The Piazza del Comune in Assisi is one of the most beautiful and historically significant squares in Umbria for a very specific reason: all the historical, artistic and cultural heritage visible on the surface is replicated to the same extent, if not more so, underground. The square’s brick paving sits on overlapping levels of rock and centuries-old layers of built structures, starting from when the first civilization, the Umbrians, colonized these lush green hills for the first time in the 6th-7th century BC. The Forum (Foro Romano), the hub of city life, was built in Assisi in the years straddling BC/AD at the behest of a number of wealthy patrons. Today, after almost twenty-one centuries, it is still partly visible.
The entrance to the underground part of this sublime city is in Via Portica, heading downwards a few dozen metres where the access door is, naturally, the crypt of a church (a perfect emblem of the union of ancient and subterranean), that of the Chiesa S. Nicolò. This is not just an access point but an actual museum because since 1934, it has housed Assisi’s municipal archaeological collection. There are beautiful, well-preserved sarcophagi, cinerary urns and some inscribed stone slabs, which are the most important and information-rich historical ‘documents’ we have about the ancient history of the city.
A small opening in the crypt wall leads to the Forum. The exhibition space was completely renovated in 2008. The set-up and lighting system were updated, and a long suspended glass walkway was built across the whole room, measuring over 100 metres in length. While it was a necessary device from a conservation point of view, it does remove the privilege of those who, until a few years ago, could lay their feet on the same stones trodden by our ancestors. Although underground, we have to imagine a large open space, lit by the white plastered travertine and protected by the monumental Tempio di Minerva, which is much higher than we see it today, given that the floor was at least five metres below its present position. Walking along the footbridge, on our right and left, there are stone slabs and epigraphs, funerary mementos recovered from the necropolis of the district that would certainly not have been here 2000 years ago. They were placed here to symbolize the citizens who populated the forum at that time: those who came to trade and sell the produce of their part of the countryside, to attend or participate in public assemblies, or to give thanks to the gods. There are also the remains of the tribunal, a stone structure composed of seats where the city’s magistrates took the most important decisions. Behind the tribunal there is a wall, which we must ‘see’, with some stretch of the imagination, covered with white plaster and studded with floral decorations and bronze garlands. This was the wall which, thanks to two openings, led to the staircase of the Temple, which remained hidden. Stretching our imagination further, we could see ourselves standing there in the 1st century, admiring the Temple, which we would see emerging from the wall without understanding what lies below, making it seem almost suspended in the air.
Turning around, with our back to the temple, we would have seen another very important monument that formed part of the town’s religious life: the Tempio dei Dioscuri Castore and Polluce (Castor and Pollux), the demi-god sons of Jupiter. Today only the base and a large perfectly-preserved inscription remain, indicating the names of the its commissioners, well-exposed to the sight of passers-by.
Further along the path is one of the many cisterns that must have dotted the ancient city. Although Assisi was famous in antiquity for its numerous springs and its restorative waters, rainwater still made a crucial contribution to the water supply. There were four water collection tanks in the forum’s piazza alone, of which only two remain today. The little drainage gullies that used to carry the water to the tanks are still clearly visible today.
Exploring further, the exhibition path leads to two spaces that were to act as tabernae, that is, shops where basic necessities were sold and where the inhabitants stopped to eat during the day. The exhibition terminates with a display of marble statues, including one of the probable Dioscuri that were housed in the Temple of Castor and Pollux.
A visit to the Forum and the Archaeological Collection is a must for anyone visiting Assisi and reminds us once again that the city is an endless treasure trove of history and culture. And, as in the case of any self-respecting treasure hunt, the further you venture, the more surprises emerge.