San Vincenzo al Volturno
May 10, 1832, a farmer from San Vincenzo is working his land near the river Volturno, the oak wood plough is laboriously advancing between the clods. Suddenly the land opens up under the iron ploughshare and to the amazed eyes of the farmer appears a completely frescoed underground environment. Thus was discovered one of the most important and fascinating pictorial cycles of the Early Middle Ages: the crypt of Epifanio, abbot from 824 to 842, of one of the largest monastic complexes in Europe. The site has become a huge research laboratory to understand life in the Early Middle Ages: it is the story of the Lombards in southern Italy, of the birth of Charlemagne’s Europe, it is the story of an amazing site for monumentality and extension, a place where the ruins are not mute witnesses, but signs of a life that created Europe.
According to an ancient legend, in the 4th century B.C., the Sabines, driven by famine, founded a city on this site; they left today’s Latium to seek new lands led by a sacred bull that, having reached the source of the Volturno river, stopped on a hill. Those people will be called Sanniti and that land Sannio. After about five centuries, under the command of the dictator Silla, the Roman legions subdued this people of brave and feared warriors, erasing all traces of their lineage, implementing a damnatio memoriae that still persists today. In the 1st century A.D., a rural Roman villa was built on the ruins of that city, which was abandoned at the end of the Empire. According to an ancient legend, in that now desolate place, the first Christian emperor Constantine the Great built the first basilica dedicated to St. Vincent after a dream. After three centuries three noblemen from Benevento founded the first nucleus of what would become the richest and most extensive Benedictine monastic complex of the early Middle Ages. To the monastery of San Vincenzo, the emperor Charlemagne donated lands and immense privileges, the monastic city thus became a reference point of extraordinary importance for the entire political, civil and religious system of the time. At that time the new Basilica was built, inspired by the models of imperial Roman architecture: a grandiose church with a nave and two aisles with pink and grey Egyptian granite columns, the bare material of ancient Roman buildings in the city of Capua. Today, with the absence of the vertical structural parts, we can almost imagine that we are in a busy medieval building site, witnessing the laying of the bases of the columns. Moving in the residential area of the monastery you can walk in the 40 metres long refectory, big enough to accommodate 400 monks. It is the only place in the world where you can walk on an intact early medieval floor and where we can admire, incorporated in the monastery, an original Roman peristyle reserved for guests of rank. Under the guidance of the abbot Epiphanius, the monastic city had to appear as a heavenly Jerusalem in the economic and social desolation of the medieval world: there were workshops of herbalist pharmacists, master glassmakers who refounded Roman glass on lead frames, carpenters; they worked silver, ivory and bronze, in the large library amanuensis copied ancient texts and made miniatures; they fished, worked in the fields and prayed a lot. In that time other churches were built and Epiphanius had his crypt built, today the only intact and completely frescoed environment of the whole site. Rare medieval example in Europe, the crypt presents images of incomparable expressive power in Byzantine and Lombard style: Angels of the Apocalypse dressed as imperial guards of Byzantium, Martyrs, Saints, episodes from the life of the Virgin, Epiphanius at the foot of the Cross; on all of them stands the figure of Mary enthroned. This place, which has exerted a profound call for history, still has a beating heart today, thanks to a monastic community to which we owe the resumption of the life of St. Vincent in the sign of Benedictine spirituality. The site, which has no equal in Europe for its richness and extension, shows a very distant past that returns to show itself to modern man full of information and emotions, who speaks of our past and of an Italy and a Europe that no longer exist but were born here.
With these premises the journey becomes an immersion, an experience never lived before, where to discover and meet knowledge, tastes, stories, characters, artistic, landscape and human beauties impossible to forget.