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La Grotta di San Michele ad Olevano sul Tusciano

Fascinating two-day conference at Battipaglia and Salerno dedicated to the extraordinary early Medieval cave sanctuary in the rugged hills above Olevano sul Tusciano. Organized by the historian and archaeologist, Professor Alessandro Di Muro (University of Basilicata), the story of this cave drew a large audience of scholars and ecclesiastics as well as the interested public.

Why so many people, I asked myself? The great cave lies almost 10 kms above the village at the end of a tortuous road, followed then by a steep, kilometre climb. The paintings are extraordinary, but they speak to the remote age of the 9th-century pilgrim-monk, Bernard, and the bishops of Salerno in the 11th century who frequented this eyrie. How on earth can such a place speak to our times? Indeed, how or indeed should the cave be presented to the public?

View of Olevano sul Tusciano

The theme of pilgrimage underlay most of the presentations in the first part of the conference. Speaker after speaker took local satisfaction from the pilgrims who came from far and wide (and could do again). But did they and will they again?

John Mitchell, one of the few art historians to look at the paintings in detail, took a different view. The painted iconography suggests, John argued, these buildings were designed to be part of a processional way, leading to the healing waters set back deep in the dark cave. The first paintings probably date to the great age of the late 8th-century Beneventan dukes, Arichis and his sons. This first point on the procession appears to be a princely mausoleum. It was soon paired with a basilica richly painted in the early 11th century. Yes, it celebrates the Salerno bishops but look more closely and it is St. Vito and a crucified and upturned St. Peter bound with leather thongs that catches the eye. Now, St. Vito was celebrated for dances that healed epilepsy. What have Alessandro Di Muro’s excavations produced – numerous simple bone flutes from 9th - and 10th-century middens, as well as off-cuts from making these simple instruments. Even today, villagers celebrate and dance here to the sound of reed pipes. One other strangely prominent find reinforces this very particular interpretation. The Medieval rubbish tips also contain an unique assemblage of glazed 9th-century aquamaniles each decorated with devils. These were once surely containers of purifying water keeping satanic issues at bay?

Ninth-century flutes

Is the healing of epilepsy the motive for this cave sanctuary? It is a narrative that would certainly help to define the exceptionalism of the grotta of S. Michele.

It goes without saying that narrative should inform the cultural strategy. Of course getting down to the basics for a community suffering the Italian malaise interested all the locals most. Tough decisions need to be taken. As I tried to point to the second day of the conference, this place is a fragile environment. Being hard to reach will limit visitor numbers. But, in any case, visitorship needs to be restricted and managed, as in the Palaeolithic painted caves of western France. Ticket revenue should be destined to sustain the conservation and management of the cave. Without thoughtful maintenance this treasure will surely disappear.

Alessandro Di Muro & conservator Sylvia Galvan

Can the Other Italy really rise to such challenges? Well, look at the Cripta del Peccato Originale near Matera ( Tickets are not cheap but visitor numbers are controlled and, so far, the gorgeous conservation of this 9th-century painted cave is withstanding the pressures of the 21st century tourism.

The Fondazione Cassa Rurale Battipaglia generously supported this event. Talk and meetings are memorable, but the real challenge lies ahead. John Mitchell’s narrative pivoted around the healing of epilepsy along with a report on the excavations in the cave now need to supplant the opaque story of pilgrimage. The next chapter could put Olevano sul Tusciano on the map as a place of healing of exceptional significance. This in turn might bring revenues sufficient to make this unusual place meaningful for Olevano’s modern community.

Red painted 9th c aquamanile

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