the statue was not sculpted, it is assumed the statue was destined for seating on a throne and was probably intended for a temples. The skilled craftsmanship hints at the work of Greek craftsman:
Might the personage have represented Minerva?
This will always be open for debate as many archaeologists believe that Assisi’s so-called “Temple to Minerva” was dedicated to Hercules. And the Museo collection includes a 2nd-century A.D. dedicatory plaque to this god:
Whether to Minerva or Hercules – or another deity – we know that a temple, a place of worship, was centerpiece of the Assisi Roman forum, of the urban center of Roman Asisium.
Assisi, therefore, has been a place of spiritual focus for centuries. Long before San Francesco.
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