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Greek Abbey of Grottaferrata: discovering a place of ancient origin

Off the beaten track

Greek Abbey of Grottaferrata: discovering a place of ancient origin

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Down Grottaferrata’s main avenue, the abbey complex may appear like a proper fifteenth-century fortress to the visitor who is unaware of its history: it holds a church, founded in 1004 and built on the ruins of a Roman villa, whose cryptoporticus is still preserved and overlooks the St Mark’s valley lying behind.

The Greek abbey was founded in 1004 by monks Nilus of Rossano and his pupil Bartholomew, who reached this place with their brothers after a long journey from Calabria, set out to escape the Saracens invasion.

The Greek abbey of Grottaferrata, that hostes a community of basilian monks of Italian-Byzantine rite, was dedicated in 1024; to this day, they still use the Greek language, and their ceremonies, that follow the Italian-Byzantine rite, are full of charm, especially during the Holy Week.

The most ancient core consists in a chapel built before the basilica with recycled scrap materials and in a Crypta Ferratam, namely with iron bars on the windows. Apparently, that’s where the name of the town, Grottaferrata, comes from.

 

Thanks to the 1930s restoration works, the abbey was released from the superfetations that had distorted its look, and after the reconstruction of the façade with the original rose window, has now a porch that contains a baptismal font with allegorical scenes.

 

The interior shows few preserved marks of the old Romanesque decoration, and reflects instead its sumptuous eighteenth-century phase, with some significant elements: from the Cosmati style floor with a porphyry disc, similar to the ones inside the Pantheon or in the Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin, to the twelfth-century frescos on the triumphal arch that portray the scene of the Pentecost, and the ruins of overlying medieval frescos with the Holy Trinity and the heavenly hosts of Angels and Prophets.

The Greek abbey of Saint Nilus, which we highly recommend you to visit, holds in store other remarkable surprises: first of all an iconostasis by Bernini with white marble angels carrying the ancient and probably Byzantine icon of the Madonna Theotòkos, mother of God, portrayed like Odighìtria (the one that guides), preserved from the beginning in Saint Nilus abbey and still object of devotions.

A second point of interest comes into sight walking down the left aisle: the magnificent Farnese Chapel, in former times devoted to the Saints Martyrs Natalia and Adrian, enriched in 1609 by Cardinal Farnese with frescos by Domenichino showing an episode that occurred during the building of the church, when Saint Bartholomew saved a monk who was about to be killed by a falling column and with the portrayal of the encounter between Saint Nilus and Emperor Otto III in Sèrperi (Gaeta). The figures actually hide the identity of historical personalities, among which Domenichino himself with his lover, Guercino and Monsignor Agucchi.

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