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"Urbinum Hortense"

Rediscovering an Umbrian Hilltown of Roman Times

[image ALT: A ruined wall of three courses of rectangular stone blocks, irregularly laid, of somewhat varying size, but generally about 60 cm long. It is the remains of a structure in opus quadratum at the ruined Roman town that modern archaeologists call Urbinum Hortense, near Collemancio, Umbria (central Italy).]

An attractive bit of opus quadratum peeping out from the wind-blown cover of plastic and reed matting installed by archaeologists. Notice the scale of the plants: these are massive blocks of stone. This wall looks like part of a platform serving as a base for an important building, maybe a temple. For a pulled-back view of the ancient street this wall fronts on, across from the little basilica you see elsewhere on this page, see my diary.

In the early 1930's, a hard-working amateur archaeologist by the name of Giovanni Canelli-Bizzózzero — by profession, a grade-school teacher in nearby Trevi — prospected the hills W of Cannara and found a Roman town, excavating some of it under the auspices of a Comitato Per La difesa dei Monumenti e del Paesaggio Cannara (Committee for the Defense of the Monuments and Landscape of Cannara), and deciding that it is the ancient Urvinum Hortense more or less mentioned by Pliny (III.114) at the end of a long list of Umbrian towns in loosely alphabetical order mixing many that are in this part of Umbria, with others some distance away in what is now the Northern Marche: ". . . the Tifernians on the Tiber and those on the Metauro, the Urbanates on the Metauro and others called hortenses [ garden-dwellers], the Vettonians, the Vindinates, the Visuentani").

I'm a bit sceptical; but he published the results of his excavations in the Bollettino della Regia Deputazione di Storia Patria per l'Umbria (Vol. XXX, Fasc. I‑III – N. 80‑82)a and for practical purposes all the maps of Umbria have taken up the moniker: plus this town — whatever its name may have been in Antiquity — is undoubtedly Roman and has been subjected to sporadic excavation since its discovery; it was Bizzozzero himself, though, who uncovered among other vestiges the great prize so far, a splendid mosaic of animal life on the banks of the Nile that is now in the Museo delle Terme in Rome.

My visit here, in September 1998, at the end of a long hot climb, was apparently on the last day of a summer dig conducted by Prof. Maurizio Matteini Chiari of the University of Perugia.

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The star of the show for me was what must surely have been a rather handsome little basilica, quite possibly Christian since the town survived into Late Antiquity; at any rate, an apsed structure and thus an ancestor of the church of the Madonna del Latte just a few hundred yards downhill. You can see the slightly raised square side room made of nearly cubical blocks more clearly in this photo.

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Interior view of the apsed building, with our platform base in the background.

When I was here, much of the several acres of hilltop was fenced off with barbed wire, if only rather nominally so; and a crew of archaeology students were learning their careers and generally cleaning up things. I did not get in the way of the schiavi archeologici, then, and just enjoyed the scenery and the sun.

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From the top of their hill the inhabitants of this Roman town could see Asisium, Hispellum, and Fulginium, as can you if you look carefully.

Much of the plain was under water in Roman times, forming the lacus Clitorius or Umber mentioned in ancient authors. The Romans themselves reclaimed the marsh once, over a period of several hundred years; after civilization fell, the Benedictines did it again in the Middle Ages and an engineer from Foligno finished the job in the 16c.

Finally, in a previous incarnation of this page, I presented the photo below as a little nagging mystery, a clearly artificial stone, with a long rounded portion, that appears to be made of some kind of aggregate (although the rust-colored blotches are a fungus). The felt pen is exactly 14 cm long; the stone is thus about 75 cm wide.

I didn't think it was a column drum, although just barely maybe of some odd interlocking type, and the only other thing I could think of was a quern: so I laid it open, like a bottle to the sea, to any reader who might know for sure. Well, the Internet can be wonderful at times, and about 8 months later I gratefully got my answer, courtesy of Riccardo Casalino of Perugia: the caption beneath my photo paraphrases him. Grazie Riccardo!

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It is indeed very likely the upper stone of a rotary hand quern (mola versatilis). The notch to the left of the handle is for pouring the wheat, and the one at the opposite end, at the bottom of the photo, collects the flour. To be quite sure of our identification, we'd have to flip the stone over and look for characteristic signs of wear on the other side.

Scale: my blue pen is exactly 14 cm long.


a His paper can be found online; if, as happens, that page goes belly‑up, I've kept a copy — get in touch with me.

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Site updated: 4 Dec 23