The village of Altomonte and Cistercian Romanesque in Calabria

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The village of Altomonte is situated on a promontory overlooking the wide valley of Esaro River, about 455 meters above sea level, between the plain of Sibari and the great peaks of Sila. Today’s urban settlement traces the organization of the defensive structures constructed in the Middle Ages, which still include the remains of the walls and some tower-houses, but the village has older origins. Certainly there was probably a settlement in Roman times, as shown by some archaeological findings dating back to the 1st century AD. Most likely, the town corresponded to the Balbia mentioned by Pliny the Elder, of which the historian extolled the production of a fine wine, named as Balbino1.

The first real documentary sources can be traced, however, only to Norman times. At the time of the conquest of Calabria by the Altavilla family, Altomonte was referred to in historiographical texts as Brahalla, a toponym perhaps of Arabic derivation. The Normans laid the foundations of today’s settlement, placed the feudal castle there and built the important church of Santa Maria dei Franchi in 1052.

Filippo Sangineto

Altomonte became a Swabian possession under Frederick II and then passed to the Angevins in 1266, when Charles I defeated Manfred of Sicily. In 1309 Robert of Anjou, already Duke of Calabria since 1296, ascended the throne of the Kingdom of Naples; this was an event that had direct consequences for the small village of Altomonte as well. Among the nobles loyal to the sovereign was in fact Filippo Sangineto, third son of the lord of Belvedere and Sangineto, Roger. Filippo had fought as a captain alongside Robert of Anjou in the expedition against the Aragonese in Sicily. For this he was rewarded with the fief of Altomonte. In a deed dated August 8, 1319, now preserved in the Vatican registers, he is called “nobilis vir Philippus de Sangineto, Brahallae et Bollitae dominus2.

Filippo Sangineto was not only a valiant man of arms for Robert of Anjou, but held the position of high official in the royal court. For at least a decade, beginning in 1330-1331, he was sent as seneschal to Provence and Forcalquier3. This gave him the opportunity to come into contact with the lively artistic declensions beyond the Alps, and soon a desire to bring to Calabria some of the austere and elegant style we now call Gothic began to grow in him.

The village of Altomonte

Philip made the village of Altomonte one of the most flourishing cultural centers of Calabria, expanding its urban fabric and inviting artists from all over Italy. In 1336 he changed the name of the village from Brahalla to Altofiume and in 1343, at the behest of Queen Giovanna, to its present name. Not least, he ordered the renovation of the church of Santa Maria dei Franchi. His intention was to erect an even more majestic building that could serve as a mausoleum for the Sangineto family.

village of Altomonte
Santa Maria della Consolazione of Altomonte

Santa Maria della Consolazione

A true focal point of the small village, it thus became the nascent church of Santa Maria della Consolazione. The building, founded according to the dictates of Gothic-Angevin architecture, was probably under construction as early as 1336. In that year it is mentioned in a will that Filippo Sangineto drew up in Provence as the recipient of bequests for completion4. Upon his death, in fact, which occurred between 1348 and 1349, the lord of Altomonte rested in his church, as he strongly desired, inside a sepulchral monument made by a pupil of Tino di Camaino,

A slender staircase, of late construction, leads to the entrance of the church, which stands in a dominant position on the town square. The facade appears solid and austere, following the Cistercian style of mendicant architecture. On the lower level is a splayed portal with a Gothic pointed arch and phytomorphic friezes, surmounted by a majestic rose window composed of 16 small columns with capitals. Most likely its construction was begun in France, only to be completed by local workers. Further, in two side niches of the elevation were formerly placed some statues, now admirable at the Altomonte Civic Museum.

village of Altomonte

In the middle of the façade, between the rose window and the portal, it is placed the coat of arms of Filippo Sangineto, patron of the church. The massive bell tower, originally with a crenellated crowning, lies to the right of the elevation, thus made asymmetrical, and is characterized by the presence of a mullioned window.

Interior of the building

The interior of Santa Maria della Consolazione is enveloped in the aura of peace and mystery that only Gothic-Cistercian architecture can transmit. The building has a Latin cross plan, with a single nave, crowned by two side chapels near the transept. One, commissioned by the Princes of Bisignano, with a Baroque wooden altar and gilded stucco, is dedicated to Archangel Michael; the other leads to the sacristy. The hall has wooden truss roofing, which helps convey a feeling of austerity and simplicity, and ends with a ribbed chancel. The high altar is made of polychrome marble.

village of Altomonte

On the apse wall, at a large lancet window, is the well-known sepulchre of Filippo Sangineto, which ranks among the most relevant 14th-century sculptures in Calabria. A real mystery, however, represents the funerary monument of the unknown knight, which is dated to the first half of the 14th century. Despite careful archaeological and historiographical research, no scholar is yet able to determine the identity of the one who was buried there.

village of Altomonte
The unknown knight

One can recognize in the armor of the lying knight and in the sculptural style, of French influence, a belonging to the first half of the 14th century5. It is possible that another wealthy member of the Sangineto family was buried in such a tomb.

The cloister of the church

A treasure chest of art in the village of Altomonte

The church of Santa Maria della Consolazione was built according to innovative Gothic styles of French import, breaking with the earlier Norman tradition. Filippo Sangineto, with the assent of the King of Naples Robert of Anjou, wanted to give the village of Altomonte a great monument that could be an expression of a new dynasty and preserve its memory for centuries. To this end, important artists were called in to create the friezes and frescoes. These included the Tuscans Simone Martini, who painted on a tablet a St. Ladislaus, now in the Civic Museum, and Bernardo Daddi.

Of fine workmanship is the sepulchral monument of the Sangineto family, commissioned by the patron Philip, placed near the apse wall. Only the internal structure of it remains, but it was certainly once adorned with a canopy. Sculptural personifications of the three Theological Virtues support the sarcophagus, on which rests the lying figure of Filippo Sangineto. Still higher up stands a group of statues including saints Nicholas and Baptist, and the Madonna and Child.

Samuele Corrente Naso, translation by Daniela Campus

Map of places

Notes

  1. Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia. ↩︎
  2. F. Russo, Regesto vaticano per la Calabria, Roma 1974-1995. ↩︎
  3. L. De Franco, Una pagina di vita medievale: i due testamenti di Filippo di Sangineto, signore di Altomonte, in Calabria nobilissima, XLII-XLIII, 1990-1991. ↩︎
  4. Ibidem. ↩︎
  5. M. P. Di Dario Guida, Il Museo di S. Maria della Consolazione ad Altomonte, Cosenza, 1980. ↩︎
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