The Secrets of Larino's Cathedral

One of the marvels of Larino is undoubtedly the cathedral. As I’ve looked at the entrance way, with its intricate columns, I’ve wondered what was the significance of the carvings: the fleur de lys, the roses, and the strange little faces that peer out from the masterful stone work.


No one has been able to satisfy my curiosity. Perhaps that is because of my rudimentary capacity with the language. But, in truth, I believe it is because that particular story has been largely forgotten.


There were small mysteries that popped up. On one occasion I saw a picture of the façade of the cathedral in Lanciano. I thought I was looking at the Larino Cathedral. They were almost identical, as though they had been fashioned from the same template. In fact, that is exactly the case.

In fact, we even know the name of the artist who carved the magnificent entry way.  His name was Francesco Petrini.  I'm glad the artist was Italian rather than one of the intinerant artisans who may have been brought in from France.

These churches (and there are others in Lucera, Foggia, Manfredonia, Vasto, Ortona, and other locations in southern Italy) were built by the Angevin Kings. The Angevins were French and it was this royal family from a foreign land which gave the impetus to build not only the cathedral, but at the same time they ordered the construction of the Franciscan Monastery, church, and bell tower directly across from the minor basilica.


When the childless Norman King William II died in 1189 his passing initiated a long period of disorder in the Kingdom of Sicily. The crown eventually was passed to his aunt Constance, daughter of the first Norman King, Roger II. Constance was the wife of the future German emperor, Henry VI Hohenstaufen.

The threat of the absorption of so great a part of Italy into the German empire created resistance among the south Italian barons. They came up with their own champion: Tancred, Count of Lecce, who was a descendant of Roger II through his father. However Tancred died in 1194 and Henry VI Hohenstaufen was crowned in Palermo on Christmas day 1194. His wife stayed in Apulia (just south of Molise) to give birth to their son, the future strongman, Frederick II. Frederick is the ruler who built the tower which is part of the town walls of the historic centre of Termoli. One of my Italian friends insists hat it was Frederick who finally destroyed the ancient centre of Larino on what is now Piano San Leonardo. Apparently, goes the story, Larino had rebelled against his rule and he punished the inhabitants severely.

The Coronation of Frederick II

Frederick was a dominating figure in the history of the 13th century. He was known as "Stupor Mundi", the wonder of the world. Pope Gregory IX had another name for him. He called Frederick "the anti Christ".

In his person, and in his blood, Frederick carried on the traditions of the Normans and the Germans who came to dominate southern Italy. In time he would have a whole list of titles: King of Germany, King of Italy and Burgandy, King of Sicily, and (for a brief time) King of Cyprus and Jerusalem.

When his father, Henry Hohestaufen, died of dysentery or, as some said, poisoning, the three and a half year old Frederick was crowned king at Palermo in May 1198. Just half a year later Constance, his mother, was dead.

During his childhood Frederick was constantly under the influence of the competing claims of the Norman and German barons. Finally he asserted himself and when he was crowned Emperor of Germany in 1220 he had to leave his beloved Sicily to attend to the greater responsibilities of his Empire.

In the 1240s the papacy wanted someone to challenge Frederick II. The Pope attempted to interest the King of England in the task, but that came to nothing. Finally the royal family of France considered taking up the struggle. In the meantime Frederick died in 1251 and his legitimate heir, Conrad, also passed away in 1254. This left power in the hands of Frederick’s illegitimate son, Manfred (who gave his name to Manfredonia in the Gargano).


 Manfred, who gave his name to Manfredonia, is crowned

With the accession of Urban IV to the papacy in 1260, King Louis of France agreed that Charles of Anjou could become the "champion of the church" against Manfred. The Pope agreed to preach the Crusade against Manfred and promised to prohibit the election to the empire of any claimant to the throne of Italy. To justify this crusade against Christians, Manfred was accused of close association with the Muslim communities in his kingdom (one of those Muslim communities, incidentally, was Lucera not far from Larino).

Pope Urban IV died in 1264 to be succeeded by a Frenchman closely linked to the royal house of France. He assumed the title Clement IV in February of 1265. Charles of Anjou was encouraged by the new pope to travel to Rome. On January 6, 1266 he and his wife, Beatrice were crowned King and Queen of Sicily in Saint Peter’s. When his army arrived in February he challenged the forces of Manfred on the plain outside the papal city of Benevento on February 26, 1266. At the end of the battle Manfred was dead and the entire kingdom of southern Italy was open to a vengeful Charles and his French troops. To the horror of the civilized world the French soldiers slaughtered the inhabitants of Benevento and pillaged the city. All resistance faded away and Charles entered Naples triumphantly on March 7, 1266.

The apparently swift victory was compromised by a number of Hohenstaufen heirs, the major one of whom was Conradin. That particular challenge came to an end when Conradin was defeated in a brutal struggle on the plain of Tagliacozzo in the Abruzzo (to the north of Molise). Coradin was captured and was marched to Naples where he was decapitated.

Charles of Anjou, initially welcomed to Italy as the champion of the Faithful, proved to be a cruel ruler. Revolts of his Italian subjects occurred frequently, ending in the terrible insurrection of 1282, known as the War of the Sicilian Vespers.

Charles of Anjou

Charles’ reaction was to attempt to settle more and more French subjects in his Italian domains. Lucera, so often mentioned in the mythology of Larino, was one of the cities to receive French families from Provence and Forcalquier. This colonization continued into the reign of King Robert of Naples (1277 – Jan 20, 1343) who encouraged French settlers by reaffirming their exemption from taxation for themselves, their families, and their descendants.

Robert of Anjou 

One of the great sins of the Angevin dominion was the eradication of the Muslim community of Lucera in August 1300 to provide a new home for Calabrians who had been displaced by the violent revolutions that shook the kingdom. Earlier, between 1290 until 1293, the Jews of southern Italy were subjected to forced conversions.

It was in this violent world that the Angevins began the construction of the Angevin churches. This was the environment in which the Larino Cathedral and the Franciscan Monastery, bell tower, and church were all built. On one day the masons and engineers might work on a gothic portal, on the next they would be dragged off to labour over extensive fortifications.

Charles looked with some envy on the cultural and monumental legacies of Frederick II, his son Manfred, and of the Norman conquerors one hundred years earlier. Besides he was a pious man who invoked the will of God in his series of conquests and skirmishes in his new kingdom. He faced enormous obstacles including the weight of terrible debts. Moreover skilled labour was hard to find. Masons were sought from other parts of Europe. In some instances the displaced Muslims, who were – apparently – very cultured were employed in some of the more delicate tasks in creating traceries of stone.

 Wages were so low that they were comparable to the sustenance level of a common prisoner. Sometimes men were brought to the work sites in chains and if they escaped the punishment was severe. If the fugitive could not be captured his land was confiscated and his family would be thrown into prison. In any event there were few French nationals in the workforce and they were often the most skilled of the scores of individuals who laboured on individual projects: architects, engineers, master carpenters, and skilled sculptors or masons who, as skilled workers, were paid either a salary or by the piece of elaborated stonework.

 Often the materials included rubble (rough stone cemented into place to form vaults and archs), or soft volcanic stone which would weather over time. The cathedral at Larino was likely the beneficiary of the rather sad destruction of the classical structures on the mountain (the current site of San Leonardo) where cut stone from Roman times (and earlier) was plentiful. To preserve a certain level of sophistication in the appearance of the construction Charles insisted that windows or roof tiles be produced in the French manner because the more rustic tradesmen could not produce work of this quality.

Mulsim Artisans May Have Worked on The Cathedral Construction

When the cathedral in Larino was built it may have been helped by the of the influx of sculptors from Tuscany to execute tombs and to carve portals.


The whole process was purposeful and carefully choreographed. Imagine this.

In Naples at the court, where only French was spoken (along with ecclesiastical Latin), monks would arrive from France. Normally two monks and an abbot would join with three or four royal representatives and they would leave Naples to travel to one of the chosen sites.


In those days Monks of the Cistercian Order were frequently skilled architects. They would be armed with plans from existing French churches and they would painstakingly assess the proposed location, put the working group in order, and supervise the financing and execution of the project.

Records exist to this day of the working teams which were recruited to begin the actual work. There were Wall Builders to create the fundamental shape of the structure frequently with rubble and cement. There were Stone Cutters who would create the blocks for the parts of the church that would be visible to the naked eye. Other categories of workers included: quarriers, assistants to wall builders, manual labourers, carpenters, a smith, and wagon drivers.

Some features set the Cathedral in Larino apart. For one thing, it is likely built on the location of an earlier church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. For while it follows the structural guidelines common to many churches built at this time (around 1300) in Southern Italy, it is irregular and asymmetrical. The façade of the church is canted at an angle and the rows of internal columns do not match. There are fewer on one side of the structure than the other.

Recently, during work on the vaults in the Bishop’s Palace to the side of the Cathedral the vaulted ceilings were revealed. In some instances they are built of very regular roman brick. In some other cases they are structured, in exactly the same manner, with rubble.

The cathedral in Larino is exceptional even in the sophistication of its structure and the consistency of the craftsmanship. If you have ever wondered about the wall paintings in the cathedral, they too were a part of the approach to ecclesiastical decoration favoured by the French kings.

The Angevins were proud of their piety. After all one of their number, Louis of Toulouse, had been canonized. The building of places of worship was spurred on by the "discovery" of the relics of the Madgalen by Charles II. The Angevin kings were also devoted to Saint Nicolas of Bari, to the shrine of the Archangel Michael at Monte Sant’Angelo, and to San Gennaro in Naples.

 St. Louis of Toulouse was of the House of Anjou

In Apulia, for some strange reason, external decoration was more elaborate than elsewhere featuring especially elaborate portals. This is true, of course, of Larino. According to scholars the decorative excellence of churches at Atri, L’Aquila, Penne, Larino, and Ortona were fashioned by local schools of craftsmen in some isolation from other influences. However the templates which were available were used over and over again without much evolution of the form. One explanation for this is that an "imported form", not natural to the culture of the new place in which it is implemented often becomes "frozen in time".

The facade of the cathedral presents a simple background for the ornamentation of the windows and doors.  Interestingly, the windows are outside of the church structure.  The imposing wall of stone is almost a theatrical device.  Literally, there is nothing behind these windows.

In the 1290s, not long before the construction of the Cathedral in Larino, there emerged a taste for "spolia". This desire to utilize antique (from Roman times) building materials and incorporate them in the building to the ecclesiastic structures became emphasized during the reign of Charles II between 1295 and 1309. Today in Larino you can see evidence of this usage of ancient materials in the base of the Galuppi bell tower across the square from the cathedral. It’s obvious that the stone was from a variety of sources. One block of material even has a deep round hole which suggests that it may have been taken from an ancient well, although local tradition holds that it was a place where orphan babies could be placed with some safety when they were abandoned by their mothers.


Under the Galuppi Bell Tower across from the Cathedral you can see the markings created by the cane used to create the arch.  The square holes in the so-called Roman brick would keep the stone rubble in place until the cement would set.


Under the arch of the Galuppi Bell Tower you can see a large rectangle with a circular opening.  Was it past of a well, or was it a place where orphans were deposited? No one knows for certain.

 If you stand in the archway of the bell tower and look upward you will see a series of parallel lines running up from the supporting massive cut stone base to the top of the arch. The lines were formed by the long ago disintegration of cane which was used to form the stone arch way. The cane would be bent in the desired shape (a gothic arch) and supported from beneath. Then the masons would place the rubble and mortar in shape. The first layer would be allowed to set and then the higher level, again built with a combination of rubble and cut stone placed at the edges of the structure.


Inside the Galuppi Bell Tower there is a room which may have been a refectory. When the plaster was removed from the vault it was discovered that vaults, too, were built of rubble. The craftsmen of the period could fashion all manner of shapes with rubble and mortar which could mimic the effects of cut stone.

This is an image of the Franciscan church with the Galuppi bell tower to the left.  Now, after the earthquake, it is a beautiful coral colour.  The original structure, without the baroque ornamentation, is a classic Franciscan structure which is repeated again and again throughout southern Italy.  It has nothing of the intricacy of the Cathedreal.  The structures, built so closely in time, are from two completely diverse traditions.

The Franciscan church, built at almost exactly the same time as the cathedral, speaks to the importance of the Franciscan Order in the style of construction. Churches found at Teano, Aversa, Evoli, Nocera Inferiore and Nola (and, of course, Larino) attest to a highly consistent and essentially simple method of construction. During recent work at the Franciscan church in Larino primitive wall paintings were found behind the choir. Mind you, many of these churches (and this was true of the Cathedral before the sixties) were covered in baroque ornamentation from much later periods. Some observers in Larino feel that the "simplification process" went too far. It may even be true that the tradesmen who built the Church of San Francisco along with its associated monastery were altogether independent from the masons and engineers who worked on the cathedral. Although the structures were built in roughly the same year, they are two completely different styles. The cathedral may find its roots in models from Paris and Provence, while the Church of San Francisco may find its templates in a monastic taste which is at once simpler and more restrained. If you look at the exposed side wall of the church you will see three elongated windows which have been bricked in. The wall itself is an odd combination of cut stone, brick, and rubble. At one time I thought that the different materials may have been caused by repair to damaged caused by an earthquake, but the truth is likely that the base was made of regular cut stone. Once above the level of the base any materials could be used because they were likely faced with a plaster much as many columns from Roman times were actually built with brick with a smooth coating of cement.


Once you know this information the Cathedral starts to offer up its secrets. Its natural that the symbol of the Fleur De Lys should appear on the columns at the portal because the Kings and Monks who supervised the building of the structures were French. The local workers were likely to be employed as common labourers. You can imagine the cut stone being hauled by the horse and bull drawn carts from the classical city to the construction site. Roof tiles were made in "the French manner" and the walls of the church were completely covered in Frescoes.

The church of San Francisco was more austere. It was plain and rectangular and almost devoid of ornamentation. The church we see today, like so many Italian churches, was forced to adhere to a taste for Baroque with what many moderns see as "excessive decoration".


Pictures exist of the Cathedral with an additional set of windows to the right and left of the great portal. If you look at the face of the wall you will notice newer rectangular stones placed where the windows once existed. To know if the windows were original to the design you would have to search out a template, possibly in Lanciano.

The bell tower of the Cathedral was built later and it too incorporates classical elements in its structure.

In the Foreground the Palazzo Ducale.  Imagine this structure as a giant square with four rectangular towers and you will catch a glimpse of the Norman castle. 

I have the feeling that we will never truly understand Larino. So much has been forgotten. The castle, which was transformed into a Ducal Palace, predates the Cathedral. In my own imagination I feel it must have been built by the Norman conquerors of Southern Italy in eleventh century. But that investigation is for another day.