I had a free weekend in August so I was planning to book a few nights near the seaside in Puglia or southern Lazio. However, after discovering that nearly all the hotels along the coast were booked up or charging extortionate prices, I decided to turn inland and search for a place that would be quieter at this time of year.
I chose southern Italy and opted for Benevento, as I had heard there was a church there connected to the UNESCO World Heritage group: Longobards in Italy: Places of Power, some of which I’d already seen in Spoleto. I was also fascinated by the ancient history of the town, which held a strategic position on the Old Appian Way leading to Rome and was the site of a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Iside (Isis). Furthermore there are some interesting legends about witches who lived here in the Middle Ages.
On my first morning, I headed straight for the Holy Wisdom Church, Santa Sofia, which is among a group of seven sites showcasing the architecture of the Longobard (or Lombard) Germanic tribe in Italy. It was originally built around 760 by Arechis II, Duke of Benevento, and served for a time as the national church of the Longobards. From the outside it is yellow and quite small.
Most of the facade is a result of restoration work after earthquakes in 1688 and 1702. But it is worth stopping to look at the 13th century golden mosaic above the door, with the bas-relief figures of Jesus, Mary, Saint Mercurius and a kneeling Gregory the abbot. Some relics claimed to be of Saint Mercurius were held in this site during the Lombard era, when he became one of the city’s chief saints due to heightened interest in Byzantine military saints (Source: Paul Oldfield, Sanctity and Pilgramage in Medieval Southern Italy 1000-1200)
The church used to be covered in frescoes painted in the eighth and ninth centuries, but only a few have survived, which can be seen in the side apses. These include scenes from the annunciation to Zechariah. According to the Bible, an angel appeared before a priest called Zechariah and told him that his wife Elizabeth would give birth to John the Baptist. Due to the couple’s old age, Zechariah reacted with disbelief and asked for a sign that the prediction was really true. The angel revealed himself as Gabriel and said that due to the priest’s doubt he would be struck dumb until after the birth of John. You can see Gabriel announcing the news in the first fresco below, and Zechariah, in the second picture, pointing to his mouth, perhaps to show he can’t speak in front of the worshippers. The other side apse contains some paintings depicting the life of Christ and Mary.
After this I wandered into the Museum of Samnium next door, which contains some fascinating artifacts from ancient times, including statues, wonderfully decorated vases, jewellery and funerary monuments. Inside here you can also visit the church’s 12th century cloister, which has to be the most beautiful cloister I have ever seen.
I spent ages looking at the different capitals on the top of each column. They all portrayed mythological or biblical characters, including hunting and banquet scenes, and strange animals and faces. Here are a few:
I had a wonderful experience in the Holy Wisdom Church and its cloister, and for most of the time I had the place to myself. The museum next to it was full of interesting and extremely old pieces, though there wasn’t much basic information provided to explain what each vase and object related to– instead I was told to come back in September when the Study Centre was open. Maybe I’ll do just that, as I found Benevento so fascinating that I’m planning more blogs on it soon!
For information on opening hours for Santa Sofia, click here
For more on the Museum of Samnium and the cloister, click here