The Pieve di San Giovanni in Campiglia Marittima.
It's not my normal kind of thing to recommend that you visit a church and its graveyard in Maremma. That isn't to say that there aren't lots of lovely village churches or cathedrals for that matter to visit here, for there are. It is just that there are so many other wonderful things to do and see in Maremma and visiting churches is a bit of a particular hobby or pastime kind of thing.
So why visit this one? Well, because of its Knights Templar mystery. Because it is one of the most important "pieve" that have survived in Maremma. Because it was built by a sinner and declared as such in Romanesque lettering on its walls! And because it has two intriguing faces that look down upon you as you wander around!
And if they aren't enough reasons to visit, I don't know what are!
But for those amongst you planning a day out and still sitting on the fence as to whether to take a look or not, let me add that it comes with a gorgeous view of the coast, is just a few feet away from one of favourite places to visit: the very beautiful medieval "city of arches", Campiglia Marittima. One of Maremma's hill top towns that I never tire of visiting.
So, with no more introductions... La Pieve di San Giovanni. Which today serves as the chapel of Campiglia Marittima's cemetery.
I have always wanted to visit this church from the moment I first saw it in the distance from the highest point in Campiglia Marittima - the castle - sat on its raised platform and surrounded by its graveyard.
From here - and from the church - you can see the port and headland of the city of Piombino, with the Isola d'Elba behind it, and in the Tyrrhenian Sea the islands of Cerboli and Montecristo. Stunning scenery.
No wonder it has been described through the centuries as being without comparison.
But each time I had considered visiting it was closed due to restoration works. The restoration began in early 2010 and cost around one million two hundred thousand Euros, funded by both the Regione Toscana and the town of Campiglia Marittima.
Four hundred and ninety-five tombs were recovered and the interior floor of the church was returned to its original earthen state.
Despite the project including the restoration of the roof and gutters, there were many slipped slates from the roof crashed onto the grave slabs around the church when I visited.
The opportunity was also taken to enable an archaeological team from the University of Siena to inspect the site, which confirmed the presence of a burial ground before the construction of the current building.
The other Sunday at the end of February I had a couple of hours free and headed towards the beach, but the coast was overcast, so instead I turned inland and joined the road to Campiglia Marittima, up the hill, to see if I could visit the church.
The gates were open. Surprisingly to me I spent an hour and a half here just walking around and photographing, and looking for the SATOR stone, which I found. :)
But when I came to leave I found the wrought-iron gates to the grounds locked! I hadn't realised that there was an opening and closing time to the grounds; I had thought that they were just for the church itself. Which wasn't open when I visited, so I will have to go back to see inside.
Mild panic ensued! There was no way I was going to be able to mount and climb over the gates: they are twice my height and I could never even climb the ropes in gym class at school when I was much younger! Notwithstanding the whole, "bruta figura", thing in Italy: disgracing yourself in public just isn't done and I cannot imagine anything more humiliating than being caught looking like a vandal making a getaway from a religious site.
I was going to have to call my husband at home and tell him I was locked in a cemetery and could he and Sophia come and rescue me!
But then I noticed a large red button with a notice with the word "emergenza" written next to it, from which I manged to translate something along the lines of that if closed and an emergency, you had ten minutes to exit...
So I pushed it - ever ever so gently because I was half expecting a siren or something to go off! - and nothing happened! About to get my mobile phone out for sure, and the gates started to move, albeit very slowly, and I jumped out like a scared rabbit!
"Allora" - so then - a little word of advice. The opening and closing times are:
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday: 08:00 to 11:50 and 14:00 to 16:50.
Summer opening: up to 17:50 hours. (Check when you get there!)
During the "fesività dei defunti e dei santi" - festival of the dead and saint days - between 24 October and 4 November - from 08:00 to 17:00 (with no lunch time closures).
The church you see today is not the first to occupy this site. This one dates from the 12th century. The first church here is believed to be that mentioned in the Papal bull of Gregory VII written in 1075 to Guglielmo (William), the bishop of Populonia, in which he recalls a church of San Giovanni (Saint John) located between Vico Montanino e Guldo del Re" - between the mountain road and King's Wood.
Of Pisan Romanesque architecture with some "lucchese" (of Lucca) influences, the Pieve di San Giovanni shows some similarity to the church of San Giusto in Suvereto, especially in its Latin cross plan and wooden trussed roof.
You won't need to know much Italian to read the engravings on the tomb stones and monuments that date to the early 1800's. And your heart will probably ache on reading a few of the words when you establish that they are laments for children lost after only a couple of days or months of life.
The front door of the Pieve di San Giovanni, with Campiglia Marittima on the hill in the background.
The lunette above the door is framed with acanthus leaves, in its centre is a small rose with six rays.
The interesting thing about the front entrance is the inscription - in two parts - on stone slabs within the wall along either side of the door.
You can find them at the height of the top of the double doors. The major part on the immediate left of the dark stone decoration. And the smaller part on the right above the white stone decoration.
Written in Romanesque characters, it reads:
"mcsIII gra(tia) d(e)i hoc op(us) c(om)posuit pec||cator Matheus || o fr(atre)s d(eu)m orate ut ei dimittat c(om)missa peccata."
The words "Cator Matheus" are the ones cared on the right-hand side of the architrave, but they are part of the whole inscription.
The "Matheus" name within the inscription tells us that the builder of the church was one Master Matteo and that he was referred to as "pecator". A biblical reference to a sinner. Interesting.
The translation reads:
"The sinner Matthew achieved this work through the grace of God: O Brothers, pray God, so that He will forgive the sins committed."
And, depending upon the interpretation of the letter, "s", in the "mcsIII", the date of construction is given as either 1109, 1163, or 1173. The Pieve di San Giovanni is considered most probably to be of the second half of the twelfth century, which the date within the Sator plaque (see below) of 1177, along with its second reference to Matheus, would confirm.
One theory is that the letter "s" stands for the number 6, giving the date of construction as the year 1109. But more recent studies consider the "s" to be an abbreviation of the number 70, arguing the the date is therefore 1173. Don't you love it when there is still some mystery left?
But it is the side entrance on the left wall of the church that is the most interesting and much revered. Let me take you closer.
Let's start with the lintel then.
Mythological Greece in Campiglia Marittima! The lintel is of marble and its carvings are of Meleager (Meléagros in Greek) and his Calydonian Boar Hunt, the "Caccia di Meleagro di Cinghiale Caleidonio".
For a long time - and it is still reported as such in guide books on religious architecture of this part of Maremma - it was thought that the architrave was originally part of an ancient sarcophagus. More recently, however, scholars have concluded that it is a typical piece of Romanesque art.
The classical Christian interpretation of this ancient Greek myth is of the wild boar as the devil and Meleagro and the hunters are Christ and his followers.
The Calydonian Hunt is told in four parts.
The scene should be read from left to right: the hunting and finding of the wild boar.
The wounding and killing of the boar and then the transportation of the dead animals.
The two lions on either side of the lunette hold a dragon and a human figure in their claws.
The lion on the left-hand side.
The lion on the right.
When I saw this close-up on my computer at home it gave me the creeps! I don't know if the human once had a head in this sculpture (and my research literature doesn't say), but I don't like the way its hands are clawing at the lion. I can only surmise that if it had a head the lion has eaten it! UGH!
The headless eagle - a celestial creature - is said to represent San Giovanni - Saint John the Baptist.
Together, the Calydonian hunt, the two lions, and the eagle, tell a message of victory over sin, of the subduing of earthly power.
I have seen faces in the decorations of churches before, but these two intriguing ones above the window in the centre of the semicircular apse of the back of the church are something I have never seen before. Their orientation and form look more like theatre masks of comedy and tragedy: the ancient Greek Muses of Thalia (the laughing face) and Melpomene (the weeping face). Except that here neither appear to be particularly laughing or crying.
This grave slab looked strangely out of place - I don't mean physically, it had been re-buried into the floor surrounding the church after the restoration like all of the others. But in its decoration: somewhat macabre, it stands out amongst the sad words that tell of loved ones lost, and statues of children.
This symbol is without dispute as to its meaning: it was used as a reminder of the mortality of man.
But these "Momento mori" as they are known, are actually quite rare.
And the skull and crossbones is a recognised symbol of the Knights Templar. Engraved upon the tomb stones of Knights in Scotland who fled there from France in 1307, where they maintained their order for another four centuries. (Click on the Knights Templar trail link at the bottom of this page for more information.)
But it isn't for this grave slab that the church is considered by some to be a Knights Templar site. One obvious reason is that this stone is dated 1895, more than five centuries after they had ceased to exist in Tuscany.
The Pieve di San Giovanni is considered by some to be a Knights Templar church because of its SATOR square - in Italian the "quadrato del Sator".
You can see it on the outer wall of the left transept, high up under the eaves just around the corner from the third of the churches doors, the one thought to have been used by the clergy. It took me a while to find as I didn't know of its location when I was there, so to make things easy for you, here it is :)
I have enhanced the colour of the blocks of Alberese limestone with which the church was built to make the inscription easier to read, but in any event, they are a lovely grey and blue colour.
The letters in the four-times palindrome Sator, or Rotas square, can be rearranged into a Greek cross within which can be read both horizontally and vertically the two words "Pater Noster", which translated are "Our Father". It is believed by some researchers of the Knights Templar to be one of the markings they used to indicate their presence to each other in a city without exposing themselves. Others have cited it as the Templar code used to conceal the Treasure of Solomon.
On the other hand, many prefer to consider the Sator as a magical script that is meant to offer protection against fire, extinguishing it without water.
More information on the Knights Templar trail page.
The Sator plaque - square on the Pieve di San Giovanni isn't square like some others, but reads:
"sator arepo m(a)the(u)s tenet opera rotas MCSSV"
The initials "MTHS" refer to the builder, Matteo, and a date that is difficult to read has been interpreted as the year 1177.
The hill town of Campiglia Marittima is a beauty. Located in Maremma Livornese territory it is crammed full of medieval streets that go up and down and up and down and will have you lost in no time at all... Nearly all the signs point in every direction to its castle at its highest point.
But you won't care because the place is stunning and there are picturesque tiny "piazze" (squares) to sit in and watch the world go by as you eat a gelato, drink an espresso, or sip and early evening aperitivo.
I always take my visitors to Campiglia Marittima and they love the place too :)
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