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Temple of Minerva

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On the morning of October 26, 1786, a carriage galloped at full speed through the doors of Assisi. Its destination: the heart of the city, towards the square known today as Piazza del Comune. The carriage made a narrow turn on the dusty cobbles and halted abruptly. The screeching of the wheels resonated along with the neighing of the horses and the bell of the S. Maria sopra Minerva church tolled, as if it was announcing such notable arrival to the peaceful square. Alighting from the carriage a well-dressed man, whose round eyes bulged from beneath an ample forehead protected by the wide brim of the hat that covered his gray mane tamed in a tail. He had come to Assisi to admire one and one thing only. He discovered it in his readings and, since that day, he had been longing for it for years; finally, time had come: standing before his eyes was the Temple of Minerva. One of the most impeccably preserved wonders of the ancient world.

Legend has it that the temple was erected eight centuries before the birth of Rome by Dardanus, a mythological hybrid of Etruscan and Greek culture, predecessor of the founders of Troy. Unfortunately, although any respectable myth always conceals a kernel of truth, this was only a fable narrated by the townsfolk, never supported by historical evidence.  The elegant man was aware that the temple, in the configuration that somehow managed to make its journey through the centuries almost intact, was only built around the First Century A.D., but he also knew the reason why that very spot, which had eluded the meticulousness of historians, was equally important. The temple had indeed been erected there by the Romans because, further in the past, that was already considered a sacred place, maybe due to the presence of certain hot springs, establishing itself throughout the centuries as the cornerstone of the ancestral spirituality that always permeated Assisi, regardless of the peoples and cultures who inhabited it.

One of the secrets to the temple’s preservation was that it never stopped serving a purpose: after the fall of the Empire, it became property of Mount Subasio’s Benedictine monks; during the XIII Century the Municipality turned it into a prison; it was converted into a church again in the XVI Century, named after Saint Donato, before finally becoming, in the course of the following century, the Church of S. Maria sopra Minerva as we know it today.

The man gazed at the temple basking in the warm morning sun. The drawings that he had been studying on Palladio’s books at the Weimar Library did no justice at all to the façade and  prominence of the building. Sixteen metres (52 feet) tall, plus the height of the three statues placed on top of the gable; female sculptures, identical to another one discovered in the Middle Ages during some excavations. The temple was named after Minerva due to that finding, even though, as a votive stone found centuries later would reveal, the temple was in fact dedicated to Hercules. Palladio did not even bother drawing all those holes sprinkled across the gable and the epistyle, above the columns. What were they? The man was initially puzzled but then he immediately realised: they were mounting holes for the bronze letters that formed the inscription in honour of those who built the temple: two brothers,  Gneo Cesio Tirone and Tito Cesio Prisco.

He contemplated that view for hours, standing out there, not feeling any pressure to go inside because he knew exactly what to expect: the nave of a simple and modern baroque church which had been completed a few years before; he was not particularly interested. Nonetheless he decided to venture indoors and his reaction was opposite to the one he had been forecasting. Amongst the golden stuccoes, Francesco Appiani‘s frescoes adorning the vault, and the shining altar that echoed the classical motif of the façade, the man experienced an extraordinary sense of spirituality. Such eternal spirituality which, in this rather unique case, never ceased pervading the structure since the day it was built. Maybe even before that. All of a sudden, he realised that he was standing in what was maybe the longest-living sacred place in the world. The power of its               sacredness kept it safe from invasions, civil wars, famine, and natural catastrophes throughout the millennia. The Crucifix, the angels, and the saints depicted in that space seemed to be permeating, if possible, with an even deeper meaning than the one they were already bearing.

He realised that he had forgotten to take off his hat and he felt ashamed, despite being the only presence in the church in that moment, and quickly rectified his negligence. The wide brim moved the air around it and the light inside the church, mostly coming from a group of candles nearby, flickered for a moment, as if it was trying to divert the attention from an embarrassing circumstance.

Once he was back out in the sun, overwhelmed by the light and his intense contemplative experience, four men, attracted by the splendor of the brand new carriage parked in the middle of the square, were waiting for him.

«Professor!» they urged him «Don’t you want to come see the Cathedral of our beloved Saint Francis? You’ll be amazed by all the art». The man barely acknowledged them:  «Uh? Ehm… no, thanks».

The four were dumbfounded, almost incredulous; their crafty smiles turned immediately turned into suspicious grins. «How come? Not even a small offering for the poor man? That is not gentlemanly at all, Sir».

Johann Wolfgang Goethe gave them a good gaze, he hastily produced a handful of silver scudi from his pocket, handed it to them and quickly jumped back on his carriage which left as fast as it came, wheels screeching and horses neighing.

[Loosely based on J. W. Goethe’s Italian Journey, 1786-87 (1787)]

Of the Roman Temple remain to this day preserved the marble pronaos and other elements recently discovered during the latest excavation works, such as the side walls and the retaining wall of the embankment. The edifice is of the in antis Corinthian Prostilo Temple kind, namely with a pronaos delimited by the walls of the cell on the sides, with six fluted columns resting on tall quadrangular plinths, trabeation and fronton. Giotto portrayed it in the first fresco of the Franciscan series of Basilica Superiore of Saint Francis of Assisi, in the painting called “S. Francesco e l’uomo semplice” (Saint Francis and the simple prayer). The interior of the cell was lost during the first restoration works of the XVI Century. The fresco on the vault of the only nave portrays Saint Filippo Neri in Glory “S. Filippo Neri in Gloria” by Francesco Appiani. The works adorning the lateral altars were painted in the second half of the XVII Century and depict the Death of Saint Andrew of Avellino, “Morte di S. Andrea di Avellino” by Anton Maria Garbi and the Death of Saint Jospeh, “Morte di S. Giuseppe” by the Austrian artist Martin Knoeller. The high altar, decorated as most of the church with golden stucco representations of angels and cherubs, still preserves the painting “Dio con gli angeli” (God with the Angels) by the Assisi painter and architect Giacomo Giorgetti, who also was the Chief of the last renovation works of the interior of the church, which had been completed about twenty years before Goethe’s arrival.

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