Fossanova

Abbey church of Fossanova, twelfth century, Priverno

Abbey church of Fossanova, twelfth century, Priverno

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.

View of the nave toward the choir

View of the nave toward the choir

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.)

View into the vault

View into the vault

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.)

Capital in the nave of the abbey church of Fossanova

Capital in the nave.

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.

Windows of the south transept

South wall of the south transept.

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.

View of the nave arcade

View 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.

Rose window, façade

Rose window, façade

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.)

The rose window from the first bay of the nave

The rose window from the first bay of the nave

Detail of the façade

Detail of the façade

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.

Fossanova cloister spiral colonnettes

Spiral colonnettes in the cloister

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.

Fossanova inscription

Inscription in the room where Aquinas died. (I sincerely apologize for the abysmal quality of the photo.)

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.

Loves architecture, for about an hour at a time

Loves architecture, for about an hour at a time

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5 responses to “Fossanova

  1. Pictures are more beautiful than ever! As is your lovely daughter looking so mature these days. Kids grow so fast when they don’t live with you. I’ve noticed this with my own granddaughter.

    • Thank you. Yes, over the last year Pata’s features have started to change- she’s losing her baby fat, I guess. (But she’ll always be my baby.)

  2. The simplicity of the interior is lovely, such a fr cry from many of the churches one walks into here. Is that because the Cistercians resisted the decorative imperatives of the Baroque? It reminds me of the lovely Sant’Antimo in Tuscany, which did NOT have a bus park the first time we saw it 20 years ago (!) though I think your Fossanova might be larger.

    • I’ve never been up where you are, so now I’m wondering if it’s a lot like this part of Campania in terms of how baroqued-up everything is! My husband, who doesn’t really care for looking at old buildings, loved Fossanova for its simplicity. He’s so used to seeing everything encrusted with layers of stucco.

      The Cistercians avoided any kind of ornamentation right from the outset (eleventh-century) because they felt it was unnecessary at best and profane and distracting at worst. They became more lax later on, but I don’t know if there are any later Cistercian houses that have the kind of Baroque horror vacui you see around here.

  3. Everything about this abbey is wonderful… from the clean lines to the simple and stunning colors of the interior to.. one of my favorites, the colonnettes of the cloister. Gorgeous photos Karen! And of course I love the photo of your Pata. Luca says she looks nice :D

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