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S.Pietro a Corte: Salerno’s architectural masterpiece

Salerno is a Tyrrhenian jewel: a long esplanade bathed in sunlight paired with a tight, dark network of streets rising up the hill which embrace two great buildings, the Norman cathedral dedicated by Robert Guiscard and, close by, Arichis II’s palatine chapel, S. Pietro a Corte.

S.Pietro a Corte

Chapel is an exaggeration: this was a vaunting building that surely influenced the construction industry not only in Italy but in the Carolingian realms. Now part of a Unesco World Heritage site dedicated to Lombard buildings, S. Pietro was erected between about 774-83. It is sparely decorated today unlike its peers at Cividale and the Tempietto di Clitunno, but it is its architectural ambition that secures its place in the canon of European architecture..

The palatine chapel is reached by a steep staircase and a door inserted in baroque times through the 8th-century portico. Docents from the local archaeological club welcome you with a smile. The first thing to strike you is the height: already elevated above a Roman bath-house below, it has a high nave with a stubby square apse, lit by large clerestory windows. Much of the construction is tile and reused Roman masonry bonded by hard cement with volcanic temper. The thick cement is surely the key to its miraculous survival.

Palace garden gate

Not much survives of the painting, only a fragment of a dado depicting opus sectile. We can only imagine its pictorial echo of classical formality. The floor was no less grand: a square of marble 8th-century opus sectile can be seen in the apse, as can a case containing large serpentine and porphyry tesserae used to cover the apse walls. To emphasize the imperial concept, traces of gold foil decorate some of the squared stones. Here, too, are fragments of a marble inscription which, emulating Roman temples, once decorated either the facade or some section of the interior.

S. Pietro inside

Underneath a thick wall and two square piers fitted into a ruined Roman bath-house support the elevated floor of the chapel. Crude yet effective, the architect knew what he wanted to achieve.

The elevated palace itself lay on the maritime side of the chapel. Beyond, in the tight web of narrow streets, elements of its walled gardens can be made out in the fabric of later buildings. In an age without towns this was a vaunting complex, signaling a fascination with Roman art and architecture but above all a measure of the political stature of the Beneventan dukes who commanded the country that separated the Franks from Byzantium (in southern Italy).

A wall mosaic with gold leaf

Hard to imagine today, S. Pietro in its quiet back-street is a masterpiece to treasure.

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