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The Rocca dei Rettori

Secrets of the Ancient Origins of the Province of Benevento

Benevento is one of the five provinces of the region of Campania and is located to the northeast of Naples. The total population is less than 300,000 divided among 78 towns and cities, with the most populous being the city of Benevento and its metropolitan area, with 110,000 residents. The province closely approximates the area of the Principality of Benevento dating from the late 11th century. It borders the region of Molise to the north, Puglia to the east, the provinces of Avellino and Napoli to the south and the province of Caserta to the west. The highest point is reached at Monte Mutria, which is 6,000 feet above sea level, one of the mountains of the Matese range, which separates the province from Molise.

The name Benevento means ‘good wind.’ The Romans had originally called the site Maleventum, which meant ‘the site of bad events.’ It became known by a far more positive name Beneventum after they displaced the Samnium from the area in 274 BC.

As a Roman colony, Beneventum, primarily in the present city of Benevento, quickly flourished and was repeatedly occupied by Roman generals. It was a post of importance, due to its proximity to Campania and its strength as a fortress. Towards the close of the Roman Republic, Benevento was described as one of the most opulent and flourishing cities in all of Italy. The Appian Way was the main thoroughfare and Beneventum was situated at the junction of two principal branches of the great road – one leading into Apulia and the other to Tarentum, now Taranto.

It was often visited by Roman emperors. The Arch of Trajan was erected in 114 AD to commemorate one such visit by Emperor Trajan and is one of the best-preserved Roman structures in the Campania. It stands over 50 feet high and is 28 feet wide. The arch is built from limestone, covered by marble slabs and has richly sculpted decorations in bas-reliefs.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Beneventum was sacked and its walls were razed, but it became the seat of a powerful Lombard Duchy around the year 545, which lasted for over two centuries. Due to its artistic and cultural significance, the Santa Sofia Church in Benevento was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, as part of a group of seven historic buildings inscribed as ‘Longobards in Italy, Places of Power.’

Benevento passed to the Papacy in 1053 and was the cornerstone of its temporal powers in southern Italy. Except for a decade following Napoleon’s conquest at the beginning of the 1800s, the principality continued to be a Papal possession until it was united with Italy in 1860.

In addition to The Arch of Trajan, there are other important remains from the ancient Roman era. Benevento contains a well-preserved theatre, located next to the Cathedral and the Port’Arsa gate. This grandiose building was erected by Hadrian and was later expanded by Caracalla. It has a diameter of almost 300 feet and could house up to 15,000 spectators. It is currently used for theater, dance and opera performances.

Also located in the city of Benevento are the ruins of Santi Quaranta. It is large cryptoportico 190 feet long and served as a market. It is a semi-subterranean gallery whose vaulting supports portico structures aboveground and which was lit from openings at the tops of its arches. The portion preserved is only a fraction of the whole, which once measured 1,700 feet in length. An ancient bridge spans the River Sabato. Named the Ponte Leproso, it dates from the 3rd century BC. The bridge is part of the Via Appia and crosses over the river below the city center. The name of the bridge, which has been in place since the 11th century, was based on its location near a hospital for the lepers of the early Middle Ages.

Many inscriptions and ancient fragments may be seen built into the old dwellings and ruins throughout the province. In 1903, the foundations of the Temple of Isis were discovered close to the Arch of Trajan. They had apparently been used as the foundation of a portion of the city wall, reconstructed in 663.

One of the main examples of religious Lombard architecture is the Church of Santa Sofia. It is circular in form and dates to around 760. The plan consists of a central hexagon with columns taken from the Temple of Isis. The church has a fine cloister from the 12th century, constructed in part from fragments salvaged from earlier buildings. The interior was once totally frescoed by Byzantine artists; fragments of these paintings portraying the Histories of Christ can be still seen in the two side apses.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, with its arcaded façade and incomplete square campanile, dates from the 9th century. Its bronze doors, adorned with bas-reliefs, are notable example of Romanesque art which belong to the 11th century. The Duomo houses a 14th century marble statue of the apostle San Bartolomeo by Nicola da Monteforte. A patron saint of Benevento, Bartholomew’s relics are kept in the cathedral.

The castle of Benevento, Rocca dei Rettori, also known as the Castle of Manfredi, stands at the highest point of the city, commanding the valley of the rivers Sabato and Calore and the two ancient roads, Via Appia and Via Traiana. It received the current name in the Middle Ages, when it became the seat of the Papal governors, the Rettori. The current appearance is the result of numerous renovations and additions over the centuries. The Torrione, Big Tower, stands 92 feet tall and presents the only visible remains of their original fortress. Built in the 9th century, it had been restored several times through the 15th century. The other main body of the fortress is the Palazzo dei Governatori Pontifici, Palace of the Papal Rectors. Built by the Popes from 1320, the palace has a rectangular plane, with three floors and an inner court and currently houses the Museum of the Samnium.

Further afield, the village of Sant’Agata de’ Goti is located at the foot of Monte Taburno. The town is divided in two parts, the “modern” portion, built since the end of the 19th century and the “ancient,” constructed on top of Roman foundations. Built upon tufa, the town faces the valley and although it was not built as a walled town, its proximity at the top of the hill gave it significant natural defenses. Viewed from afar, it retains the same medieval appearance as it has for many centuries.

The small town of San Marco dei Cavoti is located in the Fortore River valley. In the past, the local economy was dominated by textile production. It has since become one of the best-known places in Italy for the production of torrone, the nougat confection made from honey, sugar, egg white and nuts. There are ten family-owned companies in the area still producing the delicious treat.

A visit to the province is really a step back in time in many respects. It does not have much by way of industry and its agriculture is based on small farms. Benevento itself is in a very attractive location, surrounded by the Apennine hills. It also has the benefit of not being a major tourist destination. For those whose family’s emigrated from the area, a visit will uncover the unspoiled natural beauty and charm of this off-the-beaten track location.