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Nonantola: making history

April 17, 2018

Sauro Gelichi and I organized a conference in Nonantola, near Modena, to celebrate the 6th and final monograph on his excavations of the early medieval monastery.

 

In a magisterial presentation Sauro showed how the legendary 8th-century monk, Anselmo founded the monastery at the limits of old Roman cultivation on the edge of a wilderness. Amazingly, it was constructed by a brook only identified at the very end of the 2002-9 excavations. The excavations also found remains of Anselmo’s first monastery, then its re-construction in the later 8th century emulating Carolingian models.

 

Only a few elements of this late 8th-century monastery could be identified. These included a corridor, beside which lay the abbot’s house – both resembling San Vincenzo al Volturno. And nearest the re-constructed church, a scriptorium. Finds included imported Otranto amphorae, inscribed tiles such as have been found at San Vincenzo, and from earlier unprovenanced investigations an Irish decorated jewelled stud for a reliquary.

 

Sauro Gelichi presenting Nonantola

 

The celebration was the occasion for feasting on early medieval excavations of monasteries. When Water Horn and Ernest Born published their The Plan of St. Gall in 1979 no such material existed. Today the archaeology is making history. Gabor Thomas, for example, showed how the 8th-century monastery at Lyminge, Kent grew out of an earlier royal palace. Most remarkably it was arranged in zones for prayer, industry and agriculture, pre-dating the mid 8th-century adoption of such ideas by the early Carolingians. Fulda was one such place that the Anglo-Saxon missionary, Boniface and his successors famously introduced such ideas. Thomas Kind took us through the archaeology, reinterpreting old excavations. New excavations at Leno, near Brescia made by Fabio Saggioro showed how advanced the Lombard king, Desiderius was on the eve of his conflict with Charlemagne in creating a monastery every bit as complex and grand as those in mid 8th-century Frankia. One excavated building looked to be a palatium, a grandiose counterpoint to a major basilica modelled on Brescia and Sirmione. Finally at San Vincenzo al Volturno in faraway Molise, thanks to John Mitchell’s forensic study, a case can be made that the decoration of the entire monastery transformed it around AD 800 into a place where one passed from this world into the next. It was a breathtaking advance to illustrate how a seemingly remote monastery interpreted the ideology of Charlemagne’s revolution.

 

Nonantola has an important place now in the making of a new history of monasticism and its part in Europe’s first renaissance after the collapse of antiquity. Its little museum contains all the treasures from the campaigns by Sauro Gelichi and his remarkable team.

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