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A Day in the Gargano

Blue Skies, Freezing Wind and the Shrine of the Archangel Michael at Monte Sant'Angelo








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The Abbey of San Leonardo di Siponto dates from the 1000s and was at one stage home for knights of the Teutonic Order.   The church is the only functional building amongst the abbey ruins which are now pressed up against  the HGV noisy four lane trunk road which services the ugly port of Manfredonia.  It's only open for mass at 6pm every Sunday, so this is normally as close as you will get to the 1200s carved porch -  which is a good reason to have a powerful telephoto lens on hand or get a good picture book.   



The town of Sipontium had a long and interesting history before it was abandoned in the mid 1250s in favour of Manfredonia, after a lot of the lands around it disintegrated into mosquito infested swamps.  Further down the road from the Abbey, a disconsolate Tuesday coach-load of German tourists wanders in the littered wasteland (which doubles as an archaeological site) outside the impenetrable fencing of the 1100s Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore di Siponto, which was built over a much older church and is closed on Tuesdays. 




Madfredonia is an unattractive traffic jammed dump with a railway line and fenced off rotting industrial buildings where the seafront promenade should be, so we headed up the switchback mountain road to one of Western Europe's oldest pilgrimage shrines in a huge cave in the town of Monte Sant'Angelo (894m) - which, from half way up, did not look much different to Manfredonia .....



And indeed it wasn't, though it got better as one headed up the hill through the modern matchboxes and the fringe old town and ..... out the other side.  "Not good enough" said a voice ... "your web visitors will be disappointed ... turn around".  And then like magic the walls of the old mountaintop castle presented themselves with a vacant parking spot at their base. 


Outside the car the temperature was 10 - probably closer to zero taking the monte's famous freezing wind (vento molto freddo) chill into account.  The Dom hesitated, not having any idea what he was looking for, and not being dressed for a ski slope  ....


"On on" the voice (which the Dom now realizes was the warrior Archangel Michael hisself) said, and there, just round a corner at the end of the wall, was the entrance (photo on the right) to the stairways which he discovered (with no signage help) descend to the grotto which is linked to several appearances by the Archangel Michael, and which in fact is one of the the oldest shrines in western Europe (and the most evocative that the Dom has visited).  This was also the site of the first Norman protection racket in Italy in the early 1000s.


The grotto itself (photo below) is absolutely a most beautiful and evocative space, so the Dom stayed for an engaging mass, reflecting that he had followed quite literally in the steps of Saints Francis, Bernard and Anselm, assorted Kings, Queens, Emperors and Popes, and thousands of pilgrims over the past 1500 years.  And then he discovered a fantastic coffee table book with outstanding photos of the many iconic representations of the warrior Archangel and others to be found in the cave complex and town - extreme happiness.




Next door to the grotto entrance (above) is the new 50 room


Albergo Casa del Pellegrino


+39 0884 562396



The First Normans in Italy


The pilgrimage road leading to Monte Sant'Angelo (the Via Sacra Langobardorum) was the stage for the first Norman fighting group in Southern Italy.  Around 1010, a Norman adventurer called Rainulf Drengot, some of his brothers and 250 odd other Norman cast outs and adventurers, arrived on the scene and set up a pilgrim protection business. 


The Byzantines (who thought they were meant to be in charge) showed their displeasure by thrashing Rainulf in a battle at Cannae, close to the spot where Hannibal had won his greatest victory against Rome, after which the bedraggled Norman survivors headed west into Lombard lands to regroup. 


Rainulf outwitted the Lombards and ended up as the first titled Norman in Italy when he was made the Count of Aversa in 1030.   By the time he died in 1045 he was also back extorting the Monte Sant'Angelo pilgrims and had made himself a Prince (though no-one else recognized this). 


Rainulf left no sons, and the Norman adventuring in Southern Italy became the preserve of the Hauteville brothers, one of whom founded the dynasty of the Norman Kings of Sicily. 


Link to the rest of the story:  The Normans and the Hohenstaufens in Southern Italy



An inscription over the doorway to the grotto reads






Words used by Saint Michael when he appeared here to Bishop Saint Lawrence Maiorono


No prizes for working out why this was such a popular pilgrimage destination






The doorway to the cave sanctuary of Monte Sant'Angelo is closed by a pair of bronze doors made in Constantinople in 1076 and donated to the church by the merchant Pantaleone of Amalfi, who with his son Mauro ran a profitable Amalfi-Constantinople trading operation.  The doors contain 24 panels depicting a variety of angel episodes from Old and New Testaments and later church and grotto history.  On the right above is Jacob wrestling (?) with an angel. 


Between 1060 and 1076 Pantaleone and Mauro also gave bronze doors to the Cathedral of Amalfi itself (as you would expect, the first of their gifts, made in Constantinople around 1060 by Symeon of Syria and  including a cross and saints in inlaid silver), the Abbey of Montecassino (where the 1066 door, engraved with the names of the possessions and churches of the abbey, is the middle of three door sets giving access to the church) and the major basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura in Rome  (where the restored 1070 door by Stavrakios or Teodoro, containing 54 panels of scenes from the old and new testaments, is located in the Porta Santa on the right side of the main south facade).   Benevento Duomo has a magnificent pair of 1100s Constantinople made bronze doors, and Salerno acquired bronze doors from Constantinople in 1099.


These were the first major bronze doors in Italy since the end of the Roman Empire, from which time a rare survivor is the massive door set  of the Pantheon in Rome, dated around 125.    The central doors of Saint Mark's Cathedral Venice date from a bit later than those of the Pantheon, and were souvenired from Constantinople by the 4th Crusade in the early 1200s.  Byzantine doors were typically engraved then decorated via enamelling, damascening, niello work etc.


By the early 1100s the Italians had worked out how to do home made bronze doors.  The earliest seem to be the doors made in Melfi in 1111 for the Mausoleum of Bohemond at Canosa Cathedral (North Puglia).  Those on the west and south facades of the Cathedral of Troia were made by Oderiso di Benevento between 1119 and 1127.  The Trani master, Barisano da Trani, was responsible for the bronze doors of Trani Cattedrale (now displayed inside, they include a rare artist self portrait), Ravello, Astrano (?) and Monreale (near Palermo - north doors) all of which which he made in Italy in the 1180s.  Barisano used a technique of low relief casting finished by chiselling.  The main West doors of Monreale were made by a Tuscan - Bonanno da Pisa - in 1189.  Bonanno had earlier done west doors for the Pisa duomo, but sadly these were destroyed in the fading years of the 1500s.  In Abruzzo, just north of Puglia, the bronze doors of the Abbazia di San Clemente a Casauria, showing crosses, abbots, rose patterns and 14 castles the abbey owned, date from 1191.






Some of the photos here are taken from this excellent Italian book.  The cover photo is another "Michael, dragon killer" - this one carved on the side of the 1000 - 1100s Bishop's Throne in the Monte Sant'Angelo Sanctuary Church.



L'Arcangelo Michele, early 1000s, 50cm high.


San Michele and San Giorgio kill more dragons



A typical medieval Puglian ambo bible rest (1041) (see also Bitonto)




Some 1200s regal doodling with helmeted faces, from a window surround in the Castle.  That's a bishop and queen rubbing heads in the middle.



On down the other side of the mountain and along the valley road (aka la Via Sacra Langobardorum) is San Giovanni Rotondo - once owned by one of the Plantagenet kids - Joan.  She was a daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the awful Richard I's favourite sister, and she became Queen of Sicily for a time as wife of the Norman Sicilian King William II (who built Monreale Cathedral).  The church of Sant'Onofrio (left) dates from the 1300s (after Joan, who dates from the late 1100s), and was closed for lunch in 2006.


Even before Joan, the "first Norman" in Italy, Rainulf Drengot, had cut his teeth on protection rackets on the Via Sacra Langobardorum, fighting with the Lombards (=Longobards) against Byzantium (see top of page).


The reason why so many people know San Giovanni Rotondo today, and indeed why it is on the tourist map at all, is Padre Pio (1887 - 1969).  The stigmatized Franciscan friar, beatified in 1999 by Pope John Paul II, is buried in a convent near here, and judging by the huge number of newish concrete hotels strung out along the road, there are a lot of people who visit it - heading for 10 million a year we have since incredulously discovered.



On on, through and out of the several kilometre (seriously) Padre Pio pilgrim hotel strip, we managed to find another excellent lunch spot ... seafood di golfo today, advised by the effervescent Ylemie, one of the family running La Taverna dei Briganti, near San Marco in Lamis.





And so, back west in the evening sun, past the walls which are all that remain of what was the biggest of Frederick's Puglian castles, to our hotel at the base of the other side of hill - the Hotel Sorriso in via Rafaello, Lucera, proudly lit up with a huge neon  "Ristorante" sign even though there is no evidence that it is ever open - and tonight, as an extra bonus for their two guests, the hot water isn't either.   Still, Lucera is a good geographic location for N Puglia, and at least we avoided nearby Foggia - recently measured as the most congested town in Italy. 


Back in Frederick's day Lucera was known as Luceria Saracenorum because it eventually became a full blown Moslem town of 50,000 plus people as a result of the King Emperor deporting "troublesome" (=most of them) Saracens from Sicily and dumping them here.  Oddly, they showed their gratitude by becoming a key part of the army of his illegitimate son Manfred.  The Moslem enclave in southern Italy thrived  for a few hundred years, but eventually Charles II d'Anjou subjected the place to extreme ethnic cleansing.


Interestingly, the beautiful medieval port town of Trani, further to the south, had probably the largest Jewish community in Italy, which thrived commercially on the back of a monopoly in silk trading which they were given by Frederick II.  The Jews too were cleansed in later less easy going times.



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