The Basilian-Byzantine complexes in Calabria constitute a group of religious buildings that not only testify to the "Byzantisation" of the Italian peninsula, through the military campaigns of reconquest conducted by Constantinople, but also to the spread of Eastern monasticism.
Following the Graeco-Gothic War (535-553), and until the arrival of the Normans, Calabria's destiny was linked to the fortunes of the Eastern Empire, although Byzantine domination was broken in the ninth century by the Lombards, who annexed the area of Cosenza to the Duchy of Benevento. Consequently, while Montecassino Benedictine monasticism became established in the rest of the Lombard South, the Byzantine area of Italy was instead influenced by Eastern monasticism. Hermits devoted to the isolated quest for God had inhabited the Syrian and Egyptian deserts since the fourth century. Subsequently, groups of anchorites introduced cenobitic monasticism, whose first rule was drawn up by the Egyptian monk Pachomius (292-c. 346) and later developed by Saint Basil the Great (330-c. 346). One of the Fathers of the Greek Church, Basil gave Eastern monasticism a systematic order and a rule that constituted a true theoretical and organisational principle.
Ever since the seventh century Calabria had been a refuge for Monothelite monks fleeing the eastern provinces of the Empire to escape the Arab and Persian invasions. The phenomenon reached such large proportions as to characterise this area reconquered from Lombard rule by the Eastern Imperial troops. Consequently Byzantine Calabria underwent a slow process of orientalisation of all forms of religious life (rites, cults and liturgy), which accompanied the remarkable spread of churches and monasteries, founded by Eastern monks, that preserved and transmitted the Greek and Hellenistic tradition.
In obedience to the teachings of Saint Basil the Great, the monks also maintained the right balance of manual work alongside the contemplative - and often eremitic - life, giving rise to authentic centres of production, which left their mark on the economy of the places where the monasteries where located.
These rock-hewn or sub divo religious buildings, are extremely austere, due to the particular Eastern religious spirit. Consequently, their sculptural and pictorial decoration is exceptionally sober, depicting only sacred events and images: Christ, the Virgin and the Saints.
This was the context (whose chronological boundaries can be taken as the ninth and the twelfth centuries) for the construction of various monuments, which subsequently underwent important changes following the arrival of the great Western monastic orders and their monasteries.
The Cattolica monastery in Stilo is the most representative of the Byzantine Basilian monuments. At the time of its construction, Stilo was the leading Byzantine centre of the region and a magnet for hermits and Basilian monks, who found shelter in its caves, creating an extremely important rock settlement in the area. This is the context for the Cattolica monastery, built between the tenth and eleventh centuries - a tiny red-brick structure set into the mountain, which replicates a type of religious building common in the Peloponnesus, Armenia and Anatolia. The church has a Greek cross plan inscribed within a square and three apses symmetrically arranged around a central dome. The vaults are supported by columns plundered from ancient buildings in Magna Graecia, which rest on bases formed by upturned capitals.
The interior space is divided into nine equal squares, without favouring the central area, as in the contemporary church of San Marco in Rossano Calabro. The elevation shows a little triapsidal cube built of brick, topped by five small domes encased in cylindrical drums with brick facing. The layout of the building follows the quincunx model, in which the architectural elements are arranged in the same manner as the number five on a die. The external brick decoration is very fine.
Other important examples of Basilian architecture:
S. Maria della Roccella in Squillace (province of Catanzaro), situated close to the sea. This single-nave church features a raised transept that is connected by a great arch flanked by two smaller and narrower ones, a stepped presbytery and a crypt divided into three choirs. No trace of the roof remains. The plan of the end section is evidently a derivation of the Cluny II type, while the abbey building belongs to the Western Romanesque architectural tradition, enabling it to be dated to the eleventh century, before the fusion of the Eastern Basilian culture with the Western Benedictine one.
San Giovanni Teresti in Bivongi (province of Reggio Calabria) takes its name from the monk known as John Theristus (meaning "Harvester") who fled the Islamic persecutions of tenth-eleventh century Sicily. It features a long, narrow nave preceded by a quadrangular atrium. Inside the church, a pointed triumphal arch connects the nave to the tripartite presbytery. The aisles, roofed with cross vaults, communicate with the nave through round arches, while an exceptionally high dome rises above the nave, characterising the exterior of the church.
All that remains of the old complex of Santa Maria del Pathirion in Rossano (province of Cosenza), (1101-1105, twelfth century) - one of the finest Basilian monasteries of the region - is the basilica-plan church with a nave and two aisles and a triapsidal presbytery. The nave is divided by sandstone columns without capitals that support ogival arches. The raised presbytery is divided into three apses, while the mosaic floor bearing a mid-twelfth-century inscription features rotae motifs containing figures of animals.
The church of San Marco in Rossano (province of Cosenza) stands on a rocky bank. The compact building features a Greek cross plan inscribed within a square, broken only by three identical semicircular apses. The corners are topped by four small domes of the same size, dominated by a central one with a higher drum, reflecting the interior volumes on the exterior of the building.
The church of Santa Filomena in Santa Severina (province of Crotone) has a rectangular plan with eastern apse. It is covered by a ridged roof topped with a dome with tall cylindrical drum, decorated with blind arches with slender columns, which rises above the presbytery. The same building currently incorporates two chapels, one above the other. Inside the lower church, an arch separates the naos from the bema, where the altar is housed in a rectangular niche, while the prothesis and diaconicon are located to the sides. The upper church is similar, although it ends in a central apse covered by a barrel vault connected to the cupola. The plan dates to the ninth-eleventh century.
The Baptistery in Santa Severina (province of Crotone), variously dated to the eighth-ninth century and the seventh-ninth century, is centrally planned with cylindrical main body topped by an octagonal drum, surmounted by a blind lantern. A closed wing to the southwest and a shorter one to the southeast make it possible to hypothesise an original Greek cross plan. A circle of eight columns support a gored dome, enclosed within the drum, which is also octagonal. The columns are connected to the outer wall by monolithic brackets. Fragments of frescoes can still be seen on the outer walls.
Satements of authenticity and/or integrity
The largely original and intact surviving elements of these monuments, with their authentic architectural designs and original structures, make them important vestiges, despite the changes determined by different cultural needs and the evolution of artistic canons over the subsequent ages, often in conjunction with repair work carried out following catastrophic events.
All the monuments are legally protected under the national legislative provisions (Legislative Decree n° 42/2004 "Code for Heritage and Landscape") and municipal and regional provisions (through city planning), as well as by the management mechanisms that ensure their conservation
Comparison with other similar properties
Bertaux (1904) defined the Cattolica monastery as an authentic Byzantine church transplanted in Italy.
The origins of the iconographic scheme adopted in the church, and also in the church of San Marco in Rossano, are to be found in Cretan churches and Anatolian buildings, but the Greek influence is limited to the decorative repertoire of the façade alone: sawtooth cornice, thick mortar beds and lozenge-shaped bricks. Nothing similar is to be found in Western medieval architecture, nor is it possible to draw comparisons with the well-known examples in Ravenna, for these monumental representations of the renewed imperial power contrast strongly with the characteristics and small, intimate spaces of Basilian monastic architecture.
Santa Maria della Roccella in Squillace can be compared with the churches of Montevilliers, Cognat, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert (France), Bodrum Cami and Fener Isa Cami (Constantinople) and the Palatine chapel and Martorana church (Palermo), while the church of Santa Filomena in Santa Severina is comparable to the churches of Armenia and Georgia, and the Baptistery in Santa Severina can be likened to the Baptistery in Nocera and that of Santa Fosca in Torcello.