Bevagna: a hidden Roman cultural site

There’s nothing better than visiting a medieval town in autumn! The air is warm but not too hot or too cool, there’s still people and you can enjoy all the services as if it’s still summer, but the town is not packed; the colours changing from green to yellow and brown let you think that nature is preparing for a new life.

This year, we enjoyed all this in Bevagna, a lovely small town in region Umbria and in the middle of the Sagrantino wine area!

Bevagna has much to offer to those, who are looking for an unspoilt environment: no visitor will fail to be struck by the richness of the heritage of the town, including the beautiful medieval main square, the genuine local food and wine, the traditional crafts and the overall beauty of this magic place.

The town walls are very well preserved: the medieval circuit incorporates Roman fortifications from the 1st century B.C. and there are many traces, testifying a civilization dating back to the Iron Age. As in other medieval towns, you cross a fortified wall and you enter into a totally different world, where time seems to have stopped hundreds years ago, thanks to the welcoming and sweet atmosphere you can breathe. We entered through Porta Cannara: it was very convenient for us because there is a parking space right beside the door. Passed Porta Cannara, you are in Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi, where you can admire an ancient temple from the 2nd century A.D., lately transformed into the Church of the Madonna della Neve: it is placed right in front of you and you can recognise it was a former temple, because the ancient columns (covered during the transformation) are very visible. This church is currently closed and not used.

Stepping forward, you are in the main street of Bevagna, Corso Matteotti: this is the street of shops and walks, but it is also leading to some of the most beautiful places in Bevagna. Turning left, you follow the curved lines of the medieval houses; we’ll explain later why they are curved. Before reaching the other door (Porta Foligno), look on your left and you’ll see curious Vicolo Stretto, probably one of the narrowest alleys in Italy…probably in the world! You can try to pass through…walking like a prawn!

Since you are there, you may decide to walk up Vicolo Stretto (if your belly hasn’t swollen after a big lunch!) or you can pass this “narrow adventure” and walk up through Via San Francesco. Following the main road, you will reach the Cartiera (Paper Mill). If you have never seen how paper was made in the middle ages, we warmly suggest to stop by: the guy working there is very nice and happy to show you how he makes paper, according to the medieval techniques and traditions. He has accurately rebuilt the original machine from the 1200s, that the most famous paper mills of Fabriano (region Marche) used to produce paper more than 800 years ago: water moves a mill, which is the “engine” to move all the other tools which cut and mash cotton fabrics (cotton was the main ingredient to produce paper at that time). You can see the video of the mill here. We prefer you to discover yourself the rest of the process, because we don’t want to deprive you of the magic experience to see this with your own eyes. The Paper Mill is not a proper shop: in the last few years it’s been working during the days of the Mercato delle Gaite only, which is a Medieval reenactment, taking place in June (click here to read about the festival); due to the success of this activity, it is now open all year around and you can order your own paper, which can be customized with your own logo or other writings.

Following the signs, you can reach the entrance to the Roman Theatre. You probably won’t realize it but you are walking on the terraces of an old Roman theatre and this is the reason why, as we were saying above, many streets of Bevagna have a round shape! As a matter of fact, Bevagna was crossed by one of the main roads during the Roman times, Via Flaminia, which was connecting the western and eastern sides of Italy, from Rome to Rimini. Being so crowded an area, the Romans decided to build a theatre to entertain inhabitants and travellers: the theatre of Bevagna could accomodate up to 5.000 people! By the way, the pragmatism of Medieval people, led to a deep change of the theatre: they built walls between the terraces, added a roof and created houses out of the theatre. Obiously, from outside you won’t notice the original structure of theatre but inside the houses some rests of that stunning building are still very well preserved. You can visit a small part of the theatre, with Roman remainings and a typical Medieval apartment has been reproduced, in order to show how people used to leave during the middle ages. The cost is just € 3,00 per person and for such a small amount, it is worth seeing, especially if you can speak Italian, because the guide will explain many meanings of Italian words, coming straight from the Medieval idioms.

Walking up, on the highest point in town, you can find the Church of San Francesco, built in the late 13th century over the ancient Church of Giovanni Battista, previously the site of a Roman temple. The plain facade is embellished by  a lovely portal with marble capitals with carved foliage. The nave, completely renovated in the 18th century, contains beautiful paintings by Dono Doni and Ascendonio Spacca. A small door to the right leads to an inner chapel with frescoes dating back to the 16th century. The rock by the altar was removed from Pian D’Arca from where St Francis is believed to have stood, while preaching to the birds. The second chapel contains a 15th century tabernacle with a small dome made in enamelled terracotta.

In front of the Church of San Francesco, there is a long and charming staircase, rich of plants and flowers: you can walk down it, reach again Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi and take the street in front of you named Via delle Terme Romane. A few meters ahead, on your right, you’ll find the Roman thermal building, dating back to the 2nd century AD. It was discovered by chance during the restoration of the building and what came out was really surprising: a huge mosaic representing water animals was decorating the floor! Currently the frigidarium (the pool of cold water) only has been discovered, but it is very likely that other pools are hidden under the nearby buildings, forming a big thermal center. Unfortunately all the bordering buildings are private properties, so it is impossible to check. Please, note that, if reaching the thermal pools, you find the door closed, you can just walk down to the info point in Piazza Silvestri (about 100 meters) and someone will come along with you, to open the room for a visit. They are not asking for money, but you can make a donation if you want.

From here you can reach again Corso Matteotti and walk down until Piazza Silvestri develops in front of your eyes. This is the main square in Bevagna and the chore of its development during the middle ages; nonetheless it is one of the most harmonious squares in Umbria. Its current layout dates back to the 12th and 13th century. Including both religious and civic monuments, in the square you’ll surely note a Roman Column with a Corinthian capital known as the Column of San Rocco, as well as a beautiful fountain built in 1896, in order to replace an old octagonal cistern.

Palazzo dei Consoli is overlooking the square from the end of Corso Matteotti: formerly the seat of the local magistracy, it is a harmonious construction in travertine and sandstone. On the first floor there was the home of the Governor, while the second floor was used for the meetings of the consuls. The palace has Gothic two-light windows, a spacious loggia with sturdy cross-vaults supported by travertine pillars and a wide outside staircase. After the 1832 earthquake, the charming Theatre Francesco Torti was built in the palace, inside the Gothic shell. The ceiling was painted by Mariano Piervittori and it represents dancing muses. The theatre is regularly working.

Standing with your back facing Palazzo dei Consoli, you can see on your right the Collegiate Church of San Michele Arcangelo. Built between the 12th and 13th century, it is Bevagna’s most important church and it went through several restorations over the centuries. The church has a powerful travertine facade divided horizontally at midpoint by a frame adorned with sculpted animal heads. The impressive portal is framed by a triple frieze around the arch and door posts made up of reworked Roman friezes. On the right side of the facade you can see the bell tower, which was added to the church in the 15th century. The interior, with a nave and two aisles, features a raised chancel. The large crypt has numerous columns, some of which have been reused from earlier buildings. In the right aisle, you can admire the font, dating back to the 17th century.  An important piece in the church is the wood processional statue of St. Vincent, saint patron of Bevagna. In the left aisle there is a 15th century Crucifix and paintings representing the Madonna, St. John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene, while in a room adjoining the chancel you can find a silver processional statue of St. Vincent by Peter Ramoser.

Opposite the Church of San Michele Arcangelo, the Church of San Silvestro is standing. Maybe less important than its “opposite neighbour”, in our opinion it’s definitely more charming and worth visiting. The epigraph to the right of the portal states that the construction of this church by Maestro Binello was completed in 1195. The facade is made of travertine stone in the lower part and Subasio stone above and it’s crowned by a frame decorated with sculpted heads of animals. Above the central portal with its elaborated frieze is a large Gothic three-light window and on either sides there are smaller two-light window with twisted columns. The basic and simple interior is the real magic of this church: while stepping in, you feel like you’re catapulted into silence and meditation. The church is made of a nave and two aisles divided by rows of sturdy columns with double Corinthian capitals. The pillar on the right was supposed to be a support for the bell tower. The nave has a barrel-vaulted ceiling, while the aisles have sprung vaults. From the left aisle, you can step down to the crypt, which seems to be currently still used for solitary prayers and meditation. Above the crypt, you can admire a raised chancel supported by columns. Definitely worth seeing!

If you are a Church passionate, there is one more you can visit in the square and it’s adjacent to Palazzo dei Consoli: it’s the Church of Saints Domenico and Giacomo. It stands on the site of an ancient oratory dedicated to St George and donated by the municipality to the Blessed Giacomo Bianconi in 1291. Giacomo was granted permission to locate this church in the central square, close to Palazzo dei Consoli, as a recognition of his fundamental role in the construction of churches and convents in the aftermath of the heavy damage inflicted on Bevagna by the imperial troops of Frederick II in 1249. The facade shows a fine portal dating back to the late 14th century, with a lunette and a fresco. The interior is characterized by a large nave but many works have been removed including the 18th century altar. In our opinion, due to too many deep restorations it’s not the nicests church to visit in Bevagna, but if you are a church academic you can just step in for a look.

Still many monuments and churches can be visited in Bevagna, like Palazzo Lepri, the Church of Santa Maria in Laurenzia and the Monastery of Santa Margherita. What we described is what we think worth visiting; as for the rest you can just stop by, while walking along the alleys of this lovely town!

Our tip: try to walk as much as you can through the streets of Bevagna, although they may seem very secondary: you can find out amazing details of Roman and Medieval architecture and art in every corner!