Temple of Clitumnus

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Temple of Clitumnus.

The Temple of Clitumnus (Italian: Tempietto del Clitunno) is a small early medieval church that sits along the banks of the Clitunno river in the town of Pissignano near Campello sul Clitunno between Spoleto and Trevi, Umbria, Italy. In 2011, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of a group of seven such sites that mark the presence of Longobards in Italy: Places of Power (568–774 A.D.).

The sacred site of Jupiter Clitumnus in antiquity[edit]

The source of the river Clitunno – it springs up at the foot of mountains in Campello – was famous in antiquity as a site sacred to the river god Clitumnus. A stretch of the Via Flaminia, the great road leading from Rome to Rimini, passed by the sanctuary and many once stopped there, as did Pliny the Younger toward the end of the first century CE who records the visit in his Epistulae, Book VIII, 8. Urging his friend, Romanus, to come to the site to see its beauty for himself, Pliny notes that there, next to the river, "an ancient and venerable temple rises where Jupiter Clitumnus himself stands clad in a toga." Reporting how "the oracular responses delivered there prove that the deity dwells therein and tells the future," Pliny adds that the larger temple is accompanied by a number of smaller ones all around, each containing the statue of a god. Virgil mentions the site too in Book II of his Georgics where he celebrates ". . . the milk-white herds of the Clitumnus, those bulls that often bathed in the river's sacred stream, the noblest of the victims Romans sacrifice at their triumphs . . ."

The Tempietto del Clitunno, a church dedicated to the Savior[edit]

Sixteenth-century Renaissance humanists thought that the temple-like church dedicated to San Salvatore standing next to the Via Flaminia in Pissignano must be what remained of the Temple to Jupiter Clitumnus from the old Clitumnus sanctuary, or one of the lesser temples there mentioned by Pliny. Early Christians, they supposed, must have converted the pagan building for their own rites. Plausible as this may seem, twentieth-century archaeologists found that the structure in question had been built from the ground up as a church. In 1970 Judson Emerick discovered that the building had two distinct phases of construction. First a small barrel-vaulted, one-room building rose at the site, cut deeply into the slope of the rocky hill rising behind. Not long afterward, this building was expanded at the back (at the east end) by an apse, and at the front (to the west) by an elaborate system of three entry porticoes with columnar screens in the ancient "Roman Corinthian" style. The building ended with four imposing gables, a pediment at the east, and three full aedicular fronts at the north, south, and west. Strikingly, it was only toward the last quarter of the 20th century that archaeologists saw that the "temple" at the Clitunno had been constructed mainly of spolia, that is, materials taken from many different ancient Roman structures in the neighborhood. But the builders in question could also fashion parts quite by themselves when none could be found ready-made for reuse. Among those prepared anew by the second-phase builders are the tympanum reliefs (for the four pediments), each of which displayed a central leaf-covered Christian cross-monogram surrounded by rich acanthus vine scrolls. The Tempietto's builders themselves also cut the Christian Latin inscriptions in ancient Roman block capitals that one sees in the friezes of the porticoes' gables:

+SCS DEVS ANGELORVM QVI FECIT RESVRECTIONEM+ from the main west front, still extant

Inside, in the apse at the east end of the small nave, one finds extensive remains of some early medieval frescoes depicting the Savior, and Sts. Peter and Paul, and then above, on the apsidal wall, paintings of two angels in medallions, and at center, a medallion with a Crux Gemmata. Fruiting palm trees once appeared below, on the wall at either side of the apse. Judson Emerick has shown that these decorations belonged to the phase-two church: the layer of plaster on which the paintings sit was the first to have been applied to hide and decorate the rough rubble masonry of the apse added in the second-phase of construction. The painting of the Savior looks very like the famous icon of the Pantocrator from the collection of the Byzantine monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai (q.v. online). The portrait of Peter likewise resembles the early medieval icon of the same apostle at Sinai. Icons of this kind were painted in Rome during the early Middle Ages, for example, in Santa Maria Antiqua, the famous sixth- through ninth-century sanctuary on the Roman Forum.

Increasingly art historians zero in upon the large box made of marble slabs embedded in the Tempietto's rear apse wall. This feature, original to the phase-two construction, may have functioned as a tabernacle to house the consecrated eucharist, or what counts as nearly the same thing, it could have been used as a saint's tomb or __memoria__, that is, reliquary. The box was provided with an aedicular front (the pediment of which survives from phase two, but not the colonnettes, which were set up in 1849). Such tabernacles or reliquaries are common in high medieval contexts, but rare for the early Middle Ages. Not long ago, Valentino Pace suggested that the box in question stands at the focus of the Tempietto's sculptural and fresco decoration, which could well have featured a cross relic.

The Tempietto del Clitunno, a church measuring only eleven meters in length, has survived in large part despite some rather thoughtless later interventions. In the 1730s the aedicular fronts of the north and south porticoes were dismantled and the columns sold (!). Between 1890 and 1895 those caring for the building replaced the nave floor with terra cotta tiles, set out stone-masonry benches in the nave's northeast and northwest corners, put an altar table in the apse, and built a wide stairway on the north against the remains of the northern entry portico. Sometime between 1930 and 1933 a restorer clumsily re-painted the frescoes in the Tempietto's apse. This was corrected shortly afterward, and in 1985 the frescoes were thoroughly cleaned again. Recently---in 2018---the entire nave interior was cleaned and preserved.

The construction of a dam on the river Clitunno directly in front of the Tempietto during the high Middle Ages altered the original site radically: the dam provided water power for a large flour mill whose historic walls still survive and cut deeply into the terrace on which the Tempietto's three front porches stand. In the 1950s the site was again much changed by the construction of the highway running directly behind the building (Route 3; the Via Flaminia): a huge section of the hill rising up behind the Tempietto was cut away for the road.

For about a century now, art historians have treated the tiny early medieval church at the river Clitunno as a startling classical revival, a Christian church built in the form of an ancient Roman Corinthian temple. Startling? Yes, because art historians generally do not expect to see temples as churches in Longobard, early medieval Italy or during the Middle Ages in Europe anywhere. But new perspectives on this issue open. The Tempietto's builders never intended their church to resemble a pagan temple. They focused on the scenic columnar displays which they deployed as signs of magnificence. Those now look to comprise a standard kind of festive architecture in the Euro-Mediterranean world. Introduced in Greece in Classic times (for example inside the cella of the Temple of Apollo at Bassae datable to the later fifth century B.C.), it flourished during the Hellenistic period, then became the scenic backdrop for the Roman Imperial city in numerous triumphal arches, colonnaded streets, gateways, temple fronts, temple cellae, palace facades, market halls, gymnasia, nymphaea, baths, theater stage sets, and so forth. As a treasured cultural package, a loose but recognizable gathering of motifs, or better, an iconography ("Empire imagery"), the scenic, focused, "Roman Corinthian" columnar screen continued unchanged from antiquity into the so-called Middle Ages starting with the splendid columnar displays in the early Christian basilicas that the Emperor Constantine (306-337 A.D.) built for his Christian followers in great cities, e.g., in Rome (St. Peter's at the Vatican; the Lateran basilica) or Jerusalem (The Holy Sepulchre). San Salvatore, the church on the river Clitunno, picks up---quite naturally and unsurprisingly---that long "Roman Corinthian" tradition.


  • Pliny the Younger, Letters, VIII, 8
  • Virgil, Georgics, [1]
  • Emerick, Judson (1998). __The Tempietto del Clitunno near Spoleto__ (State College, PA: Penn State Press).
  • Jaggi, Carola (1998). __San Salvatore in Spoleto__ (Wiesbaden: Reichert), especially pp. 149 ff.
  • Pace, Valentino (2003). "Immanenza dell'antico, congiunzioni romane e traiettorie Europee: Aspetti dell'arte longobarda in Umbria e in Campania," in Atti del XVI Congresso, Centro Italiano di Studi sull'Alto Medioevo: __I longobardi dei ducati di Spoleto e Benevento__ (Spoleto), pp. 1125-48.
  • Emerick, Judson (2014). "The Tempietto del Clitunno and San Salvatore near Spoleto: Ancient Roman Imperial Columnar Display in Medieval Contexts" in __Tributes to Pierre du Prey, Architecture and the Classical Tradition, from Pliny to Posterity__, ed. M. Reeve (London and Turnhout: Brepols/Harvey Miller), chap. 3, pp. 41-71.

Coordinates: 42°50′32″N 12°45′25″E / 42.8422°N 12.7569°E / 42.8422; 12.7569