San Salvatore: Lombard Majesty in Spoleto
Renowned historian and archaeologist, Giuseppe Sordini has deemed Spoleto’s Basilica di San Salvatore “maggiore monumento spoletino dell’antichità,” that is, Spoleto’s greatest monument to antiquity.
In fact, although its exact origins are unknown, the Basilica is clearly a stunning building of the Early Christian period, and one of Umbria’s rarest and most important testimonies of ecclesiastical architecture of the 4th and 5th centuries.
UNESCO confirmed its importance in 2011 including the Basilica as one of seven edifices representing “The Lombards in Italy. The Places of Power (568-774 AD)” in the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites.
And so many visitors to Spoleto miss this treasure that rises in a sort of “exile” on a slight hill outside of Spoleto’s medieval walls and towering above the cimitero monumentale, just down the stairs in front of the Basilica….
Over the centuries, various structural works have altered the appearance of the Basilica and its name has been changed, too, multiple times. Many historians and archaeologists believe it was constructed in the proximity of a pre-exiting Roman villa. Originally linked to the cemetery cult, it was at one time dedicated to the martyr saints Concordio and Senzia, both venerated for their thaumaturgical virtues.
The ancient passio (story of a martyr) of San Concordio (2nd-century) – martyred under the reign of Marcus Aurelius – cites his burial on the site of the Basilica, a place “not far from the city with abundant waters,” waters venerated as miraculous and therapeutic up to the 18th-century. According to a 7th-8th-century legend, San Senzia lived on the hill, Colle Ciciano, where the Basilica was erected and here killed a dragon, symbol perhaps of pagan adoration.
The Basilica was restored in the 8th century under domination of the Lombard dukes of the Duchy of Spoleto (6th-8th-century), resulting in an imposing monumental facade highlighting the Lombard artisanal skill, also in the recycling of Roman sculptural remnants.
The facade (restored in 1997), divided into two levels, was once graced by a portico.
In the lower section, the three doorways bordered with marble reliefs skillfully sculpted with vegetative motifs were constructed using materiale di spoglio (literally, “undressed material,” i.e., material taken from pre-existing structure) of Roman edifices.t
Notable Lombard masterpiece is the central doorway, adorned with the Lombard croce palmata in the center of twists of vines and acanthus leaves, an ancient symbol of virginity and later for early Christians, of the Resurrection. The architrave above dates from a Roman temple of the 1st-century A.D.
Alas, the interior has lost great part of its ornamentation over the centuries..though imposing exquisitely sculptured Roman Doric and Corinthian columns di spoglio (recycled) support the vault, testimony to the Lombard architectural skill at “neoclassical revival.”
Due to structural damage in the August 2016 earthquake, the Basilica is now closed to visitors although the door is left open for viewing the interior.
And in any case, you’ll need time for your visit to the Basilica di San Salvatore: to absorb and take in the sculptural details of the splendid facade.