BENEVENTO, ORIGINALLY MALEONTON, at the confluence of the Sàbuto with the Calore, a tributary of the Volturno, has been a place of consequence since the time of the Sannites.
Their Apulian allies were defeated near the town in 297 BC by the Romans in the Third Sannite War; in celebration of a subsequent victory it was renamed Beneventum when it became a colonia in 268 BC.
Benevento thrived partly because of its position on the Via Appia and became even more important with the construction of the Via Traiana, leading to Brindisium and thus to Rome’s territories in the east: the great arch that is the signal monument of Benevento marks the start of the road. The importance of the place is implied by the size of the theatre, built under Commodus (180–92).
Benevento was inevitably affected by the fall of the western empire. In 571 it became the seat of a Lombard duchy and, from 774, a principality controlling much of southern Italy.
The principality was divided in 839 and came to an end in 1033. Subsequently fought over by the Papacy, and by the Normans and their Hohenstaufen heirs, Benevento was restored to the church by Charles of Anjou in 1267.
With brief interruptions it was to remain under papal control until 1797, when it fell to the French.
In 1806 Napoleon created his brilliant if controversial foreign minister, Talleyrand, Prince of Benevento. Restored to the papacy in 1815, Benevento was absorbed by the new kingdom of Italy in 1860. Severely damaged in 1943, it has grown considerably in recent decades.
The town itself has a limited magic. But its key monuments express its historic importance.
The Duomo, rebuilt by Prince Sicone in the ninth century was reconstructed in the twelfth.
Until the bombardment of 1943 it was one of the more distinguished churches of southern Italy, but only the elaborately decorated façade with its blind arcade and, rather miraculously, the campanile beside this, begun in 1279, survived the bombardment.
Fragments of the pulpit in the Museo del Duomo and the Museo del Sannio hint at what has been lost.
Head westwards for the large, if restored, Roman theatre, but then return to the Duomo and walk up the central Corso Garibaldi, turning left on Via Traiana to descend to the Arch of Trajan which was dedicated in AD 114. Faced in marble from Paros, this is the most lavishly decorated and best preserved of Roman triumphal arches.
The reliefs celebrate the work of the emperor. Those on the west side, facing the centre of the town, represent Trajan’s achievements as a ruler; while their counterparts on the east front document his successful campaigns to stabilize Rome’s position in Germany.
The two large panels under the arch commemorate his sacrifice at Benevento when his great road was begun in 109 and his extension to the city of the charity for poor children founded by Nerva. These are among the masterpieces of Roman sculpture.
Continuing up the Corso Garibaldi, on the right, is the elegant baroque Basilica di San Bartolomeo, consecrated in 1729,
which replaced an earlier church destroyed in an earthquake of 1702.
The architect, the Neapolitan Filippo Raguzzini was also responsible for the rococo Palazzo Terragnoli of nine bays also on the right. Ahead is the Piazza Matteotti, which owes much to Talleyrand.
On the left is Santa Sofia, founded in 762 by Arechi II, subsequently duke and first prince of Benevento. Partly rebuilt in the twelfth century and again after an earthquake of 1688, this was ‘restored’ in the 1950s.
The interior adheres to the original plan, with a central dome supported on an arcade of six large columns which are in turn supported on a ring of eight pilasters and two Corinthian columns, the last aligned on the door.
To the left of the church is the wonderful early twelfth-century cloister with fine carved capitals supporting the subsidiary arches of the arcade. Because of its position in relation to the church the bay nearest to this is stepped into the central space,
an arrangement comparable with that at Monreale. The capitals illustrate the range of experience and imagination of the times: a knight catches a boar; mounted archers charge; two men ride elephants and another guides a camel; animals fight with a brutal energy and mounted dragons are entwined; while bunches of grapes and vine leaves are meticulously observed.
The extensive monastic buildings now serve as the Museo del Sannio, with substantial archaeological holdings and, on the first floor,
a modest picture collection. More interesting is the sculpture. A remarkable panel from the destroyed pulpit of the Duomo shows the sculptor, Nicola da Monteforte kneeling before a crucifix,
while a late quattrocento relief of the Madonna with two angels implies the influence of the north.
The historical section of the museum is in the much-restored Rocca dei Rettori higher up the corso, the left-hand section of which was built – inevitably with Roman spoil – by the then governor of the city in 1321.