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from issue no. 12 - 2003

A Romanesque gem among the hills

The origins of the church of San Pietro al Monte a Civate go back into legend. But here the stones and the frescoes say more than the documents. Like the one showing the battle of the angels led by Michael against the huge red dragon intent on snatching the child born of the woman garbed with the sun, as mentioned in chapter 12 of Apocalypse

by Giuseppe Frangi

The church of San Benedetto seen from the church of San Pietro, at the foot of Monte Civate

The church of San Benedetto seen from the church of San Pietro, at the foot of Monte Civate

What are they doing these two gems of Romanesque architecture alone up there in the dale at the foot of Monte Pedale, that dominates the Lombard plane and the lake of Annone? It seems strange, but not even the art historians and critics have been able to come up with an answer. Even today from the town of Civate, from which they have taken their name, a walk of over an hour is required to reach the two churches of San Pietro and San Benedetto, 660 meters up. An effort amply rewarded by the spectacle that opens up, when the two churches, nestling in the green of the meadows, come into view.
But who decided to build in such an isolated place, and why? Legend tells that the Lombard king Desiderius decided to build the churches in thanksgiving for the hearing of a prayer: his son Adelchi, guilty of the sacrilege of killing a wild boar that had taken refuge under the altar, was struck with blindness. His father prayed for his cure and was told in a dream that his son would recover his sight if he had a church built in the place. So it came about, as we are told, in a Latin by then vernacularized, by the Chronica mediolanensis, a manuscript preserved in the National Library of Paris. Which adds an interesting detail: Desiderius is said to have also asked for relics from Pope Hadrian, to be kept in the church to be built. He was given nothing less that a relic of Saint Peter, along with another of Pope Marcellus (and the legend account fits, since Pope Marcellus is portrayed in the 12th century fresco just inside). A document from 845 is, instead, the earliest historical evidence for the existence of the church of San Pietro. It says that a community of 35 monks lived here, followers of the Benedictine rule: no small community living in a building that no longer exists. Later information comes from the year 859 or thereabouts, when Angilbertus II, the Archbishop of Milan who had commissioned the celebrated altar of gold in the Ambrosian Basilica, had the relics of Saint Calocerus, a martyr who seems to have lived in the first century, brought from Albenga to Civate. Another ancient church, with a monastery attached, in the built-up area of the town of Civate, is also dedicated to him.
But maybe the most important date, the one that shaped San Pietro and San Benedetto, is 1097. In September of that year Archbishop Arnolfus III of Milan died and was buried in Civate: he had been elected to the See of Ambrose in 1093, in somewhat obscure circumstances, so much so that his nomination was initially voided by Pope Urban II. Arnolfus, while waiting for ratification, retreated in prayer to San Pietro al Monte a Civate where he stayed for two years before confirmation arrived from Rome. That choice attests the bishop’s attachment to the ancient monastic settlement and confirms the hypotheses advanced by the critics that the large works of embellishment of San Pietro date precisely from that period.
The frescoed altar in the small apse of the church of San Benedetto

The frescoed altar in the small apse of the church of San Benedetto

In fact in Civate, it is the stones that speak rather than the documents, and above all the frescoes and stuccos. There are two churches, as said. The first, a little lower down the slope, is called after Saint Benedict. It has a central plan, which is why it was thought to be a baptistery: in fact it never had that function, for the font and the drainage channels have never been found. Inside, however, there is a first taste of what awaits just above, in San Pietro. In fact, the altar in the little apse facing the entrance has frescoes on three sides. In particular, on the right side, a Saint Benedict with open arms stands out. In one hand he holds a crozier, with the other a book with the lettering: “Ego sum Benedictus abas”.
Going out and looking up, one is greeted by the majestic stairway with 23 fairly crudely cut steps that climbs toward San Pietro. And here the first surprise awaits: the façade of San Pietro is in fact convex, it looks, or rather is, an apse, similar to that of San Piero a Grado, in Pisa, on the site where tradition says Saint Peter landed. But furthermore, a portico running round the apse that opens its elegant biforia on to the downward slope. The reasons for this fascinating but strange façade-apse are linked to the year 1097 and to the story of Archbishop Anspertus. He is said to have altered the church, inverting its orientation and setting the altar toward the hill. The old apse thus became the new façade and the lower crypt, keeping the original orientation, now appears inverted in respect of the plan of the church.
Was it also Anspertus who invited the extraordinary craftsmen to fresco and decorate the church with its famous stuccos? The dating proposed all of fifty years ago by the greatest expert on medieval Lombardy, Pietro Toesca, and based on stylistic comparisons, matches that suggested by the story of Anspertus. We are at the beginning of the twelfth century, years still dominated by the Byzantine schools. To Civate came, among others, the great master to whom is attributed the large scene painted on the large lunette at the entrance and which illustrates the opening of chapter 12 of Apocalypse.
Images of the church of San Pietro

Images of the church of San Pietro

But before coming to that key point, the believer is invited to a tour that begins with the fresco set above the entry door, in which Christ consigns keys and book to Peter and Paul, whose hands are veiled. Once inside, in the first small vault, there is a representation of the heavenly Jerusalem, shown as a prosperous city with 12 gates, from which emerge 12 angels on whom can be seen the names of the 12 tribes of Israel and of the 12 apostles. In the center Christ, holding a book on which can be clearly read the invitation: “Qui sitit veniat”, let him who thirsts come. The reference is to the river that flows from the mountain at the Savior’s feet, branches out into four streams and flows together in the four squinces of the next vault (where each of the rivers is named) to indicate the fact that the Gospels are preached in every corner of the earth, as recently worked out by Lorenzo Cappelletti in his book on the frescoes of the crypt of Anagni, very close in theme, and perhaps dating also, to those of Civate. “In the hearts of stone of the Gentiles God opened the rivers of the message… What we heard promised we now see accomplished”: the words are those of Gregory the Great and perfectly depict the itinerary shown. Was it by chance that Pope Gregory, along with Pope Marcellus, was painted on the two short entry walls, in the act of greeting the believers crowding up to the door? “Venite filii audite me, timorem Domini docebo vos” (come children, listen to me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord), says the first; “Accedite filii et inluminamini” (enter children and you shall be enlightened), says the second.
After passing under these low vaults of the endonarthex, one comes to the large nave of San Pietro, over 20 meters long. It is then that, if we turn round, we see on the back wall the large fresco of the Apocalypse. In a blaze of colors that the dry climate of the Monte Pedale has preserved down to our day, the battle between the angels, led by Michael, against the immense dragon intent on snatching the child of the woman “robed in sun”, as mentioned in chapter 12 of Apocalypse. The host of the angels armed with slender spears, with their dancing gait and the green, red and blue haloes, vanquish the dragon in the end, “and there was no longer place for him in heaven and he was cast out”. One cannot be other than stunned at the refinement and perfect harmony of a composition that compresses the complex account in Apocalypse into a single scene, preserving an extraordinary overall unity. It seems to emerge effortlessly from the thousand years of history that there separate us from it, to speak in a visual idiom still direct and compelling.
The final gem that San Pietro holds is the luminous ciborium, decorated with bas-relief stuccos, like the more famous one in the basilica of Sant’Ambrogio. On the side facing the entrance there is a Christ on the cross. The Lord has a look full of tenderness, as if to make clear that his outstretched arms are there to receive mankind. Below, Mary and Saint John reach out towards him, as if driven by an ardent desire. “Mors superat mortem” says one of the writings at the bottom of this scene. On the right side of the ciborium, in the very fine Resurrection, one sees the angel soaring over the empty tomb, with wings spread, as if in a burst of happiness. The artist follows the words of Mark’s Gospel and shows Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, come to anoint the body of the Lord: the latter, in amazement, had dropped the jar of unguents, that bounces off into space, outlined against the white background. Looking at the eye-catching writings, that bring out the names of all the figures, is like looking at an ancient cartoon. In which nothing is trivial, but each panel is for everyone and within the grasp of all.

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