Bevagna is founded on the former Roman town of Mevania, and the skeleton of that town still supports the more recent (if still ancient to us) structures. This is most noticeable in the area towards the north of the town around the "Via dell' Anfiteatro Romano". But this street name is misleading, however. This is the former site of the Roman theatre, not amphitheatre, which is something quite different. One clue to this is in the location, as amphitheatres were generally located a little outside the town, not at its heart.
So, Mevania’s theatre was built here during the first century A.D. under Emperor Trajan, at a time when the whole region enjoyed a time of great prosperity and many Umbrian towns were given the status of Roman municipium. This theatre could seat 8,000 people. At first it may not strike you as a theatre – you won’t see the tall columns backing the stage and the tiers of seats so characteristic of Roman theatre ruins elsewhere. But if you pause and study the curve of the street you will soon observe how it follows the line of those same seats and can start to build a picture in your mind of what must once have stood here.
To see more of the theatre’s remains, you could eat at the excellent Redibis restaurant (see my Restaurant tip). You will find yourself dining among ancient stones, in a former ambulatory of the theatre. This was a broad passageway below the seats (much as we might walk today beneath the stands in a sports stadium). Above it was the semicircular cavea, the tiers of seats faced the stage, with a diameter of 90 metres.
From the Piazza Garibaldi you can see a few more bones of this Roman skeleton - the now-deconsecrated Chiesa della Madonna della Neve (the Church of the Madonna of the Snow) was built on the ruins of a 2nd century Roman temple dedicated to Mars, the columns of which can still be seen in its facade.
Nearby, the Via di Porta Guelfa leads to a house where Roman mosaics have been found, thought to be part of the former bath-house. These can be visited by the public but only by prior arrangement with the town museum on the Corsa, something we ran out of time to do.
This church, like its opposite number across the piazza (San Michele Arcangelo), was built by a pair of architects – Brunello and Ridolfo. We didn’t go inside but I gather it is fairly simple in design, with the typical nave and two side aisles, and the roof supported by tapering columns.
The decorations on the portal and façade are worth studying. Each element is strongly symbolic, or would have been at least to its medieval audience. For example, in the frieze of the door a small mountain is intended to symbolize Christ, while the four streams symbolize the four Evangelists and the growing vine represents the Church, or God himself. Modern man may derive his religious instruction from texts, but illiterate medieval man relied on the messages in the architecture of the churches to convey the power of God and the tenets of his faith.
As the inscription just below the carving of St Michael (to the left of the door in this photo) tells us, this church was built by Masters Brunello and Ridolfo:
“Rodolfus Binellus fecerunt hec opera xps benedicat ilos senper et Michael custodiat”
That is, “Rodolfo and Binello made this work, may Christ always be merciful to them and may San Michael always protect them” (with thanks to Ingrid aka Trekki for the translation – and for pointing out the inscription in the first place!)
This portal is a great example of how Bevagna’s medieval builders made use of the earlier Roman structures. Fragments of the facade of a Roman temple were reworked to create these medieval motifs and reliefs. Look especially for the aforementioned carving of St Michael fighting a dragon at the top of the capital on the left (photo 2), the elegant bird near the ground on the right of the door (photo 3) and another dragon at the bottom of the left-hand capital (photo 4).
Inside the church has been rather altered over the years, with the introduction of Baroque elements in the mid 18th century and a partial restoration during the 1950s.
Three large churches and the Palazzo dei Console face each other across the main square of Bevagna in a way which is very unusual; their façades are neither aligned to nor opposite those of the other buildings. The lack of symmetry adds to the beauty of the piazza, rather than diminishing it. And the piazza is indeed stunning, whether viewed by day or at night – and do open this photo please to get the full effect!
The piazza is a largely medieval space. The churches of San Silvestre and San Michele Arcangelo were built in the 12th century, just a few years apart, by the same architects, Brunello and Ridolfo. They were intended to mirror each other, despite the overall lack of symmetry in the square, but the front of San Silvestre has either collapsed (perhaps due to earthquakes?) or may even have been left unfinished. See my separate tips for more about each of these two churches.
The third church is that of San Domenico e del Beato Giacomo which was built in the late 13th century. It faces on to the Corsa but has one side on the Piazza (on the far right on my photo). Its portal dates from the 14th century and inside we saw the statue of Fra Giacomo which was processed around the town one evening of our stay (see my Local Customs tip).
The Gothic Palazzo dei Console is only a little less ancient, being built in the 13th century (and is now a small theatre), but the “Roman” column seen to one side and the large fountain which complete the scene of this exceptional medieval square are 19th century additions to the ensemble, albeit harmonious ones.
The Romans built a wall around their city of Mevania, and later in medieval times (between 1249 and 1377) more walls were constructed, often on top of the crumbling Roman remains. Today’s Bevagna is still surrounded by its medieval walls, giving it an air of intactness and permanence. In many places these walls are integral to the fabric of the town, acting as the “back” wall to many of its houses, whose windows rise above the fortifications to peer out at the surrounding countryside.
The walls are pierced in six places by medieval gates, most in very good condition and sympathetically restored if at all. These are (clockwise from the east: Porta Flaminia (now known as Porta Foligno as it faces towards that town), Porta Todi, Porta San Ausgutino, Porta Guelfa, Porta Raggiolo, and Porta Cannara (photo 3).
We took a walk one morning out of the old town through the Porta Flaminia and round to the right, where this stunning field of poppies added a colourful dimension to our photos of the walls. If you are in Bevagna in May you might like to do the same.
The most prominent “architectural recycling” in Bevagna however is the reutilisation of the old theatre. While I walked through the northern part of the town I could see it at the house walls which are bend, following the half circle of the theatre structure, as in my main photo and in photo 2. Some houses have little bridges over the streets (as in photo 2) which connect the main house to a garden or another house. But the best of all in relation to this old theatre is Redibis restaurant (see restaurant tip). This is an extra special way of architectural recycling, because the restaurant is located inside what were two of the former ambulatories of the theatre. It is a fascinating feeling to dine there, surrounded by such old walls which talk stories about all the events of the past. Redibis restaurant’s website has a fascinating description of this, in their Redibis location part. And on Redibis homepage they have a cross section sketch of the theatre with the exact location of the restaurant.
I’ve attached a screenshot from google maps as well, the layout is quite obvious.
When I walked around in Bevagna and arrived near Piazza Garibaldi (the piazza near the northern entrance gate, photo 3), I suddenly saw these interesting pillars in a wall of a house. I already though that once a temple or something similar must have stood here and that the pillars were simply used as part of the new stone wall. And indeed, later I found out that there was a temple, most probably in 2th century A.C. and that it was a church later (Santa Maria della Neve, but it is long gone since). The pillars were wainscoted (?) with bricks, however. This concept of reusing old material is fascinating! I found it throughout all the Umbrian places I visited, but here in Bevagna it was most prominent.
At Piazza Garibaldi I also found some of religious shrines with beautiful frescos (photo 4). These must look wonderful in the evening when they are illuminated. And stairs lead up to chiesa San Francesco (photo 5) of 14th century. It was closed when I was there, so can’t tell anything about the interior.
This church or duomo is fantastic!! I couldn’t get enough of its beautiful archaic façade, although it is a bit more decorated that nearby San Silvestro. It is of similar age (end 12th century) and the entrance portal is most marvellous. Already when I saw photos of it before, I knew I must see it. It is also another example of “architectural recycling”, some of the stones used for the portal are from the Roman days. The posts are said to be architrave parts and marble pieces from old Roman buildings or temples, which have been carved with Medieval ornaments like the bird (photo 1) and wattlings and other ornaments (photo 2). The carved parts at the inner parts of the portal look like a bishop’s staff (the ones to the right in photo 2, which end with the typical top of a bishop’s staff as seen in photo 3, below the capital. It is also visible on photo 3, if you look closely). The capitals, by the way, show Archangel Michael (thus San Michele) fighting with a dragon (photo 4). And above the portal are marble mosaics of the Cosmati type, these typical roundish, wavelike inlays which can be found on so many buildings in Venezia and Roma.
The builders are also mentioned in a nice inscription (below the San Michele capital, photo 4). It says “Rodolfus Binellus fecerunt h/ce opera xps Christus benedicat lio/s senper et Michael custodiat”, something like Rodolfus and Binellus made this work, may Christ always be merciful to them and may San Michael always protect them.
I only briefly looked inside the duomo, but as a mass was held, didn’t go inside. Next time….
This was my first impression when I came to Bevagna’s main plaza for the first time and it lasted anytime I came back: archaic and beautiful. I always had the feeling that people in Medieval dresses or on horses would come around the corner anytime. The piazza is rather small and has the typical structure: a fountain more or less in the middle, three churches (San Silvestro, San Domenico and Duomo San Michele), Palazzo Comunale and Palazzo dei Consoli. Palazzo dei Consoli (in the photos) hosts a small theatre, which must be fantastic to see performances at, because it is in the style of old grandezza, see photos. There is also an arcade where market is held in summer (not exactly visible in the photos, it was too dark). Chiesa San Silvestro (in the photos on the right) was built in 1195, very plain from the outside and also the interior with crypt is very plain and archaic (too dark for photos).
Bevagna was inhabited already in 7th century B.C and quite an important city during Roman days – Mevania was its name then. The famous Via Flaminia lead through Bevagna on its way to Rome. The city was destroyed by Langobards but came to life again at the end of 13th century. These were the days when another city wall was erected, on top of the old Roman one. Six gates lead into town and three of them are the most used today, among them Porta Foligno, the old Porta Flaminia, the usual entrance into town when coming from northeast, direction Foligno. Porta Cannara in the north (photos 3 and 4) and Porta Todi (main photo) in the east are the ones we (tourists) should use when coming by car, as they have outside parking; we should let the rare parking inside be used by the locals. Porta Todi is not exactly a gate, more like some big blocks left and right of the street, definitely not parts of the original gate, but more a sacrifice for a wider entry. But Porta Cannara is a nice one, which leads to Piazza Garibaldi, a lovely and quiet plaza, but full with locals in the evening. It must be great here in summer, as there are some cafes around the piazza, and a little shop where fresh vegetables are sold. They looked so delicious that I was a bit sad not to have access to a kitchen. Oh Umbrian local delicious products……
(but I will “lead” you through Porta Todi for a visit of Bevagna, as it was the closest for me when I came down from the hills of my B&B).
If you are in Umbria during June 20 - 30, plan a trip to Bevagna so you can participate in Le Gaite Faire - an exciting ten day replication of life in the middle ages in a country town in Italy.
Displayed along the streets of Bevagna during Le Gaite are handicraft shops, typical markets of medieval times and taverns, where one can taste dishes prepared according to the original Umbrian recipes from medieval times. The event includes concerts, exhibitions, and archery competitions. Also on display are shops of "canapai", potters, dyers and strikers, demonstrating the arts and the techniques of the Middle Ages.
The main square, shown here, is the location of many of the festivities, including the opening and closing ceremonies. The residents of Bevagna will abandon their everyday clothes for costumes of nobility, farmers, lawyers and handicraftsmen from the middle ages. Although the "Gaite" is a recent addition to Bevagna, it has quickly gained popularity, due to the fact that the Faire maintains a high loyalty to history.