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Fragile Beauty

The Abbey Church of S. Stefano in Manciano

[image ALT: The vault of a ruined church, seen upwards from the ground: a large hole in the vault and another in one of the supporting walls shows the sky and trees. It is a view of the church of S. Stefano in Manciano, Umbria (central Italy).]

The vault over the place of the altar.

This page has been difficult, even painful, to write: we are looking at one of the most beautiful small abbey churches in central Italy, and we may be the last people to see it. And while I fear these pages are merely documenting the last years of a ruin, yet I hope they will spur someone — maybe you, gentle reader — to restore a church.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is a view of the church of S. Stefano in Manciano, Umbria (central Italy).]

The interior, looking due W, back toward the front doors. Blocking the doors with concrete has prevented the collapse of the façade.

The church of S. Stefano, in a pocket of woods in the hills NE of Trevi, was built at some time in the twelfth century; why exactly, and for whom, no one knows precisely, although we do know that the abbey to which it was attached was Benedictine, and the names of a few of its abbots have survived.

The monastery did not prosper long, though: by the mid‑13c it was semi-abandoned and its nearest neighbors were carting off stones, so that the outbuildings have been reduced to scattered blocks. The church itself remained in intermittent and declining use for three or four more centuries, but by 1724, when Trevi historian Durastante Natalucci was writing, he recorded only 24 families remaining in the hamlet served by the church, whereas in 1662 there had been 104: a loss of something like three-quarters of Manciano's population in the space of two generations.

Of the church only the shell remains, but the structure is strong. Its carefully cut and fitted blocks of local limestone have allowed it to survive 250 years. An examination of the masonry shows an older, fully Romanesque central core; there followed an addition to the south side of the building, dated by its early transitional Gothic style to the early 13c, which would have made the façade asymmetrical: the doors in it were therefore reset to restore symmetry.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is a view of the apse vault, and the crypt beneath it, in the ruined church of S. Stefano in Manciano, Umbria (central Italy).]

[image ALT: missingALT. It is an exterior view of the S door of the ruined church of S. Stefano in Manciano, Umbria (central Italy).]

The elegant masonry of the apse, over a crypt now exposed to view.

The S door (exterior).

There's no denying it: the ruined condition of S. Stefano and the greenery that has invaded it, lend it the romantic beauty of such things; but it isn't its own proper beauty, the beauty the church could have if it lived once again. Not only that, but the growth of tree roots and the continued exposure to the elements threaten even what remains, and untended, unloved, this little church may eventually be only a memory.

Restoring S. Stefano and finding a use for the building is by no means out of the question. It is no longer as remote as it was in the Middle Ages: the car puts it ten minutes from downtown Trevi; many people live in secluded farms and villas.

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Page updated: 1 Mar 18