by Simone Guzzi, from the Hotel Paradiso in Calabria
The Abbazia Benedettina (also known as the Abbey of Santa Maria) in Lamezia Terme, Calabria, was commissioned by the Norman, Robert Guiscard in the 11th century to be erected on the remains of a Byzantine Monastery named after Hagia Euphemia of Nèokastron, which was heavily damaged by a Saracen raid. The ruins of this once majestic monastic structure marks the transition from the Byzantine to the Norman era, for several centuries after the first Normans had arrived in 1056.
During his conquest of southern Italy and Sicily, Guiscard subjugated the towns of the valley and Sant'Eufemia, district of the actual Lamezia Terme, became a strategic point for the Norman conquest that eventually put an end to the supremacy of the Byzantine Empire in the whole Calabria. With the Normans, the so-called Latinisation began, bringing the influence of the Church of Rome to all the conquered territories that were under the Byzantine rite.
The construction of Abbazia Benedettina on the remains of the Basilian church was the first step in this Latin irradiation. The designer was Abbot Robert of Grantmesnil, who Guiscard assigned the direction of his program of ecclesiastical architecture. The layout was inspired by the Nordic-Benedictine style of the churches of Normandy.
The ruins seen today, surrounded by groves of olive trees, are the result of a violent earthquake in 1638, but visitors can still appreciate its Norman architectural details. On the main facade are the remains of the two bell towers, with evidence of three aisles and a larger central hall separated by a series of pillars. The side walls were illuminated by a series of arched windows.
In its sanctuary, polychrome marble blocks led to the altar in the main apse, where on the sides there were columns resting on architectural elements of the Roman era. In this area was also discovered a floor made of colorful marble tiles, made from ancient marbles, whose use is typical of the Norman tradition.
On the eastern side visitors can see the remains of the large walls, confirming that the abbeys were fortified, deemed necessary since the Abbey had to defend itself from repeated Saracen raids from the coast.
One of the more important aspects of the Abbey would have been its scriptorium, where the Benedictine monks would have been busy transcribing and preserving ancient texts, both classical and Christian. The first substantial number of founding monks came from Normandy and France suggesting their important influence on the region's culture and religious education. The monks who came here were also are dedicated to charitable acts (by decree of the Benedictine rules), and were especially educated men, with many of them becaming Calabrese and Sicilian bishops.
After the earthquake, there were reliquaries recovered that were kept in a crypt containing the treasure of the Abbey. Listed in an inventory of relics from 1624, a silver arm with a relic of St. John the Baptist and a silver head containing part of the head and a lock of hair of St. Euphemia. There were also the handwritten versions of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.
The Benedictine Abbey is about one mile west from Gizzeria Lido on the Calabrian coast. Click for MAP