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The Abbey of Santa Maria di Pulsano
Photo: Filippo Gurgoglione

The Abbey of Santa Maria di Pulsano

The Abbey of Santa Maria Santa Maria di Pulsano stands on the spur of Italy’s heel in the Gargano area of Puglia. Built on the summit of the hill of Pulsano, the abbey provides unique views of the Garganiche valleys and the Gulf of Manfredonia, which feeds into the Adriatic Sea.
The abbey, near Monte Sant’Angelo, has a very mystical history. The monk-pope St Gregory the Great first built the abbey in the 6th century on the ruins of a pagan temple, as was the norm at the time. It replaced a temple devoted to Calchas, on the wishes of pope Saint Gregory 1st.

The Saracens later destroyed the abbey and it lay abandoned until 1129 when San Giovanni da Matera (John of Pulsano) saw Pulsano and fell in love. He then decided to rebuild a Romanico-Pugliese abbey on the site of the old one, with the support of his Pulsanese Hermit Congregation. They then assumed care of the abbey and grounds until their extinction.

The church’s altar was then consecrated by Pope Alexander III. When San Giovanni da Matera died in 1139, he was laid to rest under the altar.

The abbey was badly damaged in an earthquake in the mid-17th century. During this time, care changed the hands of various monks and friars, until Celestine monks enjoyed a peaceful guarding of the abbey until the early 1800s. It was then handed to diocesan priests who managed it until it was again abandoned in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, then began a spate of thefts and vandalism. In 1966, the church’s beloved icon of the Mother of God of Pulsano was stolen.

Three decades later, a group of volunteers decided to bring the building back to its former glory. The restoration took six years and the abbey as we see it today was reopened in 1997.

As the church reopened for public worship a new monastic community was founded based on Diocesan law. From this, the monks followed two rituals: Latin and Byzantine.

For centuries, holy men devoted themselves to contemplation and aestheticism on the sacred ground. You can see evidence of this today with the 24 hermitages which surround the abbey. Most are camouflaged in the mountain and embedded in the rock. A lot of them are inaccessible places only accessed by ropes or ladders. Some hermitages are even connected by a network of paths and stairways.

The monks didn’t just worship in the hermitages. Some of the now-isolated habitations contain millstones which would have produced grain, whilst others show evidence of systems for wine production and water conservation.

Nowadays, Santa Maria di Pulsano is looked after by only two monks and many devoted volunteers.

Tourists can visit one of the only remaining Byzantine altars in Italy, which houses the bones of the monks so important to the abbey’s history over the years.

The abbey and its surroundings are now protected by the Parco Nazionale del Gargano.