San Nicola. Castles in the air

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San Nicola. Castles in the air

Posted from Puglia, Italy.

The energy, the determination, the will power, the sheer blinding confidence, that’s what struck me. There, on the crest of the second island of the Tremiti, and the archipelago’s nominal administrative centre, is a fortified, castellated, towered and postern-gated abbey, the Abbazzia di Santa Maria a Mare, a powerful statement of the Church Militant.

The abbey was founded by Benedictine monks in the 9th Century, building the core of the existing structure and walls in 1045 . Later Cistercian monks took over guard duties, not as effectively as they might as the abbery was sacked by the Dalmatian ‘pirate’ from Omis in 1334.

In 1442 a group called Lateran Canons, who I’d never heard of, bought the islands and set about . The latter rebuilding and improving the defenses to such effect that they managed to hold off an attach by the Ottoman navy in 1567. You can see why. They didn’t make it easy, the monks. Most of the walls merge into the vertical sides of the island. To approach the postern gate, you have to climb a steep and narrow path with walls on either side. You’d be hard pushed, as an invading force, to get two abreast. Just before the gate, the path takes a sharp left turn, so that any attacking momentum would have to check and swivel before carrying on. Impressive stuff.

Later the monks were turfed out by King Ferdinand of Naples, who turned the island into a penal colony. I believe the idea was one of those that could have been dreamed up by one of the barmier Tory Home Secretaries. Basically, they sent all the criminals and prostitutes from the Neapolitan slums to start new lives on San Nicola, with a view to letting them create and run their own society in quiet seclusion. There may have been a thought that, left to their own devices, they would create an Eden-like sanctuary. Fat chance. Having let the low-lifes have it all their own way for a few years, the island became so chaotic that the king had to send in the military to establish order.

It’s difficult to associate modern-day San Nicola with such a seamy past. It’s not exactly in pristine condition. The more modern buildings are crumbling away, and there’s quite a lot of unseemly pipework and scaffolding around the place, but there’s enough of the mediaeval original and subsequent monkish additions to be impressive. In particular the chapel is remarkably handsome, built of creamy stone, with a great sense space, and unusual square nave with a wooden roof decorated with Biblical scenes and massive quadrifoliate pillars and a Byzantine mosaic floor of geometric patterns and symbols in cream, black and umber stones. While I was there a group of some 30 Poles came in and began to sing. It was very moving.

There other scraps of the original abbey, a long arcade with fine elegant pillars, and a substantial refectory. The island extends well beyond the part enclosed by the fortifications, an undulating plain of stone and low-growing sea shrubs. As I was walking along the path, I could smell goats. I dismissed the idea that there were goats on San Nicola as an illusion. And then I spotted them, far below me, scampering along the rocks by the sea’s edge, jet black, and with magnificent horns like giant cork screws.

The Tremiti are devoted to holidays, pleasure and ease now. It’s odd to think of their chequered and racy past. Perhaps that’s why some of the people who live here the year round speak with a Neapolitan shading. All that stuff about time present and time past both being present in time future.

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