It’s hard to imagine that there are still places in Italy that feel undiscovered. Each year Italy gets somewhere between 33 million and 58 million tourists, but the bulk of them stick to the most famous destinations. It amazes me that you can escape the crowds and still find totally incredible places, filled to overflowing with priceless art, history and treasures, without a t-shirt shop in sight!
This year when my June Glam Italia Tours were done I slipped off down to the deepest south, (very) southern Basilicata, to stay with my friend Martine at her idyllic Orangery Retreat. I wrote about the Orangery Retreat here. (Make sure you check this post out – this place is fantastic!)
In case you don’t know where Basilicata is, imagine Italy being the shape of a boot. The long, thin heel of the boot is Puglia, the toe of the boot is Calabria, and the instep, running between the two is Basilicata.
The Orangery Retreat is a series of vacation rental apartments in historical La Rabatana, a hill town just above the town of Tursi. La Rabatana was built in the 800s by the Arabs (Saracens), who ran the show for the next 400 years.
The Convento of San Francesco
At some point after they left, a church and monastery, known as the Convento San Francesco, was built across the gorge from La Rabatana, sitting atop its own hill with its own majestic view.
From the balcony of the apartment I stayed in, the Mandarin, I had a clear view of the convent. Martine told me it was abandoned and had frescoes dating back 700 years. I live for opportunities like this, so the next morning we drove over there to have a look. The Convento is only 5 minutes drive from Martine’s resort, plus another few minutes walk along an undriveable road.
Standing in front of the convent/monastery I looked back across the gorge at La Rabatana and my apartment at the Orangery.
I would love to be able to give you the full run down on the abandoned church and monastery, but google as hard as I might, there seems to be very limited information available about it, and that which I did find was both full of holes and what appear to be some inaccuracies. Which just makes it even more fascinating.
My heart was pounding as we walked in – Martine wasn’t kidding when she said it was abandoned!
It has also been raided.
I saw one blog post about the convent that said it was abandoned in 1914, but somehow I think it was possibly long before then. This place has been stripped to the bones.
There are gaping holes in the floor where tombs used to be.
Not too long ago a tomb containing a noble woman holding her baby was excavated. Her dress was intact and is in the local museum. I am dying to know who she was, why she was buried in the nave of the church (in terms of hierarchy this is quite significant) and how she and the baby died.
The Art Hiding Inside The Abandoned Church
At some time during the Baroque period, the inside of the church got a retrofit. Huge baroque installations were built over the original frescoes, hiding them for centuries. As the baroque pieces were stolen and carted away frescoes emerged underneath.
Here is where it gets even more interesting. As I researched the convent/monastery I kept seeing a construction date of 1441. But that cannot be correct because frescoes freed from behind the baroque fixtures are dated to 1377.
Similar to the artwork in Matera, which is perhaps an hour drive from Tursi, the style of painting is very Byzantine. This shows just how cut off from the rest of Italy Basilicata really was. This was the era of Giotto. Italy was full of artists painting in a gothic, gilded style. Faces had changed, art had changed. But not in deep Basilicata, where the art movement was two to three hundred years behind.
Seeing these frescoes made me feel the same as when I first saw the frescoes in the rupestrian churches in Matera and at the Crypt of the Original Sin. It knocks the wind right out of you, leaves you speechless.
And how crazy that these treasures sit unprotected in a church that has been stripped? Looking along the length of the wall at the baroque architecture all I could think was how many exquisite paintings are hidden away behind here?
Italy is full of little towns like this, economically disadvantaged but with sensational church art that goes unprotected. In my travels across the country I always get excited to find these churches and have always marveled at how the local people have taken care of them despite a complete lack of funds. So seeing the Convento San Francesco in this terrible state was totally jarring.
The Abandoned Monastery
Attached to the church is the (also abandoned) monastery. This has been attempted to be repaired but in a particularly nonsensical, grotesque way. Concrete, and badly done concrete at that, defies logic.
But you can still walk into the monk’s cells and see where and how they lived, while marveling at their views across the valley below. Unfortunately they now have ugly concrete floors, but it is still pretty fantastic to see.
Another thing I found interesting with regard to when the Convento was built is the dome on the tower. It looks very Arabesque, which makes me wonder if it predates the 1377 frescoes, or if it was a later addition? I will have to add studying the architectural history of Basilicata to my to do list, just so I can figure this one out!
Next time I stay at the Orangery Retreat in La Rabatana (I seriously cannot wait to get back there!) I want to find a local historian to explain everything here at the Convento to me. And then to take me on a walking tour through the fascinating town of La Rabatana. This place is an absolute treasure trove for anyone interested in history.
Did I mention I cannot wait to go back??
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