The modern history of this city will appear interesting to those readers who do not despise the events of ages which we usually and justly call dark and barbarous. They certainly are of importance to all the present states of Europe for at that period originated the political existence of most of them. Had no northern savages descended from their snowy mountains to overturn the Roman colossus and break asunder the fetters of mankind few of those powers which now make so formidable a figure would ever have been so much as heard of. The avengers of the general wrongs were no doubt the destroyers of arts and literature and brought on the thick clouds of ignorance which for many centuries no gleam of light could penetrate, but it is to be remembered also that the Romans themselves had already made great progress in banishing true taste and knowledge and would very soon have been a barbarous nation, though neither Goths nor Vandals had ever approached the frontier. The Lombards (aka Longobards) came the last of the Scythian or Scandinavian hordes to invade Italy. After fixing the seat of their empire at Pavia they sent a detachment to possess itself of the southern provinces. In 571 Zotto was appointed Duke of Benevento as a feudatory of the King of Lombardy and seems to have confined his rule to the city alone from which he sallied forth to seek for booty. The second Duke whose name was Arechis conquered almost the whole country that now constitutes the kingdom of Naples. His successors appear long to have remained satisfied with the extent of dominion he had transmitted to them.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
(left) Longobard walls in the lower town; (right) Porta Arsa, a Longobard gate in the lower town (near Ponte Leproso)
The fall of Desiderius, last King of the Lombards, did not affect the state of Benevento. By an effort of policy or resolution Arechis the Second kept possession and availing himself of the favourable conjuncture asserted his independence. Hence threw off all feudal submission assumed the style of Prince and coined money with his own image upon it, a prerogative experienced by none of his predecessors as Dukes of Benevento. Swinburne
Ashmolean Museum of Oxford: coin of Grimoaldo III, Duke of Benevento and son of Arechis (left) and the brooch shown in the coin (right)
During four reigns this state maintained itself on a respectable footing and might long have continued, so had not civil war added to very powerful assaults from abroad hastened its ruin. Radelchis and Siconulph aspired to the principality and each of them invited the Saracens to his aid. The desolation caused by this conflict is scarcely to be described. No better method for terminating these fatal dissentions could be devised than dividing the dominions into two distinct sovereignties. In 851 Radelchis reigned as Prince at Benevento and his adversary fixed his court with the same title at Salerno. From this treaty of partition the ruin of the Lombards became inevitable. A want of union undermined their strength, foreigners gained an ascendant over them, irresolution and weakness pervaded their whole system of government. The erection of Capua into a third principality was another destructive operation and now the inroads of the Saracens, the attacks of the eastern and western emperors, anarchy and animosity at home reduced the Lombard states to such wretchedness that they were able to make a very feeble resistance to the Norman arms. The city of Benevento alone escaped their sway by a grant which the Emperor Henry the Second had made of it to the Bishop of Rome in exchange for the territory of Bamberg in Germany where the Popes enjoyed a kind of sovereignty. From the year 1053 to this day the Roman See with some short interruptions of possession has exercised temporal dominion over this city. Benevento has given three Popes to the chair of St. Peter, viz Felix the Fourth, Victor the Third (1087) and Gregory the Eighth (1187). Swinburne
(left) S. Ilario a Porta Aurea (Trajan's Arch); (right) ruins of a monastery adjoining the building
The Longobards ruled most of Italy for two hundred years. For a long time their contribution to the artistic treasures of the country seemed limited to the jewels they carried with them to their tombs. In recent years efforts have been made to identify evidence of the Longobard period in architecture and sculpture. S. Ilario was most likely built in that period, but it was modified many times and it was eventually deconsecrated and turned into a farmhouse in the XVIIth century. It is therefore difficult to appreciate its original design.
(left) Palazzo dei Rettori - medieval tower aka Castello di Benevento; (right) two ancient columns which stand in a courtyard adjoining the building
The castle erected by Guglielmo Billotta during the Pontificate of Giovanni XXII is now the residence of the Roman Governor and in its courtyard are deposited fragments of an Egyptian obelisk.
Mariana Starke - Travels in Europe for the Use of Travellers on the Continent and likewise in the Island of Sicily - 1839 Edition - based on travels made in 1824-1828
Guglielmo Bilotta was a governor of Benevento who in 1322 turned a monastery into a residence for himself and his successors. The massive use of ancient materials in some parts of the building suggests that they were originally built by the Longobards in the VIIIth century.
(left) Palazzo dei Rettori: a Longobard wall of the building; (inset) ancient funerary relief; (right) medieval lion placed on top of a 1640 monument celebrating Pope Urban VIII near Palazzo dei Rettori
In the court of the archiepiscopal palace are various inscriptions, busts, statues, bas reliefs, with other fragments of antiquity, and throughout the whole city we may trace numerous vestiges of Roman antiquity; indeed the walls, houses, and streets present one continued series of inscriptions, bas reliefs, broken columns of granite. (..) An effigy (of a beast) is erected upon an antique column near the castle.
Sir Richard Colt Hoare - A Classical Tour through Italy and Sicily - published in 1819, but Colt Hoare visited Benevento in 1789.
New facilities for the governors were built near the medieval tower, which was often used as a a prison.
Monument celebrating an episode narrated by Dante
I turned me tow'rds him, and looked at him closely;
Blond was he, beautiful, and of noble aspect,
But one of his eyebrows had a blow divided.
Then said he with a smile: "I am Manfredi,
The grandson of the Empress Costanza;
After I had my body lacerated
By these two mortal stabs, I gave myself
Weeping to Him, who willingly doth pardon.
Had but Cosenza's pastor, who in chase
Of me was sent by Clement at that time,
The bones of my dead body still would be
At the bridge-head, near unto Benevento,
Under the safeguard of the heavy cairn.
Now the rain bathes and moveth them the wind,
Beyond the realm, almost beside the Verde,
Where he transported them with tapers quenched."
Dante - Purgatorio - Canto Terzo. Translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
From the notes accompanying the translation:
In 1266 Manfredi being left with few followers behaved like a valiant gentleman who preferred to die in battle rather than to escape with shame. And putting on his helmet which had on it a silver eagle for a crest this eagle fell on the saddle bow before him and seeing this he was greatly disturbed and said in Latin to the barons who were near him "Hoc est signum Dei" for this crest I fastened on with my own hands in such a way that it could not fall. But he was not discouraged and took heart and went into battle like any other baron without the royal insignia in order not to be recognized. But short while it lasted for his forces were already in flight and they were routed and Manfredi slain in the middle of the enemy and they were driven into the town by the soldiers of King Charles for it was now night and they lost the city of Benevento. (..) And for more than three days they made search after Manfredi for he could not be found nor was it known if he were dead or a prisoner or had escaped because he had not worn his royal robes in the battle. And afterwards he was recognized by one of his own camp followers from certain marks upon his person in the middle of the battle field and he threw him across an ass and came shouting "Who will buy Manfredi" for which a baron of the king beat him with a cane. And the body of Manfredi being brought to King Charles he assembled all the barons who were prisoners and asked each one if that was Manfredi and timidly they answered yes. Count Giordano smote himself in the face with his hands weeping and crying "O my lord" whereupon he was much commended by the French and certain Bretons besought that he might have honourable burial. Answered the king and said I would do it willingly if he were not excommunicated and on that account he would not have him laid in consecrated ground but he was buried at the foot of the bridge of Benevento and each one of the army threw a stone upon his grave so that a great pile was made. But afterwards it is said by command of Pope Clement IV the Bishop of Cosenza took him from that grave and sent him out of the kingdom because it was Church land. And he was buried by the river Verde at the confines of the kingdom and the Campagna.
The cathedral is a clumsy edifice in a style of Gothic or rather Lombard architecture. Three doors, a type of the Trinity according to the rules established by the mystical Vitruvii of those ages, open into this facade. That in the centre is of bronze embossed with the life of Christ and the effigies of the Beneventine Metropolitan with all his suffragan Bishops. The inside offers nothing to the curious observer but columns, altars and other decorations executed in the most inelegant style that any of the church building barbarians ever adopted. Swinburne
The interior of the building is supported by sixtyfour beautiful ancient columns all quite perfect and exactly similar to each other, a rare occurrence and form a striking contrast to the bad architecture of the edifice they now adorn. Starke
Portal of the Cathedral: details of the reliefs. Another one is shown in the image used as background for this page
In September 1943 the interior of the Cathedral was entirely destroyed by Allied bombings. The fašade which had been covered with sandbags was not damaged to the same degree and it has been possible to bring it back to its pristine aspect. The panels of the bronze door were detached from their support by the explosions and today are replaced by modern copies.
The fašade and the bell tower were built towards the end of the XIIIth century. The latter was decorated by placing seventeen funerary reliefs of the same size in order to form a sort of frieze. For a similar example of use of funerary reliefs as decorative elements of a church you may wish to see S. Giusto in Trieste.
Museo del Sannio: works of art from the Cathedral; the relief is signed by Nicola da Monteforte (1311)
The Cathedral had a decorated medieval ambo (oblong pulpit) where the sculptor portrayed himself in the act of praying. Because the style of the statues and the reliefs brought to mind similar works in Tuscany, art historians searched for links between Nicola da Monteforte, of whom no other works are known, and that region. The only one they found is that Monaldo Monaldeschi, the archbishop who commissioned the ambo, was from Orvieto and he might have had drawings of existing sculptures by Nicola Pisano or other Tuscan artists. Today art historians suggest that Monteforte might have seen works by Arnolfo di Cambio in Rome.
Carlo Labruzzi - Medieval Benevento
When I started from Rome, it was my decided intention to investigate the Via Appia along its whole extended line as far as Brundisium; but the advanced state of the season, the inclemency of the weather, and the ill health of my companion and artist Carlo Labruzzi, obliged me, very reluctantly, to abandon the further prosecution of my intended plan. Here, therefore, my journal of the Appian Way must end, and with the same concluding lines of the poet Horace: "Hic longae finis chartaeque viaeque est" (Here ends a long account and a long voyage). Colt Hoare
The medieval aspect of Benevento was particularly concentrated in the neighbourhood to the south of the Cathedral which was destroyed by the 1943 bombings.
(left) Monument to Pope Benedict XIII; (right) S. Bartolomeo
In the adjoining square are a fountain and a very indifferent statue of Benedict the Thirteenth long archbishop of Benevento. Swinburne
The history of Benevento took a favourable turn in 1724 when Cardinal Vincenzo Maria Orsini, Archbishop of Benevento, was elected Pope Benedict XIII. He had been Archbishop of Benevento for 44 years and from Rome he endeavoured to help and embellish the town where he had been for such a long time. In 1726 he commissioned Filippo Raguzzini, his favourite architect, to redesign S. Bartolomeo, a church housing relics of St. Bartholomew the Apostle.
S. Bartolomeo: (left) interior; (right) Cappella di S. Michele paid for by Cardinal Niccol˛ Coscia; he was of very humble origin but he decorated the chapel with five coats of arms which he copied from that of Antipope John XXIII, Baldassarre Cossa (it opens in another window)
Pope Benedict XIII entrusted the running of the state to Niccol˛ Coscia, his assistant in Benevento and in 1725 he gave him the cardinal's hat, although twenty, of the twenty-six cardinals present in the consistory, opposed his promotion. After the death of his protector he was charged with extortion, forgery and breach of trust and he was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. In 1742 he was pardoned by Pope Benedict XIV, but he left Rome and retired into private life in Naples.