Umbria: Tempietto del Clitunno

Tempietto del Clitunno.

No one knows when exactly this lovely little temple on the river Clitunno was built. One thing is certain though: it is not really a little temple. The Tempietto is and has always been a Christian edifice, probably a church (there is an altar), but perhaps a mausoleum as well. The problems with dating the Tempietto arise partly from the fact that it was partially built using spolia, building materials taken from Ancient Roman buildings that were reused for other purposes. All of the columns are spolia, for instance, and the aedicule against the back wall inside dates from the Augustan Age. While the dating debate will no doubt continue, for now it seems safest to assume that the Tempietto was erected in seventh or eighth century, during the Longobard era. At the time the city of Spoleto, little more than 10 kilometres to the south, was the capital of a Longobard duchy. Both the Tempietto and the church of San Salvatore in Spoleto (see this post) were included in the list of Longobard Places of Power. In 2011 they both became UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


The Tempietto was first mentioned in documents from the fourteenth century. It was referred to as the Ecclesia S. Salvatoris, the church of San Salvatore (not to be confused with its counterpart in Spoleto). For long it was believed that the building was an ancient pagan temple that had been converted into a Christian church. In a letter to Romanus, the Roman writer Plinius the Younger (ca. 61-113) spoke of “an ancient and venerable temple, in which is placed the river-god Clitumnus clothed in the usual robe of state”. So could the Tempietto originally have been a temple dedicated to the river-god Clitumnus, the personification of the eponymous river? Over the centuries many people certainly liked to believe so, and the name Tempietto del Clitunno was coined by humanists in the sixteenth century. This all changed in the eighteenth century. Most scholars then started to believe that the building, in spite of its (reused) pagan elements, was actually conceived as a Christian building from the start. The date of construction was subsequently moved forward to the late fourth or fifth century, roughly the period between the emperor Theodosius (379-395) and the Ostrogothic king Theoderic (489-526).

The Tempietto del Clitunno, seen from the side.

Interior of the Tempietto.

It is now beyond reasonable doubt that the Tempietto has always been a Christian building, but in the twentieth century the dating was challenged again. The chief challenger was the German archaeologist Friedrich Wilhelm Deichmann (1909-1993). Deichmann advanced the theory that the Tempietto had been built in the eighth or ninth century, possibly as a mausoleum for the Dukes of Spoleto. We know that Longobard rule in Italy basically ended in 774, when the Longobard capital of Pavia was taken by the Franks under Charlemagne. The last Duke of Spoleto of Longobard stock died in 788 or 789 and his successors were Franks. So if Deichmann’s claim is correct, the Tempietto may very well have been built during the Carolingian era. In which case it should immediately be deleted from the list of Longobard Places of Power.

However, the most recent studies have moved the date of construction back again, this time to the seventh or eighth century. The theory of a founding in one of these centuries is supported by scholars such as Judson J. Emerick (1941), who wrote a 630 page book about the Tempietto, and Carola Jäggi (1963), a Swiss art historian. It has recently been proposed that the frescoes inside were painted during the pontificate of Pope John VII (705-707). So all in all, the Tempietto may very well be a Longobard building. Let it remain on the Places of Power list for the moment.


Fresco of Christ in the apse.

The Tempietto stands in a rather isolated spot along the Via Virgilio. There is a car park further to the south and from there one can follow the road to the church. Along this road one may be able to see a Bed & Breakfast named Pieve Sant’Angelo, which – judging by the name – replaced an older church which once stood here. Close to the Tempietto is an old water-powered mill. All that can be said of the Clitunno is that its water is still wet. It is not much of a river anymore, at least not here.

The facade of the Tempietto is impressive. We see a pronaos or portico composed of six columns (see the first image in this post). Four of them are real Corinthian columns, the two lateral ones are square pilasters that are connected to the side walls. As was mentioned above, the columns are spolia. The Tempietto was built on a podium; below the portico is a crypt which can be visited, but which offers nothing in terms of art. The columns support an architrave with the text:


The text explains why the church is named after and dedicated to San Salvatore, i.e. the Saviour himself. It means ‘Holy God of the Angels, who brought about the Resurrection’. Above the architrave is a triangular pediment with beautiful decorations. We see bundles of grapes, floral motifs, acanthus scrolls and a Christian cross in the centre. The cross is actually a Staurogram, a combination of the Greek letters Tau and Rho.

Rear of the Tempietto.

The nave – or cella if you want – of the church could be entered through a vestibule. Two lateral stairs gave access to this vestibule. The side entrances are still in place, but the two stairs are gone. If we study the side entrances closely, we notice that much more has gone missing. The entrances originally had their own facades, but these were damaged and dismantled after an earthquake in 1730. We now have to use a modern set of stairs at the left side of the church to get inside the Tempietto. Fortunately the texts that were once above the side entrances have been documented. These read:



The texts referred to the Holy God of the prophets, who brought about the Redemption, as well as to the Holy God of the apostles, who brought about the Remission of Sins. Do not forget to walk around the Tempietto and admire it from the back. The pediment of the rear has the same decorations as its counterpart at the front. In both pediments we can still see that the decorations were originally painted. There are still quite a few traces of red paint left.

A closer look at the apse.


From the vestibule, one enters a small rectangular room with an apse. The apse is a later addition. In order to construct it, the back wall had to be demolished and rebuilt. The Tempietto was an important destination for pilgrims once, which is evident from the many names that have been scratched into the frescoes of Saints Peter and Paul on the apse wall. This pilgrim graffiti is intriguing. It raises the question why these people wanted to come here so badly. The Tempietto cannot have been merely a church. It is much too small for religious services anyway. The average pilgrim will furthermore not warm to the thought of a visit to the mausoleum of a Duke of Spoleto, unless the man was considered a saint (which none of the dukes were, as far as I know). Perhaps the Tempietto served as the presumed final resting place of a local saint. Perhaps the pilgrims believed in the therapeutic power of the water of the Clitunno river, which many writers in Antiquity did. Perhaps some mysterious ceremonies took place in the crypt. All these questions need answers, and I am afraid I do not have them.

However, I do know that the frescoes of Saints Peter and Paul can be counted among the oldest in Umbria. As was already stated above, a recent study suggests they date from pontificate of Pope John VII (705-707), so from the early eighth century. Peter is depicted with a white beard and ditto hair, and is holding a cross in his left hand; Paul is a slightly balding man with a dark beard, holding a book. Between the two saints is a charming tabernacle which is, by the way, empty. The conch of the apse has a damaged fresco of Christ giving his blessing (see the image above). He too is holding a book, which appears to be closed (so is Paul’s book).

Saints Peter and Paul.

The aedicule with its triangular pediment is fascinating. It may be the oldest part of the Tempietto, as it basically dates from the Augustan Age (first century BCE or first century CE). But it should be stressed that not all elements were made in Antiquity. The tympanum of the pediment was clearly adapted to accommodate the apse. In the top part of the pediment, we see a Christogram or Chi-Rho symbol, not to be confused with the Staurogram of the facade. Above the pediment are more frescoes. Here we see three tondi, one of which is so damaged that it is almost impossible to determine what was in there. In their nomination file for UNESCO, the Italian authorities argued that it was a bejewelled cross with the letters alpha and omega from the Book of Revelation. To me it just looks like a blob of paint. Fortunately the other two tondi are easy to interpret: they contain the busts of two angels.

Triangular pediment of the aedicule and several frescoes.

For this post I have made use of the UNESCO nomination file for the Longobard Places of Power. A leaflet provided by the Tempietto staff and the Key to Umbria website were helpful as well.

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