San Giovanni in Pergulis
courtesy of Nicola Di Saverio
Less than one half kilometer to the west of Valle San Giovanni lie the ruins of an ancient monastery, San Giovanni in Pergulis.
(click to enlarge)
The ancient abbey of San Giovanni in Pergulis sits in the high Tordino River Valley. Further to the west at a higher elevation are the mountains and high plains known as Monti della Laga. This location encompasses the mountainous region of the Aprutina Diocese in what is now known as the Teramo Province of central Italy. San Giovanni in Pergulis is midway between the Ascoli Piceno diocese to the north where in times past sheep herding dominated, and the Penne-Atri diocese to the south where farming and horticultural enterprises were more prevalent. From the days of the Roman Empire midway through the 1700's, San Giovanni in Pergulis played an important role in the economic development and history of Abruzzo and central Italy.
In recent years several attempts have been made to salvage the remaining vestiges of the abbey. One group of volunteers toiling nearby discovered Roman Empire era fragments of tiles and ceramics. This is strong proof that a Roman "villa rustica" once occupied the site. The historian Palma notes that derivation of the name San Giovanni in Pergulis (Saint John in Pergola) assuredly derives from the view of many pergola (wooden pillars that support cross beams and a sturdy open lattice used in vineyards) one would immediately encounter when approaching Valle San Giovanni from the higher mountain areas just to the west.
The first known document regarding San Giovanni in Pergulis dates back to the year 1134. In this manuscript Guiberto di Suppone donates castles, houses, churches, forests, pastures, and men to the Aprutina bishop Guido II. The document is important in that it serves as proof that San Giovanni in Pergulis consisted of specific man made structures and was not just the name for a geographical location in Abruzzo. It is also important in the fact that Valle San Giovanni is not mentioned, this suggesting that the village of Valle San Giovanni was nonexistent in this time period.
Soon thereafter in 1153 a papal bull signed by Anastasio V makes reference to a male Benedictine abbey, "Abbatia S. Johannis in Perulis". This proves San Giovanni in Pergulis was a recognized church entity at the time and that at least 12 monks resided there. As noted, abbeys were often located where Roman villas had once stood. They often retained the original physical configuration of the Roman villas with the living and work areas modified to meet the needs of the medieval times. The layout was most often rectangular in shape and almost always included an open central courtyard surrounded by cloistered passageways.
Several documents in the 13th to 15th century make reference to the monastic activities that took place at San Giovanni in Pergulis. One well preserved 1321 manuscript describes the taxes (Le Decime) that were owed by the monks to the Vatican in Rome. A second manuscript entrusts San Giovanni in Pergulis with the task of establishing a monastery for females in nearby Scorzono. San Giovanni in Pergulis most likely reached the peak of it importance during this time period. A 14th century document places the care of the monastery to an individual who would later become Pope Paul IV.
In medieval times the monks living at San Giovanni in Pergulis likely had income both from the donations of parishioners as well as earnings from farming and lumber. They used this patrimony to employ lay people including military vassals for security and serfs as laborers in completing farm and household chores. Surrounding the area were both small fields that were worked by tenant farmers usually for indefinite periods of time using a system then known as "commendatio". Similar arrangements were used in the cultivation of fruit orchards. Another system known as "enfiteusi" was typically applied to woods, arid areas, and swampland. In it the workers paid no rent to the abbey but were granted use of the land for 99 years as long as they continued to make improvements on it.
In 1556 the monastery passed from the fiefdom of Frunti, with which it had been associated since 1338, to the city of Montorio. There was an understanding that the monastery would be maintained and upgraded but these works were never carried out. The transfer to Montorio coincided with the rise of the Cistercian Order of the Benedictine monks. The Cistercian movement had a great influence throughout Europe beginning in the 11th century finally gaining importance in Italy several hundred years later. Founded by the Frenchman, Saint Robert, emphasis was placed on reformation and a return to more ascetic ways. Emphasized were the principles and values of manual labor, physical and spiritual separation of the monks from lay influences, and self reliance of each monastery. Simplicity and function over form were strongly encouraged. During this period a good number of monasteries were constructed in isolated locations away from Europe's cities and towns. Agricultural and forest activities were strongly developed. So as to have sufficient time to devote to religious activities, the monasteries took on many of lay people as manual laborers. Given this economic impetus as well as for the purpose of protection from outlaws and other hostile forces, it is not surprising small villages often sprung up around the abbeys.
Written documents from the 1500's present contradictory evidence with regard to the level of activity that took place at San Giovanni in Pergulis. The popularity of the Cistercian movement waned and many isolated abbeys were rechristened as small rural churches. San Giovanni in Pergulis likely met a similar fate during these years. The church of nearby Valle San Giovanni was erected in 1615. In 1775 San Giovanni in Pergulis passed from the religious authorities of Montorio to those present in Valle San Giovanni. The official closing of the monastery is noted in a church document dated 1802.
Given the lack of identifying documents and the current advanced state of decomposition, it is impossible to determine the exact size, layout, and prominent features of San Giovanni in Pergulis. Two nearby Benedictine abbeys constructed in the same era provide some clues. Most likely however, there were significant architectural differences existed between these three religious structures.
A common element of the abbeys was the presence of cloisters, these having origins dating back to the original ancient Roman villas. Surrounding the internal courtyard and cloisters, were a small church or chapel, workrooms, dormitories, meeting rooms, and a refectory. A typical Benedictine-Cistercian abbey from the early part of the second millennium would have many of the features noted below.
D Meeting Room
G Writing Room
H Calefactory (heated sitting room)
I Refectory (dining hall)
K Refectory of the converted
N Passageway of the converts
O Cloister of the mandatum (Mandate of the Lord)
Given that San Giovanni in Pergulis was a small abbey, it may not have contained all of these features. At present thebell gable (an architectural term referring to the freestanding, single wall support of the church bell. In Italian this design is called "a vela" literally "shaped like the sail of a ship") is all that remains of this once thriving location. The bell tower at Madonna della Neve, the church of Valle San Giovanni, was also constructed using the "a vela" design and provides further evidence of the importance of this strategic location. But memories linger in the form of little known ancient church documents as well as atavistic recollections in the hearts and souls of the people in Valle San Giovanni. Those individuals lucky enough to happen upon this enchanting locale cannot help but marvel at what once was. In more recent years a milestone bearing the Roman numeral CXIIII was located in Valle San Giovanni. This marker once graced the road that passed through Valle San Giovanni and San Giovanni in Pergulis before heading over the Gran Sasso mountains before reaching its final destination in Rome. It is hoped that future historians will continue to make new discoveries in this area so as to provide additional insights about the Abruzzo of day's past.
San Giovanni in Pergulis Courtesy of N. Fratini 2000 Association Ghandi
Vacation in Abruzzo