The Irpino Convent of Miracles and Relics loved by the "May King", Umberto II
A place of cult and a treasure trove of unique exhibits, the San Francesco Museum and Convent in Folloni are two of the most magnificent jewels of artistic, historical, archaeological and cultural heritage in Campania.
History of the Museum
The history of the San Francesco complex in Folloni dates back to the XIII century and is linked to the tradition of St Francis of Assisi's trip to the sanctuary of St. Michael the Archangel, in Gargano. The story goes that, on arriving in Montella, St Francis asked for hospitality from the lord of the town's castle.
However, in the absence of the lord, the chatelain, unaware of the poor man from Assisi's renown, turned him away. Francis and his brothers, took refuge in the forest of Folloni, at that time, overrun by highwaymen, and spent the night under a holly oak. That night, it snowed heavily "and although the heavy snowfall never let up for all that time, nonetheless, no snow fell either on the tree or the place where the brothers were sleeping".
The chatelain, along with the rest of the town's people, realised what had happened the next morning and that they had assisted in a miracle and asked St Francis to leave two brothers so they could build a convent. The miraculous holly oak was preserved as a relic under the church altar for a long time.
Another place affected by a miracle was a fountain whose remains can be found north-west of the convent, again in the Folloni forest. The story goes that Francis, once again, stopped in Montella on his way back from Puglia, when the first part of the convent had already been built. In order to quench the thirst of the workers who could not drink from the waters of the Calore River because of its cloudiness, the Saint made a clear water spring gush out from the foot of a dead Turkey Oak tree and it was here that the fountain was later built.
Another miraculous episode linked to these places was that of the so-called "reliquia del sacco" (relic of the sack). It is said that in the winter of 1224, the Friars were trapped by snow in the church in the wolf-infested woods. They were on the verge of starvation when they heard a knock at the door, and when it was opened, they found a sack full of bread with the mark of the French lilies.
At that time, Francis of Assisi was at the court of Luigi VIII, and the story goes that the saint entrusted the angels with the bread for his Friars, who had asked the king for mercy. The sackcloth was kept for three centuries as an altar cloth, and in the 16th century it began to be fragmented and distributed as a relic to various churches and the faithful.
The only surviving fragment, the one kept for over 180 years by the confraternity of the Archconfraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, is now kept in a specially made reliquary in the Church of San Francesco in Folloni, located in the Chapel of the Crucifix, to the right of the church altar.
The earliest core of the complex dates back to the 13th century and the ancient hermitage stood where the vestry is today, as confirmed by wall remains discovered in recent excavations.
In the 16th century a larger convent was built, but even from this era only a few rooms remain intact, such as the courtyard with the well. It was in the middle of the 18th century that the complex took on its final architectural form, with the construction of a new courtyard and a new church which, like the previous ones, retained the title of the Annunziata. Of the 16th-century rooms, the left aisle and chorus have been preserved, now known as the Chapel of the Crucifix, but the description of the 16th-century church is in the Platea del Convento (1740-1741), kept in the Avellino State Archives.
The suppressed monasteries of the French decade (1806-1816) and those that followed the Unification of Italy caused the Friars to abandon the convent. They only returned in 1933, when it was restored thanks to the support of the citizens of Montella and Umberto II of Savoy, a great lover of this place.
The monastery, which still houses a small monastic community, is also home to the Museo dell'Opera, which contains numerous historical and artistic assets. Since December 2014, the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities has been managing its historical and artistic heritage through the Polo Museale della Campania, which became the Regional Directorate for Museums in December 2019.
The church has a single aisle with side chapels, transept and chorus embellished with stucco work. All the sacred furnishings such as the altars, holy water stacks, choir stalls, pulpit and confessionals date from the 18th century.
The chorus of the church leads to the Chapel of the Crucifix, whose altar contains the venerated relic of the Sack of St Francis, and to the rectangular vestry, embellished with fine wooden carvings on the bench and a splendid marble washbasin decorated with scrolls and crossed dolphins.
The magnificent cenotaph erected by Margherita Orsini in honour of her husband Diego I Cavaniglia, Count of Montella, who died in September 1481 from a wound suffered at Otranto during the war between Naples and Venice, is located in this room.
In the Museo dell'Opera, the silk brocade tapestries from the 16th century are of great historical and artistic value. Also part of the museum's collection are wooden furniture and furnishings, ceramics, silver, textiles, prints dating from the 15th to the 19th century, as well as numerous relics.
Annexed to the museum is the Library, which was established in the 15th century but was plundered after the suppression of the monastery in the Napoleonic era. Restored in the 1930s and since then housed in the 16th-century hall of the former refectory, this library contains works published in Italy and abroad from the early 16th century to the entire 18th century. It currently holds about 20,000 volumes.
As a result of restoration work following the 1980 Irpinia earthquake, workers discovered a skeleton in a sarcophagus, which was then put away without the discovery being announced. In 2004, investigations and analyses revealed that the skeleton belonged to Conte Diego I Cavaniglia (1453 - 1481), feudal lord of Montella from 1477 to 1481, who died in the Battle of Otranto against the Turks.
An archaeological campaign conducted between 2005 and 2010 brought to light the wall structures of the ancient church and, below the floor level of the courtyard, a medieval Franciscan necropolis.
The only example for southern Italy, similar cases are only to be found in a few excavated contexts in northern Italy. The bodies were found with their arms crossed over their chests and a pillow of stones.