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A Tragedy That Could Have Been Avoided

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There's more to this than meets the eye, and it's sadder than you think.

Some pictures first:

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The main altar. Earthquake, mostly.

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This is very fine 18c plasterwork. Water damage.

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A frescoed lunette in the cloister. Vandalism.

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A side chapel. Art theft.
Don't believe it? Take a closer look.

Now that you've seen the pictures, including I trust those on the art theft page, you can pretty much sum up what happened.

This remote monastery was once ideal for contemplation (as well as for farming, one hopes, rather than just the subsidized life). As religion declines thruout Western Europe, sometime after the Age of Enlightenment, it falls into abandon. Possibly the monks are even driven away by the anticlerical laws enacted in 19c Italy.

In 1979, a major earthquake strikes this part of Umbria. San Simeone is badly hit.

Once the church is seriously damaged, it becomes a haunt for local teenagers, and fair game for organized art theft. The better frescoes and some of the appurtenances of the bombé altars are removed, mounted in some elegant way, and sold, possibly in Rome or Milan, but more likely spirited out of Italy, usually thru Switzerland; and eventually appear in a laundered form, maybe with a fictitious provenance, on the walls of a penthouse in New York or an hôtel particulier in Paris.

The real tragedy is that the art in this church is not that terrific, so that as individual pieces in Dallas or Tokyo, it seems hardly worth it; but in context, S. Simeone must have been a wonder­ful place.

Footnote: If this building is no longer a church, doesn't it belong to anyone? Why is it not protected just by being someone's property?

When I was in Stroncone in October 1997, I asked about that. I was told that thru the vagaries of an inheritance, S. Simeone belongs to six owners. To sell it, they all have to agree. I was told that at least one of the owners was holding out for more money. I don't know how true this story might be, of course.

A local grass-roots organization, the Comunità Montana of Stroncone, is seeking to buy S. Simeone, but they don't have the resources.

A visitor to this page writes: "I think concerning the situation of S. Simeone there should be a law that forces the owners to keep the church safe from vandalism and theft; if they don't, for whatever reason, to take it away from them and put it under protection of the state."

What do you think? Let me know — soprattutto se sei italiano.

Update, 2024:

Years passed after my visit to S. Simeone, and in this case I am glad to report those years were kind: the buildings have been splendidly restored; when exactly and by whom, I don't know, but as handsomely as these beauti­ful buildings deserved.

I Luoghi del Silenzio (a very large, careful, attractive site on hundreds of often neglected churches and castles of central Italy) has a typically excellent page on the monastery, with a detailed historical text by noted scholar Silvio Sorcini accompanied by 41 good color photos.

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Page updated: 14 Mar 24