Calanchi dell’Abbadessa: History and Interesting Geological Features in the
Gessi Bolognesi Nature Park.

The Hill of Settefonti

The locality of Settefonti, with the ruins of the church of Santa Maria Assunta, dating to the1600s, the remnants of a preceding religious building, and evidence of the Medieval castle, is among the most ancient and atmospheric locations within the Park. The hill, characterised by an outcrop of sandstone dating to the Pliocene, marks a section of the thin ridge line that separates the valley of the Quaderna stream, to the east, from the valley of the Idice, further west. All around, the landscape is outlined by wide expanses of arable land and meadows among rolling hills of harmonious shapes that contrast with the wilder, bare sandstone hills, scattered with scrubs and small thickets of trees which border the hillsides, where rocks crop up, thus forming characteristic small basins — the so-calledcalanchi.

In the immediate vicinity, develops the spectacular ridge of the Calanchi dell’Abbadessa, which one can admire by going along the historic Via del Pilastrino, just slightly north of this location. The outline of the church bell-tower emerges from the thick wooded slope which covers the summit of the hill, from which panoramic views open up on the surrounding hills and over the plains. The position shows the strategic importance that this place held in Medieval times, when over the rocky hillside rose the so-called Castrum Septem Fontium (literally, the ‘Castle of the Seven Springs’), remembered in 1180, together with the settlement gathered around the primeval church within the walls. In the surrounding territory, characterised by several small rural nuclei and relevant civil or religious centres, stand out Casa La Torre (now a Visitor Centre of the Park), the Pieve di Pastino, and the nearby fortified hamlet of San Pietro di Ozzano; a bit further and a similar position is the castellated settlement of Varignana with its tower, which is well visible from here and a lonely relic of another ancient castle. 

Settefonti in the documents of the 1600s and 1700s

Two maps of the Catasto Boncompagni, dating to the 1700s, illustrate with remarkable detail the aspect that the place — situated between the wide bend of the public road coming from San Pietro di Ozzano and the margins of an area of ‘calanchi’, mostly used for grazing animals — had more than 200 years ago. At the foot of the hill, a small pillar (‘pilastrino in Italian), marks the spot of a widening of the road, from which started a public road directed towards the Quaderna stream (the actual Via dei Medali) and the short road that gave access to the locality of Settefonti. Over the top of the hill, around a small square, were once sited a small cemetery, a church united to the rectory (‘canonica’) in a single building, a space designed as garden-allotment and the Palazzo Bini, endowed with a turret of certain dimensions.

The votive niche, situated by the crossroads, of which the current pillar is a remnant, was already indicated in the description compiled in the Campione delle strade (‘Directory of the Streets’) of the community of Settefonti as far back as 1665, and referred to as “Pilastro della Chiesa di Settefonti” (pillar of the church of Settefonti). A century later, the Campione delle strade of 1770 offers an interesting description of the square and the road that descends to the stream. Besides pointing out the names of two families who had a property in the area (the second one inextricably linked to the legend of the Beata Lucia of Settefonti), the description also reminds of how once all the roads used to be flanked by hedges, and provides the exact measurement of the ‘Piazzetta’ (the small square by the widening of the road), equipped today as a rest area, which was almost 40 feet (about 15 m) wide

The Seven Legendary Fountains

The toponym of this locality makes a reference to seven legendary fountains which were supposed to spring in the area; by now, almost all of them have irremediably been cancelled by the erosion and the landslides. Visiting these places in 1782, the abbot Calindri made a description of the area: of the five springs that Calindri mentioned, only two seemed to be endowed with therapeutic qualities; that is, the Acqua della Volpinara (or “Acqua Bini”) and the Acqua del Prato (also known as “Acqua di Santa Cristina” or “Acqua della Beata Lucia”), which sprung in the area of the ancient monastery. Of the legendary fountains there are almost no traces left today, even though in one of the ponds at nearby Casa La Torre is still partially visible the channel used for the captation of water, supported by three vaults built in sandstone, of what is considered the largest and most ancient of the seven springs (or ‘fountains’) in the area.

The maps of the so-called Catasto Boncompagni contribute to identify the position of four more fountains (the latter two coinciding with those remembered in those very same years by abbot Calindri). In the vicinity of the ‘calanchi’ of Rio Casale — a small tributary of the Idice — one can in fact seen indicated the location of the so-called Fonte del Dragone (‘Spring of the Dragon’), while a short distance away from the hill of Settefonti — along a track largely disappeared today, which would develop just downstream of the public road — one can also find the toponym ‘fonte’, accompanied by the corresponding symbol. The same symbol appears also downstream of Via del Pilastrino, in the vicinity of the location where the monastery of the Beata Lucia would have been, and beside the spring known as Fonte di Volpino, located to the south of Settefonti, within the small catchment area of the stream known as Rio di Volpinara, which originates just under the hillside. 

The “Flaminia minor

In the area around Settefonti, the regular alignment of sites with Roman findings has allowed to identify the terminal stretch of the “Flaminia minore”, which came to join the Via Emilia just west of the Roman settlement of Claterna. This road was an important arterial road, wanted by the consul Gaio Flaminio in 187 BC, in order to connect the city of Bologna with the stronghold of Arezzo, in Tuscany, across the Apennines; in this area, the road followed the thin ridge between the Idice and Sillaro rivers. This road, which lost its importance at the end of the Republican period, in comparison to the roads that had been traced more to the west, never really disappeared, but remained in the record of place names and in the documents, which report it as Strata Flamenga or Flamegna throughout the Middle Ages, thus becoming one of the most important local connections through the Apennines, supporting the more important road that crossed the Savena valley.

The track of the “Flaminia minore”, after keeping itself along the ridge all the way to Settefonti, probably descended at the Pieve di Pastino, just west of Claterna. The Medieval documentary written sources, however, point out that from Settefonti, this road — after passing in the vicinity of the Monastery of Santa Cristina and through Ciagnano — reached the river Idice, then kept itself on the right side of the valley floor until skirting the area of Castel de’ Britti, to then join the Via Emilia by the bridge over the Idice, where once stood the Hospice of San Giacomo.

It was probably in Medieval times, when the Roman city of Claterna decayed and fell, that the older, more ancient easterly branch lost its importance, in favor of the more westerly track, recalled ever more towards Bologna, perhaps attracted also by the new relevance taken by the settlement of Castel de’ Britti. An emphyteusis by the abbot of the monastery in Castel de’ Britti, dated 1208, includes within the boundary of its possessions precisely the Strata Flaminga, and several other documents remember the road for the whole of the 14th C. The route of the ancient consular Roman road, and of its western branch, is partly covered today by CAI Trail No. 801, Via Flaminia minor, which from Castel de’ Britti reaches — through the beautiful Via del Pilastrino — the localities of Ciagnano and Settefonti, to then continue towards the main ridge of the Apennines. 

The Ancient Castle of Stifonte

The locality of Settefonti is very ancient. During the 12th C is remembered for the first time the existence of a castle, the Castrum Septem Fontium (‘Castle of the Seven Springs’), erected by using in a defensive way the strategic position and the rugged conformation of the site. On the origin of the fortification — which, according to some, is even more ancient, and maybe belonged to the ancestors of Matilde di Canossa — the evidence is very scarce. We know, with relative certainty, that at the end of the 1200s the castle was subordinated to the jurisdiction of Bologna, which in 1297 fortified it, and in the following century freed it from the incursions of the Fiagnano and the Piancaldoli (families of local squires). In 1428, the castle was defended successfully from an attempt to be conquered by not better specified ‘enemies’. During the 13th and 14th C, some illustrious citizens who actively contributed to the civil and religious life of Bologna came from Settefonti, such as Lambertino da Stifonte, later a city elder and ambassador; the friar known as Enrico da Stifonte, then prior of the order of the Gaudenti; Sasso da Stifonte, elder and consul; and Giovanni Sasso, also from ‘Stifonte’, one of the deputies who participated in the reform of the Statutes of Bologna in 1398.

In the ancient fortified nucleus, however, the population probably was never very substantial: the first lists of householders (‘fumanti’) in the community, compiled from the half of the 13 C onwards, reports a population of 87 families living in dwellings within the walls, or sparse in the surrounding countryside, where land and estates were possessed by the hospice of Santo Stefano, and above all by the monastery of Santa Cristina in Settefonti, located close by. The population of the hamlet of Settefonti is substantially analogous to that of nearby Ciagnano, and significantly inferior to that of San Pietro di Ozzano and Castel de’ Britti, other important centres in the surrounding area at the time. Over the following centuries, the population dropped so much that in the 1300s Settefonti figured as the poorest ‘curia’ (settlement) within the territory of Ozzano, and by the half of the following century, the population was reduced to 46 families only, predominantly distributed in the surrounding countryside. The castle, in fact, ruined, and it was abandoned and demolished during the course of the 1400s, later disappearing from the chronicles for good. The local historian Cherubino Ghirardacci, in his Historia di Bologna (History of Bologna, 1596), wrote precisely that by this time the site was completely ruined.

The Church of Santa Maria Assunta

The church and tall bell-tower of Santa Maria Assunta, of which remain imposing ruins after the bombings of WW2, were built in 1691 over the remains of a pre-existing religious building. The church, which in 1378 was among those dependent on the Pieve of San Giovanni Evangelista in Pastino (now also ruined), passed in 1575 under the jurisdiction of San Pietro di Ozzano. Clear traces of a Roman religious building are, after all, recognizable among the ruins of the 1600s church. In the construction of the primitive church, with a single nave, were used — together with coarse blocks of sandstone, other stones and bricks — also large square blocks of the so-called ‘selenite’ or moon-stone (crystallised chalk), sourced locally, and re-used materials, amongst which came to the light also numerous old bricks dating to Roman times. Of the original structure, only the apsidal part is observable today, together with a portion of the western nave. The building was probably frescoed, as it is suggested by the numerous fragments of painted plasterwork that were found. The 1600s church was raised above the remains of the original Roman church, and beside, a new structure to be used as rectory was also erected. Inside the church was placed a floor in brickwork tiles, subsequently covered with a more recent floor. In the 18th C, the small hamlet of Settefonti was formed — besides the church — also by a rectory, with the small adjacent cemetery to the east and the Palazzo Bini to the west, of which today only a few stones remain. The palazzo, built in the 1600s or perhaps 1700s, was also used during the summer months by the famous Bolognese scholar Marco Minghetti.

A beautiful lithography by Enrico Corty (1847) appears in the second volume of the compilation Le chiese parrocchiali della Diocesi di Bologna (‘The Parish Churches of the Diocese of Bologna’), and illustrates the aspect that Settefonti must have had at the time, which reports — with small variations in the façade — the aperture of the large window and the construction of a tympanum, which survived until the destruction of WW2, which spared only the bell-tower, the façade, and part of the side walls of the church. The later neglect and time have caused new damage to the remaining structures, while acts of vandalism and abusive digs have caused more scars to the structures, as well as the devastation of some of the 1700s/1800s graves, which were present inside the church. In 1991, the Gruppo Archeologico “Città di Claterna”, which gathers scholars and local enthusiasts, has carried out — under the supervision of the “Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici” of the Emilia-Romagna — a first campaign of archaeological digs, which has allowed to comprehend the various phases of construction of the church.

The Restoration of the Church and Bell Tower

The works, finished in 2001, and carried out with the consultation of archaeological experts, have headed towards giving the remains of the religious building their dignity back, seeing to the consolidation and restoration of the bell-tower and the façade of the church, with an intervention which — whilst making the restoration readable — has been characterized by a particular care in the integration of the reconstructed parts with the original ones. The bell-tower, even though it was spared by the WW2 bombings, had nevertheless withstood serious damage, mostly because of the collapsing of the roof, and the subsequent caving in of a corner of the bell-tower cage. The façade of the church had been affected, in recent years, by the collapse of the central section of the tympanum. The vegetation, which had completely overwhelmed the ruins, was the cause of several problems, because the roots and the trunks of the plants had inserted themselves inside the wall structures. After a careful clean-up of the vegetation, the interventions of restoration were carried out according to traditional techniques, by using predominantly pebbles and bricks that were salvaged and re-used, and have concerned the remake of the central portion of the façade, the triumphal arch at the entrance and the tympanum. The decorative elements of the tympanum, in terracotta, have been recovered too and re-positioned, while the missing ones have been reconstituted with fragments of brickwork, so to obtain an effect similar to that of the original façade.

Once reconstructed, the façade has been reinforced by a metallic frame, able to sustain the wall, otherwise without supports. The consolidation of the bell-tower cage has been realized with particular care, by reconstructing it with the salvaged bricks, originally belonging to the four arches, heavily damaged, and the vertical pillars; the intervention has also allowed to maintain the inferior part of the dome, the rest of which had collapsed. The consolidation of the bell-tower and the bell-tower cage has also implied the mounting, in the interior, of four vertical metallic profiles, and of a cross-shaped structure within the bell-tower cage itself. In the side wall of the church a large hole has been closed, and some wooden supporting beams have been inserted. The fragments of wall structures have been covered, at the top, by a thick layer of protective mortar, in order to defend them from the atmospheric agents. Within the wall structures have been maintained, as historical witness, several holes caused by bullets, and traces of bruises which recall the violent battles that took place in Settefonti during WW2. Within the perimeter of the religious building have also been kept some portions of the original flooring in terracotta and of the successive, new floor in black-and-white marble tiles; to the left of the church entrance, some large blocks in ‘selenite’ (moon-stone), used in the paving, have also been conserved.

The Rest Area of Via del Pilastrino

The rest area, at the margins of the historic Via del Pilastrino, is situated in one of the most panoramic and historically meaningful corners of the eastern section of the Park. Towards the north, beside the small valley of the Rio Ciagnano, which appears in the foreground, one can see the elongated ridge of ‘calanchi’ of the Passo della Badessa, culminating in the gentle relief of Monte Arligo. More to the east, the hogback hill of Settefonti stands out, on whose wooded summit one can glimpse the bell-tower of the church of Santa Maria Assunta (described above). Towards the south, the panorama opens up on a wide stretch of the Bologna Apennines, with the Idice valley and the unmistakable profile of the Monte delle Formiche, on top of which is the church of Santa Maria di Zena; in the background, in the clearest days, the horizon is closed by the long main ridge of the Apennines, separating Emilia-Romagna from Tuscany (Appennino Tosco-Emiliano), with the highest peaks of Corno alle Scale (1,945 m) and Monte Cimone (2,165 m).

This barren landscape, mostly devoid of settlements, and which conserves environments of noteworthy naturalistic value, is characterized by the outcrops of the so-called Argille Scagliose (a type of sandstone), the most ancient geological unit of the Bologna Apennines, which stand out in a spectacular fashion in the formation of the Calanchi dell’Abbadessa. Over these rugged morphologies, develops a plant cover in which bare rocks alternate with uncultivated lands, small patches of meadow, thickets of sparse woodland, where many animal species find shelter too (even by the rest area of Via del Pilastrino it is not unusual to spot deer, wild boar and birds of prey).

The evocative stretch of road of Via del Pilastrino is still a dirt road to this day, as it appeared in the images of the first years of the 1900s, and it probably follows one of the two terminal branches of the Roman “Flaminia minore”, wanted by consul Gaio Flaminio in 187 BC, in order to link the city of Bologna with Arezzo, in Tuscany, across the Apennines. Once arrived in Settefonti, the road — according to Medieval documentary sources — descended on one side towards the important settlement of Claterna, and on the other — passing through Castel de’ Britti — it would intercept the Via Emilia by the bridge over the Idice. Precisely in the Medieval epoch, when Claterna was already a ruin (and it had been for some time already), the first stretch would lose importance in favor of the more westerly stub towards Bologna, along which, in this area, were to be found the ancient settlement of Ciagnano and the Monastery of Santa Cristina.

In this location, where few sparse hamlets flank the road, once stood one of the most important religious communities in the territory of Ozzano, which during the 12th C became head of a court, and later a fortified settlement, at the centre of a large and very populated ‘curia’ (land). The church of San Donato di Ciagnano, already remembered in the 12 C, was reconstructed in 1625, but soon destroyed by the landslides that have always affected this area; it was subsequently rebuilt in 1703, but in a slightly different location, along the slope that rises immediately to the west of the rest area. Today, over the hill, near the remains of the old cemetery, there are no traces of this building left (church and rectory were definitively destroyed by the 1944 bombings). 

The female Monastery of Santa Cristina, affiliated to the monastic order of the Camaldolesi, and remembered for the first time in 1099, reached a certain wealth during the course of the following century, with vast possessions in the whole area, stretching all the way to the Idice river, where it also owned a watermill. The monastery was abandoned because of the ruinous landslides during the course of the 1200s, when the nuns moved to another monastery in Via Fondazza, in the inner city of Bologna; at that point, the old monastery was demolished for good.

Today, in remembrance of the historic building, only the small pillar giving its name to Via del Pilastrino remains, in the direction of Settefonti, which was erected in 1679 by the Fava family in order to perpetuate the memory of an ancestor, and a miraculous event which supposedly took place by the ancient monastery, which was located just downstream of the small pillar. During the 12 C, the monastery hosted the Beata Lucia di Settefonti, who was probably the abbess, and in her time was even considered a saint (her cult spread far and wide, and resisted for a long time in the countryside around Bologna).

The romantic legend, of which the chronicles have given several versions during the course of the centuries, narrates that Lucia Chiari, after her death between 1156 and 1158, would have miraculously saved Diotagora Fava (belonging to the above-mentioned family) from his prison in the Holy Land; this was because, when the nun was still alive, he used to come up the steep Passo della Badessa on his horse, to reach the church where she stayed — and all this, just to catch a glimpse of her during the religious functions: the location took its current name precisely for this reason (Passo della Badessa literally means ‘Pass of the Abbess’ in Italian). The stumps that imprisoned the knight, and the body of Lucia, are now both conserved in the small church of Sant’Andrea — a nearby hamlet situated on the northern slope of Monte Arligo, which lies right at the other end of the Passo della Badessa.

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