«In summo montis cacumine»: il monastero di S. Silvestro al Soratte

Author: Elisabetta Scungio

«In Summo Montis Cacumine»: the Monastery of St. Sylvester at Soratte

On the highest top of mount Soratte, set in Northern Latium, not far from Rome, still stands the abbey-church of a monastery dedicated to saint Sylvester. According to Christian tradition, also accepted by the Liber Pontificalis, that holy pope (314-335) witharew there because of emperor Constantine’s (306-337) persecution. As a consequence, a church could have been built there soon after that, even if the presence of a monastery can be proved only in the late 6th century, when pope Gregory the Great (591-615) referred to it for the very first time in his Dialogi.
In the early Middle Ages, both Roman and Longobardic aristocracy used to attend the monastery as a pilgrimage place, chosen by Carloman (son of Charles Martel) in 747 as his own residence after he had become a monk. Probably, he enhanced the structures of the abbey by refurbishing it and founding two more monasteries in the underlying valley, St. Stephen and St. Andrew in flumine. The latter would grow into the most relevant one over the centuries, because of its more comfortable position, close to the Flaminia way and the Tiber, and its water supply.
Nowadays, nothing remains of the monastic structures linked to the abbey-church, except for two towers, one in the front – probably a fortification first built in the 10th century, when the monastery could have been completely surrounded with walls by Albericus, a nobleman who ruled Rome at that time – and one in the back, a bell tower now partially preserved. As regards the ecclesiastical building, it looks a Romanesque church set on a central nave divided by pillars from the side aisles and built in the local white limestone, quarried in the mount Soratte itself. Its architectural features – the kind of plan, the presence of an oratory crypt under the presbitery above, the use of three apses (one at the end of each aisle) – suggest a probable construction of the monument between the late 12th and the early 13th century.
At that time, many sculptural fragments coming from the early medieval furnishings of the foundation (late 8th-early 9th century) were reused: they are still visible in the current altar and in the front of the fenestella confessionis to the crypt, where other contemporary pieces used to be kept, but unfortunately are no longer preserved.
Next to the crypt is an unusual underground room: because of its irregular carving – it is not built, but just sculpted in the natural rock of the mount, in fact – and of its anomalous location – right under the centre of the church –, it could be interpreted as the cave where saint Sylvester was supposed to find a shelter according to tradition, preserved as a relic in the medieval building.