Visit San Giovanni in Fiore

San Giovanni in Fiore: Gioacchino’s Outpost in the Sila Mountains

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.


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.

visit San Giovanni in Fiore

Arco Florense, ancient stone arch originally part of the abbey’s entrance gate

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.

Sila potatoes

A traditional meal: Grilled sausage with melted caciocavallo cheese, Sila potatoes, greens and red wine


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.

visit San Giovanni in Fiore

Apse of the Florian Abbey

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.

San Giovanni in Fiore

Sanctuary of the Florian Abbey

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.

Joachim of Fiore

Tree Eagle from the Liber Figurarum


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.

antique bed

Bed with antique blanket and canopy cover

Amongst the many articles, a carefully repaired bowl that almost looks like a piece of modern art speaks volumes.

Calabrian museum

Antique bowl with repair

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.

women from San Giovanni in Fiore

Women dressed in elegant and traditional attire, 1938, historic photo by Saverio Marra


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.”

Monongah mining disaster

Monument to the 1907 mining disaster in Monongah, West Virginia, USA


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.

San Giovanni in Fiore

Click to enlarge

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

San Giovanni in Fiore souvenir

Visit San Giovanni in Fiore on my new tour Traditions and Food of Calabria –
don’t worry, I’m not driving!

Calabria book

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.

Calabria bookExplore the entire region in the toe of the boot in Calabria: The Other Italymy 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.

Connect on social media: “Like” Calabria: The Other Italy’s Facebook page, follow me on Karen’s Instagram and Karen’s Twitter for more beautiful pictures and information. Or join me on a small-group Calabria Tour!

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Comments 23

    1. Post

      San Giovanni in Fiore has a lot to offer and is actually much bigger than a village – it’s a good-sized community, particularly for the mountains. In fact, it’s Italy’s most populous town over 1,000 meters (3,280 feet).

  1. Hi Karen! San Giovanni in Fiore has such an interesting history. It seems as if you could spend days there exploring. I had not thought of a connection to the West Virginia mining disaster. How tragic for the workers and their families from San Giovanni. Thanks for sharing these stories. I may be trying a new recipe, too!

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      Yes, it’s incredible how the communities are bound together even today. The above statue was erected in 2003, almost 100 years after the Monongah disaster. And I can recommend the sliced, grilled sausage with melted cheese on top – so simple and so tasty. Of course, the local ingredients put the dish over the top.

  2. My paternal grandparents were Sangiovannese; Mio Nonno worked in West Virginia coal mines at that time, but a different one than that where his paesani were killed. My surname was common in San Giovanni in Fiore, like Smith or Jones in the USA.

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      Wow, so close to the tragedy, and so many children who grew up without fathers or who were never born at all. Thanks for sharing your connection.

    2. Good morning. I am reading about San Giovanni in Fiore which was my paternal grandparents home. They too emmigrated to West Virginia as a coal mining family in the early 1900’s and eventually to Detroit where I was born. I’m visiting Southern Italy in October and would love to converse with you.
      Lou Laratta

  3. My family is from Calabria and though my uncles visited in the 80’s no one else has gone back- I’m just starting a trip )
    (In my mind!) to bring my family there and track down remaining famalia! ( they immigrated to West Virginia at the turn of the last century and became coal miners btw) I plan to keep your blog as a reference! And would love more info as we get closer to a trip!

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      Glad you found my blog – browse around as there are well over 100 posts about Calabria, so together with my book Calabria: The Other Italy, will give you a good feel for the region as well as a lot of details, and an excellent background for future travels! A family trip is certainly something to look forward to and hopefully we will be able to move about more freely soon. I will send you a private message with contact information.

  4. My maternal Grandmother was a Bitonti and my Grandfather a Pulice, both from San Giovanni in Fiore. My Mother is still alive at 92. I would like to visit my Grandfather’s birthplace. Unlikely at this point.

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      Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I’m very happy to say that next week, I’m meeting my first tour group from when the pandemic began. And in the spring, the Traditions and Food of Calabria Tour will visit San Giovanni in Fiore.

  5. I have really enjoyed reading information on San Giovanni in Fiore and all the blogs. All I know so far is my maternal grandfather and his brother came to America at age 17 and 19 yrs ol.d. The last name is Selario or Salario- but in the USA they changed it when he entered the US to Sellaro. Live in to Morgantown West Virginia, his entire life, worked in coal mines but not the mine which exploded in 1907. I will continue to follow your information and hope to try and search for family and our history. Thanks great information. Ciao Marcia Sova

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  6. I visited San Giovanni in Fiore on Karen’s tour. The cultural sights, artisan experiences and gastronomic delights were outstanding at every carefully curated location. I highly recommend this tour!

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  7. My Grandparents, Tony Oliverio and Theresa (Daisy), both had the last name of Oliverio before they were married. Grandpop always spoke of coming from San Giovanni in Fiore. When he came to America he ended up working in the coal mines in Clarksburg, West Virginia. They had eleven children—Catherine, Rose, Peter, Agnes, Mary, Samuel, Frank, Josephine, John, Dom, and Robert.

    1. My great grand parents moved to Clarksburg from San Giovanni too. In fact, I have been working on mt family tree and I am fairly certain that on one of the suggested tree’s the last name Oliverio was there. I am trying to find out as much information as I can for my grandmother about her family and would be interested in finding out if there is any sort of connection. In the even that you get this message, hopefully an email reply is set up and we could then correspond.
      My family’s last names were: Venci & Agrippa

  8. The tour of Calabria sounds wonderful. I would love to see this not well known region. I have visited Puglia and Basilicata, but have not been able to find a tour of Calabria. As I travel alone a tour of your region would suit me.

    With kindest regards,
    Christina Dyer

    1. Post

      Thank you for your interest in my Calabria tours! On the Traditions and Food of Calabria Tour, we spend 4 nights in the Sila Mountains and visit San Giovanni in Fiore. Single travelers very much enjoy the experience – join us! (I’ve sent you a private message.)

  9. Loved this I want to go. Grandparents were from there. Rovano and piccolo were last names. Grandfather and my father worked in the coal mines. In library Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

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  10. So happy to find this blog! I recently learned through DNA testing that this is my paternal grandmother’s hometown (the whole family emigrated when she was a baby and she never had a birth certificate). My great grandparents were Giuseppe and Sarafina Russo. I’ve been doing genealogical research for decades but haven’t been able to learn too much about them or their ancestral lines. Hopefully, I can take a trip out there someday.

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