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Olevano sul Tusciano redux

Our book is published by Viella! Edited with Alessandro Del Muro, Il santuario di San Michele ad Olevano sul Tusciano (Viella, Rome, 2019), it is much more substantive than we originally imagined. Much of this compendium is rightly given over to John Mitchell’s ground-breaking overview of the painted decoration. But the atti are more than this. The book attempts to answer the riddle of the cave. Unusually for a conference (Salerno November 2018) lots of new thinking emerged about the purposes of the sanctuary and this volume takes account of this.

Entering the grotta

The early 11th-century paintings dedicated to San Vito along with the sixteen bone flutes found in Alessandro’s excavations suggest the great cave was a place where schizophrenics might find salvation, thanks to the sacred waters rising at the back of the cave. The last chapter in the compendium on the musicology of playing the flutes is truly special.

I returned to Olevano on a day when the January skies were miraculously washed clean. We drove up the degraded road dodging boulders in jeeps from the civile protezione. Once outside the cave looking across to Salerno Bay, as ever this place seems celestial. For any pilgrim this ascent must have been breath-taking.

Looking back down the passage to the entrance

Inside it is damp; there are fewer bats; but the paintings in the lights fuelled by a rumbling generator illuminate the brilliance of the early Medieval paintings.

I might dwell on many thoughts but the one that really struck me on this visit was the monumentality of this hidden world. The long staircase, in many places tiled, belongs to the first great chapter of the sanctuary’s history late in the 8th or early 9th centuries. The passage is not straight but meanders across the contours of the uneven cave floor. Yet surely, terminating at the highest point in the grotto, where the domed church G is covered in contemporary graffiti, this was an attempt to loosely emulate the corridors in the Carolingian palaces and Lombard monasteries like Nonantola and San Vincenzo al Volturno. Processing and committing one’s name to a wall, however rudely, were as much a part of this cave as then descending into its slithery bowels to find the perpetually flowing source of the sacred waters.

The first churches B(left) & A (right)

Here was a place that ranked with the most venerated in Charlemagne’s world. Now, we need to reflect thoughtfully, in the light of our new book, on how to introduce it properly in all its natural and confected wonder to our world.

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