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The abandoned abbey of Santa Maria del Piano

"A beleza das ruínas? O não servirem já para nada. A doçura do passado? O recordá-lo, porque recordá-lo é torná-lo presente, e ele nem o é, nem o pode ser — o absurdo, meu amor, o absurdo." F. Pessoa

We feel a spontaneous attraction to ruins, these places with hidden identities that rise in the landscapes of our imagination and that remind us of the layers of history that build up like the humus of human history.

These thoughts accompany me as I observe the last light of the afternoon washing over the ancient stones of the abbey of Santa Maria del Piano, a surprising and hidden place in the park of the Lucretili Mountains, one of my favorite protected areas in Lazio.

In front of me I find the silent profile of the abbey, subject to recent restorations which have not, however, contributed to a significant improvement of the site. Old photos also prove how the site has been the subject of thefts and vandalism in recent decades: for example, the splendid Cosmatesque rose window now disappeared over forty years ago!

But let's move on to the history of the site: the legend tells that the abbey was founded by Charlemagne in the ninth century, in the aftermath of a victory against the Saracens in nearby Pozzaglia Sabina. What glorious origins! Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the site can be dated before the 11th century, when it appears in the register of the nearby Farfa abbey, while a beautiful inscription from 1219, still visible on the façade, indicates the probable restorations by the presbyter Bartolomeo.

Documents from the following centuries indicate the growing importance of the site, which would have tightened the Benedictine rule over the region and the slow and inevitable decline, instead, which lasted from 1500 to the early 1800s when, by Napoleon's decree, the order was forced to leave the abbey.

From that moment onwards, the structural decay, caused by the unorthodox uses of the complex (used, for example, from 1850 onwards as a cemetery for those who died of cholera) and exposure to the elements, led to the total abandonment of the Abbey of Santa Maria del Piano.

Over time, many architectural elements of great value have been stolen - I came across, for example, the disappearance of a hunting scene in the Lombard style - while numerous spolia, or pagan elements (perhaps originating from a nearby temple?) integrated into the structure are still visible.

The stunning bell tower twenty metres high, in Rthe omanesque style, and with a beautiful sequence of single, double and triple lancet windows, has some Roman inscriptions like the one in the photo (CAESI), while Ionic capitals are visible on the facade.

Of the original structure only the remains of the convent are still visible (to which the bell tower was connected), while the church with its cross-shaped plan (with the transept above the nave) and double apse no longer has the original roof. On the facade, near the window immediately under the rose window, I notice a splendid, and lonely, animal figure of a looted bestiary.

Nowadays, the religious landscape of the Lucretili mountais can only be reconstructed in one's imagination: the wooded and rural landscape must have been inhabited by numerous communities of peasants and hermits, as evidenced by the numerous abandoned hermitages that I plan visit one day, yet the context of the abbey allows us to take travel a little back in time.

The price one pays for such beauty, however, is the conservation of the site. I searched on the internet (updated in 2018) which initiatives, in addition to the apparently recent restoration, have been put in place for the abbey but I found very little other than a candidacy for FAI's Luoghi del Cuore, an initiative through which private citizens can vote for sites that deserve recognition and restoration funding.

The place is clearly dear to the inhabitants of Orvinio and Pozzaglia (and has also been the subject of bitter disputes in the past!) but it is clear that an initiative to seriously protect this site must come from outside.


Where is it?

Orvinio - a picturesque village that can be reached from the Salaria or from the A24 motorway (Vicovaro exit, follow the signs for Licenza - Percile - Orvinio).

Trail 315 allows you to reach the abbey from the town in a two-hour loop.

Be careful:

In 2018 the site was surrounded by a fence which was open in some points. There were no no-entry signs or security cameras. If you decide to enter, respect the site but above all, be careful! In any case, it is a ruin and is potentially dangerous.

If you use Google Maps to reach the site, it will most likely make you exit shortly after Orvinio on the road to Pozzaglia. This small road, which immediately becomes a dirt road, leads to the "Vaccheria", a private property. The owners were very kind and allowed me to park but in any case you have to walk about 1.5 km to reach the abbey and I think it is preferable to use the existing path.


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