Episcope of Porto – a charming post of strong importance and long history
Riding towards a Medieval hamlet in ancient Porto
We leave Rome behind us and we chose an easy train station to start riding our e-bikes along the Regina Ciclarum, a peaceful walking, and cycle path. First, we gained the right bank of the Tiber River. Then, we get to the point at which the Tiber River was split to create under the emperor Trajan the “Flumen Micinum” a channel connected to the Emperor’s port. Along this channel, who gave the name to the modern city of Fiumicino and through spontaneous herbs and rushes, after a few miles, we start approaching a towering wall. An 18th-century arch with two ancient columns introduces us to a courtyard. We can breathe such a quiet and peaceful atmosphere, far from the nearby car and airplane traffic caused by via Portuensis and the International Airport. We meet Don Antonio thanks to whom we can jump into another time with many tales.
The episcope, the bishop’s house and his ancient Roman structures
According to the etymology, the word Episcope is related both with the meaning of “Bishop’s house” and even with the meaning of “to guard”. And indeed this castle appears as a defensive and small fortress more than an important personality’s house. But let’s start from the beginning… We are close to the coast, which was even much closer than today, in the old harbor Porto, born after the one of Ostia to supply the growing demand of goods and food to Rome. The hamlet is between the Trajan channel and his hexagonal port. In the 2nd century A.D., Emperor Hadrian built a bridge to allow crossing the Trajan channel probably directly from the building today under the Episcope.
Below the 14th century great tower, there are still ancient roman walls and arches. The current cellars were used as Roman warehouses, or probably this area was an administrative headquarters, as a customs, linked to the Trajan Port next store. There is even a hypothesis according to which these ruins underneath could be the second lighthouse. Nobody has found the original location yet. Even the basement of the fortified walls, running along the perimeter of the entire Episcope, is characterized by the presence of ancient roman bricks and ancient cement, testifying to a previous purpose.
The episcope in the Christian Era. 14th century: the nepotist Bishop and Pope Rodrigo Borgia
The first Christian community in this area, at the beginning under the control of Ostia, is certified around the 3rd century. With Constantine the Great, the Porto church, dedicated to the sailors’ patron S. Lucia, became an independent and more important worship place than Ostia. While the coastline slowly moved away, creating more distance between the ancient ports and the sea, the first invasions moved closed. Nothing of those structures has survived, such as the first church and houses. After the last big Muslim
invasion, which took place through the coast in 846, the entire area was considered by Popes as an important area to protect for defensive and economic reasons. In the 11th century, the Bishop rose in importance, being one of the closest cardinals to the Papacy. Amongst the many Cardinals who ruled the Episcope, we mention the disputed Rodrigo Borgia, under whom, in the 14th century, the great tower was built on the occasion of Pope Sixtus IV’s visit. Pope Sixtus IV was the first one who reconsidered the importance of the Tiber River and its connection with the Mediterranean Sea undertaking in Rome the first bridge constructions since antiquity.
A new look in 17th century
The Pope’s investment in the Episcope continued during the 16th and 17th centuries, with some difficulties caused by his position and invasions. Anyway, important men, quite often Cardinals in direct Pope’s connection, were chosen to be bishops in Porto often. Under Cardinal Flavio Chigi, the architect Carlo Fontana redesigned S.Lucia Church with the addiction to S.Erasmus Chapel. A few years after architects Domenico Gregorini and Pietro Passalacqua restyled the east side, creating a unique façade in the internal court, recalling their previous work in S. Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome. The last addiction is the great monumental portal, arch-shaped, which is the main entrance to get the Episcope. It was made under Cardinal and Bishop Federico Marcello Lante Della Rovere.
Abandons and rediscoveries between 19th and 20th century. The intellectual bishop Bartolomeo Pacca.
Bartolomeo Pacca for 10 years (1821-1830) was one of the important bishops in Porto. He was chosen to be Pope Pius VII’s secretary with the possibility to substitute him in case of need. He became famous thanks to the creation of the first antiquities restoration and conservative legislation and he worked on impeding works of art dispersion, while he was excavating in the archeological areas of Ostia Antica, the Trajan Port, and the Sacred Island. Some of the archeological finds he discovered were attached to the 18th internal court, before being removed in the 20th century. At the end of the 19th century, due to malaria and bad hygienical conditions, the Episcope and the entire area were abandoned.
The rebirth of the Episcope of Porto in 20th century
It was rediscovered and restored in the ‘30s. S. Lucia Church acquired a new title, and it was dedicated to S. Hippolytus, the first Bishop in the nearby Ostia (which remains were brought here). The fortified walls were restored and a Medieval-styled crenellation was added on top, without following scientific and philologic criteria. Since that time and until now the Congregation of S. Mary Immaculate takes care of the Episcope and his story that’s connected in such a strong way with the Tiber River and Rome.