La Pompei del Medioevo
My new book about the excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno, Molise has been published by Carocci (of Rome). The publisher has done a good job. The cover is striking, and they chose a title – La Pompei del Medioevo - that is in fact the description of the monastery made by the late Don Angelo Pantoni, the Monte Cassino archaeologist. I well remember Don Angelo calling S. Vincenzo a Pompei with such glee. To find the buried remains of a Carolingian-period monastery in a remote valley of Molise was simply extraordinary. European archaeologists and historians know this well now.
Last week, my long-time collaborator, John Mitchell, and I presented the book in three Molisano places: the abbey of San Vincenzo, Campobasso, and Macchia’d’Isernia. Nearly five hundred people attended and were fabulously enthusiastic. It was very rewarding to get this reception because I wrote the short book for a particular motive.
John Mitchell speaking at the presentation at S. Vincenzo al Volturno.
San Vincenzo al Volturno is a unique example of a Carolingian monastery that in the age of Charlemagne served as a point of dissemination for Frankish reform ideas that underpin our European society. The remains include a Beneventan palace, the great abbey-church of S. Vincenzo Maggiore, and claustral buildings like the refectory and an attached kitchen. You can walk through these 9th-century remains unlike any other 9th-century site in Europe because the monastery was sacked by an Arab warband and abandoned in 881.
But for 25 years S. Vincenzo has been a troubled place. The promised archaeological park never materialized. Many of the extensive ruins need conservation. Much of the site is now covered in dense vegetation. Worse, apart from the few finds displayed in Venafro Museum, the bulk of this staggeringly rich assemblage of objects and frescoes are in an unfinished museum attached to a school in neighbouring Castel San Vincenzo. The conditions inside are shocking.
Molise is a small region of 275,000 people. It lacks resources. But the conditions at San Vincenzo are disgraceful and must be changed. The aim of my book was to help bring this change about.
Thankfully, the Direzione Polo Museale has a plan to safeguard the finds and re-cover the site. Likewise, the new abbot of Monte Cassino, abbot also of San Vincenzo al Volturno, is committed to supporting a modern programme for this great place. Together, they can give it the dignity it merits. Together, they can lay the framework for increasing visitors to San Vincenzo and bringing income to a place suffering from serious emigration. Together, they are working to leverage the past for the future.
At the three presentations, I was asked about the title of the book. I explained Don Angelo’s description and his captivating smile. All laughed and understood. All understood that without resorting to this kind of sensationalism Molise as a region will not exist, and great archaeological sites like S. Vincenzo will be left as it was in 881. As archaeologists, we have a responsibility not just for excavating and publishing our findings but also to the place itself as an asset for the communities that support us.
Don Angelo Pantoni with the author on the excavations in 1984
One last thought: as climate change makes visiting Pompeii itself in July and August unbearably hot in the high 40s C, it is its 9th-century version at 800 m above sea level in the mountains that will attract visitors with modern marketing. There is, then, hope for S. Vincenzo in the immediate future and I wish my book modestly helps to dignify this future.