Fossanova Abbey, a jewel of Cistercian architecture
In the Agro Pontino stands one of the most important religious monuments of the Middle Ages, Fossanova Abbey, the first Cistercian monastic complex built in Italy. It is also the place where Thomas Aquinas died. Despite its troubled history, marked by periods of deterioration, looting and misuse, the abbey has reached the modern day relatively intact. Today, its church, thanks to its wonderful acoustics, hosts music concerts for the Pontine Festival.
Simplicity and strictness
Consecrated in 1208, Fossanova Abbey is the oldest example of a Cistercian monastic complex built in Italy. It is in the open countryside, south of Priverno (LT), on terraces sloping towards the Amaseno river. Monks from Clairvaux, France, probably suggested the canons to be followed in its construction, with the abbot strictly adhering to the Monastic Rule, which, following the indications of Bernard of Clairvaux, imposed an austere style, without frills or even artwork that might distract the monks from their duties.
Fossanova is one of the clearest examples of the simplicity and purity of form required by Cistercian religion, also displayed in the nearby Casamari Abbey in Verole (Frosinone).
Today, we can appreciate the plain lines of the church façade, made of travertine, with its beautiful entrance overlooked by a large rose window, simple and majestic just like the interior, with elegant cross vaults supported by pillars decorated by suspended half-pedestals.
The church houses the empty tomb of Thomas Aquinas, who died there in 1274: his body was moved to Toulouse at the end of the 14th century, when the abbey had fallen into disgrace.
Its centrepiece is the beautiful cloister, with small arches supported by smooth double columns: among the four sides, three are Romanesque, while the fourth, built later, is Gothic. The cloister is surrounded by the refectory, the dormitory, the chapter house, a pilgrim guesthouse, the infirmary and a small cemetery.
The decline of a hard-working community
For at least two centuries, Fossanova was a hard-working community and place of learning. By the 15th century, it began to decline when it was entrusted to commendatory abbots, who cared little about its management. Napoleon's troops looted it, then closed it down, appropriating most of its property, including the historical archive.
Later, the structure was even used as a buffalo enclosure until, when it was sold to a Borghese prince, it witnessed the succession of various religious orders. Today, it is run by the Religious Family of the Incarnate Word.
The tumultuous history of the abbey is documented in the museum located in the guest quarters – a large building that mirrors the design of the church, illustrating the construction phases of the complex and the daily life of the monks. A second section of the museum is located in the municipality of Priverno, at Palazzo Valeriani-Guarini.