ASSISI, Italy — The decision of Pope Francis to take the name of the most famous son of this Umbrian city is already bringing it more attention — the pontiff himself visited in October — but tourists have another reason to make it part of their itinerary. In recent years, archeologists have unearthed floors and walls of a 2,000-year-old house, one of the most intact Roman dwellings north of the Eternal City.
Assisi will always be best known for the Basilica of St. Francis and other memorials to the saint’s life here in the 12th and 13th centuries. Yet the same devastating earthquakes in 1997 that damaged the basilica’s Giotto frescoes illustrating Francis’s life played a role in uncovering layers of Assisi’s Roman past.
The earthquakes destabilized the elevator shaft of a court building close to the city’s ancient center. During repairs underground, workers found partially intact walls and floors of a sizable house that archeologists believe might once have housed professional weavers.
The 1997 earthquakes here were not the first to help Assisi rediscover its Roman history. After a quake in 1832, workers in 1854 digging under the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, which was once Assisi’s cathedral, found evidence of a 1st century AD dwelling whose columns were used in the building of the church’s crypt, which dates from the ninth century. The floor of that house included marble tiles from all parts of the Roman Empire.
A fresco on a wall of Galateia, the sea nymph, meeting land animals tempts scholars to believe the house might once have been the home of the Roman poet Propertius, who is believed to have been born in or near Assisi around 50 BC. Propertius, a contemporary and friend of both Ovid and Virgil, referred to the Galateian myth in one of his poems.
Another clue indicating Propertius might have lived in the house is a fourth-century graffito inscription “I have kissed the house of the Muse.” On the fashionable southern side of the old city, the house would have had views over the Tiber River valley. The interior included a “garden” room decorated with fresco paintings of 90 species of birds perched in foliage as well as images of a cricket and a lizard. The decorated wall still bears the quarter-inch holes that researchers believe accommodated the hanging of bird cages.
The entrance of Santa Maria Maggiore is capped by half of a marble font from the city’s Roman period. St. Francis was baptized in the church and it was close by where he is said to have once stripped before a bishop, dramatizing his scorn for worldly goods.
There is poetic justice in earthquakes leading to discoveries of ancient buildings, since seismic events undoubtedly contributed to their leveling and replacement by new-generation structures. In Assisi’s case, destruction also came at the hands of Ostrogoths in 545 AD. By that time, Assisi was already about 1,500 years old. The original Umbrians were succeeded by Etruscans and then Romans, all attracted to the defensible site on a spur of Mount Subasio.
The city’s most striking Roman remnant is the portico of its Temple of Minerva with six Corinthian columns. The interior now houses a church. Close to the temple is the Piazza del Comune, which sits atop what was the Roman forum.
The rooms discovered under the court building are part of a substantial house of more than 4,300 square feet. Evidence that it was a house and not a public building comes from its columns: They are made of plaster covering a brick core — in a public building they would have been solid marble.
The discovery of artifacts used on a loom and frescoes on the walls of women weaving are the clues that have led archeologists to surmise that the building at some point might have been a local center of weaving.
Other recognizable fresco images include a man and a woman conversing. A bronze drainage pipe in one room offers evidence it might have been an atrium open to the elements.
The floor of a room in the house that had been excavated before the 1997 quakes is covered with mosaic tiles that lie six feet below the glass floor of a restaurant, La Laconda del Cardinale. Diners at the restaurant, which has contributed financially to the archeological work, can look down on the still brightly colored stone work.
The city’s Roman core lies between the Basilica of St. Francis and the one dedicated to his contemporary and fellow native of Assisi, St. Clare. Much of the city’s appeal has always lain in the fact that these — and other — architectural and artistic monuments to the two saints sit close to much more humble edifices that were important in their lives: the hermitage on a slope of Mount Subasio where Francis would go to meditate and pray, and San Domiano, the 12th-century church outside the city walls where Francis believed the Christ on the church’s crucifix had addressed him and where Clare established her order of the Poor Clares.
The remnants of the city’s Roman past provide another sort of contrast: reflections of the day-to-day life in an Italian city at just about the time the Christian religion — which would so transform Assisi — was taking shape across the Mediterranean.
Assisi, already one of Italy’s top sites for tourists, scarcely needs more attractions to draw visitors to its narrow, medieval streets, which in summer months can be uncomfortably crowded. But in recent years the city has improved its hospitality with construction of an underground parking garage.
Visitors can make reservations to view the diggings on Saturdays at www.sistemamuseo.it.Donald MacGillis can be reached at dmacgillis9995 @gmail.com.