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Sant'Angelo in Formis

Sant'Angelo in Formis is the name of a section of the town of Capua in the province of Caserta, as well as the name of a well-known Benedictine abbey in the town. The abbey (pictured) is dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel and lies on the western slopes of Mt. Tifata about one km off the A3 autostrada to Rome. The abbey and church are built on the foundations of an ancient Etruscan-Italic temple from the beginnings of the 3rd century B.C. and dedicated to Diana, (Artemis in Greek, the goddess depicted as armed with quiver and bow, the protector of the young). The site was once called ad arcum Dianae ("near the Arch of Diana"). Indeed, the entire hillside, alive with spring water and oak trees, was consecrated to that deity. (The term in formis likely comes from a Latin word for aqueduct, forma, in reference to a local water source.) Parts of the ancient temple survive and were even restored in the 1st century B.C. Then, after the fall of the western Roman empire a church dedicated to the Archangel Michael was built on the site of the ancient temple by the Longobards during the 6th and 7th centuries. The abbey that you see today was built in the mid-11th century at the behest of Desiderius (1026-1087), the abbot of Montecassino (who was also responsible for rebuilding that famous abbey). The Sant'Angelo abbey is called in many sources one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in southern Italy.


The word “Romanesque” simply means “similar to Roman") and, indeed, one of the characteristics of this architecture is that it used Roman elements such as semi-circular arches. The style is often described as the first pan-European architectural style since Imperial Roman Architecture. That requires a comment. It's one thing to look at the beginnings of Roman construction and watch the flowering of the ideas
the very ideas!—of grand roads, aqueducts, tunnels, bridges, vaults, domes, arches, arenas and amphitheaters. At the height of the empire (around 200 AD) it was indeed possible to go from one end to the other, from the Atlantic Ocean to ancient Mesopotamia, from the North Sea to North Africa, and see all that construction in a uniform style—Imperial Roman Architecture, invented to be precisely that: Imperial! It is however quite another thing to watch it all crumble, in many cases physically picked to pieces by remnant cultures who could no longer even knew what they were tearing down in the search for some useful stones for the stable. So when we say that "Romanesque" architecture was pan-European, it's not that the new imperial builders of Charlemagne set out to manifest the culture of the Holy Roman Empire; they were using what was left of Roman architecture, small bits and pieces put together by those who only dimly recalled arches and the Five Orders of Architecture. Knowledge of such things sadly drained out of western Europe in the "dark ages." They were called dark for a reason; in 800 the architects of the new empire of Charlemagne were just picking up the pieces.

And Charlemagne's empire really didn't work out very well. It shattered into many pieces shortly after his death, some of which had architectural ideas of their own. The Muslim invasion of Spain, Sicily and parts of the southern Italian mainland, for example, had great influence on southern European architecture. Cultural knowledge survived in western monasteries and in Byzantium. (And was being rediscovered far away in the new Muslim cultural center of Baghdad.) Indeed, when Desiderius rebuilt the abbey of Montecassino, he employed a number of Greek artists and architects. As well, at Sant'Angelo in Formis there is great Byzantine influence in the artwork and mosaics on the premises, including the depiction of Christ Pantocrator (Omnipotent) (pictured). Perhaps all you can say is that Romanesque was the style of castles, churches and some domestic structures after Charlemagne and before the coming of early Humanism in the 12th century.