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Very Old and Beautiful Italian (and other) buildings

linked with events and personalities of the age of pilgrimages to 1492


As I have travelled Italy and Europe, exploring and building up the contents of Paradoxplace, one of many fascinations has been discovering really old buildings that are still roofed and operating - places where you can stand and think that someone was probably standing here 500 or more interestingly 1,000 or even 1,500 years ago and looking at the same things.  What was their life like - what were its "realities"?


The really old buildings that remain in Europe are often linked in some way with the Christian church and two of the pervasive phenomena of the early and high middle ages - pilgrimages and monasticism.  Pilgrimages not just to the other side of Europe, but to your local saint's shrine or one in a town a week's walk away.   Pilgrimages undertaken to seek personal health or forgiveness, ensure a place in heaven or just to join in on the annual outing of the village skittles team. 


This Paradoxplace list started its life as a selection of interesting old buildings that  you could still see around the southern half of the old pilgrims' roads from Canterbury to Rome.  Then a few other places asked to be included, along with some of the people and events of the middle ages that many people have heard of but often can't quite place in a chronological context.  All but half a dozen of the entries relate to pre-renaissance times (i.e. before the Black Death in 1348).


The list is not an exhaustive guide; it's a bit of personal interest that will be valuable to anyone planning a journey to these parts. 


Adrian Fletcher - March 2006



*  Still there, but not a lot of the original structures left

** Still there with most or reasonable amounts of the original structures left

Follow the links to go to relevant Paradoxplace photo and history pages

Links are being added as new pages (particularly relating to Tuscany, Rome and, later in 2006, Spain and Puglia) become available



** Pantheon, Rome - Emperor Hadrian revamps an earlier Roman temple by M.A.Agrippa.



* Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome, dedicated by Pope Sylvester in 324.  Senior Roman basilica and home to the Popes for a thousand years until Pope Clement V took off for Avignon (he was French) in 1309.  Unlike Santa Maria Maggiore there is now no sense here of these earlier times.




Council of Nicea - Number 1 of 21 Ecumenical Councils held to date (2006) - was actually convened by the Emperor Constantine (rather than Pope Sylvester) to knock the heads of the church's quarrelsome bishops together and address issues such as Christ's divinity.  This discussion was only possible because of the Edict of Milan (313), in which the Roman Empire moved to a position of neutrality with respect to religious worship.  With the cessation of persecution, the 300s became "the Century of Christianity".   318 Bishops were at this first church gig in Nicea, recently revisited with much questioned accuracy in "The da Vinci Code", and one of the outcomes was the Nicean Creed.  




Travel around Europe and the Mediterranean became increasingly difficult as the Roman Empire disintegrated.  The last Western Roman Emperor,  Romulus Augustus, ruling from ** Ravenna, was deposed by the Barbarian Odoacer in 476.




Council of Ephesus - Number 3 Ecumenical Council.  200 bishops chaired by Saint Cyril of Alexandria  banished Arian and Nestorian heresies, embraced the Virgin Mary and got the next Pope Saint Sixtus III (432 - 440) off to a flying start.




** Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline Hill in Rome.  The only one of the four major basilicas of Rome with much of its original structure still there.  Sixtus III personally paid for the mosaics on the triumphal arch (New Testament) and in the nave (Old Testament) and most of them are still there.



Byzantine Imperial mosaics in Ravenna in the ** Basilica di San Vitale plus the ** two Sant'Apollinares


Montecassino I Benedict’s second monastery (the first was at ** Subiaco ).  Lasted just 47 years before the Longobards (Lombards) destroyed it.  The present  * rebuild after WWII bombing obliteration by the USAAF is the 5th abbey on the site.


** Santa Sophia – Constantinople, Emperor Justinian's "Greatest Church in Christendom".

570 - 632

Muhammad - founder of Islam.

742 - 768 - 814

Emperor Charlemagne (Charles the Great) who briefly got Europe together and revived the title of Holy Roman Emperor.

763 - 786 - 809


Harun al Rashid - Abbasid Caliph of 1001 nights and one of the all time glittering courts of the world in Baghdad (of which sadly nothing remains).  Also found time to send the Emperor Charlemagne an Elephant called Abul Abbas as a present.




Fresh from being the only Umayyad to escape death in Damascus at the  hands of the Abbasids, Abd ar-Ramin I got going with rebranding Islamic Spain (al-Andalus) as the Emirate of Cordoba, and building what proved to be the first phase of the Great Mosque of Cordoba.  This utilized columns, capitals and bases recycled from the previous site occupant, the Visigoth Church of  San Vincente, and the ruins of other Visigothic and Roman buildings.  Today this beautiful space is one of the oldest places of worship still intact.



772 - 795

Pope Hadrian I - commissioned the ** Basilica di Santa Prassede (near Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome) and was generally active in the restoration and building of Roman churches and infrastructure for pilgrims.  Hadrian engineered the destruction of the Lombards by Charlemagne and narrowly failed to persuade the Emperor to make most of Italy a Papal State after they had a meet in Rome.  It was on the way home from this that Charlemagne fell ill at the site that he was to endow as the Abbazia di Sant'Antimo


* Abbazia di Sant'Antimo I - early south Tuscan imperial abbey and monastery.


* Church of the Vittorino, Gubbio - tiny gem of a church originally built to celebrate a victory against the Saracens, and later the spot where San Francesco persuaded a wolf to mend his ways.


Venice steals the bones of Saint Mark from a church in Alexandria.


A wandering hermit named Pelagius discovers the tomb of James the Greater in Galacia (NW Spain) and Santiago de Compostela is born.


Abd al-Rahman III promotes his Emirate of Cordoba into an independent Caliphate and another glittering court takes off.


** Ponte della Pia on the ancient Massetana road / track (West Tuscany).


Sigeric the Serious travels the via Francigena to visit the Pope in  Rome and notes in his ** “diary” (now in the British Library) his 80 overnight stopping places between Rome and Canterbury.  Sigeric the Serious played Archbishop of Canterbury to Ethelred the Unready’s King of England.

1032 - 1057


** L'Eglise Saint-Etienne de Vignory (just north of Chaumont in Champagne).  Dominantly original, beautiful and untouristed pilgrimage church on the via Francigena.  Said to be the model for the Abbazia di Sant'Antimo in Tuscany.


1000s - 1100s

** Florence Baptistery

1000s - 1100s

** Abbadia Isola - founded 1001 on the via Francigena to the north-west of Siena.  Pilgrim hospice (1050), xenodochio (1102), restored ** abbey church (1173) and * monastery buildings (1000s - 1100s).



** Campanile and apse of Lucca Duomo

** West front of Lucca Duomo

1063 - 1153

1152 - 1400

1173 - 1350

** Pisa Duomo

** Pisa Baptistery

** Leaning Tower of Pisa


William’s Normans conquer England - recorded in the 70m long ** Bayeux Tapestry made soon afterwards.

1093 - 1133


** Durham Cathedral - Nave, Quire and Transepts built during this time.  The masons who built Durham were the first to throw a full stone roof (that did not collapse) over a large nave, and to do so they invented ribbed vaulting and flying buttresses (which are concealed).



William has an inventory of his new English possessions made - it is called the Domesday Book

1095 - 99


First Crusade captures Jerusalem.  Knights Templar 1118.  Other less "successful" crusades follow.  Crusade Number 4 in 1200 - 1205 actually captures and wrecks * Constantinople, till then by far the worlds largest Christian city.  The plunder from Constantinople included the famous ** Horses of Saint Marks (taken to Venice, later swiped by Napoleon, then returned) and the bones of the first apostle, Andrew, which Venice did not need as they already had a more important one, so Andrew's bones found their way to ** Amalfi.  The last crusader presences were finally shut down by the Egyptian Mamluks in 1291, but the buying habits of Western Europe had changed for ever!


1096 - 1104


The ** Abbey church of Ste-Madeleine, Vézelaylaunch pad for two crusades and popular gathering point for pilgrim walkers, after a text book medieval rebranding act by Abbot Geoffroy in 1037 to promote the relics of Mary Magdelen (who possessed an unusually large number of bones for supplying several relic centres).  A feature of this and some other Camino Frances churches and monasteries is the superb narrative carving on capitals in naves and cloisters.


1093 – 1113 – 1154



c1174 - 1182


King Roger II of Sicily (a Norman) plus his glittering court (including the Spanish born Islamic geographer al Idrisi).  Roger's mosaiced ** Capella Palatina (in the ** Palazzo dei Normanni) and ** Chiesa dell Ammiraglio (aka La Martorona) are still gloriously there, as is the * Cefalu Duomo.


** Monreale Cathedral and cloisters - final glorious architectural statement of the Norman Kings of Sicily.


c1100s or earlier

** Torri cloisters (Siena, Tuscany) - the only remaining Romanesque cloisters in Tuscany - the rest were mostly destroyed by Renaissance builders.

1100 - 1150


** The first wave of Cistercian abbeys such as ** Fontenay and ** Noirlac radiates from Burgundy with a breathtaking architecture of luminous simplicity accompanied by formidable skills in manual labour management, engineering (especially water wool and iron), land management and economics The Cistercians also possessed the world's first multinational governance system - "the Charter of Charity".  Several hundred Cistercian Abbeys in France, Italy, Britain, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere can still be visited as working abbeys, museums or ruins.


1099 - ?

** Trani Cattedrale – backing on to the Adriatic Sea, adjacent to Trani's medieval ** porto (still with a Templar chapel),  and containing (then) the remains of Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim.  There are a ** number of memorable Norman cathedrals in Puglia which were mostly built in the early 1100s.

1117 - ?


** Abbazia di Sant'Antimo II (or possibly III) - near Montalcino in South Tuscany – translucent Romanesque and as close to perfection as an abbey church and Tuscan setting get.  Probably modelled on the French pilgrimage church of Saint-Etienne de Vignory in Haute Marne (Champagne) and one of only a handful of churches in Italy with an ambulatory / basilica structure.



* Abbazia di Chiaravalle della Colomba - on the via Francigena / via Emilia near Piacenza.  Still operating Cistercian abbey originally engaged (with daughter abbeys) in draining the Lombard swamps.

1138 - 1148

Pope Innocent II rebuilds the  ** Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere (Rome).

1137 - 1193

Saladin (Salah el-Din Yusuf)

1160 - 1227

Genghis Khan

1161 - 1198 - 1216

Pope Innocent III - from ** Angnani and the most powerful of the medieval Popes.  Launched the crusades which destroyed Constantinople (accidentally) and the Cathars (deliberately), gave his seal of approval to Saints Francis and Dominic and their friars, banned relic trading, faced down King John of England and did many other powerful things like the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 (see below).

1100s – 1200s

** Chartres Cathedral – the most completely medieval survivor of the great gothic medieval cathedrals of France.

1181 - 1185


 1224 - 1288

** Eremo di San Galgano who died in 1180, leaving his sword embedded in a rock in South Tuscany (where it can still be seen)

* Cistercian Abbazia di San Galgano (now roofless).  This and the earlier Cistercian ** Abbazia di Fossanova (still fully functional) were the first Central Italian gothic churches.

1182 - 1226 (44)





San Francesco (Assisi) - head and shoulders above the rest

** The tiny Porziuncola Chapel (inside the huge ** Santa Maria degli Angeli) below Assisi and Francesco's first church.

** Cetona (SE Tuscany) - the first (1212) Franciscan convent (= friars' monastery) incorporating an even earlier church

** Chiesa del Vittorino in Gubbio - originally built in the 800s, got a new lease of life when San Francesco had a chat with a bad wolf there

** Lower and Upper Basilicas at Assisi

1194 - 1250

Frederick II – “Stupor Mundi” – very bright, very absolute, very nasty Emperor, King (of Swabia, Sicily, Jerusalem), linguist and builder ( Castel del Monte and many other castles), with a glittering court which he bled Southern Italy dry to support.


* Monteriggione - Sienese frontier (with Florence) garrison hill fort.



4th Lateran Council (12th Ecumenical Council) under Innocent III. Those present included Patriarchs of Constantinople (who still controlled churches in Southern Italy) and Jerusalem, 71 archbishops, 412 bishops, and 800 abbots,  the Primate of the Maronites, and St. Dominic. The Council issued an enlarged creed against the Albigenses (Firmiter credimus), condemned the Trinitarian errors of Abbot Joachim, and published 70 important reformatory decrees. Amongst these was a mandatory code of dress / badges for Jews and Moslems - something which the Spanish refused to implement despite direct orders from successive Popes.   This, the most important council of the Middle Ages, marks the high tide of ecclesiastical life and papal power (note also the power of the abbots!).


1215 was also the year in which King John got to unwillingly sit down at Runneymede with barons, bishops, abbots and the master of the Knights Templar in England, and sign Magna Carta.


1229 - 1390

** Siena Duomo ( ** Duccio's round oculus window 1288).


** Santa Maria Novella - Florence's Gothic Dominican Basilica (and the only decent facade in Florence).

1254 - 1324

Marco Polo - Venetian adventurer.

1265 – 1321

Dante uses Italian to tell the Divine Comedy (set in 1300).  ** Fresco portrait by his friend Giotto in Florence's Bargello.

1288 - 1348

** Siena Palazzo Pubblico - Lorenzetti frescos the medieval townscape of Siena, Martini frescos the landscape and technology of warfare, and the Torre del Mangia - named after the first bellringer Mangiaguadagni (he who eats all he earns) - is completed on the eve of the Black Death.   It is the tallest in Italy for a hundred years and, unlike its later and taller Venetian counterpart,  it never falls down.

1294 - 1385

** Santa Croce - Florence's Franciscan basilica built (but the facade is 1800s).



The year in which Dante's Divine Comedy was set, and the first Jubilee Year (declared by the fourth and last of the Angani born Popes  Boniface VIII).  30 days (for Romans) or 15 days (non-Romans) spent in the Roman churches of Saint Pater and Saint Paul was the bronze frequent flier qualifying level for a no frills full remission of sins - silver and gold could be acquired with suitable gifts.  This generated an accommodation crisis and a lot of money for merchants and banks in Rome, and along the pilgrim routes, but before the next Jubilee the 200 year medieval boom was to come crashing down big-time. 


1303 - 1306

** Scrovegni Chapel – Padova, Giotto masterpiece.

1313 - 1375 (62)

Giovanni Boccacio - lives through the Black Death to tell the stories in the Decameron.

1340 - 1400 (60)

Geoffrey Chaucer - uses the English vernacular to tell pilgrims' ( ** Canterbury) tales.

1337 - 1453


100 Years' War - Edward III and his son the Black Prince at Crecy 1346, Henry V at Agincourt 1415, Joan at Orleans 1429 – in the end the English lose the lot and take some Florentine bankers with them.  In the process huge tracts of land in France and Northern Spain are laid waste and large groups of Poms break off to pillage Northern Italy.



The Black Death – Europe hits a brick wall as over 60% of its population dies.

1400s -1500s

1396 - 1466 (70)

1400 - 1428 (28)

The Italian Renaissance

Donatello - early Renaissance sculptor (equestrian statue of  ** Gattamelata in Padova is the first since Roman times)

Masaccio - early Renaissance artist ( ** Brancacci Chapel, Florence).


** Foundling Hospital – Florence’s first Renaissance facade (by Brunelleschi - 1377 – 1446).


1502 - 1508

** Pienza (S Tuscany) revamped by Sienese Pope Pius II (Aeneus Sylvius Piccolomini (1405 - 1458 - 1464)).

** Piccolomini Library - the life and times of Pope Pius II  by Pinturrcchio (1452 – 1513) (Siena Duomo).

1444 - 1472

** Urbino Palazzo Ducale – Kenneth Clark’s favourite palace, built for the human butcher cum Renaissance man Federigo di Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino.

1450 - 1455

A Bible printed by Johann Gutenberg using his invention of moveable metal type, in Mainz in Germany, changes Europe for ever.


The Byzantine Empire ("The Empire of Eastern Rome") ends with the capture of Constantinople by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II.


The "End of the Middle Ages" - Columbus almost discovers America, the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada surrenders and Muslim Spain is no more, Lorenzo de’Medici ("il Magnifico") dies.


Siena, the early front runner in the Italian city republic stakes, and today a medieval jewel of a place to visit, surrenders to Florence (or the Spanish army to be more accurate) on April 17 1555.

*  Still there, but not a lot of the original structures left

** Still there with most or reasonable amounts of the original structures left

This chronology © Adrian Fletcher reflects a handout given to participants in a study day on the via Francigena at the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Sydney, organized by Robert Veel of Academy Travel in March 2006


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