Umbria Benedictine Itinerary – part 5 Stroncone, Sangemini, Narni

This is an excerpt from the book “Umbria

Stroncone - San Benedetto in Fundis
Stroncone – San Benedetto in Fundis – Photo ©

In enchanted places where nature and art tell the story of the piety of the Saint of Norcia.

Abbey of San Benedetto – Stroncone

The Abbey of S. Benedetto in fundis lies in the vicinity of the towns of Stroncone and Mirando, at Colle. It is 633 m. above sea level not far from a spring and another source downstream. The oldest document relating to the monastery is a plaque dating back to 1181.

The site consists of a monastery and a church with a basilica plan and three aisles with opposing apses. The structure would seem to go back to the 9th-10th century.

The location for the monastic settlement was chosen on the basis of environmental features which were particularly suited to the ascetic spirit of the monks. However, other factors also came into play: the spring downstream provided water for the terrain and a series of well-made paths led rapidly to the nearest inhabited centers.

The materials used for the construction of the complex were extracted from the nearby rock walls and the Marmore quarries. The Benedictines spread throughout the area mainly as a result of their pastoral function, given the scarcity of local clergy until the 12th century. Thanks to many documents it is possible to reconstruct the life of the monks in the abbey.

Cultural undertakings must have occupied a good deal of their time. It is not known for sure whether there was a large scriptorium (where scribes copied antique texts) within the abbey, but it is easy to imagine that there was definite activity at the level of the preservation of texts and the writing of liturgical books.

From the 13th century the abbey began to undergo a period of slow decline. The Benedictine community could not have been numerous, since the living quarters and the church were not large. The many activities it engaged in required the use of an extended family made up of labourers, farmers and craftsmen, who could live within the abbey

Three fundamental figures typified the monastic world: the Cellerarius (the bursar who administered the property), the Camerarius (managed the income and preserved the books), and the Praecantor (worked in the library and taught the novice monks). The abbey was always inhabited by a variable number of 5-7 monks.

In the 15th century, the abbey was taken from the monks and lost many of its functions. The number of monks declined due to the lack of vocations whilst the local clergy, which had a larger number of priests, officiated the churches in the district.

The community left the monastery for good in 1527, at the time of the arrival of the Lanzichenecchi (mercenary troops) and from that moment on the complex fell into a gradually worsening state of decay. All that now remains are the perimeter walls and the apses of the old church. However, notwithstanding years of deterioration, the serene and spiritual atmosphere of the place lives on.

Abbey of San Simeone – Stroncone

The Abbey was inhabited by Benedictine monks who were escaping the dampness of the mountains. The site is in fact in a more accessible position and enjoys a milder climate than the other great abbey of S. Benedetto in fundis, which is not far off.

Founded in the 11th century (though it cannot be ruled out that it may partly date back to the early Middle Ages), owing to its more accessible position it was used by the monks as a refuge for the sick and as a place of welcome for wayfarers. Altered over the centuries, the last decoration of the abbey church dates back to the 17th century with fine stuccoes by master craftsmen from Stroncone.

Abandoned as a consequence of the decline in the need for charitable assistance and the decrease in the number of monks, the building must originally have been larger than S. Benedetto in fundis. After the Benedictines left it was taken over by the Clareni and after them by the Franciscan friars. The place is now deserted and in ruins.

Abbazia San Nicolo - Sangemini
Abbazia San Nicolo – Sangemini – Photo ©

Abbey of S. Niccolo’ – Sangemini

The presence of the Benedictines in Sangemini is mentioned in a document of the first half of the 11th century. The Counts Rapizzoni Arnolfi decided to build a proper Abbey in place of an ancient coenoby. The Abbey of S. Nicolo’ is mentioned in a document of 1036 when it was given to the monk Vitale and granted independence.

The Abbey’s importance and power gradually increased for several hundred years. It was placed under the protection of the Abbey of Farfa since it was situated in a strategic spot along the Via Flaminia.

In the 14th century it was subjected to civic legal authority and little by little lost its independence and importance.

The facade is simple and austere; its present-day aspect square and flat. The portal is a copy of the original housed in the Metropolitan Museum of New York. Consisting of two jambs and a lintel, it rests on two lions of o’ different stone. The right-hand jamb is decorated with interlaced vegetable motifs, among which appear a serpent lying in wait for some birds, an angel offering a flower, an eagle gazing at a nest, two dogs biting an animal, a seated man drinking from a jug of wine.

The interior is divided into three aisles by alternating pillars and columns. The bases of the columns are of considerable interest, contrasting as they do with the rich engraving of the capitals and with the exact structure of the arches. The capitals interpret the classical acanthus leaf theme in an abstract and stylised way. They can in fact be ascribed to Master sculptors active around the year 1000, influenced by Longobard and Carolingian art.

The quadrangular apse is the result of a reconstruction in the 13th-14th centuries. It contains frescoes surviving from the ancient building.

In particular, a Majesty with the Virgin and Child from the late 13th century and a large figure of a Pope from the 14th-15th centuries.

There are many early mediaeval fragments of decoration, preserved along the right-hand aisle. They may have been part of the original church. In addition to these there is a magnificent marble lion caught in the act of savaging a ram, which in former times graced the town’s main square.

Narni - Centro Storico
Narni – Centro Storico – Photo © Michele Tortioli – proprietà Regione Umbria

Abbey of San Cassiano – Narni

The Abbey of San Cassiano is one of the most fascinating monuments of Benedictine monasticism in Southern Umbria in the early Middle Ages. In this area abounding in grottoes and natural ravines, tradition identifies, between the 4th and 6th centuries, the settlement of several hermit monks originating from Syria. Recently, material evidence of the cave life of these religious men has been brought to light in various areas around the Abbey and at the back of the Church itself.

Around the mid-6th century, during the period of the war fought between Ostrogoths and Byzantines, the first fortified abbey complex was built to guard the gullies of the Nera and the Via Flaminia which, by means of the Bridge of Augustus, crossed the river at this exact spot. The abbeys of S. Cassiano in Narni and S. Giovenale in Orte must have been the last defence of the so-called “Byzantine corridor” which joined Rome to Ravenna.

Evidence of this first phaseremains both in the structures of the present-day church and in several sculpture fragments reused as building material in the apse and preserved in the courtyard.

The role of the monastery was especially important in the central centuries of the Middle Ages. Various abbots of S. Cassiano had contacts with the Roman noble families with authority to elect the Pope. The first of the several abbots of S. Cassiano to become Pope was John XIII, of Narni.

The Abbey underwent a complete renovation in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The church was rebuilt and rotated by 90 degrees compared to its predecessor. It has three aisles divided by pillars and other elements salvaged from the older building. Worthy of note is the horse-shoe arch, a feature of oriental architecture. The belfry was rebuilt on the old tower and refined with graceful double lancet windows (with two apertures). The rooms in the monastery were subsequently enlarged and adjusted to accommodate a rich community of monks.

Nowadays, after years of closure, the abbey once more houses the sons of St. Benedict. The Abbey of S. Cassiano, immersed in the silence of the woods, with its ancient history and the warm welcome of those who live there, is the ideal spot for anyone searching for God.

Church of San Michele Arcangelo – Narni

According to tradition the Church of San Michele Arcangelo was built where the Archangel Michael was said to have stopped after being rejected by the inhabitants of S. Urbano di Narni. The Archangel reached this spot on a chariot pulled by bulls. In this place where he was welcomed he left two irons (now in the parish church of Schifanoia), which the inhabitants used to brand animals and people. The church once had a small convent attached to it. It was a stopping place on the route taken by shepherds and their flocks between the countryside near Rome and the mountains of Umbria.

The complex consists of two buildings: the older one dates back to the 8th century and consists of a small hall with a deeply-recessed apse with frescos; the other, of the 14th century, encompasses the portico where pilgrims, shepherds and their flocks would stop and take shelter. Nowadays, this side constitutes the church proper. It houses votive frescos of various epochs.

Inside the abbey hall, a low fresco-painted iconostasis separates the presbytery from the area set aside for the faithful. At the end is a deeply-recessed apse with the chair for the abbot and the stone bench for the monks.

The oldest decoration is found in the apse and depicts an Ascension of Christ into Heaven , (8th-9th centuries), in front of the assembled Apostles and other figures, two of whom a recent interpretation has identified as Otto I and the Pope from Narni, John XIII (962-967). The side walls are decorated with scenes from the life of Jesus, by an unknown Master rife with Giottesque reminders.

Church of Santa Pudenziana – Narni It stands not far from the Abbey of S. Michele Arcangelo in Schifanoia di Narni. The edifice is dedicated to St. Pudentiana, a Roman martyr saint of the 2nd century and sister of St. Praxedes. It is an abbey church whose interior has three aisles, with a raised presbytery and an altar with a ciborium supported by columns, dating back to the 10th-11th century.

In the center of the apse is the chair for the abbot and benches for the acolytes, elements found in other local churches. The altar is raised and flanked by two stone tables. Two flights of stairs give access to the lower floor with the semi-underground crypt.

Marble fragments originating from Roman-age buildings were reused in the construction of the church, and include columns, capitals and parts of mosaic pavements.

On the walls are frescos executed between the 12th and 15th century. Particularly worthy of note among these is a Madonna and Child enthroned and a rare figure of St. Ansanus Martyr . A portico precedes the entrance to the church, which in former times faced onto a byway of the ancient Via Flaminia.

Badia di Orvieto
Badia di Orvieto – Photo ©

Abbey of Sant’Angelo in Massa – Narni

The abbey stands above an ancient Roman villa in the midst of the countryside around Narni. It was founded in the year 996-98 at the time of Emperor Otto III (980-1002) and Pope Gregory V (996-999) his cousin. The dedication in honour of the Angel is linked to his widespread cult in the area, partly thanks to the presence of the Abbey of S. Michele Arcangelo in Schifanoia.

It is of remarkable architectural importance in terms of the contemporary presence of different styles:Othonian (10th century), Romanesque (12th century) and Renaissance (16th century). The Othonian style is evident in the side gable on the left and on an interior wall with decorations executed in terracotta and marble, modelled and inter-linked using the marquetry technique; the Romanesque style is found in the architectural structure of the church, whose interior has three aisles with columns and acanthus leaf-decorated capitals; the Renaissance style dominates in the Cesi Chapel, designed by Bianchi, architect of Palazzo Cesi in Acquasparta, and painted by Michelangelo Braidi, an artist from Narni.

The Abbey was a center of piety and great culture throughout the Middle Ages and its monks were responsible for improving local agriculture. The area was in fact the site of various mediaeval settlements and farms which exploited its strategic position for trading and for controlling the waterways. Surrounded by a park of age-old trees, for thirty years it was the residence of Federico Cesi and his companions at the Academy of the Lincei. The well-known writer, academician and naturalist planned that this place should become a great cultural center. It was to house laboratories, libraries and an enormous botanical garden for the research purposes of his colleagues at the Academy of the Lincei. In the 19th century the Church and the Abbey were converted into a luxury villa and its rooms accommodated distinguished figures. Its position on the gully of the river Nera and the woodland which surrounds it, make it extremely interesting from the naturalistic point of view.

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Courtesy of Umbria 2000