The Benedictine Abbey of Nonantola, just outside Modena, was one of the most prestigious and powerful in medieval Italy. Founded in 752 by the Lombard King Aistulf’s brother-in-law the abbot St Anselm, the richly endowed abbey soon became one of the greatest landowners in northern Italy. Emperors courted it and granted it favours. In the 9th century, two of its abbots served as Imperial ambassadors to Constantinople.
In 900 the invading Hungarians levelled the monastery and slew all the monks they could find. It was quickly rebuilt and became renowned for its scriptorium. In 1058, the abbot Gotescalco wrote a charter, donating 760 hectares of farm land surrounding the abbey to local families to be passed down in perpetuity from father to son in exchange for building walls and defending the monastery from attackers. The Partecipanza Agraria (Agricultural Attendance) as it's known, survives to this day (along with several others around Emilia), although much of the land once drained by canals has reverted to wetlands, now protected as the Oasi di Riequilibrio Ecologico di Torrazzuolo.
The monastery was rebuilt for the last time in the 12th century, when it became embroiled in the momentous Investiture Conflict over who had the power to appoint bishops, the popes or the emperors. Nonantola supported the emperors until Countess Matilda intervened and pressured the abbot to side with the pope. For good measure, one of the monks, Placidus, wrote the classic De honore Ecclesiæ defending the papal position in 1111.
In the 15th century Nonantola became a commendatory abbot, its rents going to an absentee cleric; two of the best known ones were Giuliano Della Rovere (later Pope Julius II) and St Charles Borromeo. It declined until Pope Clement XIII suppressed it in 1768; it became a monastery again in 1821 for a few decades and today belongs to the Italian state. Since 1986 the basilica has served as the co-cathedral of the Modena diocese. It was damaged in the 2012 earthquake, but reopened in May 2015.
The Basilica di San Silvestro
The large red brick Romanesque basilica is dedicated to and contains relics of the 4th-century St Sylvester, who served as pope under Constantine. The great portal retains its beautiful, vigorous reliefs by the workshop of Wiligelmo: panels on the left tell the history of the monastery, while those on the right are on the story of Christ. Wiligelmo may well have sculpted the figures of Christ, two angels and symbols of the Evangelists in the lunette over the door.
Inside the basilica is austere, the eye drawn to the presbytery raised high over the beautiful crypt, supported by a forest of 64 columns, half of them with carved capitals, dating from the 9th to the 11th century. No fewer than seven saints are buried underneath the high altar: St Sylvester, the founder St Anselm (d. 3 March 803), Pope St Adrian III, who died here in 885; the virgin saints Fusca and Anseris; the martyrs SS Theopontus and Senesius. The altar is decorated with 16th-century panels on the Life of St Sylvester by Giacomo Silla de’ Longhi.
More Lombard columns and capitals adorn the three majestic apses, along with blind arches and pilasters and a twin lancet window, echoing the façade.
Nearby is the Palazzo Abbaziale, housing the Archives, Library and the Museo Diocesiano, with a sumptuous collection of 11th and 12th medieval reliquaries, including an 11th-century Byzantine reliquary of the Cross, depicting Constantine and his mother Helen, along with a selection of manuscripts and rare books such as the Graduale, an 11th-century collection of Gregorian chant. The 4500 parchments preserved in the library go back to 751, and post signatures by Charlemagne, Countess Matilda of Canossa and Frederick Barbarossa.
During the Second World War, the town of Nonantola hid 73 Jewish children and helped them escape to Switzerland, and was awarded a Cross of War Medal.
Nonantola is 10 km NE of Modena on the SP255
Hours Mon-Fri 10am-1pm and 2-6pm, Sat and Sun 10am-6pm. Shorter hours possible in winter; check the website.
+39 059 549025
Images by: Sailko, GNU Free Documentation License