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The Roman "Nicchioni" of Todi


[image ALT: A stone structure about 18 meters tall, half that height consisting of a series of four round-arched niches; above them, the wall has been extended into three stories of living quarters with the occasional rectangular window. At the base of the structure, a parking lot with a dozen cars visible; the top of the photograph is framed, and some of the upper story of the structure obscured, by the leafy branches of a large deciduous tree. It is a view of the Roman structure known as the Nicchioni, in Todi, Umbria (central Italy), further discussed in the text of this webpage.]

These four vaulted recesses are undoubtedly Roman. Exactly what they are, remains a matter of mystery and hypothesis.

Somewhere along the line, very likely in the first excitement of humanism and the rediscovery of ancient Rome, these monumental niches became known as the "Roman Forum" of Todi; today's only consensus is that that's not right. The narrow parking lot you see in front of them is about all the flat terrain available: behind you as you look at them, sharply downsloping hill; more to the point, the ancient center of the very old Etruscan city of Tuder is much larger and relatively flat, above the rooftops offscreen right. There was plenty of room to site a forum — the Roman market square and meeting-place — much more conveniently and usefully; I wouldn't be surprised if under today's medieval piazza.


[image ALT: A series of ancient three round-arched niches of carefully dressed stone; above them, a wall continues upward, with at least one small rectangular window visible. It is a partial view of the Roman structure known as the Nicchioni, in Todi, Umbria (central Italy), further discussed in the text of this webpage.]

The material is travertine, a form of limestone that stays hard and crisp for centuries. To the Romans, who liked to build solid and lasting, it was an all-purpose architectural "workhorse".

These nicchioni — the Italian word means "large niches" — are described by Carlo Grassetti (Todi e Dintorni) as 11 m tall, but from the asphalt ground level to the top of the Roman work, they are no more than 8 m high. He also says that they are probably the remains of a basilica, although he confusingly adduces that from black-and‑white mosaics found "at about 20 meters below the pavement". I don't know whether any serious excavation has been undertaken here, although in view of the fragile and densely built topography of this flank of the hill of Todi, I very much doubt it: but I find it hard to imagine these well-proportioned recesses as extending more than a foot or two below today's pavement, or as belonging to any upper story.


[image ALT: A round-arched niche of carefully dressed stone; above it, a Doric frieze, the left-hand portion damaged and broken off: a total of 10 triglyphs and the metopes between them is visible. It is a detail of the Roman structure known as the Nicchioni, in Todi, Umbria (central Italy), further discussed in the text of this webpage.]

Beautiful solid work, if slightly irregular.


[image ALT: A stone masonry wall of four round-arched niches, sloping about 10° inward. It is a modern structure in Spello, Umbria (central Italy), supporting a platform, not seen in the photograph, currently used as a basketball court.]
	The solidity of these arches and their location together convince me, along with most people, that we are looking at a simply utilitarian substructure, designed for one purpose: to hold up and maybe extend the flat surface above it. A bit of decoration does no harm, but you'll notice there is no sign of any marble revetment, as we would find in a basilica, temple, or public building; and every sign that this was the finished surface in Antiquity.

The smaller photograph shows just such a substructure, modern, supporting a basketball court in Spello, another Umbrian town about 40 km from Todi. Here too, a sharp downsloping hill behind me when I took the picture.


[image ALT: A portion of a Doric frieze, with 5 triglyphs and the 4 metopes between them. From left to right, the 1st and 3d metopes are damaged and of uncertain subject; the 2d depicts a flower, and the 4th a circle encompassing a cross. The frieze is part of the Nicchioni, a Roman structure in Rodi, Umbria (central Italy).]

A closer view of part of the Doric frieze above the arches: not strictly Doric, of course, but what we in the United States might call "Doric revival", the much later use of a historic style, that we see elsewhere in Umbria, for example in the monumental tombs of Carsulae.

Between the triglyphs, the metopes form a decorative succession of flower motifs, human heads, shields, crowns. The one cross among them is very unusual, and I suspect it was carved well after Rome had fallen and Todi had become Christian; although I admit that it doesn't look like it. On the other hand such "baptisms" of ancient monuments are common enough.


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Page updated: 23 Dec 12