The Medieval Review 11.07.10

Saggioro, Fabio and Gian Maria Varanini. Il Castello di Illasi: Storia e Archeologia. Archaeologica. Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider Editore, 2009. Pp. 211; 54 plates, numerous figs.. . . 90 EUR. 978-88-7689-237-0.

Reviewed by:

Richard Hodges
University of Pennsylvania Museum

It is fifty years since medieval archaeology in its modern form began in Italy. The choice of site was perhaps due to serendipity but from it rural archaeology has taken its direction. At Santa Cornelia, an earthwork site close to the Via Cassia, north of Rome--an earthwork found in John Ward Perkins' celebrated South Etruria survey (north of Rome)--the extensive and unexpected remains of the papal farm were uncovered. This farm or domusculta as it was known in the texts was probably founded by Pope Hadrian I and was one of several such small late eighth-century centres that provided a succession of popes with agricultural products. Santa Cornelia demonstrated to historians that Dark Age places actually could be identified. Within the decade of its discovery the excavations indirectly set in motion a chapter of research dominated by the concept of incastellamento, village formation, as now type fossils of the period--Dark Age ceramics--could be identified as a result of Santa Cornelia with assurance. Historians led by Pierre Toubert ascribed the making of Italy's characteristic hilltop villages as a product of a foundation process associated with charters granting rights to villagers. As most of the charters date to the tenth and eleventh centuries, villages (castelli), so the thesis went, took shape after a period of largely dispersed and materially poor households replaced the quintessential farms located in the cultivated Roman lowlands. Conference after academic conference brought historians together with increasingly discomfited archaeologists until Riccardo Francovich at the Montarrenti conference in Siena in 1988 adamantly challenged Pierre Toubert, arguing that (nucleated) village life began in the immediate aftermath of the Roman era as early as the seventh or eighth centuries. Hilltop villages, in other words, were the norm in the age of Pope Hadrian I when the papal farm of Santa Cornelia was built and were well established settlement types when many were granted charters in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Francovich's contention was soon affirmed by numerous excavations, mostly in Tuscany, that supported his thesis. Miranduolo, Montarrenti and Poggibonsi (all now published), in particular, showed a considerable incremental increase in agrarian production from the ninth century onwards, before an even greater ramping up of economic activity coinciding more or less with the era of the tenth- to eleventh-century charters. With one bold stroke, thanks to Francovich's vision, medieval archaeology in less than three decades had lost its innocence, and demonstrated that the sources--written and material-- had a more complex relationship than had been hitherto envisaged.

But with this paradigm the story has not suddenly halted. Not all rural settlement, it is now clear, was corralled in hilltop villages. Dispersed sites actually existed--Santa Cornelia, no less, is an example. More to the point, not all villages pre-dated their charters. On the contrary, many such as Rocca San Silvestro in western Tuscany, the scene of Francovich's greatest excavations, actually confirmed Toubert's hypothesis. Then, too, the process of elaboration, growth and development of these villages was far from uniform throughout Italy, as the latest, thematic edition of the periodical Archeologia Medievale XXXVII (2010) well illustrates. On the contrary, the patterns of village morphology and the diversity of material culture characteristic of the half millennium until the Renaissance are highly variegated. Much of this variegation still begs analysis and historical study. This is the context for the research project focused upon Illasi, a strikingly well-preserved fortress-village east of Verona on the hills overlooking the Tramigna valley.

This detailed excavation report starts with a rigorously researched overview of the historical evidence of Illasi (by Franco Scartozzoni and Gian Maria Varanini) which today appears to be essentially an elegantly preserved thirteenth- to fourteenth-century castle with a powerfully built palatial keep around which is an enclosure wall. Between the palace and the enclosure wall little now survives but the open ground promised an intriguing opportunity for archaeologists to resolve the full arc of Illasi's history, and to fit it into the unfolding debate about rural settlement history following the Francovich-Toubert colloquia. Illasi's history is hardly exceptional: its documented past dates back to the age of incastellamento, the tenth and eleventh centuries. With the acquisition of new territories the castle prospered, as so many all over the peninsula did, in the twelfth century. Thereafter, until the renaissance, Illasi was a major settlement. Then it was effectively reduced to a tower-house which has been intermittently occupied since then.

Fabio Saggioro and his colleagues proceeded to investigate the archaeology in a systematic and exemplary fashion. The volume includes a long chapter dedicated to the architecture and morphology of the castle. The detailed, stone-by-stone elevations are then interpreted to provide the phasing of the monumental buildings which in turn informs the small but incisive excavations that Saggioro and his many collaborators undertook. None of these, by contemporary standards, is a major excavation. But all of the buildings, carefully phased and interpreted by the team give a sense of an important sample of the buildings concealed below the flat ground between the palace and the enclosure wall. Those who made history in the palace and those without it from the flattened ground are given new status thanks to these excavations. Simple stone buildings like the dwelling found in sector 17 clearly had timber precursors that probably date back to the ninth- or tenth-century origins of the settlement, if not earlier, as in Tuscany. The detailed description, drawings and photographs provide ample if not excessive evidence of what this project achieved. More analytical drawings might possibly have made a shorter text and fewer photographs possible. This said, the results are competently and satisfactorily available. In addition, there is a good account of the finds: the eight medieval coins, the metal small finds that invariably are ignored in excavation reports but which were the fabric of daily life including nails (grouped into different stylistic forms), the arrowheads--also typologically analysed, the dress fittings, and of course the large assemblage of essentially undistinguished yet important glazed and unglazed ceramics as well as that inimitable type fossil of northern Italy from this era, soapstone vessels (pietra ollare).

Few reports are published in such detail so soon after the excavation took place. For this reason the authors are to be complimented because Illasi will undoubtedly join a small number of excavated castles that serve as a benchmark in terms of their architectural evolution, their range of buildings, and their material culture. In truth little about this place is exceptional. Perhaps that accounts for the curiously short synthesis arising from so much diligent work in archives and in the field. In essence, notwithstanding an initial aspiration expressed by Saggioro in his introduction (xiii) to examine how this castle was viewed and might be viewed today in historical terms, little other than an orthodox historical coordination of the archaeology with the well-studied archives is offered to the reader in the short though usefully comprehensive conclusion running to a mere four pages. This is not to criticize this report. The authors have made an old place into an effective new one, thanks to their tireless efforts. But there is more to be done, as Saggioro indicates, to grasp how the material culture and its changing patterns through time, informed and made, along with the evolving architectural morphology, a castle with a community that continues to exist as a place today. Above all, fifty years after Santa Cornelia was excavated this book illustrates in an elegant and important way how the collaboration of archaeologists and historians can forge entirely new data sets for comprehending castle-making and indeed medieval settlement history.