Once again, I was overwhelmed by the magical beauty of a Romanesque cathedral in one of Puglia’s charming towns – this time in Bitonto at the Cathedral of Saint Valentine. Dubbed “the City of Olives” for its abundance of olive groves in the vicinity, Bitonto is the largest single producer of olive oil in the country. As a Greek colony, it had its own mint. Among the intriguing symbols displayed on coins were those indicating a Mediterranean culture: an owl with an olive branch, a seashell, a crab, an ear of wheat, lightning and the head of goddess Athena. In the Middle Ages, the Bitonto cattle market was so famous that Boccaccio included it in one of his Decameron tales. It was the site of a famous battle during the War of Polish Succession. In 1734 Spanish soldiers celebrated a victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Bitonto. This outcome clinched the Kingdom of Naples for the Bourbons.
Built from 1175 to 1200, the cathedral is modelled after Bari’s Basilica of Saint Nicholas, which I saw on my first day in the region. The façade of the Bitonto cathedral was breathtaking, especially the rose window surrounded by lions perched on columns and griffins. Divided into three parts with three portals, the west façade was riveting. The central portal was adorned with scenes from the Old Testament. The main portal’s lintel and lunette showed off scenes from the Revelation. The cathedral also featured six elegant arcades. The reliefs of the tympanum also left me speechless.
The interior of this Romanesque structure was based on a Latin cross plan. The sculpture was impressive, especially the carving on the ambo from 1229. The combination pulpit-lectern had been made using a special encrusting technique. It certainly was an Apulian masterpiece.
What fascinated me about this cathedral in particular was that it really was three churches – the cathedral, a pre-Romanesque structure underneath that had been in use during the 11th century and a Paleochristian basilica, perhaps from the 9th or 10th century, below that. It could hardly believe that the foundations and fresco fragments of the Christian church still existed. A mosaic of a griffin dominated the crypt, where the pre-Romanesque church had stood. The artistic masterpiece had once been located in a tower. I was astounded at how well-preserved the mosaic was. In awe, I stared at the detailed representation.
Seeing three churches in one structure made the history come alive. History seeped into my soul. Each Romanesque church I entered in Puglia allowed me to feel the history, but, in Bitonto, the feeling was even stronger.
There is more to see in Bitonto than just the cathedral. Sylos Sabini Palace boasts of a Gothic-Catalan portal and a Renaissance loggia; the Gothic Church of St. Francis of Assisi has an impressive interior and the Abbey of St. Leo hails from the 9th century. Though modest in size, Bitonto consists of seven towers and nearly 60 churches, chapels and religious institutions. For over 300 years, a Holy Week procession enacting the moments of Christ’s Passion has drawn visitors from Italy and abroad. It also has an opera and a jazz festival. It was a pity we did not have time to see everything, but, even if you just have time to see the cathedral, you are certain not to be disappointed. The Cathedral of Saint Valentine ranks as one of the most impressive cathedrals I have ever seen.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.