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Review: The Crossroads of Empires Project - a rediscovery of the Lombard Church of Sant’Ambrogio

Charles Thomson, EN UK Committee Member, reviews the online lecture held on the 6th August.

Grace Connelly, Europa Nostra UK’s Support Officer for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) introduced the Europa Nostra Awards/European Heritage Awards and the Special Mention (in the Research category) of ‘The Crossroads of Empires Project – a rediscovery of the Lombard Church of Sant’Ambrogio’.

The project, drawing together recent archaeological and spectroscopic research (also in the nearby church of San Michele), aims to raise academic and public awareness of these important early mediaeval sites and to create a sustainable heritage management plan in collaboration with the local authorities. The project is a research collaboration between Dr Daniel Reynolds of the University of Birmingham, three professors from the universities of Salerno and Basilicata in Italy, and a number of higher education institutions across the UK, Italy and the Czech Republic, using virtual communication. The project team includes participants from Turkey, Greece, Oxford, Christie’s, and others from across the European Economic Area – including postgraduate and undergraduate scholars from Birmingham and Salerno. Infrastructural grants from the European Investment Bank are being made available, as the sites are located in one of the poorest parts of Italy. Grants have also been received from the Gerda Henkel Stiftung, the Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy.

Sara Crofts, Chair of Europa Nostra UK, then introduced Dr Reynolds, Lecturer in Byzantine History at the University of Birmingham, whose special interest is the Christian origins of the early mediaeval period and iconoclasm in the Mediterranean c.700-900 AD. The Crossroads of Empires project focuses on two ninth-century Lombard sites in the province of Salerno: the Lombard church of Sant’Ambrogio, Montecorvino Rovella, and the nearby San Michele sul Tusciano in Olevano. Although the current Italian region of Lombardy is centred on Milan, the Lombard Kingdom in the early mediaeval period included the large southern duchy of Benevento, within which the churches were located. The two sites were abandoned as churches in the early modern period (16th cent.)

The Lombards (or Langobards) originated in Scandinavia but migrated in the 5th century to the borders of the Roman Empire. King Alboin took advantage of the Byzantine and Gothic wars (540s-560s) and migrated to Italy, where Pavia (within today’s Lombardy region) became the Lombard capital in 572. The Lombards remained the dominant power until Desiderius’ reign (772) and the annexation of much of the Lombard territory by Charlemagne. Disputed succession followed in Benevento and Salerno, which was resolved later in the 9th century.

Sant’Ambrogio is situated in an agricultural estate some 30km east of Salerno. It was last mentioned as an active church in 1580 as part of the parish of S. Maria Assunta in Occiano. It is one of the most complete surviving examples of Lombard church architecture, featuring wall paintings initiated in the 9th century and new paintings in the 11th century with structural changes including buttressing and new atrium walls. A picture of c. 1989 shows

the structure intact, with no roof, but used as a farm building for livestock and crops. Reconstruction and restoration of frescoes in the apse and wall paintings were deemed essential once the church was re-discovered in the 1970s under overgrown vegetation. Much of the original fresco work survives, including one of western Europe’s oldest depictions of the Virgin Mary as the ‘Mother of God’, with Sant’Ambrogio (Ambrose) and his teacher at one side, and ‘proto-martyrs’ of the city of Milan on the other. Ambrose, surrounded by intense blue, was a very important saint to the Carolingians. Re-use as a social and community centre is planned, for which resources are available.

San Michele (‘the Archangel’), situated 10km away from Sant’Ambrogio, is a uniquely preserved example of an early mediaeval cave shrine. Known to ninth-century writers as ‘Monte Aureus’ (golden mountain) and nominally part of pilgrimage routes such as that followed by Bernard the Monk in 867-71, it is constructed in a natural cave below the summit of Monte Raione. Within the cave are the remains of several frescoed cave chapels, a ‘hostel’ and a processional way of some 500m, designed to facilitate the movement of pilgrims around the cave. Constructed in several phases from the 7th to 11th centuries, it is a reminder of the ‘holy sanctuary’ designated by the bishops of Salerno. The steps and processional path lead to the ‘apse’ inside and off the sides of the path ‘Chapel 2’ includes a fresco of the ‘Hodgeteria’ (the Virgin flanked by two angels) while ‘Chapel 1’ includes frescoes of St John’s baptism by Christ and of Peter and Paul.

A ‘Langobards Reloaded’ festival of food producers and musicians will thus create a new ‘Lombard heritage network’ focussed on the ‘Principality of Salerno’. Situated only a 45 min. journey from the Amalfi coast and with local convents serving as hotels, the festival will enhance visitors’ experience of the many painted churches in Italy.

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