Italian art: Below Gemona Cathedral

Apr 20, 2019 317

Below the sacristy of the Cathedral in Gemona, a town in Friuli Venezia Giulia, near the splendid Cividale del Friuli, a few metres from a door of the ancient city walls, an underground complex was opened to the public in March, hidden for centuries between the foundations of the church: a discovery that surprised archaeologists and amazed the inhabitants of the Friulian town.

A small door along the wall of the sacristy leads to the staircase that goes down to some underground rooms already equipped. The first are two spectacular rooms covered with frescoes of the first half of the fourteenth century depicting stories of St. Michael the Archangel and St. John the Baptist and a Crucifixion likely work of the Gemona born Nicolò di Marcuccio, who contributed to the decoration of the cathedral.

The restoration of the paintings is almost complete, directly under the supervision of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage. This was the last intervention before it was opened to the public. Meanwhile, the lower room of the lapidary has been completed, together  with the very complex one, in which the ossuary was recovered: a crypt incorporated in the foundations of the Duomo eight meters below the churchyard. In that space, which remained empty for centuries, the bones exhumed from the old cemetery of the Duomo had been piled up in bulk. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Napoleonic laws had imposed the closure of urban cemetery areas and so, in 1825, the ossuary was filled with earth, sealed and forgotten.

The 1976 earthquake in Friuli caused the collapse of the entire right aisle and the roof of the Duomo: during the excavation for the consolidation of the structures and foundations, the existence of the crypt was discovered, which remained underground waiting for the reconstruction of Gemona, then destroyed, to be completed. In 2008, work began to highlight and study the hidden treasure that also preserves unpublished elements of local history. The Duomo has a long past marked by earthquakes and reconstructions. The current building, consecrated in 1337 and one of the greatest examples of medieval Gothic architecture in Friuli, replaces and expands a previous church built between the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The facade was remodeled after the severe earthquake of 1348 and again in 1429 and later. The last maintenance works were recently completed and above all the excavation of the ossuary proved to be particularly long and laborious: preventive probing, removal layer by layer, sieved ground, every finding catalogued and studied. Thousands of bones were mixed in the 180 square metres of earth removed and among these ceramic fragments from different eras that gave information on the origins of the people buried.

Among the human remains have also emerged small coins of various metals produced in the mints of Veneto, but also German and Hungarian, which reveal the trade routes of the time: the change in use from the twelfth century onwards.

Waiting for the end of the pictorial restorations, the hypogeum complex is already open to receive visitors: a few steps below the surface is the sacellum, below is the lapidary and at the bottom of a spiral staircase is the restored ossuary crypt. Hundreds of skulls and thousands of bones are composed and arranged on a vertical wall of several metres: almost an installation of contemporary art.

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