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Pomposia
monasterium in Italia primum

Testo di Aniello Zamboni e Cesare Bornazzini

 

 

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A landscape of desert lowlands interrupted by stretches of water only seemingly stagnating, in reality throbbing with life.
It's a thick network of canals and rivers flowing slowly and gently, but always ready to star in terrible events that give back to water the lands that were so laboriously reclaimed.
Nowadays it's the Romea road joining Venice and Ravenna that runs through the PO delta; in the past it was the POPILIA, the ancient way of the pilgrims that put Rome in communication with Eastern Europe.
It was along this way, in the seventh century, perhaps already in the sixth that POMPOSA rose. It was the abbey built by the Benedictine monks moving from CASSINO to evangelize Europe.
The choice of the place where to build the monastery was a happy one.
It's an island, the Pomposiana island, delimited by the sea and two rivers, the PO di Goro and the Po di Volano, which lend the place a healthy climate and favour inland communications.
In Pomposa the followers of Benedict were dedicated to prayer, study, meditation and work, activities recalled in the famous saying "ORA ET LABORA".
The silence surrounding Pomposa was interrupted only in 874 by a letter from Pope John VIII mentioning St. Mary of Pomposa.
Rich evidence will follow, documenting the greatness of the monastery during the centuries, regarded as the most outstanding one in Italy during the abbacy of St. Guido, in the first decades of the year one thousand… MONASTERIUM IN ITALIA PRIMUM.
But the Po that made it a happy island also determined its fall.
Floods and growing swampiness will lead to the slow but inexorable fall of the abbey, which terminated with the final dismissing of the monks in 1671.
In the last decades, Pomposa has been the object of care and restoration, and now shows itself to the world once again with the imposing evidence of its past.

 

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The 50-m tall bell tower rises like a giant stem almost as if to represent the believer's yearning to the heavens.
The four faces are identical. The light tapering and the wisdom widening the openings while moving upwards lighten the imposing size of  the tower. Majestic and reddening, it dominates the adjacent valleys and the immense flatlands.
The memorial stone recalls the year of construction and the maker: "Master Deusdedit raised me in the year 1603".
Architecture and decoration coexist in the colonnade, just like in the tower.
The architecturally simple atrium is a masterpiece of lightness and decoration.
Terracotta friezes… recovery sculptures, symbolic animals… majolica, bas-reliefs, rosettes, brickwork ribbon-like fascias. The whole is set in an only seemingly casual way on a wall made with red and yellow bricks of different shape and tone.
The maker of such marvel is Master Muzulone.

 

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The church is divided into three naves and nine bays…
The two closest ones to the facade are rather larger than the others because they're the outcome of the widening completed in 1026 during the abbacy of St. Guido.
The admirable fresco paintings decorating the walls of the major nave have a single theme in common: the story of salvation divided in three parts: Old Testament, New Testament and the Apocalypse.
The Final Judgement can be seen in the internal facade. They're all works of art of the 14 century.
The folkish and realistic eloquence with which the events are represented is evident from the first panel of the Old Testament.
It starts with the temptation of Adam and Eve… the victory of the serpent, the Devil, and it closes with Elia's ascent to the heavens on a chariot of fire.
The frescoes' language is so immediate that that the words of St. Gregory the Great come to one's mind: "Painting performs for the ignorant persons the same function of writing. The uneducated see the examples to be followed in paintings, and the people who can't read manage to read them; the images are not placed in churches to be adored, but to educate."

 

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Even the facade bas-reliefs are there to be read… and they have one idea in common: man in its temporal and eternal dimension, and the fight between good and evil.
The union between eagle, lion and peacock symbolizes man in its earthly existence, composed of body (the lion) and soul (the eagle). The peacock, with its gem-packed feathers and its meat, considered incorruptible, represents the yearning for heavenly beatitude.
The sun and the moon represent the passing of time that revolves around the blessing hand of the Eternal Father.
In the cross on the right-hand side there's a lamb, the restorer of the heavenly kingdom.
In opposition to the crosses there's the dragon, the symbol of evil, and an animal that looks like a panther, the first beast of the Apocalypse.

 

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In the median line of the nave the episodes of the New Testament flow like a colour film.
The Annunciation is followed gradually by the narration of the Gospels, up to the descent of the Holy Ghost on Mary and the Apostles in the Cenacle.
Above the arches one finds the images of the Apocalypse: from John the Evangelist's dream up to the imprisonment of the ancient enemy, the serpent dragon… the Devil!
It's the tough and violent struggle of good against evil until the final victory of good.
The floor is a mosaic that extends like a carpet from the entrance to the altar, and leads one to raise his eyes to the apsidal semi-dome where the narration of the wall frescoes finishes, anticipated by the symbols of the facade.
This is where Vitale da Bologna placed the epilogue of human history.
Christ, sitting in the throne of his glory is enclosed in a mandorla with the colours of the rainbow and a sky scattered with stars. Around him, musician angels and the multitudes of the chosen ones.
The images impose themselves thanks to their intensity and the richness of the details, from Christ's harsh face to the distraction of the angels whose curiosity is arisen by the procession opened by the Virgin Mary with St. Benedict.
The Abbot Andrea is kneeling down. He ordered the work of art in 1351.
It's a representation of Heaven. This is confirmed by the words on the scroll held by the angel: "blissful are the eyes of those that see what you are looking at".
The narratives of St. Eustachio are on the base of the apse.
The face of Christ appeared one day in front of Eustachio, a Roman soldier, while he was hunting. The sight marked the soldier's life: he converted and was baptized with his wife Teopista and the two sons.
It looks like the beginning of a happy tale … but here came the pirates that pillaged his house and kidnapped his wife… a wolf captured one of his sons, while the other one was attacked by a lion.
Following these events Eustachio collapsed into desperate and anguished tears.
Twenty years later the unlucky persons miraculously met once again.
Tribulations seemed to have stopped, but… Eustachio refused to sacrifice to the gods and was therefore condemned to be torn to pieces by a lion, with his wife and sons.
But the beast dared not touch them, so the emperor ordered them to be closed in a white-hot bull.
The story, a painted tale, finishes with the depicting of the martyrs' face sweetness in the sleep of death and in the beatitude of their souls taken to the heavens by the angels.
S. Eustachio is considered all over Italy as the patron saint of the hunters, together with St. Hubert, but around Pomposa the folkish wisdom decided differently. In fact the saint is invoked to find lost things, and it is said that Eustachio never disappoints one's expectations.

 

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The Chapter House is in the courtyard, beside the church.
The beautiful brickwork portal and the two biforate windows underline the importance of this area where the chapter, the senate of the monastery, use to gather.
The wall in front is decorated with the Crucifixion, and the two apostles Peter and Paul are on the sides with Benedict and St. Guido.
The twelve prophets' monochromy contrasts the lively polychromy of the Crucifixion and the images of the Saints, to signify two separate periods: before and after the coming of the Messiah.

 

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Pomposa's economic power was great: an immense richness, distributed in many dioceses. It included salt-works, fishing valleys, woods, vineyards, grazing lands, crop lands.
The sign of this earthly power is the palace of the Law, in which the abbot ruled justice; in fact, either for imperial or ecclesiastic appointment, he was the highest political authority on the island.

 

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The monks used to have their meals in the refectory in absolute silence, the only sound being the voice of the monk appointed to read the sacred scriptures.
Recently recovered wide spaces offer a good evidence of the purely decorative paintings embellishing the walls.
In the bottom wall there are three beautiful paintings by Pietro da Rimini, dating back to the first decades of the fourteenth century.
The last supper…
The Redeemer between the Virgin Mary and the Baptist, Benedict and Guido.
The miracle shows St. Guido, abbot of Pomposa, giving hospitality to Gebeardo, the Archbishop of Ravenna; on that occasion he miraculously changed water into wine.
The representation of the characters' state of mind is admirable; it goes from Gebeardo's marvelled surprise to the astonishment of the three gentlemen composing his retinue… from the abbot saint's meditative calmness to the absorbed contemplation by the monks, in no way surprised by the event.

 

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Offended by time and refurbishment, this monk is the evidence of Pomposa's greatest richness: books!
Books that the monks carefully and lovingly gathered and kept, annotating, copying and decorating them with miniatures.
Books that gathered not only the word of God and the Fathers of the Church, but also the ancients' knowledge and spirit of life.
The true soul of Pomposa was and still is its cultural greatness, particularly the contribution to the birth of Humanism, which constitutes the beginning of modern civilization, Renaissance.
The library of Pomposa was extremely rich, and even Rome, the centre of the world, could not match it.
And here came the ancient devotees.
The Venetian pre-humanists Lovato Lovati and Albertino Mussato came to Pomposa to free the glorious fathers, Horace, Titus Livius, Seneca and Cicero, guests within the monastery walls, to give them to Petrarch, the father of Humanism.
But it wasn't only through books that Pomposa spoke with the world.
Within these walls everything pushes towards meditation and communication, like the bell tower that imposes itself even where the sound of its bells cannot be heard; in fact it has always been a reference point for the ships crossing the Adriatic, and for the people crossing the large stretch of land around it.
The man of today is a victim of the violence of sounds, lights, colours and images, which have a charm that is flattering yet deceptive.
Pomposa offers this man an invitation to silence, to give way to thought, listen to the voices of other men and nature and talk with them.
In the world of the Middle Ages that was said to be shrouded in darkness, Pomposa was the cinema, the television, the book, the newspaper with its animals, its stories, the miracles, the devils, the angels and the saints that were contemplated by monks and believers with ecstasy and pleasure.
And while eyes stopped to read the sacred scriptures on the paintings, mind started to imagine new skies and lands. Music filled the heart with joy, and the soul joined the choir of the angels.

 

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Yes, music! Because it was in Pomposa that Guido the monk invented the musical notes whose harmony accompanies the chant… "Just like the stars give way to day one after another, so the verses of the psalms come out of the monk's mouth one after another, like from a spring".
These are words by St. Pier Damiani; while talking with Dante in Paradise, he recalls with immense pleasure his stay in Pomposa, and calls it:
   THE HOUSE OF OUR LADY ON THE ADRIAN SEA
Dante, Paradise, XXI, 121-123

 

 

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