Nonantola and the archaeology of early mediaeval monasteries in north Italy

Nonantola and the archaeology of early mediaeval monasteries in north Italy

By Sauro Gelichi

Published Online (2008)

Introduction: The archaeology of monasteries in Italy has prospered considerably in recent decades. Around 200 sites have been investigated more-or-less extensively and various great monasteries of the Early Middle Ages have been the object of systematic archaeological research over many years. These research projects have been undertaken in various situations, although mainly rural, and are the result of a different kind of planning. This has had a more than marginal effect on the results, not always analogous or comparable because, as it is wellknown, research into rural monasteries tends to place the emphasis on studies of the area, unlike research in urban locations where, moreover, there are operations on a minor scale.

By far the greatest part of archaeology dealing with this type of building refers to emergency operations. Many monasteries or convent buildings have been investigated, often partially, because during restoration work excavation has proved to be a necessity for those responsible. In general this kind of research consists of limited excavations; hardly ever included in research projects, the results have remained unpublished or else published in a merely preliminary form. There has been no correlation, therefore, between a substantial quantity of excavations and a sensible approach to the problem.

Indeed, many issues linked to the function and role of the monasteries are totally absent from this research.

Furthermore, almost all the Early Mediaeval constructions have been rebuilt over time and that which remains, even of the masonry, belongs at most to the Romanesque periods of the building, with few exceptions (e.g. San Salvatore in Brescia; the chapels annexed to the monastery of Novalesa). Good archaeology may be carried out on the spaces and functions, as well as on the architectonic aspects of these buildings, but only from the 11th century onwards. Excavation, for the preceding periods, remains the only way forward.

Although the archaeology of Early Mediaeval monasteries cannot be said to have matured, it is not the case, fortunately, for a number of sites of this type. Certain summary works have attempted to coordinate the information (e.g. for the Longobard Age) and some specific projects (e.g. San Vincenzo al Volturno) have been used for a general analysis of monastery economic power in relation to the policies of the Kingdom and the Empire. Certain other important monasteries have been subjected to excavations, some over many years, such as the abbey of S. Pietro and S. Andrea of Novalesa, or that of Farfa, or Sesto al Reghena.  In these cases excavations have gone beyond the merely impromptu level and for one reason or another the results have enabled some important generalisations to be made.

In 2002 a research project was begun on the monastery of Nonantola (MO).

The monastery founded in 752 by Anselmo, brother-in-law of the Longobard king Astolfo, was provided, from its origins, with considerable landed property  and very soon became one of the most important monasteries of Early-Mediaeval Europe. There are numerous studies of the monastery and of its huge archives,  but analyses of its material construction have concentrated on a few residual remains, greatly changed over time: the church of San Silvestro or some fragmentary sections of the refectory, known above all for the discovery, in the Eighties, of some frescoes . The archaeological potential of the site, although unknown at the start of research (in the Eighties a tomb was excavated in the area of the monastery , and surveys were carried out at the parish church of San Michele, some hundreds of metres from the abbey buildings ), nonetheless promised to be of great interest.

The site lent itself well to an intersecting analysis: direct action on the monastery centre, in order to understand its development over time, also in relation to the growth of the village (and of a castrum dating back to the 10th century) and an analysis of the historically dependent surrounding area, through numerous survey campaigns over the years and some targeted excavations. Research is still underway and some problems have only just begun to be dealt with. However, there are already some explanations with regard to specific aspects of events in the area  as well as the question of the development of the monastery (even though there is still very little information about the periods prior to the 10 th century).

I do not, however, consider it impossible to propose an initial comparison between the results obtained in this research and the main topics connected with the archaeology of monasteries in Italy, that is, those which have, up to now, attracted the most attention and consideration from archaeologists. We will attempt to discuss here the main ones, above all as related to the data from Nonantola.

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