by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Monastic Pompeii Reveals its Riches


By Roderick Conway Morris
SAN VINCENZO, Italy 16 September 1991

 

In 1980 a team of British archaeologists was called in at short notice to investigate the surrounds of a tiny crypt church containing rare 9th-century frescoes at San Vincenzo al Volturno, in the remote, mountainous region of Molise, 100 miles south-east of Rome. They expected the dig to be a brief one, but instead found themselves uncovering a monastic Pompeii.

What gradually came to light was evidence not only of a prosperous monastery with a highly cultured population, but of a bloody massacre which destroyed San Vincenzo and up to 700 inmates.

Now the Abbot and monks of Monte Cassino, the history of which ran in parallel with that of its brother House San Vincenzo until the latter's apocalyptic demise in 881, are preparing celebrations to mark the rescue and restoration of the crypt frescoes, and present publicly the British excavators' remarkable discoveries.

The setting of the San Vincenzo site, which lay hidden by dense vegetation for hundreds of years, is breathtaking. It stands on the banks of the Volturno river, overlooking a high green plateau, dotted with vines, olive and fruit trees, while behind it rise the dramatic peaks of the southern Appennines.

The crypt frescoes, which were to lead ultimately to the latest revelations, came to light only in the 1830s, when, according to local tradition, a monk from Monte Cassino (to which, by then, the land belonged) crashed through the rotten floorboards of a barn built on top of the vault.

'When we first went down into the crypt,' said Dr Richard Hodges, the dig leader and now Director of the British School at Rome, 'it was very dark, the walls were covered with thick green fur and giant spiders jumped on your head.'

Surprises were in store for the young, energetic and impressively erudite Dr Hodges and his team. As they began to uncover major structures around the crypt that they realized they were on to something rewarding - the significance of which took more than a season's work to emerge..

'It had always been assumed that the remains of San Vincenzo Maggiore, the old 8th-century monastery recorded in the Chronicon Vulturnense, [a 12th-century chronicle now in the Vatican] lay beneath the small, later medieval monastery of San Vincenzo that still stands on the other side of the Volturno river, about a quarter of a mile away,' Dr Hodges said.

It soon became clear that not only had they found the true site of the original San Vincezo, but it was vast.

In its heyday in the late 8th and 9th centuries, it has now been proved, the monastery complex covered 12 acres, with a 180ft-long abbey church raised up on an enormous platform to dominate the countryside around; half a dozen sizeable subsidiary churches; dormitories; glass, metal and tile workshops; and a large palace and garden to accommodate guests.

One of the first major buildings to be unearthed was the refectory, 'a great thatched barn of a building', in Dr Hodges' words. The refectory, in which the stone benches were still intact, provided one of the first keys to the unexpectedly large size of San Vincenzo's population. With the help of the 9th-century plans for the Swiss Benedictine monastery of St. Gall, and allowing a generous 60cm width per monkish bottom, Dr Hodges assessed the number of monks at 330. And given that, in the Benedictine order, each monk would have been matched by a lay brothers, the community would have numbered 600-700.

Contemporary documents speak of the exceptional number of monks, as does the later San Vincenzo Chronicle, but till now historians had dismissed these old accounts as wildly exaggerated - not altogether surprisingly, since such populous monasteries were not seen again until the 17th century.

Nor were the sheer size of the complex and number of residents the only startling feature of San Vincenzo, said Dr John Mitchell of the University of East Anglia, the dig's art historian.

'Every inside wall was plastered and painted,' he said. 'Even the walls of the workshops and the interior of graves were decorated.' Apart from pictures of Christ, the holy family, prophets, saints and martyrs, there were floral and geometric designs, and sophisticated trompe l'oeil slabs of marble, complete with painted clamps, to enhance the illusion that they were bolted to the walls.

Every building, including again the workshops, seems to have had glass windows, another astonishing phenomenon for the period. In the refectory alone 7,000 fragments have been collected, enough for coloured glass panes in 30 or more windows.

In an age when literacy was the preserve of court and church, the monks of San Vincenzo displayed their learning to an almost obsessive degree. 'The 9th-century visitor to the monastery would have been confronted by script absolutely everywhere he looked,' Dr Mitchell said.

Latin Biblical texts and inscriptions spoke from the walls, and even the finely-wrought terracotta floor tiles were often deftly signed by the monks who had made them. (Fewer than 20 such signed tiles were known before - at San Vincenzo more than 700 have so far been found.)

The most prominent inscription of all would have been the one in foot-high, gilded metal letters on the facade of the great abbey church that read: 'Whatever lofty structures you see here, traveller, extending low and high, were built by the servant of the Lord, Iosue, and his brother monks.' 'Iosue', Mitchell explained, was Abbot Joshua, during whose rule (792-817) the monastery underwent its most ambitious expansion.

It is through lettering that the arrestingly dynamic and naturalistic frescoes in the crypt church have been dated: on one wall, shown kneeling at the foot of the Cross, is Abbot Epyphanius, admirably clearly labelled, and with a square halo rather than a circular one - indicating that he was still alive when portrayed, and therefore that the painting was done during his rule (824-842).

The monastery reached the peak of its prosperity during the time of Charlemagne, on the southern border of whose pan-European empire San Vincenzo was located. 'Charlemagne controlled a huge swathe of territory,' Hodges said,'but with a tiny army raised as a militia. It was through the cultural centres of the monasteries, and the local aristocracies that he kept control of it.'

After Charlemagne's death his grandchildren fought over the inheritance and his Empire disintegrated. San Vincenzo's glory was brutally extinguished when, in 881, it was sacked by the Saracens.

What the archaeologists have discovered is that the Muslim raiders burned down the glass-workshop back door with flaming arrows, the heads of which were unearthed in the ashes. As the monastery blazed, the Saracens put the monks to the sword.

'And so,' says the 12th-century Volturno Chronicle, 'the blood of the holy monks, which was shed for Christ is still there, bearing witness even today, as the rocks and stones of the church are still smeared with it.'

Poignantly, it was the monastery's abrupt end that has preserved so much of the history that Hodges and Mitchell and their team have succeeded so vividly in bringing back to life.


First published: Daily Telegraph

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016