The San Pietro is located south of the historical centre of Spoleto, at the foot of the Monteluco. The church is and has always been outside the city walls and is therefore also known as San Pietro extra moenia or San Pietro fuori le Mura. It occupies a site that has been used as a cemetery since pre-Roman times. A first church was probably built in the early fifth century. It is attributed to Bishop Achilleus of Spoleto, who can certainly be considered historical: he is documented as celebrating Easter in Rome in the year 419. The church was dedicated to Saint Peter the Apostle and claimed to possess a relic of one of his chains. So in other words, the church was basically a Spoletan version of the San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome.
The present church was built in the twelfth or early thirteenth century. It is most famous because of its beautiful Romanesque facade, which is well worth a detour (the church is a bit off the beaten track). In 1329, the San Pietro was burned down by members of the Ghibelline faction in Spoleto, i.e. the supporters of the Holy Roman emperor (Spoleto had been part of the Papal States since 1198). The facade miraculously survived the fire and the church was rebuilt at the end of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth century. Its present interior dates to the late seventeenth century, to 1699 to be exact. It can be described as simple Late Baroque in which the colour white dominates. To be honest, if you visit the San Pietro, you do not really have to go inside as there is not much to admire (see the image below). If you stay outside, you may enjoy two things: the precious facade and the panoramic view.
To start with the facade: especially the lower central part is lavishly decorated with some of the best sculptural work in the Romanesque style in all of Umbria. Since the church is dedicated to Saint Peter, the saint is featured in several of the reliefs. The best are those to the left of the lunette above the central portal. Here we see how Saint Peter saves the soul of a dead man. The dead man is lying on his deathbed and Peter unties his hands. Saint Michael the Archangel is the judge who weighs the dead man’s soul. The man is allowed to go to heaven, much to the displeasure of a little devil, who seems to be grabbing the scales. The devil is holding a scroll with the words DOLEO Q(VIA) AN(TE) E(RAT) MEVS, “I suffer because he was mine previously”. In other words, the man’s soul was bound to go to hell before it was saved by Saint Peter. Saint Michael appears to be pointing towards the text.
Below this relief is another scene, in which the deceased is not so lucky. It is not entirely clear whether we see a man or a woman (note the long hair of the deceased), but he or she is submitted to terrible tortures by two devils and it is clear the soul is going to hell. Note that the hands of the deceased are bound and that Saint Peter is nowhere to be seen. On the left, the body of the deceased is cooked in a cauldron. On the right Saint Michael is walking away from his scales. The gesture he makes is telling: “Not worth the effort”.
To the right of the lunette are two scenes from the life of Saint Peter. The lower one shows the calling of Peter and his brother Andreas by Christ. The two brothers are in their boat, while Christ is on the shore. The scene is from Matthew 4:18-19 (and Luke 5:1-11). The upper scene shows Christ washing the brothers’ feet.
The other reliefs of the facade are not related to Saint Peter. We mostly see allegorical scenes featuring lions, wolfs, ravens, rams and dragons. The central portal is surrounded by neatly carved vegetal motifs. A second band of decorations features several arcades, peacocks eating from grapes, deer biting snakes (the deer on the right has a fawn) and farmers ploughing their fields with oxen. The lunette above the portal has retained its Cosmatesque decorations. Although the rose window of the second level of the facade has all but disappeared, it too still has its Cosmatesque decorations and we can also still admire the symbols of the four Evangelists in the corners.
The San Pietro can be reached by climbing a set of stairs that were constructed in the seventeenth century. The stairs lead to a little piazza in front of the church that offers a panoramic view of Spoleto and the surrounding area. This is a good spot to admire the Rocca Albornoziana, the citadel built by the Spanish cardinal Gil Álvarez Carrillo de Albornoz (1310-1367), the war-horse of Popes Innocentius VI (1352-1362) and Urbanus V (1362-1370) who reclaimed much of Central Italy for the Papacy, reforged the Papal States and paved the way for a return of the popes from Avignon to Rome (see Assisi: Rocca Maggiore). Also visible is the famous Ponte delle Torri, a former Roman aqueduct that was converted into a bridge, presumably in the fourteenth century.