The last thing that comes to mind when thinking about churches in Italy, especially in central and southern portions of the peninsula, is Gothic. Romanesque sobriety, early Renaissance simplicity and Baroque curlicues dance through one's mind; we can even expect a bit of Byzantine and Muslim influence, but definitely not ribbed groined arches nor flying buttresses. Gothic architecture (the specific art form which gave birth to a style that was later extended to sculpture and painting) is usually associated with France, where it originated, and northern Europe in general. Austere Gothic just does not seem to correspond to Mediterranean sensitivities. The rare examples that do exist are so unique as to have their own subcategory, dubbed "Italian Gothic." Perhaps it is their scarcity which has so endeared Fossanova to me. It is an astonishing gem, and it stands far off the beaten track in lower Latium, about 60 miles south of Rome. It is also where The Name of the Rose was filmed.
Italian Gothic combines many of the characteristics of Romanesque with the true Gothic. I like to think of it as a style that attempts to conciliate northern European mysticism with a classical Mediterranean exuberance. The abbey of Fossanova is a perfect example. It was built by the Cistercians in the 12th century. To help you appreciate the buildings, let me try to put it into its proper historical context for you. The High Middle Ages of the 12th century were characterized by a renewed religious fervor exemplified by papal and monastic reform, extensive cathedral building, crusades and the notorious punishment of heresies. The Cistercian order was founded by a group of reformist Benedictine monks at Citeaux in southern France (whence the term Cistercian derives) with specific goals and high ideals. They sought to avoid any and all involvement with secular life, dedicating themselves only to God. To accomplish this, they decided that the new order would found its monasteries only on uncultivated lands far from inhabited areas. It would refuse the traditional sources of monastic income: mills, serfs, tithes and so on. The liturgy would be simple and they would refuse to allow any high or powerful laymen into their monasteries in order to avoid contamination from the secular world, a constant problem in late feudal society. Their most prominent member was St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the gentleman who launched the Second Crusade in 1147 after the fall of the Crusader state of Edessa in the Holy Land. During St. Bernard's visit to Italy in 1134-1135, he was asked to reform a number of monasteries, including the Benedictine monastery of Fossanova.
When the Cistercians took it over, an extensive building project was begun. The first task was to dig a new drainage ditch for the swampy marshland upon which the building stood. The name of the monastery is derived from this construction because it was called "the new ditch" (fosso nuovo). The church was begun in 1187. In 1208 it was consecrated by Innocent III, the pope who launched the Fourth Crusade and spent his life struggling with Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, otherwise known as Stupor Mundi. It is probably the best example of the Cistercian Gothic style in Italy and greatly influenced monastic architecture throughout the next 100 years. Its simplicity and severe beauty were particularly admired by the Franciscans, the mendicant order founded by St. Francis of Assisi in the early 13th century.
Today the abbey is located just outside the small town of Priverno, so it is not as isolated as it was in the 12th century. However, the original serenity and detachment from the secular world still prevail. You enter by passing under a large defensive tower; immediately you are face-to-face with the church façade. It has a central Gothic portal, flanked by two blind doors with pointed arches, decorated with roll and fillet molding. There is a large rose window over the central portal. It is not, however, the church exterior which overwhelms, it is the interior. Austere and luminous, it floods you at once with tranquillity. There are three aisles, a square presbytery, groined vaults and very small windows. Decoration is left to the minimum. The shafts attached to the piers descend from the vaulted ceiling until just about eye level. This is typical of Cistercian architecture because the monks' choir stalls would have been backed up to piers and would have hidden any decoration on their lower portions. Harmony and rationality prevail. There is nothing in the church which could distract a monk from his prayers or a casual visitor from his deepest thoughts. The light filtering through the windows in the late afternoon is a sight not to be missed.
|The rest of the abbey complex is laid out to the right of the church. Three sides of the rectangular cloister are Romanesque. The fourth, which leads into the refectory, was built somewhat later, between 1280 and 1300, and is done in a more elegant, Gothic style. The refectory is also rectangular, measuring 30 X 40 meters, and has a high open-beamed ceiling. A stairway cut into the wall leads up to a pulpit where one of the monks would read from the sacred scriptures while his brothers took their meals.|
|The Chapter House is the room that corresponds most to pure Gothic style. From a door on its right, one passes into another courtyard which affords a good view of the apse of the church. On the opposite side of the courtyard is a low, porticoed building which was the foresteria (guest house). In a small room on the second floor of this building, St. Thomas Aquinas died on March 9, 1274. This doctor of the church, the man who tried to conciliate Aristotelian cosmology with Christianity, passed on to his heavenly reward here after falling ill on his way from Naples to attend a papal council in Lyons. You can visit the room where he died, which was later embellished with a bas relief over the altar.|
by Michael Brouse, Rome
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