Benevento: An Italian gem of culture and sorcery
November 7, 2016
by Lucia Yuki
Very few people outside of Italy are familiar with this ancient little city that lies about 50km northeast of the dazzling Naples. Resting on a hillside in the scenic region of Campania, Benevento is a fascinating blend of diverse cultures, heritages, and mythologies. Once a fortressed Samnite town, it flourished as a powerful colony under the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. In the mid-6th century, the Lombards held extensive power in Italy, and Benevento crept into the spotlight again as the seat of a powerful Lombard Duchy. The Duchy of Benevento conquered a number of important territories from the Byzantine Empire, expanding rapidly and encompassing most of the country. After a civil war that split the Duchy in half, in the 12th century Benevento became a province of the Papal States.
Torn apart and rebuilt by war (many wars, in fact), every one of its cobblestone backstreets and ancient remains tells a story of loss, rebirth, and triumph.
Benevento lies off the beaten track in Italy, allowing you to experience a less traveled world of rich cultural heritage, delicious local food, and that typical ‘southern’ spirit that has remained intact among its residents throughout time. And yet it is not a far-flung travel destination in Italy: Naples, Salerno, and Rome all lie within easy reach of the town. In less than two hours you can also reach the shores of the Adriatic.
Among its many landmarks, Benevento’s Santa Sofia church was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011.
And there’s another thing you should probably know about this hilly southern gem: in Italian folklore, Benevento was the place where witches gathered from all over the country to perform their notorious full-moon rituals, known as the Sabba. Today, those sorceresses exist only on the label of an Italian liqueur and sweet production brand. Their presence in Benevento, however, continues to characterize the city’s every corner.
What to see: Historical sites
Benevento is not a big city (you can easily tour it in a day, or less), but it burst with ancient attractions and hidden local pearls of all sorts.
ARCO DI TRAIANO (the Arch of Trajan)
This remarkably preserved arch is the most prominent ancient structure of Benevento. Built in honour of the Roman Emperor Trajan in 114 A.D, it stands proudly at a point that used to mark the entrance to the city. It was known at that time as ‘The Golden Gateway’.
Why? In those days, Via Appia was one of the most strategically important roads for the Romans, connecting Rome to the port city of Brindisi. But it was a rugged, mountainous road that made the transition of supplies and soldiers more complicated than the Romans would have liked. It was for this reason that Emperor Trajan constructed Via Traiano, a new road that cut through Benevento and shortened the journey from Rome by one full day. The Arco di Traiano inaugurated this historic shortcut, celebrating the prosperity Trajan brought to Benevento.
Its richly sculpted limestone facades depict the stories of conquest, war, and imperial divinity attributed to the Emperor’s extraordinary life.
The arch was restored several times through the years following some major earthquakes that hit the heart of the city – the most damaging one being in 1688. Unlike most Roman ruins, however, it is regularly maintained and remains one of the most spectacularly preserved historical monuments in Italy.
Another Roman arch to visit in Benevento is the Arch of Sacramento, a badly destroyed brick arch that dates back to the beginning of the 2nd century.
CHIESA DI SANTA SOFIA (Church of Santa Sofia)
This simple but characteristic church does not boast any baroque paintings or elaborate mosaics often associated with Catholic churches. Dating back to c. 760, it is a small but impressive construction that was partly influenced by the Byzantine architecture of its time, and partly by the solid culture of the Lombards, who liked to experiment with their style and design innovative structures. The church of Santa Sofia was in fact built as part of a major patronage project undertaken by Arechi II, the then Duke of Benevento. Arechi II strived to expand Benevento’s cultural and artistic influence throughout Italy by constructing noble monuments that reflected a significant leap in Italian architecture.
The church’s internal pillars are made of white limestone and positioned in order to form a harmonious ‘star shaped’ hexagon in the center of the church.
After the devastating earthquake of 1688, Santa Sofia was reconstructed in a more Baroque style and several changes were made to its design. The church was restored again in 1957 according to its original maps, and today it stands almost completely as it did when it was first built all those centuries ago.
There are several other beautiful churches to visit in Benevento, including the Basilica della Madonna, the Cathedral of Benevento, and the baroque church of San Bartolomeo.
TEATRO ROMANO (Ancient Roman Theatre)
Built in the 2nd century by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, the theatre was inaugurated in 126 and later expanded by Emperor Caracalla between 200 and 210. It is one of the most remarkable Roman remains in Italy. Above all, it reflects the bizarre historical and artistic heritage of Benevento, a city influenced by the dominance of the Samnite, the Romans, and the Lombards. Despite its semicircular shape, the theatre could host up to 15.000 spectators in its day. Sadly in the 6th century it was abandoned by the Lombards and its materials used for the construction of defensive walls during periods of heavy battle.
Most of the theatre was constructed with opus caementicium (Roman concrete). The stairs were covered with polychrome marble slabs that have been very well preserved. Most remarkably, its acoustic properties survived the many repair works it underwent through the years, and today the theatre is alive in summer with concerts, festivals, drama shows, and other important social events.
PONTE LEPROSO (The Leproso bridge)
This ancient relic was built over the river Sabato in the 3rd century A.D. It connected the prominent Via Appia to the town of Benevento. The exact origins of its construction remain vague, though historians believe it may have previously existed as a smaller bridge built by the Samnite, and later enlarged by the Romans to inaugurate the creation of Via Appia. The bridge was destroyed several times, most notably by the Ostrogoths of King Totila in the 6th century, prior to the establishment of the Duchy of Benevento. It was reconstructed and then damaged again after the earthquake of 1702. It was on this bridge that the noble Manfred of Sicily, who reigned as King from 1258 to 1266, was killed by the troops of Charles of Anjou during the Battle of Benevento. The battle ended the Hohenstaufen rule in Italy: the dynasty of German Kings who ruled the Kingdom of Sicily during the Middle Ages.
The bridge remains in good condition despite the heavy damage it suffered.
MUSEO DEL SANNIO (The Samnite Museum)
Visit the museum to complete your tour of Benevento’s historical treasures. The museum is home to a comprehensive collection of archeological gems that date from the bronze age to the medieval era. You will also be able to find several sculptures associated to the Egyptian cult of Isis, one of the most prominent cults to expand within the Roman Empire. A temple dedicated to the goddess Isis was built by Emperor Domitian in Benevento between the years 88 and 89 A.D. Although the temple is believed to have been destroyed in the year 663 A.D, a number of its remarkable artifacts were uncovered in a dig in 1903 and put on display at the Samnite Museum.
The museum is also home to ‘Ciro the Dinosaur’, the first Italian dinosaur to be discovered and the most well-preserved in the world. Ciro was discovered in 1980 in Pietraroja, a mountain commune close to Benevento. Remarkably enough, he was the first dinosaur to be unearthed with all his organs completely intact.
What to do: Shopping
Again, Benevento is not a big city, but it has got all you need clustered right there, at its very heart. The Corso is a main street that crosses right through the city center, rising uphill from Piazza Cardinale Pacca to Piazza Castello, at the height of Benevento’s historical center. The arch of Trajan and the church of Santa Sofia can both be found along the way, as well as the city council, the council theatre, the public library, and, finally, the Rocca dei Rettori, also known as the Castle of Benevento.
In terms of clothe shops, the Corso offers a generous selection of both mid-market brands and more upscale choices. Some of these include Sisley, Benetton, Gaya Group, Armani, Prenatal, and Max & Co. You will also be able to find a pharmacy on either end of the street, an optical shop, a beauty shop, and several cafés where you can stop for a traditional ‘aperitivo’.
I recommend you visit Euro Liquori, one of Benevento’s best-kept secrets. It is a delightful little shop selling a variety of traditional Beneventian products. The most well-known are its liqueur and its ‘torroncini’ chocolates, which are typically eaten during the Christmas period in Italy. The staff is very friendly and it is a great place to shop for local souvenirs and gifts. The name of the shop derives from the famous Italian brand, Strega Alberti Benevento SpA, which in turn is drawn from the myth of the Witches of Benevento.
Where to go: Food
If you are looking for a taste of typical southern Italy, there are several eateries in Benevento that will satisfy your craves. Below are a few I recommend.
This one deserves its spot at the top of the list. This charming little family-run restaurant serves an assortment of traditional ‘southern’ dishes prepared with fresh, homemade ingredients. There is no written menu card, and the choices vary from night to night. The owner, Nunzia, will run through them with you at your table, giving you a real ‘local’ dining experience. The atmosphere is cozy (it’s all indoors), and prices are very reasonable. I highly recommend stopping for some delicious Italian food Da Nunzia!
Da Nunzia won the 2012 Osterie d’Italia Slow Food Award.
This sophisticated, rustic restaurant offers a more ‘haute contour’ Beneventian dining experience. Located in the heart of the Lombard district, the space feels like a wine cellar, with beautiful stone arches and vaulted ceilings. The menu is eclectic and every dish reflects Italy’s southern culinary tradition. They also serve a delicious assortment of antipasti and Italian ‘tapas’ accompanied by a suggested wine. At lunch it is often very busy with locals and I recommend booking a table for meals during the weekends.
Other fantastic restaurants include the Cotton Club Osteria and the Ristorante Pizzeria Traiano.
So what are you waiting for? Whether you’re a history buff or a traveling gourmand, Benevento will be worth that little detour away from the hampering tourist crowds.