Umbria: Amelia (part 1)

View of Amelia, with the Duomo at the top of the hill and the ancient walls in the foreground.

The main reason we wanted to visit the lovely town of Amelia was its archaeological museum. This museum has a larger-than-life bronze statue of the Roman general Germanicus (15 BCE-19 CE) on display. Germanicus was a son of Nero Claudius Drusus, brother of the emperor Tiberius. Drusus had died in 9 BCE after a nasty fall from his horse while returning from a campaign in Germania. He had been the first Roman commander to reach the Elbe.[1] His nickname ‘Germanicus’ was passed on to his son, who was six years old at the time of Drusus’ death. Young Germanicus was later adopted by Tiberius. He proved to be a very competent general himself. Germanicus was extremely popular with the army and campaigned extensively in Germania, before dying in Syria in 19 CE under rather suspicious circumstances. His bronze statue in Amelia was discovered in 1963. It is not at all clear what it was doing there, who erected it, when and why. The head is probably not original, and the statue may originally have been that of King Mithridates VI of Pontus or the emperor Caligula.

I really wanted to see this unique statue, which stands 2.14 metres tall, but unfortunately the archaeological museum turned out to be closed. This was extremely puzzling, as we had arrived on a Tuesday and both of my travel guides stated that the museum was open on Tuesdays. The tourist information office was located next to the museum and the staff there explained to us that some genius on the museum board had decided to have the museum closed on Tuesdays so that it could be open on Mondays. By doing so the board hoped to attract more visitors. Well, because of this stupid measure – which may have already been reversed – two very miffed people certainly did not visit the museum. We had driven about an hour to get to Amelia, and now we not only missed the Germanicus statue, but also a well-known work in the adjacent Pinacoteca by Pier Matteo d’Amelia (ca. 1445-1508), a local painter who was an apprentice of Filippo Lippi and worked with him in the Duomo of Spoleto.

Amelia, seen from a distance.

History of Amelia

The Porta Romana of Amelia.

So our attempt to visit the archaeological museum was a failure, but our visit to Amelia was not.[2] Modern Amelia is a charming town with a population of about 12.000. In Antiquity it was known as Ameria and it was said to have been named after a mythical Umbrian king called Ameroë. Cato the Censor – whose Origines are lost, but who was quoted by Plinius the Elder – claimed that Ameria was founded “964 years before the war with Perseus”. Since the war with Perseus started in 171 BCE, the traditional year for the founding of the town is 1135 BCE. Cato’s account is probably not very reliable, but there is certainly evidence that the hill that forms the nucleus of modern Amelia had already been settled in the eleventh or tenth century. There can therefore be no doubt that Amelia has very ancient roots.

Ancient Ameria became part of the Roman world in the late fourth or early third century BCE. It was likely granted the status of a municipium under the Lex Julia of 90 BCE, as a consequence of which its citizens received Roman citizenship and were enrolled in the tribus Clustumina. Ameria does not seem to have been of particular importance under the Republic, but there is ample evidence that it flourished under the Empire. It occupied a strategic position on the Via Amerina, a road that was originally of subsidiary importance only, but later became a lifeline after the Longobardic invasion of Italy in 568. The Longobards overran large parts of Italy and eventually came to control the Via Flaminia, thus cutting the traffic between Rome and the Eastern-Roman Exarchate of Ravenna. For close to two centuries, right up until the defeat of the Longobards by the Franks in 774-776, the Via Amerina served as the ‘Byzantine Corridor’ between Rome and Ravenna (see this map).

Duomo of Amelia.

We had parked our car along the famous polygonal walls of the town. These are very old indeed. The walls are mostly made of huge blocks of stone that have been stacked without the use of cement. It is possible that they date back to pre-Roman times and were erected as early as the eighth or seventh century BCE. We entered the historical centre of Amelia through the Porta Romana, the southernmost gate in the walls. From there one basically follows the ancient cardo maximus, the north-south road of a Roman town. If one continues along this road, one eventually reaches the highest point of the town, the ancient acropolis, where the most important buildings of Roman Ameria must have once stood. In spite of its name, the current Porta Romana has little connection with the Roman era. Although there has always been a gate at this spot, the Porta Romana we see today was constructed in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The gate has an inscription which refers to the earthquake that hit the town in 1703. See the image above.

The Duomo – history

The ancient cardo maximus is now called the Via della Repubblica. After about 75 metres, the first road on the right leads to the Piazza Augusto Vera where we find the archaeological museum, the tourist information office and the church of San Francesco. More about that church later. After finding the museum closed, we decided to climb all the way up to the ancient acropolis at the top of the hill. It was a steep road and a stiff climb, but it turned out to be very rewarding. The view from up here is truly amazing. The lookout point in front of the Duomo or cathedral of Santa Firmina offers a panoramic view of the area around Amelia. This is the ideal location to establish that Umbrian landscapes are among the most beautiful in all of Italy.

The Umbrian countryside.

Interior of the Duomo.

Those expecting to find a hilltop covered with the remains of Roman buildings are likely to be disappointed. In Antiquity, a temple dedicated to a solar deity may have stood here, but the evidence for this theory is apparently quite thin. Whatever was here, it was replaced with a church dedicated to Saint Lawrence in the sixth century. Amelia already had a church dedicated to this saint, but like so many early Christian churches, the original church of Saint Lawrence stood outside the city walls, along the aforementioned Via Amerina. In the sixth century, with Christianity firmly established as the only accepted religion, a new church of Saint Lawrence could be founded at the highest and most prominent point of the town.

In the ninth century, probably in about 872 and certainly during the pontificate of Pope Adrianus II, the church was re-dedicated to Saint Firmina by the then bishop of Amelia, a certain Paschalis. Firmina is a rather obscure martyr who supposedly died during the anti-Christian persecutions orchestrated by the emperor Diocletianus in the early fourth century. Nothing about her life is known with certainty, but her alleged relics are kept in the Duomo, along with those of Saints Olympias and Himerius. Olympias is about as obscure as Firmina. Apparently he was the magistrate involved in the persecutions, who later repented and converted to Christianity himself, leading to his own martyrdom. Himerius was a sixth century bishop of Amelia. The Duomo claims to possess the column to which Saint Firmina was tied while she was being tortured.

Column of Saint Firmina.

The cathedral was rebuilt in the Romanesque style in 1220 after it had suffered heavy damage in a fire or an earthquake. It was damaged again in 1240, when Amelia was captured by the army of the emperor Frederick II of Hohenstauffen (1220-1250). A restoration project was launched in 1255, and in 1323-1324 lateral chapels were added to the cathedral. In 1629, a careless organist left a brazier burning. An ember fell out and caused a fire, in which much of the cathedral was damaged beyond repair. The Duomo was almost completely rebuilt between 1636 and 1677. The project involved radical changes to the layout of the cathedral: the floor of the nave was lowered and the crypt was demolished. The relics of Saints Firmina and Olympias were subsequently moved to a new location under the high altar, where they can still be found today. The interior of the Duomo dates mostly from the nineteenth century. The decorations were made by the painter Luigi Fontana (1827-1908). The brick facade of the Duomo is also a nineteenth century addition. The building must have been provided with a facade after the 1636-1677 restoration, but this seems to have been damaged by an earthquake in 1832. The current facade was built in 1887.

Slab from the tomb of bishop Ruggero Mandosi.

The Duomo – highlights

The Duomo of Amelia hardly qualifies as the most interesting religious building in the country, but there are a few highlights that visitors should not miss. In the first chapel on the right, we find a marble slab that must have once covered the sarcophagus of Ruggero Mandosi, who was bishop of Amelia from 1444 until 1484. The relief of the deceased on the slab is often attributed to the sculptor Agostino di Duccio (ca. 1418-1481). If it is indeed his work, it must have been made well before the bishop’s death in 1484 and the sculptor’s own death in about 1481. The slab is interesting because the effigy of the deceased is surrounded by Latin texts. The text on either side of the mitre reads SPES FIDES ET CARITAS, “Hope, Faith and Charity”. The text below the feet of the deceased reads VBI CARITAS ET AMOR DEVS IBI EST, “Where there are charity and love, there is God”.

The second chapel on the right is the Farrattini family chapel. Along with the Geraldinis, the Farrattinis were among the most important families in Amelia. The chapel has a vestibule where one should be able to see two Turkish standards captured during the famous battle of Lepanto in 1571 (see Rome: Santa Maria in Aracoeli). Unfortunately, these had apparently been removed because of restoration works when I visited Amelia in August of 2018. The chapel was built by order of Baldo Farrattini, bishop of Amelia from 1558 until 1562, whose tomb we find on the right. On the left is the tomb of his uncle, Bartolomeo II Farrattini, who had died in 1534. This Bartolomeo had commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger to build the Palazzo Farrattini elsewhere in Amelia.

Impression of the Farrattini Chapel.

Torre Civica.

The tomb of Baldo was made by Ippolito Scalza (1532-1617), a sculptor from Orvieto who actually signed this work. Bartolomeo’s tomb is now usually attributed to Scalza’s contemporary Giovanni Antonio Dosio (1533-1611). Also in the chapel is a bust of Bartolomeo III Farrattini, bishop of Amelia from 1562 until 1571 and obviously related by blood to his predecessor Baldo Farrattini. The altarpiece of a Madonna and Child with Saints Peter and Bartholomew has been attributed to either Taddeo Zuccari (1529-1566) or his younger brother Federico (1539-1609). The Duomo authorities are nowadays pretty sure that it is an early work by Federico, who is chiefly remembered for finishing the huge fresco of The Last Judgment in the Duomo of Florence.

I searched the entire Duomo for a painting of a Madonna and Child attributed to Antoniazzo Romano (1430-1508) or his school. My travel guide claimed it was one of the highlights of the cathedral, but I could not find it and suspect it has been removed. A painting that has certainly been removed is a panel of the martyrdom of Saint Firmina by Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), one of the very few female painters of the sixteenth century. This painting was stolen in 1975 and has been replaced with a copy.

A structure that does not seem to have been affected by fires, earthquakes or marauding armies is the Torre Civica, the freestanding dodecagonal tower next to the cathedral. The sturdy tower stands about 33 metres tall. It was built in the eleventh century and is therefore more than 900 years old.

Sources for this post include my Dorling Kindersley and Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) travel guides and the brochure ‘Amelia. 3000 years of history’. Extra information was provided by the Key to Umbria website and the information panel outside the Duomo.



[1] Adrian Goldsworthy, In the name of Rome. The men who won the Roman Empire, p. 275.

[2] The following two paragraphs are largely based on the brochure ‘Amelia. 3000 years of history’.


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