In Search of San Pietro d’Asso

By: Stefano Campana, Michelle Hobart and Richard Hodges

Originally Published in 2011

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"A Month in Montalcino"
A Month in Montalcino

The Via Cassia was one of the main arteries connecting Rome to its northwest provinces. It crossed the rolling hills of Tuscany, passing by way of Siena, before veering towards the river Arno and then northwards. With the transformation of Rome into a holy city in medieval times, the Cassia became the Via Francigena (the Franks’ way), possibly the most important highway in Christendom. Along it, pilgrims and travelers toiled towards the eternal city. It is no coincidence, then, that as early as the 7th century, monasteries were established to support and, indeed, exploit this traffic.

Until recently these monastic houses were poorly known. Instead, archaeologists had concentrated upon understanding the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages from the standpoint of rural settlement, charting the beginnings of Tuscany’s iconic hilltop towns. But with new excavations beside the river Arno at San Genesio—where a monastic community has recently been excavated—and a comparable investigation beside the river Asso at Pava, the first evidence of the ecclesiastical world close to the Cassia has come to light. Additionally, 12th century monastic communities, like the abbey at Sant’Antimo, with its distinctive francophone Romanesque architecture, flourished close to this celebrated pilgrim route. During a survey of the territory of Montalcino, the discovery of a putative hilltop monastery at San Pietro d’Asso—a monastery founded, according to an 8th century source, by a mid-7th century Lombard king—appeared to be geographically at odds with these other monasteries and an altogether intriguing settlement. The Penn Museum excavation in July 2010, supported by the University of Siena and the Comune of Montalcino, set out to establish exactly what this hilltop site was.

The Hilltop

Sherds of early medieval pottery, including the distinctive green-glazed Forum Ware, were found close to a knoll at the north end of the hill, on which traces of a small mortared stone building were just visible above the surface. Were these elements of the early medieval monastery mentioned in an AD 714 dispute between the bishops of Arezzo and Siena? If so, where were the potsherds belonging to later phases of settlements, leading up until the time San Pietro was taken over by neighboring Sant’Antimo in the late 12th century? Were other buildings—either post-built or of pisé (essentially clay walls), following the early medieval vernacular tradition— somehow concealed in the main body of the long narrow hilltop? Excavations on the knoll and on the main body of the hill soon revealed an entirely different story. Absolutely nothing was found in the main body of the hilltop. Only on the knoll was there any occupation, and this was not monastic in the strict sense. A tower with a north-south axis measuring 5.10 m by 3.56 m was built to a height of several courses, and then altered entirely. The second phase of the tower was exactly twice the size of the first, but like the first, it was aborted after reaching less than 0.6 m high. An unstratified silver denier found close by, minted by Conrad II of Germany (1027–1039), indicated that this foreclosure occurred early in the 11th century, a date confirmed by the sherds of cooking pots associated with the small builders’ yard on the south side of the tower. It soon became clear that the monastery of San Pietro d’Asso, ascribed to the 7th century Lombard King Aripert, was most definitely not located on the hilltop.

The Farmhouse Church

Occupying a terrace immediately below the hilltop, overlooking the flood plain of the river Asso, is an abandoned farmhouse. This 19th century building incorporated an earlier Romanesque church, the south aisle of which stands almost to eaves’ height; this was employed until recently as a stable. Clearance followed by limited excavations around the apsidal end of the building showed that in the Romanesque era the church had possessed three apses. The southern and central apses were of a distinctive Romanesque ashlar construction, while the earliest (pre-Romanesque) northern apse was constructed with roughhewn rubble, similar in many respects to the early chapel at nearby Sant’Antimo, and not unlike the construction of the hilltop tower. In front of this earliest apse was a simple cemetery where we uncovered four shallow graves. From unstratified levels in this area came an early medieval copper alloy tag, lending plausible weight to the proposition that the Romanesque church had an early medieval precursor. Surveys of the farmhouse revealed remains of other well-preserved buildings of the Romanesque era immediately south of the church, while the central nave, in a reduced form, was retained as a simple chapel that was used until comparatively recently. A geophysical survey of the terrace that the farmhouse occupies indicated the presence of major buildings, with some walls plainly evident. Traces of skeletal remains on the far northeast edge of the terrace also suggested the presence of a cemetery.

It is most likely that this was a Romanesque monastic church that owed its origins to an early medieval foundation. The rich architecture in the surviving details reflects the wealth of connections and support such a pilgrimage church might have enjoyed before its star was eclipsed by its neighbor, Sant’Antimo.

Future Research

This season established that the monastery of San Pietro d’Asso occupied a terrace close to the river, not unlike the broadly contemporary churches at Pava and Sant’Antimo. Unlike Pava, it outlasted the early Middle Ages and thrived into the 12th century, before being subsumed under Sant’Antimo. Like Sant’Antimo it embarked upon establishing its own borgo or village, with a fortified tower—the quintessential hallmark of new towns at this time. But unlike Castelnuovo dell’Abate, above Sant’Antimo, which thrives today, the castle above San Pietro d’Asso was never finished. Why this was the case, as the monastery was on the eve of its zenith in the Romanesque era, remains intriguing and unknown. This unexpected story will compel us to look more closely at the overall history of ecclesiastical power alongside the Via Cassia, and of course sets the scene for exploring what the first monastery at San Pietro d’Asso looked like.

Cite This Article

Campana, Stefano, Hobart, Michelle and Hodges, Richard. "In Search of San Pietro d’Asso." Expedition Magazine 53, no. 1 (March, 2011): -. Accessed June 13, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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