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Bill Thayer

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This page is my translation of part of
Aquila

published in the Series "Italia artistica"
Bergamo, 1929

The underlying text is in the public domain;
the translation is © William P. Thayer.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Chap. II
(Part 1)

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General View of L'Aquila

(Photo Credit: Alinari)

 p13  I. — Roman Remains

It is spring that brings out to the full the magnificent countryside around L'Aquila. The rugged mountains that surround the city, both far and near, are still mantled in snow, while the plain and the hills are resplendent in vivid fresh greenery. The old city cannot be understood if divorced from this landscape, which is a living part of her, both extending and cutting off the prospects her streets afford, and defining her horizon. She is watched over, as it were, by the mountains that dominate her and sometimes hulk over her, with their austere brown mass, hinting at the force of the winter winds and snows but also at a tempering coolness in summer, and giving a sense of the honest and rude vigor of the people who chose this isolated mountain valley for their home, almost like an immense fortress, which more than the city's own towered walls preserved their free development and allowed them to move by fits and starts toward its destiny. But near Collemaggio, beyond the Porta Castello, below the Belvedere, as if to soften the harsh overlordship of these giant rocks, the plains stretch out rich in plant life and color, rising gently to knolls and little hills, then in the distance to mountain chains: violet at first, then blue, tracing their gentle profiles against the changing backdrop of the sky.

Within the ancient circle of these mountains, the shape of the city has remained ancient as well: narrow streets with beautiful singular names, where at every step buildings are marked by their character and monumental decoration, despite the terrific seismic shocks that have shaken the ground; and, despite depredations and dispersions, the artistic heritage preserved in her countless churches and buildings continues outstanding.

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View of the Gran Sasso

(Photo Credit: Carboni)

Precisely because the city fully reflects her past, marvelous in appearance and significance, she speaks with an enchanting and multifaceted voice. And whoever understands and loves the distant call of the centuries, who knows how to read the living signs of time and human endeavor in her stones and in the course and fabric of her streets, and is uplifted and moved, cannot neglect  p14 the gap in these superb mountain ranges that has created a place in which precious life has flourished. Our spirits will thrill to many subtle emotions: the key moments of our civilization have each left a shining witness in L'Aquila.

 p15  While the origins of L'Aquila, unlike those of many other cities of ours, do not hark back to Rome (except for a few remains, such as the so-called Temple of Vesta, 4 km from the inhabited area), Roman remains do, however, spread out imposingly before us, not far away, well within the sphere of the city's life, at Amiternum, the ruins of which rise near the Aterno.

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View of Amiternum

(Photo Credit: Carli)

Amiternum was a city of the Sabines; but the Romans became masters of it already in 295 B.C., and under the Empire they drove it to its greatest development. It then became the seat of a bishopric, until the foundation of L'Aquila drew its vitality to herself. Sallust (86‑35 B.C.) was born here, who often mentioned his homeland in his historical works. The place is also mentioned by Vergil in the Aeneid as well as by Livy.a

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Museo Civico —
Sculptural Fragments from Amiternum

(Photo Credit: Carli)

Amiternum remained in the shade for only a few centuries. By the 16th century already, on the impassioned initiative of Mariangelo Accursio, a philologist and archaeologist of L'Aquila,  p16 the first excavations began to free it from the ground. They bore conspicuous fruit, since in addition to various architectural and sculptural fragments, the famous Fasti Amiternini came to light, an ancient calendar which would be published by Mommsen and is currently exhibited in L'Aquila's Museo Civico: it lists the festivals and games that took place from July to December. Finds of great importance continued to be made, especially during the nineteenth century: including the fragments of a bisellium — a bronze bed — now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome; a colossal travertine herm representing Hercules, also in the Aquila Museum, imposing rather than fine, two large bronze statues of Alexander Severus, a small bronze of Faustina in the ruins of the Theater (1878-80), which must have been built to the latter days of the Republic or to the early Imperial period; the Amphitheater, built before the Theater, of which the elliptical cavea and its surrounding podium walls have survived, as well as some vaulted sections.

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Relief from Amiternum (Rome, Museo delle Terme)

(Photo Credit: Museum)

Some reliefs discovered in 1913, housed in the Museo delle Terme in Rome, are of considerable importance. One represents a chariot (the horses are almost completely  p17 lost) on which a winged Nike stands holding a large palm frond in her left hand, while the chariot is accompanied by two boys and two men; another chariot followed by four men carrying a statue of Jupiter on a board; this group is joined by another similar one carrying the statue of another divinity; the procession is closed by some other figures. The relief, of local stone, slightly concave, depicts a procession preceding the celebration of the gladiatorial games and must have adorned a tomb, alluding either to the games held on the occasion of the funeral  p18 of the deceased or to games held to mark important events of his political career. There are also sculptures echoing the Augustan period as seen for example on the Ara Pacis; but they are late provincial imitations of the Claudian period, rather stiff and crabbed, though not entirely without importance.

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Museo Civico — Fragments of Sculpture from Amiternum

(Photo Credit: Alinari)

Somewhat more consequential is a shield decorated with a Gorgon's head marked by a certain breadth of decorative feeling and tragic grandeur. Finally there are some architectural fragments.

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Sculpture from Amiternum (Rome, Museo delle Terme)

(Photo Credit: Museum)

And, of course, the excavations of Amiterno also brought to light the usual furnishings: fibulae, earrings, coins, oil lamps, etc. In the Museo dell 'Aquila, among the Amiternine relics, there is also a stone Mausoleum, a very interesting sarcophagus of the imperial period depicting a funeral procession probably of a municipal magistrate or some army commander, preceded by musicians and professional female mourners, with the deceased on a sumptuous bed followed by the family; another relief depicts a combat between two Marsic spearmen, each escorted by an attendant carrying two extra spears.

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Museo Civico — Fragments of Sculpture from Amiternum

(Photo Credit: Alinari)

The declining Roman city saw the first signs of Christianity. Under the church of S. Vittorino, consecrated in 1170, but later reworked so that very little of the original structure has survived, there are small catacombs (with loculi) sacred to the bishop St. Victorinus who preached the new faith there.

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Sculpture from Amiternum
(Roma, Museo delle Terme)

(Photo Credit: Museum)

In the church, in addition to some fragments of plutei with entrelacs that might be dated to the 8c‑9c — or to later times, seeing how widely such decorative forms were imitated and how nearly impossible it is to fix the date of their execution based on stylistic criteria — two bas-relief fragments, one of which is signed Pietro Amabile 1197, prove to be very significant, especially the one depicting the Martyrdom of St. Victorinus. Particularly interesting in this regard is the rhythmic scansion of the attitudes and movements of the martyr and his executioners, of a marked Byzantine character, as is the drapery that wraps itself around gathered folds.

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Sculpture from Amiternum (Rome, Museo delle Terme)

(Photo Credit: Museum)


Thayer's Note:

a Virg. Aen. VII.710; Liv. XXI.62.


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Page updated: 1 Apr 21