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Bill Thayer

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The Vanishing Amphitheater

In a nutshell: a large Roman amphitheatre has essentially disappeared, I've heard it said that the lost stone is accounted for by the construction of a nearby church a tenth its size built 600 years later, and I don't believe it. It's true that the church is only 100m away. . . .

As a first step, one might calculate the volume of stone used in the amphitheatre of Hispellum, subtract the stone still in situ, and compare the result with the volume of stone used in S. Claudio; but since so little of the Roman building is left and nowhere do we still have the top of it, the numbers could be juggled to support almost any idea.

Visual inspection might be simpler and more effective. The amphitheatre is built of opus caementicium (rubble and mortar) clad with a facing of courses of squared stone.

If the rubble was used in S. Claudio, it would have to be inside the walls there, too — but it's hard to tell what's inside the walls of the church, which are not particularly thick, either.

If the facing had been used to build the church, however, one would expect it to be used as facing there too: the whole point of cannibalizing building material is to save work.

A comparison of the facing stone of both monuments should therefore be instructive. The table below is the best masonry sampler I have, with the most nearly parallel examples of stonework across from each other. You should ignore the color discrepancy in the second row: the S. Claudio picture was taken at sunset. On the other hand, similar stone color means nothing anyway, it's all local Mt. Subasio limestone.

Roman amphitheatre Church of S. Claudio

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(If you need a closer look, click on the images to open them fullsize in another window.)

If you think the church was built out of the amphitheatre, you still probably have to account for a lot more stone somewhere, although just possibly, the conspicuously flat ground under the church might be landfill using some of that rubble: we're in a naturally swampy area here, drained by the Romans in fact. Still, building a church on a base of Roman stone is not unknown in Umbria (see for example the churches of S. Giovanni de Butris and Villa S. Faustino, both along the Via Flaminia north of Acquasparta).

If I on the other hand think the church was not built out of the amphitheatre, I have to tell you where it went. My theory is this, without a scrap of evidence to support it (yet):

By the way, here's an additional complication:

[image ALT: Painting of a ruined 2‑story amphitheatre, one side gone but the other still intact up to what appears to be the top.]

This fresco by one of the Zuccari brothers, in the former Council Chamber of the Palazzo Comunale of Spello, is one of a series of views of the town; a bit romanticized, but the other views seem to have been accurate. As you can see, the amphitheatre is represented as nearly intact on one side. Date? 1589.

If the painting is an accurate 16c record, at least half the stone of the amphitheatre is not part of the fabric of S. Claudio, which had been finished for centuries; and where did this part go?

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Page updated: 11 Aug 99