«Nothing in Italy is more ancient than Benevento, that according to the local legends it was founded or from Diomede or from Ausone, a child of Ulysses and Circe».
Edward Hutton 1958
The big walnut near the river Sabato rwas the reference for the Lombards who had just become masters of the city. Well before their conversion to Christianity in 664, the gathered around the majestic tree, where warriors and women in trance did sacred ceremonies. In that same place, many centuries before, the Samnites of Maloenton, wood worshipers, used to meet as darkness descended, in order to participate to the divination rites solemnly celebrated by their priestesses. Then, when it was already the time of the Roman Beneventum, the followers of Isis met near the river. A special place for the populations and the cultures which marked the history of the city in its first millenium of life. But then the perception had completely changed to the point of identifying that area like as the scene of the diabolic conferences of whitches, the janare, protagonists of trials and atrocious executions at the time of the Inquisition. When Benevento had long been an enclave of the Papal State in the Kingdom of Naples. Although the dynasties had succeeded each other in power in the city of Parthenope, they had never accepted that “anomaly” between the mountains of Samnium and they had always tried to take the control of it, occupying it many times, from Frederick II of Swabia to Joanna II of Anjou, but never in a definitive way. Only the Aragonese had accepted the Papal Dominion, which had never failed until the Unification of Italy, except temporarily during the Neapolitan Republic and the Napoleonic period.
The Via Appia reached Benevento exactly where the Sabato crossed it, before its confluence in the Calore, the other river flowing through the heart of the city. Thanks to the connection regina viarum guaranteed between Rome and the port of Brindisi, the gateway to the East, the Samnite city has become an essential commercial hub in the heart of the Empire, getting economic advantages and an important role, testified by the great works, both infrastructural and cultural, that the Romans carried out and which have come down to us in large part.
The Samnites had already built a bridge on the Sabato. But for the Appia, a new one was necessary, more imposing and adequate to the importance of the main road passing through it. It was built in the 3rd century AD, when Appius Claudius Caecus was the censor. With five arches, restored severals times even in the Imperial age, it was called Ponte Marmoreo (Marble Bridge), then renamed Leproso (Laprous), as we still know it, because nearby, in the Middle-Ages, there was a leper colony. Destroyed by the earthquake of 1688 and rebuilt with four arches, currently the bridge is a pedestrian only access to the city.
Near the bridge, there are remains of the ancient cryptoporticus of the Saints Quaranta, a complex of corridors covered by vaults, put on the edge of a natural difference in height which originally was within the Roman city. The reference to the Saints Quaranta dates back to the Lombard period, when, in one of the corridors of the ancient structure, in honor of the forty martyrs of Sebaste much venerated until the Middle Ages, a church was built which has completely disappeared. After a very long decline, the archaeological area of the cryptoporticus can now be visited.
Near Ponte Leproso, in 1985 the traces of the great Roman amphitheatre came to light where, according to Tacitus, the emperor Nero attended a gladiator show in 63 AD. Therefore, the construction could be located between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD. Gladiator shows took place and it was perhaps also a school of gladiators. The earthquakes located in the late imperial period made it unusable, while the valuable materials for construction were used for subsequent works.
At a short distance from the amphiteatre, at the intersection at the end of Via Torre della Catena, you can see the statue of the Bue Apis (Ox Apis), in pink granite, come to light in 1629, which belonged to the endowment of the temple of Isis, of which there are no traces remaining, but which is probably located in the eastern area of the city, since in that area, the majority of the remains were found, attributable to the Isiac cult and currently exhibited in the Egyptian section of the Arcos Museum.
A few steps from the monument, on the San Lorenzo alley, there is the Basilica of Madonna delle Grazie, patron saint of the city and of the entire Samnium, built as a vow after the cholera of 1837 on a project of the architect Vincenzo Coppola, in Neo-Renaissance style. In 1839 the first stone was laid by the future pope Leo XIII and it was consecrated in 1901, but the completion of the façade with the pronaos dates back to the 1920s. The polychrome wooden statue of the Madonna delle Grazie with Child is of the Neapolitan school of the 16th century.
Entering in the historic centre from Port’Arsa, the only one remaining from the city’s gates of the Lombard period, when it was built using materials from the Roman age, you can reach Piazza Ponzio Telesino, which opens the entrance to the great Roman theatre which, when it was still in use, could even accomodate ten thousand spectators. In was built under Hadrian near the cardo maximum in the city and inaugurated in 126 AD, as one of the two memorial stones at the entrance to the scene refers to, while the other celebrates the expansion wanted by Caracalla between 200 and 210. A majestic theatre appropriate for the importance of Benevento. With a diameter of 98 meters, built in opus coementicium (Roman concrete) and blocks of limestone, it had three orders of twenty-five arches supported by columns in three different styles: Tuscan, Ionic and Corinthian. The first order, the Tuscan one, remained intact, as well as a part of the second. The imposing semicircular cavea was connected with a brick facade with niches for statues and three monumental doors to the scene, fixed and of great scenographic effect, as well as having excellent acoustics, of which two bare pillars remain. Next to it, there were two rooms: one still shows the mosaic floor and the lower plinth covered with coloured marble. Two masks are kept of the original decorations of the theatre, and they are relocated in different areas of the city. Remains of the stairways and of the corridors which connected the different parts of the theatre and part of the entablatures complete what was saved from a structure disappeared for centuries under other constructions for residential use. Only in 1890 the presence of the ancient theatre was discovered among the foundations of the buildings above, demolished in the first decades of the last century to bring back to light the Roman artifact. The only exception was made for the eighteenth-century church of Santa Maria della Verità, renovated after the seism of 1980, which stands on a part of the cavea. The theatre, open to the public, is used for summer shows and has an antiquarium, where mainly stone finds are exhibited.
From Via Port’Arsa, in the historic district of Triggio, you can reach Via Carlo Torre, corresponding to the Roman cardo maximum. There is the Arch of Sacramento, which maybe introduced the Roman forum. Considerably damaged by the 1943 bombardments, it is part of a visitable archaelogical area. From Via Carlo Torre, you arrive Corso Garibaldi, which in large part corresponds to the Roman decuman and is a pedestrian area, the heart of Benevento.
On the left stands the Cathedral of Santa Maria de Episcopio, the most ancient church of the city which the bombings of the Second World War nearly razed to the ground, losing the precious testimonies kept until then of the original edifice of the 7th century. A meticulous work of reconstruction has allowed the almost full recovery of the bell tower and of the facade, both from the end of the 13th century. The bell tower is formed of blocks of white stone, while the façade is covered with marble too. The only part which survived to the bombings is the crypt, which has pictorial cycles from the 9th century. In the atrium, there is the restored janua, the main bronze door, work of Roman sculptors from the 12th century. In a part there are the representations of the episodes from Christ’s life taken from the Gospels, in the other the metropolitan bishop of Benevento and other prelates of that time are honored. The statue of the patron San Bartolomeo is precious and much venerated. His remains were moved to Benevento in 838.
In front of the Cathedral, in Piazza Orsini, there is the eighteenth-century fountain with the statue of Benedict XIII, born Vincenzo Maria Orsini, archbishop of Benevento from 1686 to 1730, who wanted to keep the title of the diocese even after the election to the papal throne. On the right, there was the archiepiscopal palace destroyed by bombings of 1943, which kept precious medieval codes written in the minuscule Benevento. And right next to the cathedral there is the basilica of San Bartolomeo, built after the arrival of the relics of the saint from Lipari by the Lombard prince Sicardo. Collapsed in 1702, Orsini, the archbishop of that time, raised the funds in 1724 for the reconstruction, entrusted to Raguzzini. With a single hall, we can see the precious wooden choir and the monument in red porphyry under the main altar with the relics of the apostle.
Nearby, in Piazza Dogana, another jewel is the church of San Francesco with the convent. It is said that San Francesco founded it, passing through Benevento heading towards the Gargano. The original layout with a single nave with a wooden truss roof. The apse is the original one, with fragments of fourteenth-century frescoes by a Giotto painter depicting the Madonna of Humility. There is also a fresco from the 15th century: The Trinity between the Madonna and San Giovanni Evangelista, below the Saints Bartolomeo, Giovanni Battista and Francesco. In the convent there are two Gothic cloisters, one of which is decorated with a Byzantine fresco from the 11th century representing San Costanzo.
On Corso Garibaldi, we can see Palazzo Paolo V, with elements of Mannerist architecture on the beautiful façade. Built in 1598 by Giovanni Battista Fontana under request of Paolo Borghese, the future Pope Paul V, it was then enlarged and incorporated the church of Santa Caterina. Municipal seat during the papal domination, it was the first palace in Benevento to have an artificial lighting in 1774. It it home of exhibitions and cultural events.
Immediately after, there is the Piazzetta Papiniano, in which there is one of the two obelisks of pink granite (the other one is in the Arcos Museum), of three meters high, coming from the temple of Isis in 88 AD. A hieroglyphic inscription explains that it was built by Rutilio Lupo (who was from Benevento) in honor of Domitian, who requested the temple to be built.
You can also on the Corso visit the church of Sant’Anna or Santa Maria del Carmine, with a single hall rebuilt after 1688. The Madonna with Saints Luigi Gonzaga and Maddalena de’ Pazzi by the Roman painter Sebastiano Conca is of particular interest. Also on the Corso, there is Palazzo Mosti, currently the town hall with the characteristic archway over the road to reach the garden, located on the 14th century walls.
Near Via Annunziata, there is the church of the same name, where the people’s assembly met. With a single hall and three chapels on each side, one of which is dedicated to San Gennaro, it is a work of Filippo Raguzzini and houses a marble bust of archbishop Vincenzo Maria Orsini, who wanted to keep the archbishopric of Benevento even after his election to the papal throne like Benedict XIII. Among the numerous works of the Orsini period, there is a painting of Giuseppe Castellano from 1720, representing all the patrons of the city.
From the Corso you enter Via Traiano, opened after the Second World War precisely to valorise on the background the magnificent Arch of Trajan, symbol of Benevento. One of the best kept Roman arches in the world, which pays tribute in every single millimeter of its extraordinary marble bas-relief, to the military exploits and to the munificence of the emperor Trajan, creator between 108 and 110 of the Appia Traiana, a more comfortable alternative to the Appia Antica to reach Brindisi, passing through the flat Apulia and the coast. And the arch was built in 114, on the occasion of the opening of the new main road, which made Benevento even more central in the communications network of the Adriatic side with Rome. Almost of sixteen meters high, and more than eight meters wide, with a single archway, on each façade it shows four semi-columns at the corners of the pillars supporting the entablature. Above, there is an attic with a barrel-vaulted room, built in limestone rocks covered by opus quadratum of Parian marble. On the façade facing the city, the sculptures remember the theme of peace, while on the side facing the countryside war and the provisions given by the emperor are celebrated. Trajan is represented welcomed by the Capitoline Triad and at the Foro Boarium. The frieze on the entablature illustrates the victorious expedition against the Dacians. Other panels are dedicated to the allegories of the imperial power. On the internal sides of the arch, sculpted panels represent, on the left, the sacrifice for the inauguration of Via Traiana and, on the right, the establishment by the sovereign of food for Benevento children. On the coffered vault, the image the emperor appears crowned by a Victory.
When he built the city walls as a protection for the city, in the 6th century, Arechi incorporated the Roman arch as a city gate, called Port’Aurea. Pope Pio IX launched the works to give to the monument its original appearance, starting by tearing down the elevation to the attic. Escaped to the bombs of 1943 thanks to a protection up to the top with sandbags, the arch was restored and brought back to its original splendor, as we can admire it today. In the nearby Lombard deconsecrated church of Sant’Ilario, the “Racconti dell’Arco” museum (The Tales of the Arch) is open to the public.
Still in the vicinity, there is the Confraternity of Sant’Antonio Abate and the church with the convent of Sant’Agostino, seat of the University of Samnium with an auditorium.
Returning to Corso Garibaldi, you can see several noble palaces such as the eighteenth-century Terragnoli Palace, in Rococp style with the façade by Filippo Raguzzini, seat of Antonio Mellusi the Provincial Library, and then the Vittorio Emanuele municipal theatre, from the middle of the nineteenth century designed by Pasquae Francesconi. Then you get to Piazza Santa Sofia, dominated by the church of Santa Sofia, a Unesco Heritage site, housing part of the Samnium Museum in the adjoining convent.
Once you cross Corso Garibaldi, you reach Via Tenente Pellegrini, where since 1230, is the convent of San Domenico, founded in 1230 to which in 1233, the church was flanked, rebuilt inside in Baroque style after 1688 and with a nineteenth-century façade. The case has brought to light about twenty years ago the original cycle of frescoes. A Madonna with Child in Gothic style and Saint George with Dragon from the 15th century have been kept. The sixteenth-century table by Donato Piperno is of great value and is representing San Vincenzo Ferreri and the 18th century statue of the Risen Christ by Gennaro Cerasuolo. The complex houses the Rectorate of the university and, in the side garden of the convent, the Hortus conclusus created by Mimmo Paladino.