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History of Spoleto

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The origins to the Middle Ages: the Lombard Duchy

Because of its strategic position at the top of the St. Elia hill and at the foot of Monte Luco that protected it, the area around Spoleto was already inhabited in very ancient times. There are remains of primitive dwellings and parts of megalithic constructions that formed a primitive city wall, better known as the Cyclopean Walls, that date back to the Bronze Age when the area was occupied by an early Umbrian population. Spoleto soon interested the Romans who began to extend their dominion to the city as early as 241 BC making it a colony. A few decades later, with the construction of the Flaminian Road that crossed the city from south to north (entering through Porta Monterone and exiting at Porta Fuga), the importance of the city increased. During the second Punic war, the Spoletans distinguished themselves for stopping Hannibal’s advance towards Rome, and were acknowledged for this by obtaining the prestigious title of municipium in 90 BC.  During the whole period of the Roman Empire, Spoletium enjoyed great fame and enormous wealth witnessed by the numerous Roman remains still well preserved in the city. This condition of privilege and strong influence continued even after the fall of the Roman Empire and the arrival of the barbarians. The first to occupy Spoleto were the Goths led by Theodoric the Great, who took it over in 493. A few decades later, the Byzantine emperor Justinian, in an attempt to recover the territories that had belonged to the Western Roman Empire, sent the General Belisarius to Italy who took back the city from the Goths in 537 but lost it again in 545. King Totila with the Ostrogoths defeated the Byzantines and established his own headquarters in Spoleto and managed to maintain control until 552 when he was eventually defeated by another Byzantine general, Narsete.

As early as the fourth century, Spoleto became an episcopal see, developing a strong ecclesiastical hierarchy due to its position on the border of the Papal State, which proved to be a strong point for the town. Following the arrival of the Lombards in Italy, Faroaldo established the Duchy of Spoleto, which together with that of Benevento constituted the territory known as Longobardia Minor, quite a vast territory, which extended as far as Calabria, and over which the Lombards had full control. Although under Lombard jurisdiction, Spoleto and its dukes were able to preserve a certain autonomy thanks to their proximity to the Papal State. The situation changed somewhat in 729, when the city came under the control of King Liutprando. The Dukedom of Spoleto fell in 774 when the Lombards were severely defeated by the Franks, allies of the Pope, and the territories of the Duchy were incorporated into the Carolingian Empire first and subsequently into the Holy Roman Empire.


The municipal age and the Renaissance

Despite annexation into the Holy Roman Empire, the dominion of the Franks and the Carolingians was not particularly burdensome for the town of Spoleto, which continued to enjoy power and autonomy until the harsh attack by Frederick Barbarossa (Redbeard), who, having come down to Italy to be crowned Emperor by the Pope in 1155, set the city on fire destroying much of it. For years, the control of the city and its territory was the subject of dispute and clashes between the Empire and the Papacy, until the final annexation of Spoleto to the Papal State in 1198. In this same period, the city had autonomously formed itself as a free municipality. The founding of the mendicant orders of friars (Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians) and their growing populations on Monte Luco contributed to the exponential growth of the religious buildings in the historic center and to the embellishment and architectural enrichment of the city. The intervention of Cardinal Albornoz in the 14th century, with the construction of the Rocca fortress, gave further importance to Spoleto. It   became one of the pope’s outposts during the period when the pope was held captive in Avignon, France, and this helped to attract artists and visitors from all over Europe, such as Filippo Lippie Antonio from Sangallo the Younger, who made the city a thriving cultural center until the seventeenth century.


The modern age

Although the object of various vicissitudes, and while still maintaining its autonomy and independence, Spoleto still remained officially under papal control until the brief period of the Napoleonic dominion. In fact, between 1808 and 1815, the city was proclaimed capital of the Trasimeno department (from Rieti to Perugia) under the control of French troops. The invaders from beyond the Alps were finally defeated; however, the Church reconquered the city and guided its fate until 1860, the year Spoleto was included in the newly formed Italian State. Following World War II, the city experienced a period of profound economic crisis linked to the decline in employment in the agricultural sector and in the lignite mines, which caused many citizens to migrate. The difficult period, however, laid the foundations for a modern rebirth with the establishment of events organized by local authorities that are today the greatest tourist attraction of Spoleto and also its lifeblood and identity: the Teatro Lirico Sperimentale was founded in 1947, in 1952 the Italian Center for Studies on the High Middle Ages, in 1958 the first edition of the Festival of Two Worlds took place, and finally the famous Spoleto Sculpture Exhibition began in the 1962 edition of the festival, which still remains a unique cultural event in Italy!

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