Assisi – Tempio di Minerva
Published: L. Vignati, c.1910
The Temple of Minerva is an ancient Roman building in Assisi, Umbria, central Italy. It currently houses a church, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, built in 1539 and renovated in Baroque style in the 17th century. The temple was built in the 1st century BC by will of Gnaeus Caesius and Titus Caesius Priscus, who were two of the city’s quattuorviri and also financed the construction. The attribution to the goddess Minerva derives from the finding of a female statue, although a dedication stone to Hercules has been found, and the temple was likely dedicated to this male demi-god. In the Middle Ages the temple housed a tribunal with an annexed jail, as testified by one of Giotto’s frescoes in the St. Francis Basilica, which portrays the church windows with bars.
Of the ancient temple, the façade has been preserved, with six Corinthian columns supporting the architrave and a small pediment. The columns were originally covered by a very strong plaster, which was perhaps colored. The cella was completely demolished during the church’s construction, in the 16th century, while a small section of the temple was found in the 20th century near the altar.
The Temple of Minerva was built in the 1st century BC by the quatorvirates Gneus Cesius and Titus Cesius Priscus at their own expense. In Roman times, the piazza in front of the temple was the main city center, and some early Christian martyrs were likely executed here. By the late 4th and 5th centuries, paganism was basically outlawed and the Temple of Minerva was abandoned. Fortunately, however, it was not destroyed. Sometime in the late sixth century, Benedictine monks restored the temple and made use of it. The divided the interior into two floors, creating living rooms in the upper part and the church of San Donato in the lower part.
In the 13th century, the monks leased the temple to the newly-formed Comune of Assisi, which made the temple its headquarters from 1215 to 1270. The Temple of Minerva/San Donato was used as the municipal jail until the 15th century. In 1456, the temple returned to sacred use and the church of San Donato was reopened. In the meantime, the Italian Renaissance inspired a newfound appreciation for classical art and architecture. In the years 1527-1530, the magistrates of Assisi ordered restoration projects to be undertaken. Then, in 1539, Pope Paolo III, making a visit to Assisi, ordered the Temple of Minerva to be completely restored and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, queen of true wisdom. The temple then took the name of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (St. Mary over Minerva).
From the year 295 BC, Assisi became part of the comune of Rome, the latter having been victorious over the Italian confederacy. In the year 88 BC, the city became a “Municipium romanum” (Roman municipality), with all the rights and regulations afforded to Rome. During the reign of the emperor Augustus, the city of Assisi was transformed into a well organized residential and turistic centre (during the years 28-25 BC). The grand Forum (a rectangle measuring 44 x 88 meters inside) was constructed; various temples were built, the city walls were completed, the baths and the (healing) springs of mineral waters were opened, and the theatre was constructed alongside the amphitheatre. Among the many monuments constructed was the Temple of Minerva, which at that time dominated the Forum complex and even today, still dominates the “Piazza del Comune”, the heart of Assisi and a wonderful example of medieval architecture.