Italy's Heritage Sites; Remembering Rome's Defender

UNESCO Honors Lombard «Places of Power»

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, JUNE 30, 2011 ( As U.N. agencies go, the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is arguably one of the body’s more benign and popular alphabet-soup named bureaucracies.  

UNESCO’s stated purpose is to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science and culture. Unfortunately, in common with much of the United Nations, that also means placing an emphasis on gender equality and «reproductive health» — code words for population control, contraceptives and compulsory sex education in schools.

Yet, one very commendable function of UNESCO is its creation and promotion of World Heritage Sites — places of natural or historical interest that have special cultural or physical significance, and which it considers the international community should preserve. Italy is home to the greatest number of these with 46 sites inscribed on the list. And now it has one more, under the collective title: «The Longobards, Places of Power.»

On June 28, UNESCO designated seven groups of monasteries, churches and fortresses throughout the Italian Peninsula as World Heritage Sites. The historic buildings, dating from 568-774, testify to the great achievements of the Lombards (also known as Longobards) who migrated from northern Europe and developed their own culture across vast swathes of territory on the peninsula. More interestingly, their influence helped develop European monasticism so that it would form the basis of the expansion of Medieval Christianity throughout the continent.

This is perhaps most visibly evident in the Lombards’ ability to synthesize architectural styles, from Antiquity to the European Middle Ages, drawing on the heritage of Ancient Rome, Christian spirituality, Byzantine influence and Germanic northern Europe. The seven sites, awarded World Heritage status following recommendations made to UNESCO, are said to embody the finest examples of Lombard architecture.

First on the list is the Gastaldaga area and the episcopal complex in Cividale del Friuli, near Udine in north east Italy. The area includes the Tempietto Longobardo («the little Longobard Temple»), regarded as a work of «unparalleled splendor» dating from the late Longobard period. It’s also thought that the city’s Monastery of Santa Maria was founded during the same era.

Another site is the monastic complex of San Salvatore-Santa Giulia, located in Brescia, northern Italy. The Benedictine convent there was founded in 753 by the last Lombard king, Desiderius, and his wife Ansa, and was of great religious, political and economic importance, which continued after the Lombards’ defeat by Charlemagne.

Also on the list is the castrum with the Torba Tower and the church outside the walls, Santa Maria foris portas, located near Pavia, close to Milan. The Lombards reconstructed the castrum (land and buildings meant as a military defensive position in Roman times) as a main complex for worship that includes the monastery and basilica of San Giovanni Evangelista,with annexed octagonal baptistery. The Torba Tower, located on the summit of the fortified site, was used as a convent in late Lombard times.

The famous basilica of San Salvatore in Spoleto in central Italy is next on the UNESCO list. Known as one of the oldest and most remarkable churches in Italy, it dates from the late fourth century and was originally built in the style of a Classical pagan temple. The Lombards reconstructed the church in the eighth century and, despite several alterations, its original architecture is still remarkably well preserved.

Not far from the basilica is another of the new World Heritage Sites: the Tempietto del Clitunno (Temple of Clitumnus), a small paleochristian church between Spoleto and Trevi in Umbria. Originally thought to be a pagan shrine dedicated to the river god Clitumnus, it was a popular tourist attraction among ancient Romans who wished to consult and worship the oracles of the river god. But recent studies have shown the structure was, in fact, always a church, but built with architectural fragments from one or more of the temples that stood nearby. Its exact date of construction is unknown, but is believed by some archaeologists to have been built by a Lombard duke of Spoleto, perhaps in the late seventh century.

The sixth Christian Lombard site to win World Heritage status is the Santa Sofia complex, close to Benevento near Naples. The architectural composition of this cloister and church, with its unique star-shaped ground plan and Byzantine influence, attracts great interest and is considered to be one of the finest examples of Longobard architecture. It has seen numerous and varied occupants: first, Benedictine monks, then Benedictine sisters who dedicated it to Saint Sophia towards the end of the 10th Century; then in 1592, the monastery was entrusted to Jesuit priests, followed in 1778 by the Carmelites. During the Napoleon requisition of 1807 up until 1938, the monastery was used as a civil court.

Finally, UNESCO awarded World Heritage Status to the famous Sanctuary of San Michele, otherwise known as the Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo sul Gargano. Situated in the province of Foggia, in Italy’s southeast, it is the oldest shrine in Western Europe dedicated to the archangel Michael. After reported apparitions there that saved the Lombards from pagan invaders, it became popular among pilgrims of all backgrounds from the 7th century, developing into the national shrine of the Longobards. It deeply influenced the spread of the devotion for St. Michael throughout Western Europe and became a model for the hundreds of sanctuaries dedicated to the saint all over the continent. Located on one of the last stages on the road that lead to the Holy Land, it ran along the ancient route of the Trajan Way in southern Italy, which at that time took the name of Via Sacra Langobardorum.

World Heritage Sites have sometimes been given the sobriquet «Oscars for the Environment,» such is their importance to the countries to which they’re awarded. Chosen sites not only gain added prestige but also much needed revenue to help preserve them — both from tourism and UNESCO itself.

To the United Nation’s credit, therefore, it has, in a relatively small way, heeded Benedict XVI’s frequent appeals to preserve Europe’s rich Christian heritage. Perhaps its other agencies might now consider following suit, and show the same willingness to preserve the values and principles that so inspired building these great monuments to the faith.

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Wartime Pope

It’s not widely known, but the square facing St. Peter’s basilica is dedicated to Venerable Pope Pius XII and, under his name, inscribed on a plaque in the piazza, is the tribute «Defensor Civitatis» — defender of the city.

On Wednesday, as part of Italy’s 150th anniversary celebrations, Rome’s head of tourism, Alessandro Vannini, led a ceremony in Piazza Pio XII to commemorate its dedication to the wartime Pope in 1950.

In his speech, Vannini recalled the heroic virtue of Pius XII and his saving of a great number of Jews by opening the doors of religious houses in Rome where they could seek refuge. He also gave his assurance that the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, plans to create a museum dedicated to Pius XII and organize a conference and exhibition for the autumn.

The idea to hold Wednesday’s ceremony came from the veteran campaigner to clear Eugenio Pacelli’s name, Sister Margherita Marchione. She recalled to me last month she’d only recently noticed the plaque and the tribute.

She also recalled that when the square was dedicated to Pius XII in 1950, the City of Rome esteemed him with the following words: «Regarding the work accomplished by Pius XII during the world conflict, the saving of the city of Rome, and also to record the solemn and spontaneous manifestation of filial gratitude given to Pius XII by the Roman people whom
they called ‘Defensor Civitatis’ (defender of the city), the Municipality of Rome unanimously deliberated that this piazza should be called Pius XII.» 

The words of gratitude are another example of how much the wartime Pope was revered before his reputation was purposely muddied — mainly by Soviet communists — after his death in 1958.

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at:

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