Anne's Blog

Assisi’s Subterranean Roman Splendor

Date: June 20, 2021 - categories: - 1 Comment

If you have the key, doors open to underground wonders in Assisi.  Laura, dear friend of our Giulia and working in Assisi’s Roman Forum Museum, had the key(s) to two Assisi subterranean wonders. What an adventure with her recently.

After a fascinating tour with Laura of the Foro Romano, we headed to one of our main destinations, the 11th-12th c Romanesque Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, standing near the spot where St. Francis had renounced his earthly patrimony in the early 13th-century:

We headed up to the main altar

..built over a Lombard sarcophagus (5th-7th c.):

To the left of the altar, Laura headed down the steps of local Mt. Subasio pink limestone and turning the key, opened a door.  From the 11th-century crypt, she smiled up at me and I could already see Roman remnants behind her:

A Roman column stood solemnly, massive travertine blocks around and a truncated column flanking it.  The window opened to the garden behind the church and had been entry-point for the restoration team working here in the 1948-1950.  Discovery of the crypt had been made in 1865 but restoration work had halted due to lack of funding.We walked past the columns and then a trio of columns,  all of them once supporting the 11th-century crypt:

Laura was eager to show me the splendid opus sectile (mosaic of stone shards cut in various shapes) floor,  its precious marbles – also from Greece and even Africa -an unequivocable testament to the importance of the ambience:

And there was a surprise for me here: Laura lifted up an opus sectile tile from the floor,…

…turning it over to show me that it had been sculpted on the other side with the relief of a leaf. Archaeologists are mystified as to its significance.

In an adjacent room, a huge limestone slab was inscribed in Latin “Theater”…

Another unsolved mystery for archaeologists: might the Roman teatro (1st-c. B.C.) have been in this area?  Could the ambiences have been of use for actors rather then simply a domus (an urban home)?

Certainly the financing of a theater would have been undertaken by wealthy citizens, perhaps by Sesto Properzio, an important exponent of the family gens Properzio – and perhaps father of the poet Caio Properzio (1st-c. A.D.)

The Roman ambience under Santa Maria Maggiore has, in fact, been traditionally termed “Casa di Properzio.”  The spellani would vehemently contest this, certain that Properzio was born in nearby Spello.

In an adjacent room-  probably an oceus (a sort of living room) –  Laura explained that the floor was made using the opus scutulatum technique, that is, the insertion of polychromatic cut pieces into a dark background:

The Pompeiian red frescoed wall bordering the floor had been decorated with marine animal and vegetative motifs….

..and Laura pointed out to me a crab and starfish:

In 1954, archaeologists discovered yet another ambience, a  criptoportico (cryptoporticus,  that is, a covered gallery or portico)….. .

…and a section of this criptoportico was frescoed with a viridarium (a garden of pleasures).  Ninety-six birds perched on tree branches amongst berries, leaves and red hearts:

….and Laura even pointed out to me a grasshopper in the corner:

She pointed out to me, too, graffiti of a 4th-century visitor claiming he had “kissed the house of the Muse,” that is, of the poet Properzio:
Our next stop was a short distance away, the Domus di Lararium, built in the 1st c-A.D. and found in 2001 during restoration of Palazzo Giampe’ (housing the Palazzo della Giustizia – or courthouse).

Once again, Laura had the keys to open the door to splendor.

Restoration is fully underway now and so we were only able to see some of the structure from above.  This imposing domus of about 250 sq.meters of living space is also under the nearby Palazzo del Cardinale, close to Santa Maria Maggiore (and therefore, to the so-called Casa di Properzio).

Located seven meters below street level, the elegance of this domus was evident in the section of mosaic floor we were able to view of a cubiculum (bedroom)

With a smile, Laura pointed out to me the square with a floral shape at the entrance to the room, “like a welcome carpet.”

In another cubiculum, a skilled artist had frescoed a couple embracing each other, both depicted with vivid expressions, the woman curved towards the man, a great sense of depth and volume in both figures. 

The rooms surrounded an elegant portico (or covered porch) in the garden, il peristilio. Laura pointed out what seemed to be a heavy metal box suspended above the peristilio’s fluted columns: that was the elevator they were putting into the building during restoration in 2001.The discovery of those columns halted the work.

That elevator will never be installed here.

And I look forward to the day when restoration is complete and I can bring my tour guests to view both of these Roman domus splendors which I saw thanks to Laura.

Mille grazie, Laura.  For turning the keys to open those doors.



1 Comment

  • Janet Eidem says:

    What treasure’s! Those floors were made to last. Imagine the artisans and what they would think about their work surviving until now.

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Agenzia Viaggi Stoppini in Assisi handles all technical support for my guided visits (bus transportation, organization of meals, etc)