History of Abruzzo – The Middle ages

abruzzo_castelloThe fall of the Roman Empire brought to a halt any building activity worth mentioning. This was also due to the involvement of the region in the Greek-Gotho war (535-553). The arrival of the Longobard peoples in the 6th century, who colonized the territory on a massive scale with their settlements, emphasized the already gloomy economic conditions of the region, dividing it between the Duchies of Spoleto and Benevento. It was in this period that the term “Aprutium” began to be used to refer to most of the territory. With Carlo Magno, in 843, administrative unity was restored, at least nominally, under the Duchy of Spoleto, even though, by now, the large feudal families were dominating the political and administrative scene.

The resumption of construction work took the form of buildings of great importance which still exist today, though mostly altered in one way or another. In fact, between the 8th and 10th century, the abbatial churches of San Giovanni in Venere near Fossacesia (Ch), San Pietro a Campovalano (Te), San Clemente al Vomano, dose to Guardia Vomano, a hamlet of Isola del Gran Sasso (Te) and San Bartolomeo of Carpineto della Nora (Pe) were all built. Furthermore, the churches of San Pietro ad Oratorium near Capestrano (Aq), Santa Giusta in Bazzano, a hamlet of L’Aquila, Santa Maria a Vico near Nereto (Te) as well as many others scattered throughout the regional territory were founded.

Around the year 1000 the Normans began advancing, and after a century, in 1143, they took over control of the whole region, dividing it up into counties and putting it under the Regnum Siciliae (later that of Naples), of which it would be an integral part for seven centuries. Subsequently, in 1233, Frederick II of Sweden administratively reorganized the region making the Iustitieratus Aprutii of it (in 1233), and establishing Sulmona as its main town. In 1254 L’Aquila was founded which, under the Angioini dynasty and for the following two centuries, became the principal city in the kingdom after Naples. All the cultural and political life of the region flourished in these three centuries before the arrival of Spanish domination.

The alternating political events, the absence of a central power which could unify the criteria for a “defence policy” and the struggles between the large feudal families were the main factors that prevented the building, between 1200 and 1400, of an organic system of castles and fortresses according to any unified plan. Nevertheless, the numerous defensive structures that were set up at that time presented such great typological variety that they made up “an exceptional indicative synthesis of almost all the aspects of fortified architecture” (Perogalli). Unfortunately, today most of these buildings have fallen into decay, but, because of the surroundings and background in which they can be found -often in isolated places which are difficult to get to -, they still manage to hold a certain fascination for the occasional visitor.

Both held a determining importance for the development of a particular kind of sculpture, rich in animal and vegetable ornamentation taken from popular symbology and applied to the creation of highly-decorated ambones and ciboria that are still visible today in many churches of the era. The presence in Abruzzo of the Cistercian Benedictines was a decisive step towards social and economic developments as well. As clever and energetic entrepreneurs, colonizers and improvers, they soon developed a network of economically-integrated convents, which, in the absence of economic and productive structures at that time, were autonomous and able to provide for themselves.

Most of their establishments were built on pre-existing pagan temples (S. Maria di Casanova, S. Spirito d’Ocre, S. Maria Arabona, S. Giovanni in Venere, S. Maria del Monte, and others too), and the Cistercians provided the populations of Abruzzo with a wonderful example, encouraging the development of new productive classes and giving the region an impulse that was fundamental to the agrarian revolution and consequent demographic growth. A most interesting testimony to the economic vitality of the Cistercian monks is represented by the convent, or rather “Grancia” (ancient name for a monastery) di Santa Maria del Monte, isolated on the vast pastures of Campo Imperatore at an altitude of more than 1600 meters. The building, which was set up at the beginning of the 13th century, was equipped with storehouses, stalls and enormous open air enclosures so that the large flocks that belonged to the Order, could be collected together and moved out to pasture.