Nonantola and the archaeology of early mediaeval monasteries in north Italy

Por Sauro GELICHI. Profesor de la Universidad Ca´Foscari di Venezia (Italia)

Artículos Artículos Artículos
1. The Archaeology of Mediaeval Monasteries in Italy (fig. 1)

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.(1)
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kind of research consists of limited excavations; hardly ever included in research projects, the results have remained unpublished or else published in a merely preliminary form.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,(2) with few exceptions (e.g. San Salvatore in Brescia;(3) the chapels annexed to the monastery of Novalesa(4)). 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(5)) and some specific projects (e.g. San Vincenzo al Volturno (6)) 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, (7), or that of Farfa, (8) or Sesto al Reghena. (9) 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).(10)
The monastery founded in 752 by Anselmo, brother-in-law of the Longobard king Astolfo, was provided, from its origins, with considerable landed property (11) 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, (12) 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 (13). 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 (14), and surveys were carried out at the parish church of San Michele, some hundreds of metres from the abbey buildings (15)), 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 (16) 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 (17)).
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.

2. The Spaces

The first and perhaps the most obvious problem concerning the study of monasteries is connected with analysis of the spaces (their organization) and functions. This question has usually been approached by attempting to understand the evolution of the layout, to identify the ways in which the spaces have been organized over time. The main element has been identified as the formation of the cloister, upon which has been focused a great deal of attention by European researchers. From this perspective, a major role has been played by the famous plan which was sent, around the year 830, from Abbot Heito to Gozberto, Abbot of San Gallo. Its interpretation, however, is by no means unequivocal.18 Archaeological records of situations north of the Alps show more standardised structure of cloisters (with or without colonnades), unlike the situation in Italy during the Early Middle Ages, for which records at present show no unification of methods, (19) the only recurring element appearing to be the isolated construction of each of the various buildings that make up the monastery (as, for example, at Novalesa).
The layout of San Vincenzo al Volturno, dating back to the end of the 8th century, seems to show a planned arrangement of spaces around a vast area, without this signifying, however, that it is an “example of monastery architecture”(20). In addition, the monastery of San Salvatore in Brescia seems to have been distinguished, from the time of its founding in the period of Desiderius, by the presence of three large, juxtaposed courtyards, to which, however, a unified plan cannot be attributed with certainty(21).
Nonetheless, in this case at least I would not underestimate the fact that only the monastery of San Salvatore in Brescia, unique among those which have been extensively studied, was a female convent(22). The gender connotation is known to influence the spatial structure(23) and it may be useful, in future, to our attention in this direction as well.
Contrary to popular belief, therefore, a strictly centralised planimetry with the cloister becoming the centre of the monastery only materialises rather late on (24), even though this does not yet appear to be inevitably the norm. This is shown by the recently excavated monastery on Monte Pisano (Pisa), devoted to San Michele (25). This is a small Benedictine monastery built at the place of a previous Early Mediaeval chapel (known from at least the 9th century), the first phase of which, in the 8th century, appears to have featured a number of rooms laid out in an entirely irregular manner around a church (the original chapel?). We are not even absolutely certain that these rooms were all of masonry. In addition, written sources describe similar situations, even in urban contexts, as it is shown by the monastery of San Michele al Borgo (Pisa), of which the 11th century monastic rooms built of oakwood were replaced only after quite a few years by stone walls(26). Also for the primitive phase of San Vincenzo al Volturno it is suggested that it may have had a ‘light’ architectonic structure, or rather that it was partly built by reusing ancient constructions from the Roman times and partly by building anew, but with perishable materials such as branches, timber and mud. (27)
Concerning Nonantola the information available present is insufficient, as excavations of the monastery area began only in 2004 and the Early Mediaeval levels have only just been identified. The cloister area today is very different and, except for the north side, all the colonnades are missing (fig. XCVII). Organization around a central courtyard, as shown by an 18th century plan and confirmed by archaeological sources (fig. 2), is therefore plausible, but the data we have at the moment do not allow us to date it back beyond the 11th century.
Talking about spaces also means posing the question of the extent of the monastery grounds in the strictest sense and therefore, what were functions and dimensions of the buildings on its exterior. In the case of urban monasteries, the extent is often relatively easy to define, as it is determined by the development of the surrounding groups of buildings, but this does not automatically mean that the space at present perceived is that belonging to the original. In the case of Early Mediaeval rural monasteries, however, the boundaries are not always easily recognisable.
A surrounding wall of masonry has been partly identified at Sirmione relating to the monastery of San Salvatore, for which has been assumed an extent of about 12.800 square metres. (28) Very precise physical limits, which do not consist of the various edifices that make up the monastery, do not seem to have been identified at present neither at San Vincenzo al Volturno nor at Farfa, nor at Novalesa.
Among the few sites in which physical traces of surrounding walls have been found, the case of San Michele alla Verruca must be included, where the space was partly enclosed by a stone wall, identified in at least two places of the site, (29) and partly bounded by a group of monastery buildings to the south (the refectory) and to the west (store rooms and the front of the church). Even more interesting is the case of the Nonantola monastery, where traces have been found of the moat (with embankment) that surrounded the monastery in at least the 9th-10th century.(30) This moat, about twelve metres wide but little more than one and a half metres deep, delimited an area of about one hectare.
The case of Nonantola has also provided an interesting occasion for the analysis, archaeologically-speaking, of the development of the settlement outside the actual monastery itself. Written sources mentioned, from the 10th century onwards, the existence of a castrum, but the location of this castle remained unknown. Excavations carried out in the present village have confirmed that this settlement was formed only from the 11th century onwards and it is therefore not relevant to the 10th century castle (fig. XCVIII).
The village was probably formed at the time of the enlargement made by Abbot Gotescalco, to which must also be attributed a kind of monumentalisation of the entrances, through the construction of a stone gateway, partially reused in the 13th century (and in a completely different historical context, the time of the construction of the Torre dei Modenesi). Like the primitive boundary defences, identified around themonastery, the defences built by Gotescalco at the start of the 11th century must have been constructions of perishable material (ditches, embankments and wood), with the sole exception of the eastern gate, which used to be on the road leading to Modena.
The castrum, recorded in the 10th century, therefore only partially coincides with the settlement that grew up outside the abbey and which is still today the historic centre of Nonantola. Its location to the north would seem to be further confirmed by the founding, in the 9th century and rather far from the abbey, of the church of San Michele, by Abbot Teodorico. The church, which Early Mediaeval phases were identified in an excavation at the end of the Eighties, is mentioned as a parish church (that is, for 'care of souls') only from the start of the 11th century,(31) but it is not improbable that this was also its original function, even more easily explained if we see as plausible
the location of the castrum adjacent to it.

3. The Lands

The fortune of monasteries is closely linked to the lands they possessed. Generally speaking, right from their founding, many of these monasteries were provided with fairly ample lands and possessions. Further acquisitions (or exchanges) illustrate the strategies of these institutions, as may be seen t in many cases (e.g. Bobbio(32)). A system for studying this question is that of identifying the possessions, perhaps spread out over time, through perusal of written sources(33). It is obvious that this is dependent on conservation of the relative records. The more abundant and detailed they are, the more precisely possessions may be identified and located. In this way, it has been possible to identify and map out, on various scales of detail, the possessions of the Nonantola monastery(34) as well as that of Bobbio.(35)
The archaeological study of dependent lands, however, has been approached in different ways, but often with traditional methods. Destefanis, with regard to Bobbio, has identified the properties near the monastery recorded in written sources, through the study of place names, then superimposed on these the archaeological map of that area.
The material source, in this case, is scarcely relevant, as it serves only to describe, in the casual way that distinguishes unprogrammed field research, a settlement generally prior to the time of the monastery. It does not define, in material forms, the nature of the occupation, nor does it help us to understand how the monastery affected its dependent properties and the population. It is evident that the nature of the economic exploitation of the area, as of the settlement organization, is traced by making use, once again, of written sources.
Generally speaking, the study of monasteries has not stimulated targeted projects in monastery lands. One of the best excavated monasteries, that of San Salvatore in Brescia, of which there are good written records,36 has not led to this kind of research.
An exception is the case of San Vincenzo al Volturno, where the written sources have been compared with the data from a number of surveys and small, targeted excavations.
The reconstructed picture they give is of a monastery that seems to invest relatively little in its land, at least up until the Carolingian Age(37): the flourishing of the monastery, therefore, would have coincided with a considerable change in the policies of exploiting the land as a resource, and thus in the organisation of the settlement.
The Nonantola project, on the other hand, right from the start was expressly directed at understanding the strategies of the monastery in its dependent lands (as was also done for Farfa38. In order to do this, the systems in the dependent lands were evaluated (wherever possible reconstructed through written sources) and compared with those of other boundary lands subject to other property regimes. Annual surveys in the countryside, with all the limitations that such tools have in particular for identification of Early Mediaeval periods, have nonetheless enabled a better understanding of certain systems, in particular those connected with the formation of the primitive founding settlement. Furthermore, from this research the strategies of the monastery towards the population of the immediately adjacent areas are already fairly clear.
The reduction of the number of settlements, in relation to the standards adjusted in the region as well, counterbalanced by a marked persistence of ancient land measurement limitations (indicating a strong, controlled management of the land) testify to the creation of an early foundation property, centred on that which was to become the monastery, from Late Antiquity(39) (fig. 3); property which was to pass through the royal estate revenue, where we find it in the middle of the 8th century, at the time of the donation by Astolfo.(40) This centralisation, of property as well as of population, appears to be a distinguishing feature of this area, and the policies of the monastery, until at least the
creation of share-farming. The monastery was indeed to be an initiator of castles, but in places rather far from the monastery itself, with the exception of the castrum built near the abbey during the 10th century.

4. The “Material Culture”

It is obvious that the monasteries were also important centres of consumption and production; how this is expressed in the material records is, at present, the most difficult aspect to comprehend.
Once again it is the monastery of San Vincenzo al Volturno which provides us with a reasonably organized picture of the nature of craft production. Study of the pottery, for example, has led to the proposal of an interesting explanatory pattern, able to demonstrate the differences between the centre (the monastery) and the outer area (the dependent settlements(41)). A different utilisation of pottery does not, however, seem to be found in Brescia, where the materials from the excavation of San Salvatore appear to be very like the products in use at the same time in the town and the surrounding land.(42) This would seem also to be the case, at present, of the monastery of Nonantola, about which we still have rather little information.
Concerning the utilisation of pottery, one aspect which is still scarcely analysed is that of its representation of social level. Research done on Late and Post Mediaeval monasteries has provided, at least in Italy, rather interesting results, showing how consumption changes not only in relation to economic possibilities, but also in relation to religious orders and gender aspects.(43) It must be said, however, that equally convincing results are not recorded, at present, prior to the 13th century, as it is shown, amongst others, by San Michele alla Verruca, where the pictures of utilization for the 11th-13th centuries seem to show no differences at all compared with rural situations at that time, and to be even rather unlike those of urban areas (above all with regard to the use of imported pottery.)(44) In this case, however, it is in doubt whether such obscure ways are linked more to the gender of the order (male) rather than to the chronology of the sites.
The excavation of San Vincenzo al Volturno has revealed the notable investment of the monastery in craft work. This may also be seen by the research at Nonantola, where traces of activities connected with metalworking (certainly bronze, perhaps also iron and glass) have already emerged in the most external areas of the site, near the ditches of the oldest period. There are, however, no signs of a flourishing epigraphic activity, which distinguished the great Carolingian phase of San Vincenzo al Volturno.(45) Presently the surviving inscriptions at Nonantola are scanty compared with a particularly active, prolific scriptorium.(46) Early Mediaeval sculpture also does not appear to have left, at present, traces comparable to those of other sites such as, for example, the nearby monastery of Bobbio.(47)

5. The Economy and the commercial exchanges

It has often been maintained that an important role played by the monasteries was that of having carried out major land reclaim works in the surrounding areas.(48) Some monasteries were founded, of course, in apparently inhospitable, wild, woodland places. However, this appears to be a topos rather than real situation (e.g. see the extraordinary case of Fulda49), even in those regions like the Po valley plain where the wilderness must have been a constant, frequent element of the landscape(50). The founding of the monastery of Nonantola, associated with the reclaim and utilization of the woodland which must have been part of the founding property from the start,(51) needs to be interpreted in a different light, as it is also shown unequivocally by the archaeological source.(52)
Independently of functions linked to the tillage of uncultivated land, the economic role played by the monasteries may be analysed essentially through studying the organization of the dependent lands and the management of surplus. With regard to the Po valley area, written sources, extensively analysed, have provided ambiguous information, interpreted differently by different researchers. Some53 have seen in the use of rivers and the use of monasteries as terminals in the main towns along the Po, the sign, together with other factors, of a renewed economy of even an international nature, with the monasteries having been, along with the town and the bishops, the main protagonist.
Others, using the same sources, have not denied this function but have relocated it to a lower, inter-regional level.(54)
The issue is a more wide-ranging one, and it also involves the meaning that we may attribute to the economy in the last phase of the Longobard Age, to the role we attribute to the aristocracy (relating to management of resources) and to the settlements (towns, bishoprics and monasteries, in relation to the places where these resources were being managed). A number of rather significant signs exist, even within the meagre number of written sources. It is enough to think of the extraordinary content of the so-called ‘Capitolare di Liutprando’, a pact made between the Longobard king and the people of Comacchio in 715 (or 730, but the first date is more likely). The monasteries seem to be an integral part of this system, as confirmed by other sources (a little later), from which one infers, for example, that the monastery of San Salvatore had acquired exemption from toll payment on the portus Brixianus or else that the Venetians in the 9th century had to pay a tribute, in pepper and cinnamon, to the monastery of Bobbio.
The type of goods traded and, above all, the sort of transport containers that were used, make this question difficult to monitor through archaeological records. Indirect testimonies of these links, identified some time ago in containers of stone (pietra ollare),(55) enable us to see the ramification of these links (unquestionable), not the nature of the economy. Perhaps an answer may be found in the monitoring of a series of 8th century amphorae recently recognised, which were produced in both southern Italy and certain centres of the eastern Mediterranean. The finding of these containers in Comacchio and the Venetian lagoon,(56) in substantial quantities, confirms their function as ‘nodal points’ in the distribution of Mediterranean products in the first half of the 8th century. Such coastal centres flourishing in that period, in strong competition with one another,(57) must have been able to act as the Adriatic terminals for the selling of food products (oil, wine, garum) and spices, as well as salt of course, to the inland areas of the Po valley, using the main rivers, the Po and the Adige. In this system, which evidently was consolidated from the first half of the 8th century onwards, the monasteries would have played an important role, equal to that of the town.

6. The Archaeology of San Silvestro of Nonantola: the Future

Nonantola has always been considered one of the greatest Early Mediaeval monasteries of Europe; for the number of monks, the quantity of possessions and the quality of its scriptorium. The modest architectonic and artistic remains of today (the abbey church of San Silvestro, rebuilt in the 12th century and heavily restored, some buildings on the south and west sides of the cloister, the portions of frescoes, also of the 12th century), are not in the least comparable to the opulence in its archives. The material sources, therefore, supply us with a late, very fragmentary image of its history.
Until a few years ago, archaeology was a tool used very little or not at all on this site, but the results so far recorded are intriguing and future prospects appear to be full of potential. The important thing is that the archaeology of Nonantola continues to communicate and interact with the main topics that we have simply outlined here: only in this way will it be possible to recover the historical awareness of a site which, today, is no longer able to provide us with instant signs of its splendid past.


1 Gilchrist, Mytum 1993, p. 1.
2 Cantino Wataghin 1989, p. 92.
3 Brogiolo 1992.
4 Cantino Wataghin 1979 and 1988.
5 See Cantino Wataghin 1989.
6 Hodges 1997.
7 Cantino Wataghin 1988.
8 Donaldson, Mc Clendon, Whitehouse 1979 and 1980.
9 Torcellan 1988.
10 Gelichi, Librenti 2005; Gelichi, Gabrielli, Librenti, Sbarra 2005.
11 Brühl 1973, III, n. 26.
12 Amongst which Tiraboschi 1785; Fasoli 1943; Fumagalli 1993.
13 Segre Montel, Zuliani 1991.
14 Gelichi 1993.
15 Gelichi 1990.
16 About which see mainly Gelichi, Librenti 2004.
17 Gelichi, Librenti 2005.
18 Cantino Wataghin 2000, p. 129-130.
19 Cantino Wataghin 1997, p. 266.
20 Marazzi 2006, p. 59.
21 Cantino Wataghin 2000, p. 133.
22 Brogiolo 1992.
23 Gilchrist 1994, p. 92-127.
24 Cantino Wataghin 1989, p. 95-96.
25 Gelichi, Alberti, 2005.
26 Andreazzoli 2005, p. 145.
27 Marazzi 2006, p. 53.
28 Brogiolo 1989, p. 36-38.
29 Gelichi, Alberti, Dadà 2005, p. 126-127 and fig. 3.
30 Gelichi, Librenti in press.
31 Debbia 1990a.
32 Destefanis 2002.
33 Cantino Wataghin, Destefanis, Uggé 2000.
34 Villani, Rinaldi 1984.
35 Destefanis 2002, p. 9-29.
36 Pasquali 1978.
37 Hodges 1989.
38 For example: Moreland 1986 and 1987.
39 Gelichi, Librenti 2004.
40 Brühl 1973, III, n. 26.
41 Arthur, Patterson 1994.
42 Brogiolo 1999.
43 Gelichi, Librenti 1998; Gelichi et al. 2004.
44 Alberti, Bartali, Boscolo 2005.
45 De Rubeis 1996.
46 Parente 1993.
47 See last Destefanis 2002.
48 Cantino Wataghin 1989, p. 85.
49 Wickham 1994, p. 155-199.
50 Fumagalli 1989.
51 Debbia 1990b.
52 Gelichi, Librenti 2004.
53 Violante 1953; Fasoli 1978.
54 Balzaretti 1996.
55 Alberti 1997.
56 Gelichi in press 2.
57 Gelichi in press 1.


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