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S. Maria in Pantano
— vicus ad Martis Tudertium —

A church in central Umbria: 42°45.1N, 12°31.9E. Altitude: 277 m.

[image ALT: A complex of what appear to be four farm buildings, one or two stories tall, over which a square tower stands three times as high; the tower is capped by an open belfry of the type Italians call a 'campanile a vela'. It is a view of the medieval church and conventual buildings of S. Maria in Pantano near Massa Martana, Umbria (central Italy).]

As we come from the south, only the open belfry lets us know we're looking at a church; the tall, fortified watch tower it sits on tells us that in the Middle Ages this was a bad neighborhood. The church is the low building behind it. (Another view, slightly less attractive, is a bit clearer.)

S. Maria in Pantano is a medieval church by the side of the little road connecting Massa Martana to its train station, south of it by about 7 km: she stands about halfway between them, and it is the road that determined her location — the old Roman Via Flaminia, which in these parts is ruler-straight as the Romans preferred when the terrain allowed; and sure enough, here the land is flat: the map below locates us on the eastern edge of a low flat patch extending north to Massa Martana and south almost to the modern highway. Even without the photo and the map, the placename would tell us: pantano is the Italian word for "marsh" — a flat low place where water collects.

The same map, in satellite view and three or four notches closer, shows us that the church, that once belonged to the Benedictine order, is not in a village but stands by itself in the Umbrian landscape. That's common enough: monastic churches are often intentionally set in remote places, and occasionally we find a shrine that owes its origin to a spring or a miracle. Here however, though there might be no town now, there was one in Roman times, or at least a village, the statio ("stopping-point") of Vicus ad Martis: an inn, fresh horses, and the road northwest to Tuder — in modern terms, the highway exit to Todi, a gas station, and a motel; none of those here today! The area just north of the church has long been known to local farmers as rich in fragments of Roman tiles and pottery: in 2008 excavations were launched and have continued every summer since; they're informally documented in the blog Under the Umbrian Sun.

Walking north another hundred meters from my first photo puts us here:

[image ALT: A side view of a long rectangular building with a slightly pitched tiled roof; the rear of the building is not seen, extending offscreen right; the façade is seen very obliquely towards the left, the effect being that of a separate slab, about 50 cm thick, stuck on to the building: all the more so that it leans outward, away from the body of the building. The façade also juts up above the roof behind it, by about a meter. It is a view of the south wall of the medieval church of S. Maria in Pantano near Massa Martana, Umbria (central Italy).]

As a church, S. Maria in Pantano has been dated by experts to the 7c/8c, and sure enough, the photo above shows clearly how the façade, here seen very obliquely, was just applied to the rest of the building as a sort of modular unit hundreds of years later, in the 14c. But (ignoring the lower wall behind the field to the right, surely a vestige of some medieval annex) the masonry of the S wall of the church itself shows us that the early medieval church itself incorporated a building much older still:

[image ALT: An old wall comprising two sections: the larger, on the viewer's right, is a crazy-quilt of small stones laid in rough horizontal courses or diagonally; it has been patched several times, sometimes with stone, sometimes with thin bricks. Towards the viewer's left, a modern steel drainpipe separates this from a very different section of larger squared stones. It is a view of the medieval church of S. Maria in Pantano near Massa Martana, Umbria (central Italy); further explanations are given in the caption.]

The wall is Roman, of the 3c/4c: the body of the wall is in opus incertum — stones irregularly laid over a rubble fill — veering in spots to opus quasi-reticulatum (a modern term for a messy mortared approximation to real opus reticulatum of neatly fitted lozenges, for which see this sample about 25 km N of here, along the same Via Flaminia as it leaves Bevagna). Although opus reticulatum can be quite attractive, it was very soon found that it was weak, a wall of it tending to crack along the diagonals; so here a common solution was resorted to, often referred to as opus mixtum: occasional courses of brick strengthen the wall by interrupting any fissures. To the far left, the masonry of the façade is a thousand years younger and very different.

To see the construction of the original medieval church we need to go around to the back

Tip for first-time travelers to Europe: never be satisfied with squinting at a medieval church from the front! Very, very often the most interesting and even the most beauti­ful part is the apse of the building, frequently the first part built and thus the oldest; as time passes, also, as here, the part least likely to be reworked. The apse will also show us often enough the underlying architecture: the point is well illustrated, among many examples, by the church of S. Maria at Ponte di Cerreto (32 km ENE of here).

where even if the builders might have made use of some older building, they didn't. Christian worship required a specific backdrop to the altar, and the architect built new. The fabric is no longer Roman, but Romanesque:

[image ALT: The back of a low stone building in the Romanesque style, consisting of a round projection with blind arcading, although in one of the arcades a small rectangular window has been pierced at some later time. A thin archway connects it to another building offscreen right. It is the apse of the medieval church of S. Maria in Pantano near Massa Martana, Umbria (central Italy).]

New once; but now among the oldest church walls in Umbria. (Carefully restored and maintained though: see this telling photo from 1997!)

Continuing around the back of the church thru that little archway, the N side shows more Roman masonry belonging to the earlier building:

[image ALT: A low tile-roofed shed-like building, smaller than the average house, built of small stones in more or less regular courses. It has been extended forward by a sort of open lean‑to with its own more sloped tile roof, supported by two mismatched pilasters, one square built of brick, the other round and appearing to incorporate an ancient column. The building is not free-standing: to the viewer's left, the side of a much larger and taller rectangular stone building, partly under scaffolding; to the right, the beginning of a modern stuccoed house can be seen, with a prominent drainpipe. It is the rear portion, showing the N wall, of the church of S. Maria in Pantano near Massa Martana, Umbria (central Italy), and a bit of an adjacent building.]

And for completeness' sake, the rest of that courtyard and the door to one of the houses that have now supplanted conventual buildings long gone:

[image ALT: On the viewer's right, a terrazzo- or ceramic-tiled staircase of maybe fifteen steps, edged with low concrete planters, leading up to a door barely seen in this photo; to the left, a bit of what appears to be an open lean‑to with a tile roof, supported by a very primitive round column. It is a partial view of a courtyard behind the church of S. Maria in Pantano near Massa Martana, Umbria (central Italy).]

Modern concrete, flowers and good terracotta steps — and what looked to me at the time like part of an old Roman column, which it might be.

My predilection for the backs of churches notwithstanding, completeness also means showing you the front of the church, and as much of the inside as I can: next page.

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Site updated: 22 Feb 23