Pomposa Abbey in Emilia Romagna
Imagine a landscape of low, deserted lands, interspersed with expanses of water only apparently stagnant, but in reality quivering with life.
Now imagine a dense network of canals and rivers with a slow and peaceful course. Watercourses always ready to become protagonists of terrible events and ready to return the laboriously reclaimed lands to water.
This is the Po Delta, the only delta existing in Italy and one of the largest national reserves of wetlands with access to the sea without barriers.
And also the site of one of the most important ecclesiastical complexes in all of Northern Italy and a small jewel of medieval art: the Abbey of Pomposa.
Pomposa: A Jewel in the Po Delta
The Po Delta, today crossed by the SS309 Romea Road that connects Ravenna and Venice, was once instead crossed by the Popilia, the ancient pilgrim route that connected Rome with Eastern Europe. Along this road, in the seventh century, perhaps already in the sixth, stood Pomposa, an abbey founded by the Benedictine monks who moved from Cassino to evangelize Europe.
The history of this complex begins in the 6th-7th century with the settlement of the monks in Insula Pomposia, a wooded island located between two branches of the river Po, protected by the sea.
But it is thanks to the arrival of San Guido degli Strambiati as abbot of Pomposa in the year 1000 that the richest period began for the abbey, place also frequented by important figures such as Saint Peter Damian and Dante Alighieri.
The Abbey of Pomposa: history
Today’s Pomposa, consisting of a church, bell tower, some rooms of the Convent, the Palazzo della Ragione, represents only a small part of a monastery that was very large and powerful in the Middle Ages, a reference point for history and culture, a most important centre of spirituality.
Historians trace the origin of the monks’ settlement in Pomposa to the 6th – 7th century, when the healthy and wooded place, enclosed between the sea, favoured meditation and work, the main rules of the Benedictine Order.
In Pomposa, Benedict’s followers devoted themselves to prayer, study, meditation, work; occupations summarized in the famous ‘Ora et Labora‘.
The first written news about Pomposa, however, dates back to 874 and concerns a jurisdictional dispute between the Bishop of Ravenna and the Papacy. In 10th century numerous acts testify to the vitality of the monastery, which nevertheless reached total independence both from S. Salvatore di Pavia and from Ravenna in 1001, by agreement between the Pope, Sylvester II, and the Emperor Otto III.
The first half of the 11th century, and in particular with the arrival of the abbot of S. Guido degli Strambiati (1008 – 1046), marks the period of maximum splendour of the Pomposian monastery. In the same period, here lived Guido d’Arezzo, a monk to whom we owe the “invention” of musical writing still in use today, based on the hexachord.
Donations and privileges increased Pomposa economic power also in the neighbouring areas of Romagna and Veneto. At the beginning of the 14th century the Abbey, albeit already in full crisis, possessed 49 churches scattered throughout the various dioceses of central and northern Italy.
The Benedictine monks with their care and dedication kept and preserved many ancient volumes that managed to arrive intact to our days. Pomposa, at that time, could boast one of the most well-stocked and illustrious libraries in the known world, which the monks preserved with love by copying the texts.
But the Po, which had turned it into a happy island, will be its ruin too. Starting with the flooding of the Po in Ficarolo (1152), in fact, the territory of the island of Pomposa gradually became a swamp, the climate became unhealthy and cause of malaria, so much so that the convent was abandoned in 1553 by the monks who were transferred to the new convent of S. Benedetto of Ferrara.
Floods and swamps will lead to the slow but inexorable decline of the abbey whose end will arrive with the definitive removal of the Benedictines in 1671.
In recent decades, Pomposa, object of care and restoration, has returned to present itself to the world in all its beauty and does so with the impressive testimonies of its past.
The recovery of the Abbey was carried out by the Italian state starting from the end of the 19th century, when all the buildings were purchased by the state property and restored.
The institution of the Pomposian Museum dates back to 1976, which collects sculptural remains and works of art from the history of the Abbey in the large room of the former dormitory of the monks.
ABBEY OF POMPOSA: ARCHITECTURE
Visiting the Abbey of Pomposa means crossing the threshold of an architecture rich in history.
The Bell Tower of Pomposa
Arriving in this place full of history and artistic beauty, the first thing that will strike you will certainly be the bell tower: 48 meters high, erected towards the middle of the year 1000 by an architect called Deusdedit.
It is divided into nine modules, overlooked by mullioned windows; between the red and yellow bricks there are set of ceramics from various Mediterranean countries.
The Chapter Hall and the Refectory
The Chapter Hall was entirely frescoed in the 14th century; you can admire the Crucifixion, the portraits of San Benedetto and San Guido and some portraits of Prophets.
In the nearby Sala del Refettorio there are three frescoes: the Last Supper; Christ enthroned with the Virgin, St. John the Baptist and Saints Benedetto and Guido and the Miracle of San Guido.
The church of Saint Mary
Pearl of Roman-Byzantine art, the church is enriched by a sumptuous atrium decorated with marble, columns and even bas-reliefs of animals and symbols, all made in the period of full economic expansion of the abbey.
Entering this place you are immediately captivated by the beauty: the panorama that opens up before your eyes is gorgeous.
The church is preceded by a decorated portico; built between the eighth and ninth centuries, it has the appearance of a late-Ravenna type basilica. It is an extremely simple Romanesque church, structured with three naves divided by a Corinthian-style colonnade of white marble.
The most beautiful part of the church is the floor covered with mosaics. Thousands of tiles of the most different colours are expertly combined to create “angular” geometric patterns and more “curved” and light shapes that together will form beautiful abstract motifs for the flooring.
But if the floor is so spectacular, the frescoes on the walls are also striking. Perfectly preserved, the 14th-century frescoes in the abbey depict biblical scenes from the Old Testament, New Testament and the Apocalypse.
In the apse you can admire the fresco Christ in glory surrounded by angels, saints and the Virgin, the work of Vitale da Bologna in 1351. All the walls of the central nave are covered with frescoes, while in the internal wall of the facade you can admire the Universal Judgment.
Palazzo Della Ragione
The Palazzo della Ragione, built around the 4th century, has the facade facing the church of Santa Maria; a double loggia of Romanesque architecture in a truly splendid Venetian area.
The lower loggia, formed by eight arches, has columns with the bases of the capitals coming from other Ravenna buildings.
The upper loggia, which was reopened after the reconstruction of the building, is composed of 25 arches interspersed with brick pillars. Originally the façade was also decorated with ceramics like those of the bell tower but during the reconstruction they were replaced.
Museum of Pomposa
The dormitory has now become the Pomposian Museum and it houses legacies of the original architecture, finds from the excavations and restorations of the inside of the church, majolica and precious memories of great historical value. All the pieces exhibited in the museum have made a significant contribution to the reconstruction of the past regarding the Abbey.
The Abbey of Pomposa was included in 1999 in the Unesco World Heritage within the section “Ferrara, city of the Renaissance, and its Po Delta” and you can easily understand the reason for which this recognition was granted given the innumerable charm and peculiarity that will then leave visitor breathless.
Who was Guido D’Arezzo?
In the year 1000 a really important monk was present in the abbey: Guido d’Arezzo. If the name does not sound familiar to you, think of musical notes, since we owe their invention to him.
Guido d’Arezzo noticed the difficulty that the monks had in learning and remembering the chants of the Gregorian tradition and the rhythm of music. To solve this problem, he devised and adopted a completely new teaching method and named the notes using the initial syllables of the verses of the hymn to St. John the Baptist by Paul the Deacon.
Information and Services
– Open: From Tuesday to Sunday from 8.30 to 18.45 (last admission).
– On Sundays the Church of Santa Maria opens at 12.20
– Tickets: Full € 5.00 (Sunday 3.00) – Reduced € 2.00 (from 18 to 25 years) – Free up to 18 years
-guided tours by reservation
How To Get There
The Abbey is located in Pomposa – SS 309 Romea
You can reach it by car from Ferrara along the Ferrara-Porto Garibaldi motorway link and taking the S.S. Romea 309 towards Venice for about 16 km.
If you want to go by train and bicycle you can take the train from Ferrara on the Ferrovie Padane line and get off at Codigoro which is 5 km away by bicycle