The Abbey of Santa Maria de Pomposa
Rising out of the vast flat agricultural fields and wetlands of the very large and ever-changing Po River delta, equidistant from Ravenna, Chioggia and Ferrara, yet only about six miles from the Mare Adriatico, the Abbazia di Santa Maria de Pomposa is – perhaps because of that relative isolation – an extraordinary survivor of more than 1400 years of turmoil and change, and an extraordinary exemplar of its time and still extant religion. In fact, the Abbey’s peak was in the mid-1100’s, beginning hundreds of years of decline, for the Po River outlets radically shifted their course over decades of Spring floods, ruining the soil due to incursions of brackish Lagoon waters and the spread of malaria in the wetlands.
The Abbey was abandoned in 1671.
Eventually, health and environment improved to the extent that private agriculture again flourished in this part of the Delta. In the 19th Century, the property was acquired by the State and, with its immense value recognized, restoration has continued to this day.
Although much of the highly detailed brick complex as seen at its greatest is still, and will likely ever remain, in ruin, the great abbey church and its atrium (designed by Mazulo), the soaring campanile (designed by Deusdedis in 1063), much of one cloister, the great refectory, the capitular hall, various support spaces, and the courthouse remain and were restored, to be observed and its peak Romanesque design pondered in our time.
Wise stewards have not allowed “modern” development to encroach on this marvelous place. Parts of the original 800’s church and surrounds are still very visible, as is the expansion supervised by St. Guido during his abbacy from 1006 to 1046 A.D. The campanile, designed by Deusdedis, was begun in 1063 (historical detail sources: the Abbey Museum; Di Francesco, Carla, “Pomposa – History and Art of the Abbey”, Italcards, Bologna, n.d.,; and simple observation, including noting that Deusdedis “signed” the Campanile!).
Sadly, but apparently necessarily to prevent collapse, the 19th Century “stabilization” project inserted a series of walls dividing the atrium and dividing the side aisles of the church itself, so that the original vast open 2-aisle Basilica design is compromised. Beyond that…
What remains is what was there in 1046
Inside, flawlessly executed marble mosaic floor inlays abound, often overlooked because of the compelling, cycle of painted frescoes encircling the church on two and sometimes three levels above. These are the stories of the Bible, and those who have studied the Bible can quickly recognize almost all of the stories by name! Our reaction was, after a while, “Of course!!!” In an era of laboriously copied scrolls, and even into an era of increasing book publishing late in the Abbey’s active life, the populace possessed few books. A visit to the Abbey, or contemplative study and worship by the monks, would readily use the frescoes to share – to “read” the pictures in order or by subject, Old and New Testament, to bring to life and word the key Biblical stories, from Adam and Eve to the Ascension of Christ.
There are also frescoed scenes from the lives (and martyrdoms) of early Saints that were studied – and sometimes emulated (even if against their will) by the monks of Pomposa. As is not uncommon in a major church of this era, the inside wall of the front entrance, known as a “counter façade” – visible when standing with one’s back to the apse and high altar (and it is truly a “high” altar here…) – displays a huge frescoe of the Day of Judgment at the Second Coming of Christ. Pomposa’s “The Last Judgment” is equal in its frescoed glory and sobering detail to the phenomenal mosaic “The Last Judgment” in Santa Maria della Assunta on the island of Torcello in the Venetian Lagoon. You may ask, “How many frescoed scenes grace the Abbey?” There are fifty-nine on the Nave walls alone, plus many more in the apse including its walls and semi-dome, the counter façade, on buttresses and columns, headers and arches, plus literally hundreds of meaningful symbols. You have to read the book!
As to what remains of , well, the remains, an extensive collection of the most meaningful of them slumbering in the major Dormitory in the surviving cloister, in an extremely well-curated set of at least 176 displays. It is a very, very large Dormitory! The adjoining Capitular Hall is also fully frescoed The Refrectory displays the remarkable “new” 14th Century frescoes, covering the “old ” frescoes in the large room. What a loss this seems, but every house would best receive a fresh coat of paint every 300 years or so… The final building remaining is the Court House. In the feudal system extant during most of the Abbey’s active life, the Abbot administered justice over a fairly substantial territory assigned to it. Exterior decorative elements originally attached to the exterior disappeared over the centuries, but the basic structure is original, and appears quite “modern” today despite its more than 900 year existence.
Pomposa was a Benedictine community, believed to have been founded in the Seventh Century, eventually certified by Pope John VIII as being directly under Rome’s jurisdiction, but later declared it royal and independent by Holy Roman Emperor Otto III … an unexplained oxymoron – but when you are the Emperor…
Pomposa is one of the most remarkable places
in all of Post-Roman Empire Europe.