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S. Vito alla Rivera:

A Parish Church at the Edge of L'Aquila


[image ALT: A view of the church of S. Vito in L' Aquila, Abruzzo (central Italy). It is a small building, about 6 meters tall, seen face on, and thus reduced to a more or less square façade: squared stone masonry in courses of varying heights, with a single arched door framed by slender columns, and above the door, a very plain circular window. The tile rood can barely be made out as such, since it is flat and all we see is the ends of the semi-cylindrical tiles, supported by a a thin band of blind arcading.]

With its very plain façade crowned by blind arcading, its round-arched single door and a plain rose window above it — here missing its spokes, as often happens — the church of S. Vito is a classic example of Abruzzo Gothic.

[Chapter 2 of Luigi Serra's L' Aquila gives several other examples of the style, in particular the churches of S. Giusta and S. Silvestro; as well as a view of this same façade of S. Vito with less camera parallax.]

This little medieval church stands at the very edge of the city of L' Aquila, facing onto the Fontana delle 99 Cannelle, just across a narrow street that winds its way thru the Rivera, one of the many hamlets that grew together to form the city. It's a small structure: like many of the town's churches, it was independently built by its hamlet just large enough to serve its own inhabitants.

A medieval church it is, but earthquakes have repeatedly worked harm to L' Aquila, and what you see here is not quite what it seems: the church collapsed in the Great Earthquake of 1703, and was rebuilt, in part with new stone, so that what I photographed in 2004 is not the 14c building it appears to be, but an 18c reconstruction. Sad to say, five years after my photo, this 18c church too became history, when the earthquake of April 6, 2009 brought much of the façade down. Rebuilt yet again, S. Vito reopened for worship in June 2017.

[image ALT: A somewhat dingy semicircular fresco, occupying the tympanum over a door, bounded by a recessed archivolt and supported by a stone lintel The fresco depicts a crowned Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child; to their right, a young man holding a small cross; to their left, a bearded older man. It is the lunette over the main door of the church of S. Vito in L' Aquila, Abruzzo (central Italy).]

The lunette over the door is a fresco no earlier than the 18c or maybe even the 19c: the Virgin Mary flanked by St. Vitus to her right and the Blessed John of God to her left.

The Blessed Virgin is depicted here as Our Lady of Good Health, as we see by the banner above her head, that reads S. Maria della Sanità. It is a common (and old) invocation — see for example the much older chapel of the Madonna della Sanità near Città della Pieve in Umbria. St. Vitus is the patron saint of the church, and John of God was the founder of the religious mendicant hospital order, still at work today, that formally bears his name but is best known as the Fatebenefratelli: the order took over the church and its annex buildings in 1599. It was a good place to put a hospital: much like the Madonna della Sanità in Umbria, it's a short ways out of town — just outside the walls, actually — which helps to control contagion; and it's right next to the 99‑spout fountain, an excellent source of fresh water.

[image ALT: The lower part of four jambs on the dexter side of a door of a stone building. It is a detail of the main door of the church of S. Vito in L' Aquila, Abruzzo (central Italy).]

Notice the unusual design of the jamb splays.

The Sundials

Nicely visible, two sundials, dated to the 18c by Italian sundial expert Nicola Severino, on the grounds of the style of the lettering; consistent with the rebuilding of the church after the earthquake of 1703. They are declining sundials, i.e., sundials on a vertical wall not oriented to one of the cardinal points. Here, as you will see from the shadow cast at local noon, the wall must (and of course does!) face roughly SE.

And yes, by sheer happenstance, I took these photos just three minutes past noon local solar time. Absent-minded as I am, I'm proud that I had the presence of mind to turn on my camera's clock: it reads 13:09, or 1:09 P.M. standard summer time; this is turn is 12:09 Central European Time, and the longitude of L'Aquila being 13°22′40ʺ E, local solar time is earlier by just under 6½ minutes than that of the CET meridian at 15° E: thus the local solar time was 12:03 P.M. If the shadow of the gnomon sticks out a bit farther past the noon line than that, it's because on August 27 the Equation of Time makes an uncorrected sundial fast by 9 minutes.


[image ALT: A detail view of the upper part of a stone building of regular courses of squared blocks of varying widths, on which an array of diagonal lines has been lightly carved, tagged with carved numbers running from 10 to 22. It is the Italian hours sundial on the façade of the church of S. Vito in L' Aquila, Abruzzo (central Italy).]

The Italian hours sundial.

"Italian hours" is the name given to a system of numbering the solar hours of the day from sunset of the day before; here the solstices and equinoxes are not marked by their astronomical symbols, but of course the equinoctial line is the same, as is the noon line, marked M D (Italian Mezzo Dì, Latin Meridies: MidDay).


[image ALT: A detail view of the upper part of a stone building of regular courses of squared blocks of varying widths, on which an array of diagonal lines has been lightly carved, tagged with carved numbers running from 5 to 12, as well as the astronomical symbols for Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn. It is the astronomical sundial on the façade of the church of S. Vito in L' Aquila, Abruzzo (central Italy).]

The astronomical sundial.

The numbers here tell the hours of the day as we normally think of them. The equinoctial line runs from  Aries at the top to  Libra lower right; the dial is also marked for the summer solstice in  Cancer and the winter solstice in  Capricorn.


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Site updated: 28 Nov 17