Spoleto: San Ponziano

The San Ponziano.

Our visit to Spoleto started at the church of San Ponziano, which is located on the slope of the Colle Ciciano, northeast of the historical city centre. It is dedicated to Pontianus of Spoleto, a young man who was said to have been martyred during the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180). He later became the patron saint of Spoleto and his skull is kept in the church. Each year on 14 January, the feast day of Saint Pontianus, the skull is carried to the Duomo of Spoleto in solemn procession. In the eighteenth century, Pontianus acquired a reputation for being a protector against earthquakes, which certainly comes in handy in a region that is prone to seismic activity.


Note that there is a Dutch connection to the story: in 966 bishop Balderic of Utrecht acquired several relics of the saint and took them back to his cathedral of Saint Martin in what is now the Netherlands. Most of the relics were returned in 1994, an event which was seen as the saint’s homecoming after more than a thousand years.

The church of San Ponziano stands on what was once a Roman cemetery. This is the spot where, according to tradition, the martyr found his final resting place. We do not know how old the church is, but there is certainty that a monastic community had been founded here before the year 1000. The monks who lived in the monastery close to the tomb of Saint Pontianus were likely Benedictines. Later they were replaced by nuns who also followed the Rule of Saint Benedictus. Perhaps the church was founded in the eleventh century, but the Romanesque facade suggests that it was completed in the twelfth or thirteenth century. The Benedictine nuns were replaced with Poor Clares from Perugia in 1521. Their convent was suppressed in 1810, and then again in 1860. Since 1905 the complex has been administered by canonesses following the Rule of Saint Augustinus. Rather surprisingly, they run a bed & breakfast here!

The churches of San Ponziano (right) and San Salvatore (left), seen from Spoleto.

Entrance to the church.


The church has retained its medieval Romanesque exterior. There is little to be seen, but the portal still features bands of very fine Cosmatesque decorations. We also see a Lamb of God above the door, flanked by a lion on the left and an eagle on the right, probably symbols of Mark and John, two of the four Evangelists. Above the symbols is a text in Latin, which reads:


The text translates as: “Peace to the one who enters, to the one who prays the goodwill he deserves. Remember that you are merely dirt and will become ashes. May you receive the pardon you request by tears and moaning”.

After this solemn message, which hardly qualifies as cheerful, it is time to inspect the rest of the facade. Above the portal is a lunette with just a few broken decorations: we see two headless eagles clutching preys in their talons, apparently a hare and cow. A little higher up the facade are the remains of a rose window, which must have been splendid once. The symbols of the four Evangelists in the corners have fortunately been preserved.


Interior of the church.

Once we step over the threshold of the portal, we enter a whole new world. The interior of the San Ponziano was completely remodelled in 1788 to designs by the young architect Giuseppe Valadier (1762-1839), who at the time was also working on the Duomo of Spoleto. The result is a Neo-classicist interior in which the colour white dominates. It is not unpleasant to the eye, but the interior certainly does not match well with the original Romanesque facade outside. Among the few artistic highlight of the church is an altarpiece by Francesco Appiani (1704-1792), a painter who was originally from Ancona in the Marche, but who mostly worked in Perugia. Note that the choir is behind the altar wall, but that it is inaccessible to visitors.


The most interesting works of art can be found in the crypt, which has kept its Romanesque appearance. The crypt has five apses, all of which were provided with frescoes in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. I will discuss some of the highlights, as discussing all frescoes would be rather tedious. None of the painters are known by name, but the fresco in the far right apse is attributed to the mysterious Maestro di Fossa. This is one of the older frescoes down here, probably painted in the first half of the fourteenth century. The fresco features Saint Michael the Archangel and two supplicants, one of whom is a nun (note her habit). This is a work of high quality and it must have been quite expensive, as the Maestro di Fossa used pigments based on gold and lapis lazuli.

Fresco by the Maestro di Fossa.

Trinity (ca. 1400).

Another interesting fresco can be found just to the right of the central apse. It depicts the Trinity and is attributed to the Maestro della Dormitio di Terni or one of his followers. We see Christ on the cross, God the Father behind him, holding the cross arm of the cross, and the dove of the Holy Spirit sitting on the cross. To the left and right of the cross are kneeling women and men. The fresco reminded me of a similar fresco by Masaccio in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Masaccio’s Trinity was painted between 1425 and 1427, the fresco in Spoleto probably around 1400. Even though the Spoletan painting is interesting, it is much more crude than Masaccio’s masterpiece.

The apse on the far left has by far the largest collection of frescoes, most of which are from the fifteenth century. These were probably painted on different occasions, as I see no valid reason for the presence of three images of the Madonna and Child in one apse at the same time. Saint Sebastian, his body riddled with arrows, is depicted twice and so is Saint Pontianus. In both frescoes, the patron saint of Spoleto is wearing virtually nothing; the most prominent piece of clothing seems to be the white scarf wrapped around his neck. Pontianus is depicted as a young man with blond hair. He holds a banner with the cross of Saint George, as well as a shield on which several instruments of torture are shown. In the fresco on the left wall, Pontianus is accompanied by the Franciscan preacher Saint Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444). This fresco is in fact dated. Near the right foot of Pontianus we read the year 1481.

Frescoes in the left apse.

San Salvatore

The San Salvatore.

From the San Ponziano, we walked north to the church of San Salvatore a little higher up the hill. The San Salvatore is surrounded by the modern cemetery of Spoleto. It was first mentioned in a document dating from 1064, but it is much, much older. The main reason that the building is so difficult to date is that it was constructed using almost exclusively spolia from Roman-era buildings: columns, architraves, capitals etc. These spolia date from the fourth and fifth century, but the theory that the San Salvatore arose in Late Antiquity is up for debate. It is probably safer to assume that it was built in the seventh or eighth century, when Spoleto was the capital of a Longobard duchy founded in the late sixth century. The church is in fact counted among the seven complexes that are collectively known as the Places of Power of the Longobards.

The San Salvatore was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011 and had been described as one of the most interesting churches in the city by my travel guide. We were therefore really keen to see it. Unfortunately we found it closed because of inagibilità. The term is difficult to translate, but it basically means that the building is unfit or unsafe for use. The reason is probably the earthquake that hit Umbria in October of 2016 and caused massive damage, especially in Norcia, which is some thirty kilometres east of Spoleto. Although there was no visible damage to the San Salvatore, it was still considered unsafe to enter the church and it was therefore closed (we tried in September of 2018). I wonder whether it still is, but I can certainly conclude that not even Saint Pontianus was able to save the San Salvatore from the effects of this earthquake.

Sources for this post include my Dorling Kindersley travel guide, Italian Wikipedia and the Key to Umbria website.


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