If you’re looking for an interesting stop on your journey between Bologna and Milan, consider a visit to the Nonantola Abbey. Nonantola Abbey got its name from a prominent historical figure in the Middle Ages. Also, the cleverly displayed works of art, such as the painting of St. Francis of Assisi, certainly convey to visitors the role that the monastery played in the life of one of the most important and influential figures in Italy, Pope Benedict XVI.
Nonantola Abbey got founded in 752 by Abbot Anselmo, Duke of Friuli. The Duke received the land of Nonantola as a gift from his brother, Saint Francis of Assisi. Nonantola is a town located 12 km (7.5 miles) north of Modena. Indeed, this little town is rich in medieval history and hosts one of the most important Abbey’s of Northern Italy.
History of Nonantola Abbey
This church was an important religious and cultural center of medieval Europe. The church is dedicated to Pope Saint Sylvester the first and preserves his relics since in 756 AD.
In this monastery, pilgrims could rest and find shelter and food. In fact, the location of this Abbey was along the Via Romea Nonatolana, a famous medieval route from Germany to Rome thought the Brenner pass.
Links to Charlemagne
During its millennial history, Nonantola Abbey had contacts with some of the most prominent people of the time. One of the most important historical figures is Emperor Charlemagne. Charlemagne donated lands and rights to the monastery. The Archive keeps three documents from the Emperor. And, among these documents, one of them is from 780 AD, are the oldest in the Abbey.
Emperor Charlemagne’s donations to the convent made this Abbey one of the most famous Italian monasteries at the time.
During the Medieval time, the scriptorium was very active. Three of the great books made by the monks are still on display.
From the 12th century onwards, Nonantola got conquered by Modena and Bologna, in all periods. They built respectively a stronghold around the territory. The “Modenese Tower” (1261) and the “Bolognese Tower” (1307).
In 1412 Nonantola,]fell into the territory of the Estensi family. Then, in 1414, Duke Niccolò III gave the town its municipal status. Later, in 1419, a Charter got founded that regulated the civil and penal aspects of the community of Nonantola.
During world war two, the population of Nonantola played a significant role in saving 73 Jewish children in the Abbey. Today, the name of the story is “The Story of the Children of Villa Emma.”
The Nonantola Abbey Church
The current church is one of the most impressive roman period basilicas in Europe. Further, the church has served as a co-cathedral of the diocese of Modena since 1986. Also, the collegiate church bears the title of basilica. Today, the collegiate church is consecrated by the Archbishop of Rome, Cardinal Giovanni Battista D’Ambrosio, Archbishop of Naples.
The church is made entirely from bricks. Indeed, the bricks are majestic and yet of great simplicity. Also, the interior is striking when you enter through the front doors.
The facade of the Nonantola Abbey church shows a sloping roof remarkable for the elevation of the central nave. Notably, the lunette over the portal with the blessing Christ, angels, and symbols of the four Evangelist is an example of a beautiful Romanesque sculpture. Indeed, the enormous medieval sculpture of the Duomo in Modena is connected to Wiligelmo of Modena.
The two levels of the structure are clearly visible, with a central staircase leading to the presbytery and two lateral stairs leading to the crypts inside.
Inside Nonantola Church
The interior is divided into three naves that end in the overhead presbytery. The atmosphere invites visitors for meditation and prayers.
The main altar is dedicated to a mortal relic that rests there. Also, there is a statue of St. Francis of Assisi.
On the left side of the main entrance, you can admire the octagonal baptistery made from the ancient roman fountain. Then, on the right nave, you can admire a remarkable fresco ascribed to the school of Erri in the fourteenth century. Also, the frescos represent the Crucifixion on the top part. Then, in the middle, you will find the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary. Last, the Seven Saints is at the bottom.
A multitude of columns support the crypt and date back to the eighth century. Indeed, the sixty-four columns at Nonantola Abbey fill the crypt-like trees in a forest. Interestingly, this crypt is one of the largest (of roman style) in Italy.
In the main altar, you will find relics of the Saints venerated in Nonantola: Saint Anselm, Saint Hadrian III, the martyr Saint Senesius and Theopompus, and the virgin Saint Anseride and Fosca. And finally, in the left altar, the bones of Pope Saint Sylvester I are on display in an ornate glass box.
The Nonantola Abbey Museum
The Nonantola Abbey museum is located in the Abbatial Palace, the building of the ancient monastery. A part of this museum preserves some remarkable works of art that come from the Abbey. Then, the other part of the museum displays the abbey treasures that come from the Archdiocese of Modena and Nonantola, as well as from different parts of Italy.
Matilda of Canossa commissioned some of these treasures in 1108.
Indeed, the famous parchment is in a special exhibition, along with several other treasures from Nonantola’s past and present.
To be sure, the ancient Abbey continues to guide and promote the development of the art and culture of Nonantola and its people.
The Nonantola Abbey Treasure
The Nonantola Abbey treasure is at the heart of the museum. Here, you can see unique medieval works of art, like the case containing the wood of the Holy Cross. The silver arm with the relics of the arm of Pope Saint Sylvester the First. Other significant artifacts include the silver coffer with the antiques of the Saints Senesius and Theopompus, the ivory relic chest, and the exceptional fabric coming from the imperial factory of Constantinople.
The Famous Parchments
The Nonantola Abbey Museum shows famous parchments. Notably, the most important comes from the donation of Mathilda of Canossa dated 1108 with her signum. Also, the most famous parchment is the one from Charlemagne in the year 798. Famously, it bears the well-known monogram of the founder of The Holy Roman Empire.
The Medieval Manuscripts
The Museum at Nonantola Abbey holds both ancient manuscripts, handmade by the monks, in the scriptorium. For example., the one on display is the “Acta Sanctorum” (XI-XIII century), the “Gradual or Cantatorium” (XI century), a rare musical manuscript. Also, on display is the “Gospel of the Countess Mathilda of Canossa” (XI century) is one of the most precious Medieval manuscripts in the world.
The Art Collection
The most famous paintings in the Nonantola Abbey Art Collection is the Polyptych by Michele di Matteo Lambertini (1460) on a golden background with the Crucifixion and Madonna enthroned with Child, surrounded by Saints. Also, another remarkable artwork is Saint Carlo Borromeo by Ludovico Carracci (1613-1616), showing the Saint baptizing an infant during the plague.
Enjoy Nonantola Abbey from the Outside
After visiting the Nonantola Abbey museum, you can visit the apses. To be sure, these are the three original apses of the Benedictine Abbey. Indeed, the surface is made from red bricks and features elegant corbels underneath the roof and as markers at ground level.
Visiting Nonantola Abbey
The church at Nonantola Abbey is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm. Further, there are no visits during functions.
Also, the Nonantola Abbey museum is open from Tuesday to Thursday: 9:00 am to 12:00 pm. Then, Friday and Saturday 9:00 am to 12:00 pm. Finally, from 3:00 to 6:00 pm.
Nonantola Abbey Closed on Mondays.
For more information, you can contact: [email protected] or call: +39 059 549025
I hope this article inspired you to visit this remarkable site and feel immersed in the Northern Italian Medieval time.
Andrea was born and raised in Northern Italy. At the age of 30 he moved to Vancouver Canada. Over the years he traveled extensively in North America, Europe, Central America and Asia. He is passionate about traveling, cruising and travel photography. He likes to write about his traveling and shows his travel photos.