Narni: Where Majesty Hides Roman Treasures
Perched on a rocky outcrop in southern Umbria, Narni captivates many a visitor nowadays.
As of 299 B.C., the Romans had their eye on it, too: they were distinctly aware of the strategic importance of Nequinum, inhabited by the Osc0-Umbri, an Italic tribe. After conquering Nequinum, the Romans named the colony “Narnia” for the Nahar, the river serpentining below.
By the 3rd-century B.C., the location of Narnia was clearly key to Roman control of the area for the consular road, Via Flaminia, built in 220 B.C. and connecting Rome to the Adriatic and its eastern empire, passed through Narnia.
Traces of Roman Narnia accompany you on your explorations of Narni, right from your arrival.
If you head there by train – as I did on my first (but not last!)Narni visit in 1997 – you’ll pass imposing Roman majesty along the road winding up to the centro storico: a massive arch, remnant of the 1st-c. B.C.. Ponte di Augusto. The travertine bridge was built to re-route and reinforce the Via Flaminia road. A single bay of the bridges four bays remains standing stalwartly. Alone. Built 30 meters above the river, paved and with two lanes, the bridge was roughly 8 meters wide and 30 meters long.
(Grazie to Marco Santarelli for his photos of the Arco di Augusto, above and below)
A forceful earthquake in the 9th-century and devastating flood in the 11th-century teamed to cause the collapse of the bridge. The final destructive collapse was in 1885 – some years after Jean-Battiste-Camille Corot had fallen under the spell of the Narni countryside and the Roman bridge. He painted the scene more than once a plein air: in 1826…
…and also in 1827:
Narni and the Roman bridge – depicted in this print of 1864, “Ruins of the Bridge of Augustus,” now in the British Library – charmed travelers from northern Europe, becoming popular destinations during many an Italy Grand Tour:
You might come across ruins of the Roman bridge, wandering the countryside surrounding Narni….
And if you’re adventurous, you can trek INSIDE a Roman structure of Narni, the 13-kilometer long 1st-c. A.D. Formina aqueduct winding along the slopes of the Narni hills and through three mountains.
Gathering water from seven springs, its network of tunnels and corridors constructed in Roman times delivered water to Narni until 1923. In Narni, the water brought by the aqueduct could be accessed from various cisterns – or spouted from three fountains.
The only Roman aqueduct open to the public in Italy, you can hike about 700 meters of the conduit, exiting from a deep well. Guided Roman aqueduct treks may be booked through www.narnisotteranea.it. Che avventura!
After your adventure, you may wish to seek out the center of Italy, not far from one of the two remaining bridges of the aqueduct, Ponte Cardona:
The Roman arches of the Ponte di Augusto and the Formina aqueduct are not the only ones you’ll see if exploring Narni and the surroundings.
Keep your eyes open, for you might walk right under a massive Roman arch oblivious to the Roman show of force above you: like this 2nd-c. B.C. Roman arch steps away from Narni’s Cathedral di San Giovenale:
Narni hosts a plethora of Roman cisterns – and you’ll see one if touring the Narni Underground with Roberto Nini and colleagues.
Other Roman cisterns are below the foundations of a late 12th-century Romanesque gem, the church of Santa Maria Impensole (or “in Pensole“) and Roberto Nini theorizes that the name of the church derives from its location over the cisterns, i.e., “in pensile” or “suspended.” The church was built on the foundations of a pre-existing sacred site of the 8th century, which in turn had been built on site of a Roman temple to Bacco (Bacchus).
The date of construction – 1175 – and confirmation of the church as Benedictine are incised over the doorway, though barely visible. The construction starts thanks to an early 12th-century donation made to the powerful 7th-c. Abbey of Farfa (in Latium), an imperial Benedictine abbey once controlling 600 churches and monasteries, 132 castles and hundreds of villages and receiving privileges both from the Papacy and the Dukedom of Spoleto, as well as the Holy Roman Emperor.
The link to Farfa is indicated in the symbol over the door to the left of the entry, the architrave topped by two imperial eagles,…..
……the eagles perched above the Lamb of the Apocalypse, just above the door, surrounded by intertwining vegetation:
The abbot of Farfa at the time of construction is figured in the medallion over the door, his hand raised in a gesture of welcoming encouragement to enter rather than in the traditional gesture of blessing:
To the left of the portal, a deer, symbol of piety and devotion, seems to be looking back anxiously while fleeing the dragon, symbol of evil:
Inside the church, a 17th-century statue of the Immaculate Conception reigns on the altar. The three naves are divided with archi ribassati (literally, “lowered arches,” that is segmented arches, not full arches), characteristic of Narni churches. The robust columns are topped with capitals sculpted with allegorical figures. (Grazie, Marco Santarelli for your photo of the church interior):
During restoration in the 1960’s, 14th and 15th-c. frescoes came to light under the plaster, depicting images of various saints…
…including St. Lucy, holding her eyes on a plate, martyred in the early 4th-c. in Siracusa (Sicily):
Another mysterious martyr saint is on her right, not identifiable due to lack of an identifying iconographical symbol. We know she is a martyr, though, for she is holding a palm, symbol of a martyr saint:
We can identify two other saints nearby: Saint Barbara 3rd-century Greek-Lebanese martyr saint holds the tower where she was held captive and St Blaise, 4th-c Armenian martyr saint holds the comb, symbol of his martyrdom by flaying:
Yes, a small church, Santa Maria Impensole, but a gem worth seeing.
And although those two Roman cisterns in an ambience below the church can no longer be visited (I remember seeing them years ago..), note the Roman vestiges on the the portico of Santa Maria Impensole: Roman columns are pieced together to support the arches.
And you can conclude your “Narni Roman holiday” not far away, just inside the atrium of the city hall, Palazzo Comunale:
You can enter the main door crowned by a griffin, symbol of Narni and significant in C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia”:
When I was recently in the atrium of city hall, a couple municipal employees seemed nonplussed by the Roman remnants around them:
Well, growing up in Narni, those Roman artifacts certainly weren’t novelties they’d bother to note.
Mille grazie to Marco Santarelli and Roberto Nini for sustaining my “Narni passione”: Marco with your photos, Roberto with your insights into all the Narni wonders.
Click here to read about Narni’s underground wonders
Read about the splendor of Narni’s cathedral.
Read about my first experience of the Corsa all’Anello