Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.09.10

Elizabeth Fentress, Caroline J. Goodson, Margaret L. Laird, Stephanie C. Leone, Walls and Memory. The Abbey of San Sebastiano at Alatri (Lazio) from Late Roman Monastery to Renaissance Villa and Beyond. Disciplina Monastica 2.   Turnhout:  Brepols, 2005.  Pp. v, 445; b/w ills. 132, color ill. 15, b/w line art 3.  ISBN 2-503-51577-0.  €90.00.  

Reviewed by Hendrik Dey, American Academy in Rome (
Word count: 3080 words

This substantial volume is the product of several seasons of intensive study devoted to the abbey of San Sebastiano, located some forty miles southeast of Rome near the modern town of Frosinone. The project was coordinated by the four editors (and principal contributing authors) of the book, who have produced a 'total history' of the site from its origins to the present, based on a minute examination of all standing remains of the abbey, complemented by limited excavations on site, archaeological and topographical survey of the surrounding area, and archival research. The result is an integrated picture of the abbey and the economic hinterland that sustained it over the longue durée. But why the choice of this small and rather remote site for such exhaustive attention? In part, it is valuable precisely for its mediocrity, as several of the contributors to the volume suggest: in its modest size and wealth, and its relative anonymity, San Sebastiano is an eminently 'average' place more representative of hundreds of other abbeys sprinkled across medieval Italy than the grander, more celebrated and better-connected foundations like Farfa, Bobbio, Nonantola and San Vincenzo al Volturno which have understandably received the lion's share of scholarly attention. In one respect, however, San Sebastiano is potentially exceptional. If Fentress et al. are right, it preserves the outlines of its original, sixth-century phase substantially intact, which would make it the oldest monastery in Italy with documented physical remains, and one of the oldest in the world.

The volume is divided into four sections. Section I is a brief introduction to the goals of the project, its relationship to the few existing studies of the abbey, and its methodological approaches. The editors stress their effort to apply a rigorously 'scientific' approach inspired by the principles of field archaeology to their architectural analysis. The various phases of construction were treated as stratigraphic units with definite chronological relationships to one another (a section of wall is either bonded with another, and thus contemporary with it; or 'under' it and thus earlier, and so on), in order first to establish a relative chronology for the structure in its entirety, and then to attach absolute dates and some historical context to its various components, wherever permitted either by comparative and typological analysis of extant remains, or by the indications of written sources.

The second section, devoted to 'the building history' of the abbey, is much the most extensive. The arrangement of material is broadly chronological, with groups of one or more contributions arranged into four successive phases. The first phase, 'The Sixth-Century Abbey,' is covered in a single contribution by E. Fentress, who begins by addressing the literary and documentary evidence for connecting the site of S. Sebastiano with the monastery founded in the 520s by the Prefect of Gaul, Liberius, under the tutelage of the deacon Servandus, its first abbot. In addition to several passages in the Dialogues and Letters of Gregory the Great which would fit well with the site of San Sebastiano, there is a reused medieval inscription incorporated into the altar of the monastery church which invokes the blessing of 'saint' Servandus. As Servandus was never in fact canonized, and was a figure of purely local renown (the only other Servandus known, an obscure Spanish martyr killed in Cadiz in 305, is surely not the subject of the dedication), the association of his name with San Sebastiano in the Middle Ages is highly suggestive. All told, the evidence for identifying San Sebastiano with the abbey of Liberius and Servandus is compelling, albeit not entirely conclusive, as F. acknowledges.

The second part of the chapter is devoted to the physical contours of the monastery in its earliest phase, which is confidently asserted to be of sixth-century date. The exceptional importance of this claim warrants comment in some detail, some of an unavoidably technical nature. Though the detailed examination of the structure executed by F. et al. leaves little doubt about the relative antiquity of the primitive nucleus they identify, the evidence for its dating is more problematic. Archaeological indicators are totally lacking, as the test trenches dug in the monastery turned up almost no materials of any period before the fifteenth century, when the site seems to have been cleared down to bedrock during an extensive campaign of rebuilding. This leaves the type of masonry employed in the standing remains as the primary chronological index. According to F.,

'The complex was built entirely of uncoursed, mortared rubble, constructed within formwork using an exceptionally hard mortar...Rows of putlog holes at intervals of ca 0.8 m must refer to the shuttering within which the mortar was poured, rather than scaffolding holes, as the interval between them is too small to allow a builder to stand up...the technique, a true opus caementicium not found after the late antique period, is very different from any of the medieval walls, whose masonry is inevitably coursed, however roughly.'
Yet the contention that the walls in question (shown rather hazily in figs. 7, 13, and 17; I have been able to examine them in person thanks to the kindness of the author) were built by pouring a liquid concrete aggregate into wooden formwork is wholly untenable. The walls are, in the first place, faced with irregular blocks of stone. There is no hint that wooden formwork was used anywhere in their construction, as indeed it almost never was for standing walls in antiquity or the Middle Ages (the use of unfaced opus caementicium poured into wooden forms was confined almost entirely to foundations and vaults). Further, the idea that Roman walls could be made in 'uncoursed rubble' while their medieval successors were 'inevitably coursed' is pure illusion. Medieval and Roman walls alike were generally erected by pouring a more or less liquid form of mortar mixed with rubble--a 'true' opus caementicium--into the void left between two facings built of mortared courses of bricks or stones, which could come in an infinite variety of shapes, sizes and finishes, from the perfect squares of classical opus reticulatum to the jagged lumps used at San Sebastiano.1 Regular rows of holes in standing walls should always be interpreted as putlog holes used to anchor the scaffolding on which the masons stood as the wall rose successively higher; in the early Middle Ages, when small, irregular branches were often used for scaffolding, a spacing of less than a meter between horizontal courses was often necessary to ensure stability--one simply stepped up to the next level to continue building as the height of the wall increased. Finally, the contention that opus caementicium--an aggregate of mortar mixed with rubble, in other words--ceased to be used in the medieval period is simply incorrect. Concrete construction never went out of use in medieval Lazio, and it features prominently in the later medieval phases of the abbey itself, as S. Leone in fact notes at p. 196. A last bit of evidence used to support the sixth-century dating is a cistern, lined with waterproof cement comprised of mortar mixed with crushed fragments of ceramic (opus signinum or cocciopesto), which abuts part of the south wall of the original complex, which it must thus postdate. This is said to be 'a true opus signinum,' and thus to place the wall it coats 'firmly before the seventh century.' Yet waterproof cement made with crushed tile--I cannot imagine what else a 'true' opus signinum might be--continued to be used in Italy and beyond throughout the Middle Ages. F. indeed mentions a refectory floor in opus signinum at the monastery founded by Benedict Biscop at Jarrow in 682; closer to San Sebastiano, we might cite two cisterns built ca. 1000 at Cosa, both lined in waterproof cement.2 Hence, while the earliest sections of the abbey may indeed belong to the sixth century, the evidence marshaled by F. is to my mind insufficient to rule out a date anywhere within the ensuing half-millennium, more or less.

This 'high' chronology compels C. Bruzelius and C. Goodson, the authors of the following chapter on the medieval phases at San Sebastiano, to maintain that surprisingly little happened at the abbey for some five centuries after its construction. With the exception of a single new wall, the contours of the original complex apparently remained unchanged until it was substantially enlarged and reconfigured in a style which B. and G. are inclined to place in the twelfth century. Thereafter, frequent modifications and additions continued to be made over the course of the following centuries. Though the task of attaching firm dates to the sequence of building phases identified in the architectural study is complicated by a continued scarcity of documentary evidence, B. and G. convincingly sketch the broad outlines of a flourishing period in the history of the abbey, marked by substantial new construction on both sides of the watershed date of 1233, when San Sebastiano passed into the hands of the Clarissas, the female branch of the Franciscan order better known in English as the 'poor Clares.'

Some fifty years after moving in, these nuns (or their patrons) commissioned a new cycle of frescoes in the monastery church and their adjacent private oratory, which S. Romano examines in the following chapter. Adducing numerous central-Italian comparanda, R. concludes that the frescoes in both church and oratory were executed in a single campaign in the 1280s, and posits a 'clear Umbrian connection' evident in both style and subject matter; she notes a particular affinity between several of the images at San Sebastiano and exemplars in the lower basilica of St. Francis at Assisi. More perplexing for R. is the general character of the imagery (biblical scenes featuring episodes from the lives of Mary and above all Jesus, representations of locally prominent saints and martyrs, etc.), in which R. detects a striking indifference to female themes in general, and to Franciscan iconography in particular. In two depictions of the Dormition and Assumption of Mary, R. sees what 'may be the only instance in which the female community of the abbey expressed its preferences,' an observation which leads her to interesting reflections on the theme of patronage and power in the Clarissan abbey.

Probably at some point in the fourteenth century, additional 'devotional paintings,' portraits of Christ, John the Baptist and various unidentified saints, were added to some of the lower walls of the Church and oratory. These are the subject of a brief contribution by C. Goodson, who focuses on questions of function and patronage: though clearly commissioned by nuns (who occasionally appear in miniature in the margins of the panels as dedicators), several occur in what is assumed to be the public section of the church, which G. thinks cloistered nuns would have been unable to enter. I am not entirely convinced, however, that the sisters would not at certain times have been able to cross the threshold from their oratory into the church proper, in which case the eagerness of the 'nun patronesses' to embellish it with their commissions would perhaps seem less remarkable.

The following chapter by A. Manfredi returns to the history of the abbey as a whole, which resumes at the point where it was taken from the Clarissan sisters in 1441 and a decade later given in commenda by Pope Nicholas V to his friend Giovanni Tortelli, humanist scholar and the first librarian of the new library founded by the same pope at the Vatican. Making extensive use of original documents housed in the Vatican Libraries (where he is employed), M. draws a compelling portrait of the man who extensively rebuilt the old abbey, transforming it into an early example of the rural villa-retreat so favored by later generations of humanists in their pursuit of cultured leisure. It was a pivotal moment in the history of San Sebastiano, which would never again house a resident monastic community.

The remodeling of the abbey into Tortelli's private residence is discussed in greater depth in the following chapter by S. Leone, who places the reconstructed abbey in the context of broader currents in early-Renaissance secular architecture, which the supremely cultured and well-traveled Tortelli was admirably placed to absorb. Tortelli's San Sebastiano is revealed as an early exemplar of a new ethos in the treatment of domestic space, which incorporated elements of both the rural villa and the urban palace that would fully come into their own as distinct building types in the sixteenth century. The author's further inclination to treat San Sebastiano as a microcosmic embodiment of a profound and universal shift from the religious to the secular, from monasticism to humanism, however, seems occasionally overstated and oversimplified. Pronouncements like 'by about 1500 the villa was well on its way to replacing the monastery as the centre of contemplative life in Italy... ' invite reflection on where a 'center of contemplative life' in general might be imagined to reside, and about how hundreds of flourishing Italian monasteries and their thousands of residents suddenly became extraneous to it. And why, if 'the survival of the abbey's medieval monastic character is surely an unwitting byproduct of adaptation' (p. 220) are we 'encouraged to think that Tortelli indeed manifested an awareness of and even reverence for S. Sebastiano's earliest past' (p. 223) in his reconstruction?

The last two chapters of the section focus on the more recent history of San Sebastiano. S. Leone picks up where she left off in the preceding chapter, and traces the passage of the property into the hands of the Pamphili family in 1653 (by bequest of the Pamphili pope Innocent X), who subsequently used it as a revenue-producing estate until selling it off in the nineteenth century. Finally, M. Rossi addresses the elaborate medievalizing renovations undertaken in the first half of the twentieth century by the owner of the site, Romolo Giralico. In addition to altering significantly the aspect of the complex and potentially confounding modern observers with medievalizing 'fakes,' Giralico's interventions eloquently testify to the spirit of the aesthetic movement that inspired them.

The third section consists of a single, lengthy analysis by M. Laird of the landholdings of the abbey, from its beginnings through the nineteenth century. L. relies heavily on the 'regressive method' championed in recent years by J. Coste, which advocates the use of later toponyms, property boundaries, etc. to reconstruct the contours of more ancient landscapes. Methodological quibbles aside, L. marshals an impressive amount of archival evidence (deeds of sale and lease, inventories, maps and plans) from the medieval and modern periods in her attempted reconstruction of the composition and extent of the abbey's landholdings. The general picture is of a physical patrimony that grew slowly but steadily with the passage of time, with new acquisitions gradually swelling an existing nucleus that is assumed to have been donated by Liberius himself.

A general conclusion by E. Fentress follows, after which comes a lengthy series of appendices where the textual and especially the archaeological data produced over the course of the San Sebastiano project are presented in detail.

On the whole, the contributors succeed in producing a comprehensive overview that is as readable as it is rich in information and descriptive detail. The diversity and varied expertise of its authors is surely one of the volume's great strengths, though it comes at the price of the occasional redundant or contradictory remark, as one might indeed expect when so many individuals are asked to produce an essentially unified narrative on a common theme. An unsettling range of opinion emerges, for example, on the not unimportant question of Benedictine observance at San Sebastiano. At p. 79, Bruzelius and Goodson propose to identify a 'chapter room, where each day a chapter of the Regula Benedicti was read and the daily tasks of the monks were assigned after Prime.' Perplexity creeps in when the same authors tell us 'it must be said again that we do not know if the Rule of Benedict was ever formally adopted at S. Sebastiano.' (p. 108) Serious confusion thus ensues when S. Leone subsequently declares at p. 227 that 'the history of the Abbey of S. Sebastiano since its founding by Liberius and Servandus has been punctuated by moments of fundamental change, beginning with the arrival of the Benedictine monks and followed by its transfer to the Clarissas.'

Other quibbles are of a more isolated nature: at p. 265, Gregory's statement that Liberius endowed an abbey occurs in the Dialogues, not the Letters (the passage is correctly cited in the corresponding note, however); at p. 269, a nonexistent connection is implied between Totila's rampage through Alatri in the 540s and a letter written by Gregory I a half-century later in response to the petition of Abbot Theodosius for aid in manning the walls of his monastery; further, the passage in Gregory's letters is erroneously cited in note 61 as 9.73 in Norberg's edition, instead of 9.163, while the passage at Dialogues 3.18 cited alongside it has nothing to do with S. Sebastiano or Alatri. There is a light sprinkling of proofreading errors throughout, particularly in Latin passages (read: praestantissimam for paestantissimam at 158; deliberatione for delineratione at 169; istic for istc at 179; mdcccii for dmcccii at 237), and occasional minor orthographical slips with Italian terms (read: geometra for geometro at 254; stemmi for stemme at 307). The reduplication of figs. 20-21, a two-page plan of the abbey in building phase 8 (at pp. 192-93 and 232-33) would be strange indeed if intentional.

For the quality and exhaustiveness of its architectural documentation alone, the study of Fentress et. al. will long remain the standard reference work on the topography of S. Sebastiano, and a valuable addition to the shelf of anyone interested in the growing field of scholarship on 'monastic space.' Moreover, it is in many respects a model for what an architectural publication should be, with its detailed recording and diagramming of all standing remains, its diachronic focus and its 'archaeological' emphasis on establishing chronological relationships between all building phases and 'structural stratigraphic units,' as well as its success in placing the principal subject within its broader spatial and environmental contexts. The interpretation of the extant remains is a different and still more complex matter, on which the final word has not yet, I think, been said. While the authors have among them made great strides toward illustrating the long historical parabola traced by S. Sebastiano, further work will be necessary to prove that its unprepossessing walls preserve the standing nucleus of the earliest archaeologically documented monastery in Italy.


1.   See the description of opus incertum in Vitruvius (De arch. II, 8, 1-2); a glance at any of the better modern surveys of Roman construction should dispel the notion that Roman wall-facings were somehow uncoursed (inserted or poured within frameworks instead of being built up as freestanding structures with alternating layers of building materials and mortar), as was occasionally claimed in studies predating the mid-twentieth century. See, e.g., J.-P. Adam, La construction romaine (Paris, 1984), 85-90; G. Lugli, La tecnica edilizia romana (Rome, 1957), esp. 445-6.
2.   See M. Hobart, 'Cosa-Ansedonia (Orbetello) in età medievale. Rapporto preliminare: da una città romana ad un'insediamento medievale sparso,' Archeologia Medievale 22 (1995), 569-83, at 572-4.

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