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Better Late than Never:
Rescuing the Church of S. Nicolò

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There has been a church of St. Nicholas of Bari on this site, as far as anyone can tell, since the fourth century — shortly after the saint's death. Such a church is certainly mentioned as existing in 1089. In 1263, the Augustinians (that is, the Hermits of St. Augustine, not to be confused with the Augustinian Canons), who were quartered at S. Salvatore near Spoleto's cemetery, were granted use of the church and moved into town. They quickly arranged the acquisition of the nearby church of S. Massimo, demolished both, and in 1304 (or 1309, according to some scholars) started building on the expanded site, laying the first stone of what you see here, an austere, cavernous edifice dedicated to Nicholas, Maximus, and Augustine.

The next four centuries saw S. Nicolò become a center of spiritual and intellectual life in Spoleto, in the tradition for which Augustinians are still known today. A convent grew around the church, with a large 14c cloister, then a smaller one in the 15c; the complex was decorated with frescoes and oil paintings; it was a meeting-place of the pious and the erudite: writers, artists, theologians. In 1512 for example Martin Luther stayed here.

What exactly happened in the 17c, I don't know, but S. Nicolò's days of glory are definitely behind it. By 1715 only six monks remained. Around 1745, Spanish soldiers caused a fair amount of damage. In 1767, a major earthquake caused more. About forty years later, the congregation threw in the towel and abandoned S. Nicolò; and once they'd left, who was there to care? In 1823 the church was being used as a grange for storing hay; predictably, in 1849 it finally caught fire and the roof collapsed. In 1873, against a background of anticlericalism promoted by the new secular government of a united Italy, the belfry was demolished. The end of the 19c saw it used to store scrap metal, then as an electric sub-station. In 1900, it was a truffle market. In 1905, a foundry for repairing steam engines. Then a few decades of neglect.

It would have been a great shame to watch the church fall into utter ruin, but it was a very possible fate seen elsewhere all the time. S. Nicolò was fortunate though, and in 1960, local and regional governments started once again to take interest in the site. Alas, the door is unlocked only on special occasions, and only for a select few: rather than being returned to its proper use as a church, S. Nicolò currently serves as an occasional convention hall, with modern audiovisual facilities and booths for simultaneous interpreters. If you are lucky, you may attend an international conference here, or an opera production. If not, like me, you'll see the façade — the trees above conceal some nice sculpture (for which see p2) — and move on.

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September 1998: restoration work on the main cloister. The restoration is now complete; for a sample of the results, see page 3.

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Site updated: 16 Feb 07