At the highest point of your walk in the town you are likely to come, as we did, to the Belevedere. Here you can relax after the climb and look out at the classic Umbrian scene laid out before you. In the immediate foreground you will see the remains of a semi-excavated Roman amphitheatre (photo 3) – the same one where the statues now adorning the Porta Consolare were excavated. Nearby is the little Church of San Claudio, an example of Romanesque architecture which is thought to have been built on top of an ancient temple dedicated to the god Saturn.
Lift your eyes beyond these and you will see Assisi perched on the next hill, with the huge basilica dominating the town. Unfairly, since we didn’t visit, I found myself comparing it unfavourably with Spello as this huge edifice seemed out of proportion to the rest of the town and made it look somehow less harmonious with its surroundings. It would also, of course, have been a lot more crowded than Spello, so I was very happy to be looking at it from afar.
The Belvedere has several benches under the trees, if you want to linger here a while, and seemed to be popular with locals out for a Sunday stroll as well as with visitors to Spello. To one side is another of the Roman gates to the town, the small Porta dell’ Arce. It takes its name from the Latin word for highest point, arx - see photo 4.
While Santa Maria Maggiore is the most well-known and noteworthy of the churches in Spello there are many others, and several of these caught my eye. We weren’t able to go in any of these however as they were all closed – possibly, being a Sunday, the churches had closed after Mass and would not reopen until the Monday.
Many of the churches here are built in the characteristic pink and white stones which I really liked, such as this one, the Chiesa di Sant' Andrea which can be found just a little further up the hill from Santa Maria Maggiore. This church contains a painting of the "Madonna and the Saints" by Pinturicchio, but as I said, we weren’t able to go inside to see this. However there was nothing to stop us admiring its Romanesque style portal.
We were also quite taken by a church a little higher still in the town, which I have been unable to identify with any certainty but which I think may have been that of San Lorenzo, which has incorporated remains of an older building dating back to the 12th century in its structure. Certainly this struck me as something of a patchwork quilt of a building, with odd bits of inscription (several them apparently Roman in origin), segments of pattern that seemed to come to an abrupt end, and blocked-up windows arranged asymmetrically in the facade. Photo 2 is a close-up of part of this facade, and if anyone is able to identify the church with more certainty than I can, I would love to hear from you!
Near the highest point of our walk were several smaller churches that also looked very old but which were again sadly inaccessible. The Romanesque Church of San Claudio,a little outside the town, is apparently also worth a visit for its rustic appearance, attractive rose window and altar made from a Roman sarcophagus. Ah well, another time ...
The best-known of Spello’s many churches is this, the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. According to historical sources there was a church on this site as early as 1085, which is thought to have been built over an ancient temple dedicated to Juno and Vesta. The current building was completed in 1287, but was further extended in 1644 by Master Belardino who in places used ancient materials, such as pieces of Roman friezes which were embedded in the Portal. From the outside we were struck by the ornately carved door (see photo 3) and there is also a 13th century bell tower worthy of note.
But the church’s greatest glories are revealed within, in the Baglioni Chapel. Here, halfway up the left-hand side of the church, are some of Umbria's most vibrant examples of Renaissance art, a series of frescoes by Pinturicchio. This Umbrian artist (1454-1513) was appointed to paint the chapel in 1500 by its benefactor, Troilo Baglion. The cycle includes “The Annunciation”; "The Adoration of the Shepherds" and “The Dispute of Jesus with the Doctors”. The chapel is kept quite dimly lit to protect the rich colours of these marvellous works of art, but a euro dropped into a slot will illuminate them for you to have a proper look. And it is well worth doing so. The paintings are vivid and packed with detail, repaying close inspection. Having not done any research in advance of our visit I had no idea that these treasures were here, tucked away in a relatively modest church in a small Italian town, but this only made it all the more special to have seen them.
No photography is allowed but you can buy postcards of the paintings, as well as of the church as a whole, in the well-stocked shop just beyond the chapel. The pictures I have uploaded here are scans of those postcards.
If like us you enter the town at its lowest point, through the Porta Consolare, your route will take you gradually uphill along the Via Consolare, which soon becomes the Via Garibaldi running through the heart of the old town. There is plenty to attract you along this street – Renaissance churches, an attractive Town Hall, intriguing galleries and small shops selling local produce. But make time too to turn aside into one or more of the numerous distinctive cobblestone alleyways that give Spello its real character. These follow the pattern laid out when Spello was a medieval village, and wind their way between picturesque houses, many of which are linked by little bridges of stone. When we were there, in May, the attractiveness of the scene was enhanced by the many displays of potted geraniums which brought colour to the sombre stone walls. It was very clear that the people who live here are proud of their town and wish to show it off at its best. And, perhaps because there are relatively few tourists, they also seemed very welcoming and many greeted us with a smile or a “Buon giorno”.
I also really enjoyed trying to capture the beauty of these alleyways with my camera – a challenge at times as they are rather narrow and dark, but rewarding when the shot came off!
Another of Spello’s significant Roman gates is the Porta Venere or “Gate of Venus”, on the west side of Spello, piercing the wall as it climbs up the hill-side. This was named after a nearby temple dedicated to that goddess. Like the Porta Consolare it was added to in medieval times, but in the early 20th century was stripped of these later additions and restored to its original Roman appearance. Thus it appears both older and newer than the other gates.
The Porta Venere is flanked by two medieval towers, known as the Torri di Properzio or “Towers of Propertius”. This name is somewhat misleading, as it’s highly unlikely that the Latin poet Propertius had anything to do with them, even though he was almost certainly born somewhere around here.
We didn’t walk down to the gate itself but I was able to take this picture of one of the distinctive dodecagonal towers from the terrace of the Ristorante Porta Venere where we ate lunch.
Spello was once Hispellum, a luxury retirement colony for Roman army veterans. It was surrounded by some unusually fine walls, parts of which remain - along with six gates and assorted other traces of that time.
We entered the old town through the Porta Consolare which dates back to the 1st century BC. It has been added to over the years, most notably with the medieval tower on one side that you see in my main photo. The tree on its top is an olive tree, and its fruit is harvested yearly. Cars bypass this gate, not only because to drive through it would be to risk damaging it, but also because it sits lower than the rest of the town which has been built up above its Roman foundations over the centuries. Pedestrians however can walk through on a ramp, and as they do so can view some excavated Roman remains beneath it.
Some marble statues, which were found during excavations in the area of the amphitheatre of Spello, were mounted on brackets above the entrance itself (see photo 2). This amphitheatre lies beside the main road just to the north of the town and can be seen from the town’s main viewpoint, the Belvedere – see my separate tip.
Spello has more remnants of the Roman era than any other Umbrian town. Everyway you go you can see the Roman's handywork. I was told by a local that all the streets in Spello are as wide as a Roman's ox cart.
Spello is a good town to get lost in. You'll always find a pretty street or a friendly local that is more than willing to chat you up.
Take a walk to the back side of Spello to the The "Belvedere". It's a terrace that overlooks the Topino river valley and surrounding hills. This spot offers a beautiful panorama of the countryside.
This white austere church is the center piece of Spello. Completed in 1501, but the original church was from the 11th century. Adorned with frescoes by the the famed early 16th painter Perugino.