Sunday, April 17, 2016

The St. Michael's Abbey on top of Mount Pirchiriano on the south side of the Susa valley in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. Founded between the late 10th and the early 11th century, the abbey is located along the pilgrimage route that joins Monte Sant'Angelo, in the south of Italy, to Mont Saint-Michel, in the north of France.

Originally a Lombard fortress with a tower -- the Torre della Bell'Alda ("Tower of the Beautiful Alda") -- built some time in the first half of the 8th century, a century later it was taken over by the Benedictines. Beginning in 1100, Abbot Ermengardo added outbuildings, stairs, and gardens built from the foot of the hill to the abbey. New foundations were laid around the most stable part of the older structure, and the new abbey, some 200 feet in height, built around it and incorporating it. A new church was built atop this structure.

The Benedictine abbey fell into decline, and in 1622 it was formally closed by Pope Gregory XV. But the abbey was such a culturally important part of the region that in 1835 Carlo Alberto I, King of Sardinai, and Pope Gregory XVI to restore and repopulate it. The Pope agreed, and asked Antonio Rosmini (head of the new Institute for Charity religious order) to take charge of it. The Rosminians still care for it today.

The abbey inspired Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose.

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I love two things about this.

The first is the way that the new was built atop the old, in a hodge-podge of styles and methods. We don't do that any more; we raze, we demolish, we tear away and make a fresh start. In the process, thought, we lose something.

The second is the way that people with, at best, rope, tackle, levers, and mules built this huge structure in a place that is remote, difficult to access, and environmentally fragile. Much of the building stone and timber had to be hauled by hand or pulled up using a mule and sledge. They graded land, mixed concrete, and set stone upon stone using hundreds of laborers and muscle alone. They raised up a fantastic building more than 200 feet high, with what -- by all accounts -- is a maze of interior rooms of all shapes and sizes. And then they decorated the interior with some of the most spectacularly beautiful murals and mosaics in Northern Italy. Today, we'd use backhoes, cranes, trucks, and artificial ramps to build this. It wouldn't hold any of the mystery or wonder.

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