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The "Temple of Minerva"

[image ALT: zzz]

In its present medieval context, it looks like this:


Vitruvius, speaking of the five types of column spacing (de Architectura, III.3), has this to say about the narrowest two, the pycnostyle and systyle spacings:

. . . pycnostyle is that in the intercolumniations of which the thickness of a column and a half can be interposed . . . systyle is that in which the thickness of two columns can be placed in the intercolumniations, and the plinths of the bases are equally great with the space between two plinths . . .

These two kinds are objectionable in use. For when matrons come up by the steps to give thanks, they cannot approach between the columns arm in arm but in single file; further, the view of the doors is taken away by the numerous columns, and the statues themselves are obscured. . .

Now you'll note that Vitruvius is in fact not exactly speaking of the proportions of intercolumniation, so much as of the actual physical space available between the columns; and here, we can see just what he means. These two young women — for our purposes, let them be matrons — were just visiting the temple together, but cannot in fact walk down the steps side by side:

[image ALT: zzz. It is a detail of the Roman steps of the Temple of Minerva in Assisi, Umbria (central Italy), now the church of S. Maria sopra Minerva.]

Here, however, we have what is said to be a temple of Minerva. If so, matrons possibly might never have had to walk in, arm in arm, to give thanks: Minerva was the goddess of virginity.

The detail of the steps, below, shows a fairly unusual feature of the temple.

Normally, a temple — pronaos, columns and all — sits on a solid platform: the steps lead up to the edge of this platform. But Assisi is built on the side of a hill and the forum (now the Piazza del Comune) in front of the temple is quite narrow: there wouldn't have been enough room for the steps; several more of them do extend below the modern asphalt down to the Roman street level.

The architect's solution was to bring the top of the steps into the pronaos itself, with the supporting columns left advancing into the staircase.

[image ALT: zzz. It is a partial view of the steps of the church of S. Maria sopra Minerva in Assisi, Umbria (central Italy).]

[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of a lateral wall of the church of S. Maria sopra Minerva in Assisi, Umbria (central Italy).]
The building underwent many vicissitudes, belonging to various convents and being used for all kinds of things until it reached its present use; but the medieval builders of the adjacent Torre del Popolo had enough respect for it as a structure to use it as a support: that's what these buttresses are about. (Off the left of the picture, the medieval tower; to the right, the partly Roman NW wall of the temple.)

zzz For many years, the interior walls of the pronaos (front portico: literally "pre-temple") housed a large collection of Roman inscriptions found thruout the Assisi area. They've now been moved to the museum, but these two remain: a pair of unrelated funerary inscriptions. The first, CIL 11.5388, is the tombstone of a young man of 28 who had been a military scout for 9 years: a dangerous job. In the second, CIL 11.5457, a man remembers the wife he lost.

My photo isn't the best picture, even when you click on it and expand it; and in fact the inscriptions aren't that clear. My decipherment of them on the spot, from far away and below them, couldn't be as good as this one (from Epigrafi lapidarie romane di Assisi, edited by Giovanni Forni, Electa Editori Umbri Associati, Perugia 1987 — as I immediately saw once I had their very good photographs in front of me):




Note the spelling CARISVMAE: the standard form as taught in modern schools would be carissimae, but the ending -imus was often spelled -umus because the vowel as pronounced was in fact intermediate. For this sound, the emperor Claudius actually used a special new letter of his own devising, but it didn't catch on.

As for the inside of the Temple of Minerva, well . . . this is living Italy, after all; it is still in use as a religious building, but the dedication has changed: it is now S. Maria sopra Minerva (officially S. Filippo Neri):

[image ALT: zzz. It is the interior of the church of S. Maria sopra Minerva in Assisi, Umbria (central Italy).]

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Page updated: 24 Dec 14