Umbria: Bevagna

Bevagna is a charming Umbrian town with a predominantly medieval appearance. If you want to get the best view of the town available, drive to the sixteenth-century sanctuary of the Madonna delle Grazie, which is situated on a hill just outside town. Bevagna has roots in Antiquity and was then called Mevania. In 308 BCE there was a battle in the vicinity of the town between a Roman army and a large force of Umbrians. According to the Roman historian Livius (Book 9.41), the consul Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus won a fairly easy victory, after which the Umbrians surrendered. The complete subjugation of the region followed after the Roman victory over a coalition of Etruscans, Samnites, Celts and Umbrians in 295 BCE. A process of Romanisation was then started. The Romanisation was aided by the founding of the Latin colony of Spoletium (modern Spoleto) some twenty kilometres south of Mevania in 241 BCE.

View of Bevagna.

Reconstruction of Mevania, Roman Bevagna (map from the Roman theatre).

Another important development was the building of the Via Flaminia. The construction of this road, which connected Rome to the Latin colony of Ariminum on the Adriatic Sea, started in 220 BCE under the censor Gaius Flaminius. At the Latin colony of Narnia (modern Narni) the road split into two separate branches. The eastern branch ran to Spoletium, before joining the main track at Forum Flaminii (modern Foligno) again and swinging further north. Mevania was on the western branch of the road, just like the stopover (mansio) of Carsulae, which I have discussed previously. The current Corso Giacomo Matteotti in the centre of town follows the same route as the old Roman road. In 90 BCE the citizens of Mevania were granted Roman citizenship and were enrolled in the tribus Aemilia. Mevania itself was given the status of a municipium.

Roman remains

Visitors to present-day Bevagna may still admire all sorts of Roman remains. These all date from the Imperial age. In the Via San Francesco a curve in a residential block is evidence that the theatre of the town once stood here. This theatre was built in the first century CE. Its remains can be visited by taking an entrance in the Via dell’Anfiteatro. The name of that street is wrong of course. Apparently it was assumed in the past that this was the site of the amphitheatre of Mevania. Archaeologists only later discovered that it had been an ordinary theatre. The town probably did have its own amphitheatre, but this was located outside the city walls.

Via San Francesco.

Once inside the corridors of the theatre, a guide will tell you something about the history of Bevagna (in Italian). Maps placed on the wall give a good impression of how the town has developed and changed since Antiquity. One of the maps shows what the theatre must have looked like back then. Our guide took some pride in the fact that it was one of the largest theatres of Umbria. Judging by its width, it could indeed have been just as large as the theatre of Gubbio. If so, then it had seats for approximately 6.000 spectators. In the Middle Ages, houses were built over the remains of the theatre. A replicated medieval house gives visitors a good idea of life in that era and also of what people ate and drank in those days. The staple foods were apparently bread, beans, cheese and (cheap) wine. Inside the remains of the theatre there is also a water wheel that is still fully operational and that can be used to power a mill stone. The guide will be more than happy to show you how the device works.

Remains of the Roman theatre.

Medieval house in the Roman theatre.

Medieval meal.

Water wheel.

Remains of the Roman temple.

On the Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi one can see the remains of a Roman temple from the second century. We do not know to which deity the temple was dedicated. Only the cella (the room with the statue of the god) of the building and its podium have been preserved. If you pass by the former temple, you will also notice surviving pieces of brick columns. The temple was later converted into the Christian sanctuary of the Madonna della Neve. In the process the building was ‘turned around’. The front of the temple became the back of the church and vice versa.

The vestiges of the Roman baths are to be found around the corner in the Via delle Terme Romane. The baths date from the second century, presumably from the time of the emperor Hadrianus (117-138). The remains of the cold bath or frigidarium can be visited with a guide. Report at the Museo Civico (see below) if you are interested in a tour. The frigidarium has beautiful and very realistic mosaics featuring naval motifs. The fantasy animals, dolphins, lobsters and octopuses are in fact so well done that people who used the cold bath must have truly watched their step! After all, who wants a lobster biting his toe?

Mosaics in the frigidarium.

Churches

The stone of Franciscus of Assisi.

The church of San Francesco is perhaps the most important religious building of Bevagna. A very special relic is kept in the church, i.e. the stone on which Saint Franciscus of Assisi is supposed to have stood when he gave his famous sermon to the birds. The Franciscans initially settled outside the walls of Bevagna, but in 1275 they were assigned a small oratory built near the highest point of the town. Presumably a Roman temple once stood there, but again it is not known to which deity it was dedicated. The oratory, for its part, was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. The Franciscans eventually replaced it with a large church dedicated to their founder and a monastery. The white interior dates from 1756 and is not very interesting. Neither are the works of art in the church. Among the highlights are a painting by the local master Ascensidonio Spacca, also known as Il Fantino (ca. 1557-1646), and a dome with decorations in glazed terracotta by Santi Buglioni (1494-1576).

In the lower part of the town, we find three churches adjoining the Piazza Silvestri. The church of Santi Domenico e Giacomo was closed when we visited Bevagna in 2018, but we did manage to visit the churches of San Michele Arcangelo and San Silvestro. The former was built around 1200 by the architects Binello and Rodolfo in the Romanesque style. The building replaced an earlier church from about 1070. The San Michele has a remarkable square façade with a splendid portal on which we may note traces of Cosmatesque decorations. A rather conspicuous element of the façade is the huge oculus, which undoubtedly once held a beautiful rose window. The robust Gothic campanile is a later addition. In the eighteenth century the church was provided with a Baroque interior, which was removed again in the 1950s in an attempt to give the church back its medieval appearance. The church of San Michele has very few artistic highlights, although one can admire (damaged) work by the local painter Andrea Camassei (1602-1649). The crypt of the church is open to the public.

Piazza Silvestri.

San Michele Arcangelo.

The church of San Silvestro on the other side of the piazza dates from 1195. It was also built in the Romanesque style and has an even more remarkable façade, which was clearly never completed. A campanile had been planned, but it was ultimately never built. The San Silvestro is also attributed to the architect Binello. The church has a nice portal that is rich in symbolism. On the frieze above the entrance, a mountain (far right) represents Christ and a river with four currents the Gospels. The grapevine growing on the mountain symbolises the Church, while the animals represent the faithful and a dragon Satan himself. By contrast, the interior of the church is quite dark and has no highlights. Visitors may enter the crypt beneath the raised choir.

Palazzo dei Consoli (left) and San Silvestro (right).

Frieze of the San Silvestro.

Museum and theatre

The Palazzo Lepri, which dates from the eighteenth century, currently houses the Museo Civico of Bevagna. This is a fairly small museum which offers collections of archaeological finds and paintings. Among the paintings are obviously works of the aforementioned Andrea Camassei, who was after all born in Bevagna. The museum also possesses a work called the Madonna di Constantinopoli, which was painted by Il Fantino, who like Andrea Camassei was a local painter. The most important work is a Madonna and Child by Dono Doni (ca. 1505-1575), a painter from Assisi. Both this work and the Madonna di Constantinopoli are originally from the church of San Francesco.

Works of Dono Doni (left) and Il Fantino (right).

I already mentioned above that it is possible to book a guided tour of the remains of the Roman baths at the Museo Civico. After visiting the baths, the guide will take you to the local theatre, the Teatro Francesco Torti. The theatre is housed in the Palazzo dei Consoli from ca. 1270, but it was itself built between 1872 and 1886. It has a splendid interior, with beautiful lodges and a marvellously painted ceiling.

Teatro Francesco Torti.

More about Bevagna on the Key to Umbria website.

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