An anchor in the midst of Calabria’s Sila Mountains, San Giovanni in Fiore gained its foothold with the establishment of an abbey and remains forever tied to its founder Gioacchino da Fiore. A visit to this mountain town, the Sila’s largest population center, blends the story of an extraordinary monk together with innumerable generations of hardworking inhabitants who followed.
HISTORY OF SAN GIOVANNI IN FIORE
In 1189, Gioacchino da Fiore founded his abbey outside today’s town center in what is called the Fiore Vètere neighborhood. Several years later in 1194, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI of the Hohenstaufen family granted the abbot a vast plot of land corresponding to San Giovanni in Fiore’s present territory. The following year Gioacchino and his monks began construction of a new religious complex in an area that had been settled in the early Middle Ages by a Lombard military contingent and then by the Byzantines.
After the original abbey burned in 1214 (the archeological remains of which can be visited today), the monks permanently transferred to what would become the monumental Abbazia Florense. In 1221 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II fostered the monastery’s development when he handed down a decree that guaranteed immunity for crimes other than murder inside the Florian Abbey’s walls. The community that grew up around the abbey officially became the village of San Giovanni in Fiore in the 16th century.
In 1844 the town was thrust to the international stage when the Fratelli Bandiera were captured in the local countryside. A monument on the spot commemorates the two Venetian brothers, early revolutionaries in the Italian Risorgimento movement. Following unification, poor economic conditions led to mass emigration, with the strongest waves to the Americas.
In the 20th-century the construction of artificial lakes for hydroelectric power and the attempts at agrarian reform did not result in the economic success hoped for and many Sangiovannesi, as the people from San Giovanni in Fiore are called, emigrated to Northern Italy and other European countries in the 1960s and 70s. The city of approximately 17,000 has since developed its service industry while not forgetting its roots in handcrafts and agriculture, in particular, the delicious Sila potatoes.
ABBAZIA FLORENSE– FLORIAN ABBEY
San Giovanni in Fiore’s maze of streets testifies to the organic nature of its development. The oldest neighborhoods grew out from the abbey, and it is interesting to note the cluster of concentric buildings just to its north. However, the first stop is the abbey or at least a parking space nearby after winding through streets that in no way resemble the flat image of a map. The abbey is quite handsome, especially as seen from behind, looking towards the church’s apse.
The façade of the entrance is rather simple, having been stripped by and of its numerous modifications over the years. Through the church’s arched, Romanesque portal, the visitor enters into a long, narrow sanctuary of austere beauty. The unadorned, single-nave church is the only part of the abbey complex still consecrated for religious purposes. A rest home and museum have taken up residence in the other wings.
The bare walls of uneven, hand-hewn stonework, broken by just a few high windows under the elevated ceiling beckon to the altar and the light streaming through the apse windows. Not much room is left for distraction. Most of the baroque decoration and all of the stuccowork have been removed and the focus is the light at the end of the tunnel.
The few embellishments that remain stand out all the more, such as the elaborately carved Baroque altarpiece by Giovanbattista Altomare from Rogliano (Province of Cosenza), which hosts a Renaissance wooden sculpture of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of the town, by an unknown Neapolitan artist. The chapels in the transept are equally ascetic, and interestingly, their upper chambers were reached only by the monks directly from the monastery. The bones of Gioacchino rest in a side chapel, from which stone stairs lead down to the crypt.
Another unusual feature of the church is the left nave, closed off from the main sanctuary, where an exhibit of Gioacchino’s incredible images from his Liber figurarum are on display. The “Book of Figures” expresses his ecclesiastical vision with flowering trees, circles symbolically linked together, a seven-headed dragon and other creative designs rather modern for the period.
MUSEO DEMOLOGICO– MUSEUM OF THE WORKING CLASS
In a courtyard around the other side of the abbey complex is the entrance to the Museo Demologico dell’Economia, del Lavoro e della Storia Sociale Silano e l’Archivio Fotografico Marra. That mouthful translates to the Working Class Museum of Economy, Labor and the Sila’s Social History and the Marra Photographic Archive. The approximately 500 museum objects – farm implements and other pieces associated with local traditions that date from the second half of the 1700s to the first half of the 1900s – are well organized in the abbey’s renovated space. The trades are grouped into sections: grain and crop rotation, animal husbandry, wool and other fibers and textiles, olives, grape cultivation.
Museum guides enthusiastically tell the story of the Sangiovannesi over the past few centuries. Not just a dusty collection of old tools, the pieces are curated and each section illustrates a different aspect of working society. For example, pictured below are various objects related to sheep and goats, milk and wool: carved collars (collari), spoons (cucchiai) for making ricotta and to measure the rennet (caglio), perforated (bucherellato) spoons and those for skimming (schiumaiuola), ricotta baskets (fiscelle) and sheers (cesoie).
The section about crops also addresses the farmers’ rotational system in which they usually divided the land into three plots and alternated the planting of grain, herbs or plants destined for animal pastures, and potatoes. A large room is dedicated to cloth and weaving. Warm blankets were important for mountain winters.
Amongst the many articles, a carefully repaired bowl that almost looks like a piece of modern art speaks volumes.
The abbey’s storerooms running under the east wing have recently been restored and opened for exhibitions, such as of the moving photographs of Saverio Marra, a Sangiovannese who documented his fellow citizens and those in surrounding communities during all phases of their lives between 1914 and 1946.
FROM MOTHER CHURCH TO THE MONONGAH MINING DISASTER
While the Abbazia Florense is the focal point of many visits to San Giovanni in Fiore, the old town has a labyrinth of old streets and churches to explore, such as the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie or Mother Church and the Chiesetta dell’Annunziata.
Hitting closer to home is the thought-provoking monument to the American mining disaster of Monongah, West Virginia in Piazza Aldo Moro. The gas explosion that occurred in the coal mine on December 6, 1907 has been described as the worst industrial accident in American history. The official death toll was 362, but many miners worked off the books, a number of them children, which have brought some estimates of the dead closer to 550 and other reports have hazarded as many as 956. Of the official 172 Italian miners who died, 34 were from San Giovanni in Fiore, one of the communities hit the hardest by the tragedy. The stone monument capped with a miner’s pickax states: “Not to forget the Calabrian miners, dead in West Virginia (USA). The sacrifice of those strong men shall bolster new generations.”
VISIT SAN GIOVANNI IN FIORE
Many of the town’s sons and daughters return to find their roots. San Giovanni in Fiore is also well positioned to explore the Sila Mountains, its forests and lakes with sports activities all year round, as well as neighboring villages and historic sites.
As I was leaving the town on my recent visit, I got caught up in the maze of one-way streets full of twists and turns, which on the third and fourth go-round I knew to be wrong a split second after the bend without any hope of turning back, only to start the serpentine path all over again. When I heard the telltale signal that my navigation system was rerouting itself for the umpteenth time, I made a U-turn and dawning on me in the middle of the maneuver that the street may have been one-way, I rolled down my window and asked the three young women staring at me with their mouths agape, who confirmed that it was indeed a senso unico. I would never find my way out, they said. Perhaps they had already witnessed my previous passes. They were out for a passeggiata and offered to lead me, so they climbed in and off we went. I asked how they would get back. We need the exercise, they laughingly responded. At a certain point, poised at a crossroad, an older man in a car with the right of way stopped and beeped. Hmm… should I go? One of the women piped up with, it’s my uncle! He was curious what they were doing in the foreigner’s car. We were on the edge of town. I could easily have found my way, but he insisted on leading me through to the highway. So I waved goodbye to the ladies, who continued their passeggiata.
Visit San Giovanni in Fiore on my new tour Traditions and Food of Calabria –
don’t worry, I’m not driving!
Read about a wonderful Sangiovannese artist who carries on local traditions in my post Textile Artist Domenico Caruso, and about other Calabrian cities on my blog: Visit Reggio Calabria, Cosenza: Old and New and Amantea: A Seaside Attraction.
Explore the entire region in the toe of the boot in Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this fascinating area of South Italy. It’s available in paperback and e-book versions.
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