Last month I decided to be bold and propose a trip to Fossanova Abbey. At about an hour and a half from where we live, it’s quite a bit further than we usually go on our Sunday outings. That’s a long time for a five-year old to sit patiently in her car seat, especially when all that’s waiting at the end of the journey is just another old building. But the abbey exceeded all of our expectations, mine most of all, and that doesn’t happen very often. (One of the disadvantages of being an art historian is that sometimes you ‘know’ a place before ever having seen it.)
Fossanova was built by the Cistercians in the second half of the twelfth century, after the site was turned over to them by Innocent II in 1134-35. The abbey, which was a leading intellectual center until the fifteenth century, is perhaps best known as the site of the death of Thomas Aquinas, who stopped there on his way from Naples to the Second Council of Lyon in 1274.
Fossanova is in many ways typical of the architecture of the Cistercian Order. It is laid out on a simple, cruciform plan, with all its major buildings on the cloister so that the monks, bound by strict rules of claustration, would have no need to leave it. The church, begun in 1163 (some sources give the date as 1170 and others, 1187) and consecrated in 1208, is a simple vaulted basilica with two side aisles, a square choir, shallow transepts, and a sober application of architectural ornament. (For Bernard of Clairvaux’s views on monastic architecture and its decoration, see my recent post ‘Matters Greater in Themselves.‘)
The nave arcade is carried by compound piers, the shafts of which reach all the way up to the springing of the arches that cross the groin-vaulted ceiling. The shafts applied to the piers and walls, and their capitals, comprise all the original ornamentation of the church. (In one of the transept chapels, there are substantial remains of a fresco cycle, but that dates to a later period.)
The nave capitals reduce the Corinthian order to its essential geometry: the curving lines of the acanthus leaves, the quatrefoils of the rosette, and the spheres that stand in for the volutes of the original.
In some places, the severity of the shafts is lessened through the addition of a ring around their circumference. This may be a reference to the horizontal masonry course that runs just above the pointed arches of the nave arcade.
In the earliest Cistercian churches, and in those that were closely modeled upon them, there was no clerestory, the nave being lit only by windows in the aisles, and in the east and west walls. Fossanova, being of a later date, departs slightly from the early Cistercian ideal. There is not only a clerestory, but also an intervening triforium level between the arcade and the windows above. It is, however, appropriately simple, consisting of single, unadorned arched openings.
The simple façade is dominated by a rose window, which is not original, and is larger than the earlier rose would have been. (To my eyes, the proportions of the façade suffer for this later change.)
On the lower portion of the façade, traces are visible of preparations made for a planned three-bay portico that was never built. The porch would have given the façade a more Italianate appearance, and would have distinguished it from most other Cistercian churches. The present entrance portal, like the rose window, is a later Gothic addition.
The cloister, built in two different periods, is yet another example of how Fossanova deviates from the Cistercian norm. While the arcades of the portion built in the twelfth century are carried on simple paired columns with block capitals, those of late thirteenth century are carried by pairs far more elaborate and sculptural than their earlier counterparts.
In the abbot’s house is the room in which Aquinas died, reached by a narrow and steep, winding staircase. There is a seventeenth-century relief dedicated to the saint, and a long inscription of uncertain date that recounts the details of the event.
Also on the grounds is a small museum that we could not visit because it is closed on Sundays, and ruins of a Roman villa dating to the first century BCE (a small portion is visible across the piazzetta from the church.)
There are a couple of bars where you can stop for a snack, and even a few shops selling artisanal products, including a biscotteria (cookie shop.) And for small people whose interest in architecture, while growing, has its limits, there is a nice playground in the park adjacent to the abbey.