• Longobards in Italy. Places of the Power (568-774 A.D.)

Visits: 4th April 2015, 21st July 2015

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Longobard temple, Cividale del Friuli

The Longobards in Italy is a serial inscription World Heritage Site, with seven constituent parts dispersed along the length and breadth of mainland Italy. The Longobards were a Germanic tribe who settled in what is now known as Italy in the period referred to in the title, between the sixth and eighth centuries. They are notable for having been early converts to Christianity, and the legacy they have left behind is evidence of a fascinating intersection of Classical and Christian architecture. See, for example, the Corinthian column capitals above, supporting a fresco depicting the Annunciation to the shepherds.

Of the seven sites I have so far been to three: two in Umbria and one in Friuli-Venezia Guilia. I’ll start with the first two, which Natalie and I visited on our April trip to Italy, breaking off from the rest of our little group on the way from Tivoli to Louise’s family home in Viterbo.

The Clitunno Tempietto

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Clitunno Tempietto

Literally right after dropping off Ross, his mother Ayesha and his girlfriend Louise (and thus the only Italian speaker of the group), I made the mistake of turning back onto the highway and thus taking an entry ticket from the machine to enter the autostrade network. As soon as I’d driven through the barrier, Europcar’s satnav told me to “turn around where possible” – we didn’t need to take the autostrade at all. I pulled a quick U-turn and put my ticket back into the toll machine only to find that it didn’t like the look of it. An error message appeared and I pressed the help button, only to hear a garbled Italian operator pipe up who did not (or would not), he confirmed, speak any English. Cars started to build up behind me and then the machine made its draconian demand: seventy euros. For driving approximately zero yards. I meekly fished out my last €50 note. And a €20. And I don’t want to dwell on this ever again.

We ploughed on across the border from Latium into Umbria. Our first destination was the Tempietto at Clittuno. It wasn’t easy to find, but I had been prepared for that and we soon located it. The temple is a tiny building – that’s the entirety of it in the photo above.

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For a while we were the only people there, which was nice. I love it when I go to a World Heritage Site and there is nobody else around – such a contrast to the well-known ones such as Pisa and Chichen-Itza where you have to fight your way through crowds. Again, you can see the Roman-style architecture of this temple – it looks nothing like a church, yet it was built for Christian worship in the Dark Ages.

17152584608_822a214f26_zInside there is a simple stone altar and faded frescos, which makes it feel as if looking back in time. Remnants from this period of history are not generally well-preserved; it is underrepresented on the UNESCO list, so you can really pick up something novel from visiting the Longobard sites.

The basilica of San Salvatore

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Basilica of San Salvatore

The second Longobard site was just a short drive away, in the Umbrian town of Spoleto. It is a much larger building – the basilica of San Salvatore. Although it is rather more plain on the outside, this building also has Classical Roman features. It was completely empty inside – no pews or anything, just a large empty space with frescoes on some of the walls.

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Although I described the Longobards earlier as a Germanic tribe, they in fact came from Pannonia – modern day Hungary – led by their King Alboin. The Duchy of Spoleto – in which this basilica is located – became the administrative centre of Longobard central Italy. The territories around Spoleto were controlled by elements of the Byzantine empire, and we can see in the basilica’s depiction of Christ the Teacher (a typical Byzantine manner of presenting Him) the influence of that civilisation on the Longobards.

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The Gastaldaga area and the Episcopal complex

Our third Longobard encounter came three months later in a different part of Italy: the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the the northeast. After spending two nights in Trieste and having been to see the Škocjan Caves and Idrija mercury mine in Slovenia we crossed the border back in to Italy for a night in the charming town of Cividale del Friuli.

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Italo-Slovenian border

This town is probably the most important of the Longobard sites inscribed, since it was their first capital. It was the first part of Italy that King Alboin’s men captured, and here that they established their first duchy. Nowadays – and despite it being so close to the Slovenian border – it is a classically Italian town with a wonderful medieval centre in which it’s easy to pass an evening drinking Aperols and watching the locals walk by. I always like to relax in a bar with a view of a WHS.

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Cividale del Friuli

Within the town there is a complex of ecclesiastical buildings known as the Gastaldaga Area, in which the highlight is the Longobard temple. Much of it has been restored to some extent, but it contains many original elements.

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The carved figures in the photo below were apparently inspired by the Porch of the Caryatids in the Erechtheion on Athens’ Acropolis.

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It makes a refreshing change from the many churches and cathedrals that one visits as a World Heritage Site lover to see some quite different buildings of Christian worship from a time before the standard cruciform layout of a church had been properly established. Properties like this give the lie to the notion that the much-maligned Dark Ages were a time of no notable creativity, when the values of the Classical world had been left behind and the reawakening of the Renaissance was still many centuries in the future.

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The four other Longobard sites in this WHS inscription are located in Lombardy, Campania and a part of Puglia that I came pretty close to visiting later in the week, but in the end did not. I’ll add to this post as and when I find myself nearby.

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4 thoughts on “• Longobards in Italy. Places of the Power (568-774 A.D.)

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