Roaming Through Byzantine Italy
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Generally speaking, the Byzantine monuments you'll encounter in your travels are located near the eastern seacoast and in the major cities. Some of them are made even more striking and authentic by the quiet rural settings that surround them. Here are a few of our favorites, many of which date from the second great Byzantine period of the 11th to early 15th centuries.


In Sulmona, the 11th-century cathedral of San Panfilo has a magnificent Byzantine-style relief of the Madonna in the crypt. Erected on the site of an 8th -century chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which in turn had been erected atop a pagan shrine, Sulmona's cathedral has a lovely façade enlivened by two stone lions. The oldest part of the church is the crypt, where the elaborately decorated polychrome Madonna is set into a wall. Click here for lodgings in the area.

About 20 km from L'Aquila, in a delightful countryside setting, the tiny Oratorio di San Pellegrino is entirely covered with frescoes that are considered among the finest 9th-century paintings in the world.

In the area around the town of Massafra are located several rural crypts and shrines decorated with proto-Christian frescoes and surrounded by hillside caves where the monks formerly sorted their medicinal herbs; often they survived here by lowering baskets to charitable passersby. The most stunning sanctuary is Santa Maria della Scala, a gleaming white jewel carved into the cave-lined hills. Reached by descending a 125-step baroque staircase, it has beautiful Byzantine decorations. Click here for lodgings in Massafra.


Near Castel San Vincenzo, in an unforgettable high plain setting surrounded by rockbound hills, snowcapped mountains and luxuriant evergreen forests, you will find a jewel-like lake, a beautifully restored Benedictine abbey and 9th-century hill town which scholars have likened to the monastery described by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose. Take the guided tour through the Carolingian abbey, to see the only complete early 8th-century fresco cycle ever painted in Europe by Byzantine artists. Click here for lodgings in the vicinity.

I Sassi di Matera, the eerie caves that were lived in by most of the town's population until they were outlawed in the 1950s, are often decorated with exquisite Byzantine mosaics and frescoes.

Surprisingly, this region is a real Byzantine treasure trove. In Rossano, the 10th-century church of San Marco, defiantly perched on its own outcrop, is a mystical masterpiece, considered one of the best preserved Byzantine churches in Italy. It was built by St. Nilus the Younger as a retreat for the monks who lived in the tufa grottos underneath. Inside, there are still traces of the original wall frescoes.

Vibo Valentia, an ancient Calabrian city that has begrudgingly hosted Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans and Bourbons, is home to the Byzantine temple of S. Ruba.

In the picturesque hill town of Bivongi stroll down the narrow streets, under archways, past high stone walls and out into the countryside to see the 11th-century church of San Giovanni Theresti, considered a masterpiece of Norman-Byzantine art. It contained a renowned library and was one of the most important monasteries in southern Italy until the 15th century.

Nearby Stilo is a fairly well preserved village whose main attraction is the Byzantine Cattolica, thought to have been built either in the 7th or the 10th century. Its elegant red brick façade, topped by four cylindrical cupolas, is visible from afar as you climb the slopes of Mt. Consolino. Inside, the church is small, austere and extremely mystical.

Gerace is one of the most interesting towns in southern Italy. Its castle was first erected in the 7th century, and though it has been devastated by numerous earthquakes, it is still an imposing bastion. The 11th-century cathedral is considered a national treasure, with its massive outer towers and spiritually inspiring interior. Add to that the picture-perfect streets of the town, which lead to three Byzantine churches (S. Giovanello, S. Maria del Maestro and S. Maria del Monserrato), and you have a destination well worth the detour.
Frascineto is a town which takes great pride in its Albanian heritage. Everything in town is written in two languages, and all the local residents will be happy to tell you about their ancestors, who came here in two waves, first in 1448 as mercenaries, and then in the 1500s to escape Turkish invasions. Perched on the edge of the picturesque Pollino National Park, Frascineto offers spectacular views of snow-capped mountains, as well as a remarkable museum housing over 250 Byzantine icons. The earliest of these, dating back to the 1500s, were brought here by the Albanians. The Museum of Byzantine Icons and Tradition is located on Piazza Albania, tel. (0981) 32688, open Monday-Friday 10:30 am-1:30pm and 4-7pm.


Auileia, founded in 181 BC, eventually grew to have upwards of 100,000 inhabitants and was second in importance only to Rome. Its place was supplanted only after the emperors discovered Ravenna. The basilica preserves western Europe's finest early Christian mosaics in the form of an unforgettable 700-square-yard pavement. And be sure to visit the stunning Byzantine frescoes in the crypt.

Aviano's S. Giuliana church is decorated with one of the largest and most important late-medieval fresco cycles in Friuli Venezia Giulia. Covering the walls and the triumphal arch over the chancel are portraits of saints, several Mother and Child depictions, and a miracle from the life of Sant'Eligio, dating from 1329 to 1400. Click here for lodgings near Aquileia and Aviano.
Only a few miles away is Sesto al Reghena, a medieval village which grew up within the fortified walls of the Santa Maria in Sylvis Abbey. The hamlet eventually expanded, with the amusing result that there is now a moat and so-called "drawbridge" in the center of town. Within the walls you'll find a surprisingly integral 9th- to 12th-century village, radiating out from the original abbey buildings and watchtower. The basilica is a wonderful mixture of late Roman, Lombard and Byzantine architecture.


One of Milan's most beloved landmarks, Sant'Ambrogio, has lovely 5th-century mosaics in the 4th-century Sacello di San Vittore in Ciel D'Oro. This little chapel's name means "golden sky," and that is a literal reference to the pure gold cupola surmounting it, in the center of which is the portrait of Vittore, a soldier who was punished by Emperor Maximian for not relinquishing his Christian faith. Another symbol of the city, San Lorenzo Maggiore, has a floor plan reminiscent of San Vitale's; the chapel of Sant'Aquillino is decorated with beautiful 4th-century mosaics.


Ancona's busy harbor is guarded by the exquisite Byzantine-Lombard-Gothic church of San Ciriaco. Dating back to the 10th century, it is one of the best Lombard-Romanesque churches in Italy.


Siracusa was actually the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire for five very bizarre years from 663 to 668 AD. Remaining from that period are the bathhouse in Akradina, the necropolis of Ortygia Island, some faded frescoes in the crypt of the church of Santa Lucia and a few chambers in Euryalus Castle.

Cefalu's cathedral is a Norman building, commissioned by Roger II in 1131. Popular legend says the future king gave it in gratitude for having been saved at sea, but the truth is probably that he chose this site, halfway between Palermo and Messina, as a buffer zone between the Byzantines and the Arabs, both of whom had claims on the island. Inside the church, the presbytery is entirely covered with Byzantine mosaics. They include what are widely considered to be the most graceful mosaic portraits anywhere of Christ and the Virgin.
In Palermo, the 12th-century Palatine Chapel mosaics fit nicely into the period between Cefalù's mosaics and those at Monreale. Created for King Roger II by highly skilled Byzantine artists, they show stories of Saints Peter and Paul along the aisle, Episodes from the Old Testament in the nave, Christ Pantocrator with Angels and Archangels in the dome, Prophets, Saints and Evangelists in the drum and moldings, and Christ Giving the Blessing in the apse. The king himself is depicted in a delightful mosaic (seen here). Click here for lodgings in the area of Palermo and Cefalù.

Spoleto's cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is unforgettable. You approach down a broad staircase, with the terra cotta-paved piazza, 13th-century façade and Romanesque bell tower laid out before you like the world's most perfect stage set. Inside is a veritable treasure trove of medieval and Renaissance art to rival almost any museums, plus a Byzantine icon donated by Barbarossa himself. Click here for lodgings in and around Spoleto.

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