San Vincenzo al Volturno, the best preserved Carolingian-period monastery in Europe, has new hope. This year the Abbot of Monte Cassino has instigated the transfer of eight nuns from a convent stricken by the Amatrice earthquake to San Vincenzo. In a stroke – as the monks of San Vincenzo re-founded Monte Cassino in 718, so Monte Cassino has reciprocated. A new energy and spirituality has arrived in the upper Volturno valley.
The nuns are blissfully happy. For an hour I regale them stories of my excavations (more than two decades ago), some under their very feet.
The new foundation of nuns at S. Vincenzo
In this holiday period, dozens of cars have stopped outside the New Abbey gates, the high season visitors believing that the celebrated ‘scavi’ are close to the convent. They are not.
Long ago we discovered this Dark Age Pompeii, as the Monte Cassino monk and historian, Don Angelo Pantoni called it, on the west side of the Volturno, the sparking little brook.
Here, the excavated ruins have been tidied up but little else has changed. The presentation is underwhelming and the functional protective covers over the ruins belong to an earlier age not a time when cultural heritage drives tourism. Who would guess today that the complaints of monks here in 782/3 were heard by Charlemagne in Germany and caused a trial of sorts before Pope Hadrian in Rome?
The refectory with Colle della Torre behind
Visitors barely notice the hill (Colle della Torre) behind the ruins because it has re-forested since I left here twenty years ago. On this hill, we excavated the cemetery of the rich Mezzogiorno donors to the 9th-century monastery and its cult of St. Vincent. Higher still, the hilltop where I first followed Don Angelo Pantoni in 1980, lies choked in an impenetrable thicket.
Recent excavations on the summit are partially covered, partially exposed. Here stood the once majestic tower of Abbot Ilarius that, according to the chronicle of San Vincenzo, attracted an infamous sack from a militant local family, the Borrelli in c.1036. Abandoned like the path choked with brambles, San Vincenzo cries out for management. Upturned benches close by are telling marks of an aborted vision of tourists seeking this this belvedere.
The path to the summit
In 783 Abbot Poto resisted foreign ideas, hence he earned Charlemagne’s ire. Soon after, the monks elected a Frank and the little monastery became a remarkable Dark Age monastic city. All now recognise that the celebrated excavations need to be managed and presented using methods tested and proven elsewhere in Europe. With the arrival of the nuns, there are grounds for hope.
The New Abbey at S. Vincenzo al Volturno (in May 2017)