The cultural landscape of the Benedictine settlements in medieval Italy

Date of Submission: 18/03/2016
Criteria: (ii)(v)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Italy to UNESCO
Ref.: 6107


Subiaco Benedectine Complex:


S. Benedetto Monastery

41°55'00.7"N 13°07'05.4"E

S. Scolastica Monastery

41°55'06.4"N 13°06'39.6"E

Montecassino Complex

41°29'27.9"N 13°48'50.6"E

San Vincenzo al Volturno Abbey:


San Vincenzo Abbey

41°38'60.0"N 14°05'16.3"E

Archaeological area of Volturno

41°38'55.3"N 14°04'58.8"E 

San Pietro al Monte Church

45°50'05.2"N   9°19'09.7"E 

Sacra di San Michele Complex

45°05'52.1"N   7°20'35.5"E 

San Vittore alle Chiuse di Genga Complex

43°24'08.2"N 12°58'14.3"E 

Sant’Angelo in Formis Abbey

41°07'05.6"N 14°15'37.6"E

Santa Maria di Farfa Abbey

42°13'17.7"N 12°43'06.1"E 

The proposed site includes eight medieval Benedictine settlements, selected throughout Italy, which, as a whole, represent a cultural phenomenon born in the Italian peninsula and spread out through the medieval Europe. The nomination focuses on medieval monastic experience in Europe and the decisive role of Benedict of Norcia and his Rule. This rule radiated from Italy throughout the Latin West and gave birth to a monasticism that deeply affected Europe’s intellectual and political formation, the development of the continent’s cultural heritage, landscape and artistic tradition.

The Benedictine Rule prompts monks to an open confrontation with ‘Creation’ and the Earth. These great abbeys - with their inseparable combination of prayer and work on which the Benedictine tradition synthesized its characters - had an effective impact on the landscape and on the rural populations throughout the Middle Ages, spurring forms of civilization and life conditions. The renewal of the monastic experience also contributed to the development of medieval architecture, while the Gregorian Reform and the Cluniac Reforms of the late eleventh century offered further incentives to the development of Romanesque art and architecture.

The manuscript tradition and the recovery of specific knowledge are evident contributions offered by the monasteries for the transmission of the classical cultural heritage. This knowledge also involved architecture as spiritual spaces and the arts as material and figurative vehicles for religious messages. Many of the selected monuments show decorations of outstanding value, which attest the contacts and the artistic traditions of the monastic patrons and craftsmen. Therefore, the Benedictine monasticism represents an excellent example of cultural interchanges and coexistence in the world’s history, reflected and preserved in the architecture and art of medieval Europe.

The Subiaco Benedictine Complex, where St. Benedict spent three years of life as a hermit, was founded at the time of Gregory the Great and was supported by this same pope. It represents the most important witness of the early Benedictine monastic settlements. Its superb architecture perched on a cliff overlooking the Mount Taleo distinguishes itself through a unique mix of uneven walls, stairs and chapels cut into the rocks.

In 529 St. Benedict himself founded the Montecassino complex, where he wrote his Rule. Despite the number of destructions and reconstructions - the most important one executed under the abbot Desiderio - the complex is one of the most representative examples of regular and uniform Benedictine abbey, perfectly adhering to the canons of cenobitic life. This great abbey, as a living example of Benedictine monasticism, with its library - rich in manuscripts - and with its many surviving artworks, is a key place for the formation and transmission of culture in Europe.

Thanks to its prolific scriptorium, the San Vincenzo al Volturno Abbey was a remarkable center of cultural transmission. The site testifies to the architectural changes that took place in three distinct phases of construction: the Lombard/Carolingian phase, attested by the basilica of San Vincenzo Maggiore which reproduces the form and structure of the early Christian basilicas of Rome; the Ottonian phase, and finally the Romanesque phase, represented by the complex of San Vincenzo Nuovo, as the result of the specific impact of the Gregorian Reform on the ecclesiastical architecture. The crypt of Abbot Epifanio with its frescoes is an important example of ninth century’s Benedictine art in Central Italy.

The San Pietro al Monte Church at Civate (Lecco) is a striking example of the Lombard Romanesque. It testifies the cultural relationships between the territories North and South of the Alps. Founded during the last decades of the Lombard kingdom, it contains original architectural solutions - developed between the tenth and eleventh centuries - showing a particular feeling toward the Late Antique tradition. The special relationship with the surrounding landscape, protected by the presence of a regional natural park, makes this complex one of the best-preserved Benedictine settlements of Italy.

The Sacra di San Michele complex (Sant’Ambrogio, Turin), with its surrounding landscape, represents a strikingly example of how Romanesque architecture unites withits surrounding, alpine setting. Founded by St. Romuald between 983 and 987, the current monument was built between 1099 and 1131: a bold structure - masterpiece of the medieval genius - supported by an impressive artificial basement, whose stones are mixed with the rocks of Mount Pirchiriano. The complex rises on a rocky outcropping at the mouth of the Susa Valley, important route of communication between the Italian peninsula and Europe.

The complex of San Vittore alle Chiuse di Genga complex (1058-1098), founded in an isolated position within the Marche Apennines, is an outstanding example of transmission of culture and architectural knowledge, a place of interchanges between the Eastern Byzantine and the German European traditions. Based on a model of Byzantine origin, the building shows a Greek cross plan, while the façade - with its central portion linking the two towers at the corners - is an evident revival of the Germanic westwerk.

The Sant’Angelo in Formis Abbey, near Capua, shows several references to the early Christian basilicas of Rome and to the Byzantine Eastern culture. The Benedictine community settled there permanently in 1072, thanks to the intervention of Desiderio, abbot of Monte Cassino, and Richard I, Prince of Capua. The cycle of frescoes preserved inside the church represents the most important figurative document of the eleventh century Campanian-Cassinian culture, as a precious evidence of renewal of the local culture that took place in parallel with the Gregorian reform, and by virtue of the arrival of Byzantine craftsmen.

The prestigious Santa Maria di Farfa Abbey, founded around the last two decades of the seventh century, became an imperial monastery, protected by the Carolingian dynasty and released from the papal control. The fragments of frescoes discovered in the semicircular crypt are rare witness of the Carolingian culture. The abbey houses an ancient library -among the richest in Europe until the twelfth century - with its significant scriptorium, famous for the Romanesca Farfense script.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The monastic experience - as the total dedication of the human being toward the internal search aimed to live and to experience the participation to the transcendental reality - is a universal phenomenon. This phenomenon provides outstanding models of intellectual and social life, characterized by the balance between individual and community, the respect for diversity and the harmony between man and nature.

The medieval Italian Benedictine settlements that make up the serial property constitute the highest and more representative material evidence of the Benedictine monasticism, a phenomenon that, radiating from Italy and beyond, had a deep effect on the intellectual and cultural development, shaping the medieval Mediterranean civilizations and contributing, since the Carolingian period, to the intellectual, political and economic development of modern Europe and to the formation of the Romanesque art and architecture.

Fitting harmoniously into the natural environment, the monasteries - outstanding complex in themselves for architectural and artistic quality - offer a model of coexistence, sustainable development and conservation of the environment, providing a valuable message for the contemporary society and for the future generations, who can draw the essential values for their human and intellectual formation.

The great abbeys also constituted important cultural centers, in which the universal heritage of knowledge was recovered, preserved and spread through exchanges and acquisitions as the primary investments for the construction of the future.

Criterion (ii): The Benedictine settlements in the cultural landscape of medieval Italy represent an exceptional example of a phenomenon that provides a model of intellectual and social life, characterized by the respect for diversity and the balance between individual and community and between man and nature.

The relationship between spirituality and work (labor) – at the base of the Benedictine experience - materializes in the selected architectures and in their relationship with the environment, giving a significant contribution to the development of the architecture and the landscape.

Criterion (v): The Benedictine monasteries, by placing themselves in their natural milieu in a mutual/dialectical way, have provided a model of coexistence, sustainable development and environmental conservation.  They have characterized the natural spaces in which they arise.  These complexes distinguish themselves through a respectful human presence, transforming nature into a cultural space in which man cultivates a harmonious balance with nature.

Criterion (vi): The great Benedictine abbeys constituted outstanding centers of cultural education, in which the universal heritage of knowledge was recovered in the scriptoria, accurately preserved in libraries and spread through book exchange and acquisition as a primary investment in the future.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity


The importance of the Benedictine phenomenon in the Middle Ages is evident in a number of reliable sources and in the European history itself. The compelling authenticity of the phenomenon is demonstrated by the remarkable continuity of traditions, thanks to the present day monastic presence that has perpetuated for centuries as a possible model of humanity and sustainable development.

The conservation of the landscape and the preservation of the monuments in their material aspects and in their relationship with the natural environment is the result of a centuries-old spiritual tradition and sentiment. The monastic settlements in their monumental and natural landscape are also special documents of an artistic, innovative and authentic language, the Romanesque phenomenon, where heterogeneous building traditions are combined in a new synthesis of forms and spaces. The consistency of original architectural structures is also guaranteed by the presence - in most of the monuments - of medieval sculptural programs, paintings and stuccos.


The eight selected settlements represent in full measure all the features that characterized the phenomenon of Benedictine monasticism, from its birth to its development in the Middle Ages, especially during the Romanesque period.

The series of monuments as a whole contains all the necessary elements to express the outstanding universal value, from the first settlements in inaccessible and suggestive places, to the regulated and uniform architectures, in which each single component combines in an original way its relationship with the natural environment, its artistic elements - sculptures and paintings - and becames an integral part of the Benedictine cultural landscape.

Each component preserves the intact physiognomy of the landscape and the original architectural forms, its relations with the environment, its uses and functions. This is guaranteed by the continuity of the civil and religious traditions, despite the changes in social dynamics, values and ideologies. The eight settlements include a large segment of territory historically linked to the Benedictine settlements, able to express the dialogue between the monument and its natural surroundings.

Comparison with other similar properties

On a national level, theSacred Mountains of Piedmont and Lombardy” has similarities with the series of Benedictine monasteries, being a consistent set of places of worship characterized by the special relationship between architecture and the surrounding landscape. Nevertheless, in the first case - which is not a medieval property - this character acquires a peculiar devotional significance, linked with the pilgrimage, while the Benedictine monasticism represents a much broader and fundamental phenomenon, where the devotional significance is inherent in its very origin.

On an international level, the Benedictine monasteries would complete the picture of a universal and worldwide phenomenon related to the monasticism and represented by outstanding examples of religious buildings, which are included in the World Heritage List due to their importance in the history of the religion and in the diffusion of the monasticism.

In the Eastern territories, the most significant examples are the Armenian monasteries (Monastery of Geghard and the Upper Azat Valley, Monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin) and the Buddhist monasteries (Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi, India; Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area, Japan).

With regard to the monastic phenomenon in the West, the WHL shows some sites, such as Mont-Saint-Michel and its Bay, Monastic Island of Reichenau, Abbey of St Gall, containing individual Benedictine monasteries. Their outstanding value is represented by the important role they assumed in the development of religious architecture, and by their libraries and scriptoria as centers for the spreading of culture. For the same reason, other properties not currently in the WHL might be considered, such as the Cluny Abbey (France); the Citeaux Abbey (France); the Orval Abbey (Netherlands); the Melk Abbey (Austria). However, their values are strongly expressed by the Italian complexes, which represent the outstanding historical and material evidence linked to the birth and development of the Benedictine and western monastic tradition, as well as its historical and cultural continuity from the Middle Ages to the present day. The Benedictine settlements of medieval Italy are indeed the most genuine witnesses of the phenomenon in its entirety, in its broadest cultural dimension, in the development of the landscape, in the evolution of religious architecture and in the transmission of knowledge throughout Europe.