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The Apulian Romanesque of Ruvo di Puglia

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta overlooks an elegant square of of the historical centre of Ruvo di Puglia. An elegant cicular rose window enriches the facade, which seems to rush towards the sky. Below, the extraordinary Apulian Romanesque portals invite tourists to find the mystical quiet which is possible to perceive inside the building. Approached to the southern side, there is the geometrical bell tower, a characteristic point of reference of the small town. From there, the architectural and cultural reconstruction of the whole village originated.

Apulian Romanesque
The Apulian Romanesque Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Ruvo di Puglia.

Ruvo di Puglia, introduction and historical context 

Together with several Apulian towns, Ruvo di Puglia has lived centuries of uncertainty and, sometimes, devastation. The Barbarian invasion by the Goths, who completely destroyed the Byzantine city, is still remembered. In 847 Ruvo became the military settlement of the Saracens. Only after the arrival of the Normans and the conquest by Ruggero d’Altavilla of the Apulia region, the village had a period of peace. Ruvo di Puglia needed a complete reconstruction, both architectural and for what regarding its cultural identity. At the half of the 12th century, some devastating war events had destroyed the remaining buildings. For these reasons, it was decided the construction of a new cathedral, which could have embed the Christian values and confered a new prestige to the historical centre.

Origin and reworks of the Cathedral

The events concerning the birth of the Cathedral are unknown. It is certain that it originated between the 12th and the 13th century, probably during the reign of Frederick II. Although there are not written historiographical sources, it is possible to deduce its origins from some details. Among them, a slab [1] preserved in the Cappella del Santissimo, which seems to attest that the building was erected by the will of Roberto II of Bassaville (count of Loretello and Conversano) and of the bishop Daniele. Some biographical researches have attested that, after the death of the latter in 1183, the Cathedral was not yet completed, since the remains of the bishop were buried in another church [2].

However, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta now appears completely different from the origin project. Historiographical sources demonstrate that it was reworked in the modern era; the relationes ad Limina Apostolorum by the bishop Gaspare Pasquali indicate the remaking of the altars. Particularly, in 1697 the new high altar was constructed, since the previous one was destroyed and substituted with a throne by the duke of Andria, Ettore Carafa.

Apulian Romanesque
High altar

Subsequent renovations 

Even the internal chapels had some renovations, in number and style. The bishop Giulio de Turris, in fact, affirmed that “the cathedral […] is now shining in more elegant forms” [3]. Effectively, a slab dated 1749, located on the right portion of the facade, attests the realization of the works. The addition of the chapels, aggregated along the right side of the building, created a problem of lateral asymmetry. Hence, it was decided to enlarge the facade of 2,4 meters for side, in order to define a homogeneous prospect towards the square.

On a side of the Cathedral it is possible to clearly see the enlargement of the facade

However, the added chapels were demolished during the 20th century restorations, which wanted to lead the church to its original Apulian Romanesque splendor. To this end, the original space was rebuilt by the redefinition of the ancient perimeter wall. Still today, in a narrow gap along the right side, accessible through a hypogeum, it is possible to observe traces of the original pictorial cycles.

Ruvo di Puglia
Narrow gap which leads to the hypogeum, on the bottom there are still some remains of the wall paintings of the chapels

Stylistic decorations of the Apulian Romanesque building 

Exceptionally preserved thanks to the 20th century restorations, the Cathedral of Ruvo di Puglia is an extraordinary example of the Apulian Romanesque. The facade, which has some influences of the nascent Gothic, opens on three portals. These are flanked by four semi-columns, leaning against the wall, which had the role of supporting a portico never realized.

The roundabout main portal is extraordinary decorated with friezes and bas-reliefs. On the upper arch of the intrados there are representations of Christ, the Madonna and Saint John the Baptist, as well as the twelve apostles and some angels. Instead, the central arch is characterized by the presence of the Agnus Dei and the four evangelists. A decoration in the internal arch of the portal centrally represents two beautiful peacocks, figuration of Christ and the Eucharist. The central portal is flanked by two narrow columns resting on stone lions, which are supported by telamons, and ends with griffins. The keystone of the portal is crowned by an eagle. A recurrent motif in the building is the presence of hanging pensils, supported by carved shelves with zoomorphic, anthropomorphic figures and plant motifs.

Apulian Romanesque
The main portal

Detail of the facade 

The facade is exceptional, and the stylistic choice is observable along the salients. Surprising is the apical portion of the prospect, enriched with a wonderful rose window with twelve rays and the ancient figure of the sitting. It is a human figure seated on a throne, which in origin probably had to hold up a little model of the cathedral. This could be a representation of the lender of the Church. The figure, cloaked in a beltd tunic, could correspond to Roberto II of Bassaville [4]. Nonetheless, it could also represent Frederick II, who could have given the approval for the construction or financed the project.

Under the rose window there is a mullioned window with the figure of San Michele Arcangelo.

A statue of Jesus defines the peak of the facade.

Interior of the Cathedral of Ruvo di Puglia

Internally, the Cathedral has a Latin cross plan with three naves, separated by cruciform colums. The lateral ones are covered by cross vaults, whilst the central nave is surmounted by wooden trusses. Even the capitals of the colums are beautifully carved, reproducing phytoform and anthropo-zoomorphic figures, typical of the Apulian Romanesque. The spatiality of the internal spaces is accentuated by the correct use of the lights, which enter through trifore and mullioned windows, and evidences the beauty of the balcony along the central naves.

Ruvo di Puglia
View of the interior from the central portal

Bell tower

The bell tower is a preexisting element. It dates back to the Thousand year and originally had the function of a defensive tower. The fortified structure, survived to the 12th century devastation, was embedded into the nascent cathedral, with the addition of two floors [2].

Friezes and symbology

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta has not only an architectural and stylistic importance, but it is also rich of symbology. Several are the elements which recall the corpus of mystical and decorative symbols of the Romanesque and the Gothic.

The lion 

Among them, there is the figure of the lion. Symbol of Christ who watches over the Church, it is present also as a stone lion on the central portal and as a decorative prothyrus on the facade. In this sense, it has the ideal function of guardian of the building. The lion has also the apotropaic function of kick out of the Church the evil spirits. Moreover, it has also an admonishing function. It is figure of the Messiah and, then, of the God’s judgement: only the deserving man can access his house, terribilis est locus iste. 

One of the stone lions in the main portal

The eagle and the griffin 

Even the eagle is a figure of Christ, since it symbolyzes the celestial nature. The symbology of the animal is present in the Cathedral of Ruvo, on the archivolt of the central portal. Moreover, the symbolic and exegetic representations of the lion and the eagle blend with that of the griffin. Hence, this latter represent the double nature of Christ, the celestial and terrestial ones. The ancient symbology of the griffin is often readapted in the Medieval period in the context of the Christian teology. Nonetheless the figure, with an eagle’s head and the lion’s body, often had negative meaning. Sometimes, its feral nature identifies it with the devil. This is why the griffin is often found on the sides of the central portal. This is figuration of Christ who welcome and also the devil, confined externally as admonition against the sin.

Apulian Romanesque
Side view of the Apulian Romanesque central portal

The lamb

On the central portal, there are the friezes of the second arch, among which the figure of the Agnus Dei with the cross. The symbology of this animal dates back to the Early-Christian period, and has kept the original connotations until now. It is Christ, the lamb led to the slaughter of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 53,7), who sacrificed himself, without putting up any resistance, for the remission of the sins of humanity.

Apulian Romanesque
Details of the main portal, beautiful example of Apulian Romanesque

Wheel of Fortune of Ruvo

Below the mullioned window of San Michele Arcangelo, on the facade, there is a little group of sculptures, probably a reused element belonging to the previous cathedral. It could be a representation of the Wheel of Fortune. Effectively, the frieze opens centrally, as a rose window in miniature, by a circular element that mimics the petals of a flower of life. This lattes is wrapped by phytoforms motifs and, externally, is surrounded by a writing which says the verse of Matthew 11, 28: “Come to me, all of who are weary and burdened, and I will give the rest”. 

Ruvo di Puglia
Little rose window or Wheel of Fortune of Ruvo

All around, there are some recurrent figures relating to the symbology of the Wheel of Fortune. Below the central element there is a dragon, symbol of the devil and eternal perdition, which welcomes the soul of the ones who do not act according to the God’s will. On the opposite side, there is the figure of the Creator, although the sculpture seems to be damnaged. Finally, there are two angels on the sides.

Hypogeum of the Cathedral of Ruvo di Puglia

During the 19th century restoration works of the Cathedral (1935), it was needed to lower the walking surface of the transept and the naves. However, the works were inauspicious, since the floor soaked an unknown humidity. Only in 1975 some topographic and stratigraphic analysis were made on the underground of Ruvo. The investigations provided incredible results! In fact, the Cathedral was erected on some preexisting constructions, originating in the Iron Age [5].

Ruvo di Puglia

Particularly, there are archaeological evidences that the area was used as a necropolis since the Peucezi period, one of the anciest pre-Roman people of Apulia. The hypogeum, accessible by a narrow gap on the side of the right nave, was reused by Romans. Testimonies of this phase are the traces of the floor mosaics, pertaining to the Domus of the Imperial period.

Floor mosaic of the Imperial period, with wide swirls and plant motifs, dating back to the 3rd century BC

In the Medieval period, contextually to the construction of the previous cathedral, the whole building was used as an area of Christian burials.

Christian burials

At the moment of the finding, the tombs were intacted. The precious grave goods contained the crucifizes, earrings, rings and fibulae of the period.

Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)


[1]  Italia Sacra, Ferdinando Ughelli, 1643

[2] Ruvo, La Cattedrale,  Bucci Cleto, Pubblicità e Stampa, 2003

[3] Visita ad Limina, Giulio de Turris, 1749,

[4] Il Sedente della Cattedrale Romanica di Ruvo di Puglia, Bucci Cleto, 1989.

[5] Frammenti di Storia della città dallo scavo della Cattedrale di Ruvo, Cassano Raffaella in Epigrafia e Territorio, 1987.   


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