San Fruttuoso: Ancient Abbey
in a Small, Atmospheric Cove.

The monumental site of San Fruttuoso di Capodimonte is located within the Natural Regional Park and Marine Reserve of Portofino in Liguria. It encompasses the 10th-13th century Abbey with the astonishing medieval tombstones of the Doria family, archaeological areas, a two-storey cloister and the Abbey’s grand hall with Gothic three-mullioned windows overlooking the sea. Remarkable is also the defense tower that Admiral Andrea Doria had built in the 16th century.

General Presentation

San Fruttuoso is one of the most charming places in all of Liguria, where the work of man blends perfectly with an uncontaminated, lush natural setting. In 711, Prosper – Bishop of Tarragona – founded a small church and monastery on this tiny beach to protect the sacred relics of San Fruttuoso and those of his deacons Augurius and Eulogius (3rd century Spanish martyrs), which Prosper had saved from the fury of the Saracens in Spain. The first official information about the construction dates back to 984, when Bishop John II built the church; it was then reconstructed by the Benedictines and completed with an octagonal bell tower as Abbey. In 1275, the whole property passed into the hands of the Doria family, which had a new, two-level building constructed, facing the sea along with the burial area containing the tombs of seven members of the Doria family who had died between 1275 and 1305. In 1522, Andrea Doria obtained the right of patronage over the Abbey and its hamlet from Pope Julian III; he had the cloister reconstructed in the 12th century and built a quadrangular fortress tower to protect it against pirate raids. In 1912 a terrible storm destroyed the façade and the bell tower of the church, as well as some fishermen’s dwellings. The whole complex was restored for the first time towards the mid-1930s, and in 1983 the Doria-Pamphili family donated it to the Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI, the Italian Environmental Trust, akin to – and twinned with – the English National Trust), which then carried out restoration works; since then, a museum has been set up inside, dedicated to the history of the Abbey and of the Benedictines. Perhaps the leading exponent of the marvelous bay of San Fruttuoso di Camogli was the painter Rubaldo Merello, who was born in Sondrio (in the Alps of Lombardy), but who later spent a lot of his artistic life in the Tigullio bay. Merello admirably illustrated the Abbey and its surroundings; almost all of his production of paintings (with bright, glowing colours) centres on the place, on the buildings – and above all on the lush vegetation – of this extraordinary inlet (the bay of San Fruttuoso, precisely). The complex is also home to cultural events and shows; the Abbey and the 16th century tower both host temporary exhibitions, while in summer classical concerts are performed in the closter (‘Concerti dell’Abbazia’; a special ferry service operates for these concerts).


The dedication of the Monastery to the Christian martyr San Fruttuoso and his deacons Augurius and Eulogius is infused in deep history and shrouded by ancient legends: Fruttuoso was a Bishop who suffered martyrdom in the city of Tarragona (Catalonia, Spain) in 259 AD, and it is not known how his remains (ashes) came to their final resting place here during the Spanish conquest (711-14), in the remote bay at the foot of the Promontory of Portofino then known as Capite montis – which later took the Italianized name of Capodimonte –, where they still lie today; probably, they were taken here by Prosperus, also a Bishop from Tarragona. Tradition has it that it was Fruttuoso himself who indicated the place where his mortal spoils should be laid, appearing to some of his disciples in a dream. The first document to be found that mentions the Monastery of San Fruttuoso di Capodimonte (as it came to be known) dates back to 977 (or 984); with the new millennium, the Abbey complex – which had been totally rebuilt after the devastations suffered at the hands of the Saracen pirates – was composed of the church, dominated by its tall bell tower, the Monastery beside it and a small adjacent cloister. In 1200 the Abbey was allocated a small territorial domain and numerous lands and buildings were donated, thus gaining possessions both locally, over the Promontory of Portofino, but also as far away as the Po valley; it is in this period that its history becomes one with that of the noble family of the Doria-Pamphili: in exchange for their sponsorship in the expansion of the Monastery, the family was granted the right to bury their dead in the crypt next to the lower cloister. During the 13th century, the Monastery conserves a certain degree of spiritual, political and economic authority. The Abbey’s decline began in the 14th century, as it suffered competition from nearby Cervara Monastery (it is still located in the bay of Paraggi, near Santa Margherita Ligure), but above all it was damaged even more by changes in the political scenario, with the advent of the Communes (local autonomies), sectarian religious strife and the incursions of the Ottoman and Barbary pirates. From the mid-14th century, after the monks left, the Abbey is being transformed into a commenda. From the 16th century, the complex is in the hands of the Doria family, who will maintain its patronage for the following three centuries. To this late period (and not the 1200s, as it is often wrongly believed) is to be ascribed the creation of the personal sepulchre by Andrea Doria, who had transferred to San Fruttuoso the tombs of his ancestors from some churches in Genoa. The Abbey will remain under the protection of the Doria family until 1983, when the whole compound was donated to the FAI.  

A Short Visit Route to the Monastery

The Upper Cloister

The Upper cloister (now entrance to the compound) was built in the 12th century, but the only original portion is still visible in the multi-mullioned window, originally facing out onto the sea, before the main body of the Abbey was built against it in the 13th century. In the 16th century the cloister underwent a complete renovation at the request of Admiral Andrea Doria.

The Capitular Hall (‘Sala Capitolare’)

Access is up a steep spiral staircase in slate located on the western side of the Upper cloister. This room takes its name from the imposing multi-mullioned window with little slender marble columns and capitals on small arcades forming pointed, Gothic windows that date to the second half of the 12th century. In an unusual black-and-white juxtaposition of alternating stone and vertical rows of brick, at the back of the Hall an imposing quadruple lancet window stands out. The wall was formerly the exterior of a hall, demolished sometime around the 12th century. The hall is often used for exhibitions too.

The Abbey (second tier)

It was built with funds donated by the Doria family in a phase following the first monastic buildings, and it dates back to the 13th century. The façade features twin rows of Gothic crenels and triple mullioned windows, orderly disposed on two levels. The display tables that occupy much of the hall contain objects and finds unearthed during the archaeological digs. The door at the back of the hall leads to the garden, where originally was the eastern wing of the Monastery (used perhaps as dormitory by the monks), giving access to the first tier of the monumental complex (described below).

The Lower Cloister

The overall design of the portico reveals a stylistic and constructive approach that dates it to around the latter part of the 11th and the beginning of the 12th century. The corner pilasters are in the so-called pietra del monte (‘stone of the mount’) while the little green-and-white marble columns are topped by sculpted capitals (end of the 10th century), particularly interesting for their wide variety of stylized animals and plants, of various inspiration. If we continue walking east (on the deambulatory), we find a door that leads into the ancient sacristy – a small room used for this purpose until the 16th century.

The Medieval (‘primitive’) Church

The old sacristy opens into the Medieval Church, also known as the monastic (or ‘primitive’) church – to distinguish it from the ‘public’ (or parish) church, a result of the 16th century elevation. The first space consists of a room with an apse (the southern apse of the original church), used as a chapel, with the original 11th century wall paint and floor surface. In the background we see the southern crypt (13th century), which corresponds to the ancient southern nave. It was destined to contain the remains of some abbot or nobleman from the Doria family, relevant to the history of the monastic compound. The church is also subdivided into three parts, set at different levels (the first of which must have been the monk’s choir), each with a specific function as to cult, in observance of the rules of the so-called Gregorian reformation. Particularly noteworthy is the stucco decoration dating to the 11th century in the presbytery area and in the choir (a frieze is still located in situ, while two slabs are conserved in the deposits of the Museo di Sant’Agostino in Genoa).

The Tombs of the Doria Family

The tombs of the Doria Family, whose construction ranges from 1275 to 1305, are the result of a 16th century intervention wanted by Admiral Andrea Doria; they probably also come from Genoese churches. They are arranged in rows on three walls of the Abbey's most ancient room (11th-12th century), and are constituted by 6 walled tombs framed by a single or (in one case) double arch, in white marble and grey stone – alternated in the typical Ligurian contrasting style.

The ‘Sancta Sanctorum

It is a small room that represents one of the most ancient parts of the monastic settlement, dating to the 11th century. It was probably used for the conservation and veneration of the reliquaries (and annexed relics). Sacred books and other liturgical paraphernalia were also kept in here. 

The Abbey (first tier)

The Abbey consists of a large space, subdivided into three rooms during the course of the 16th century.  Among the most interesting objects and finds that are being exposed here is the marble head of Emperor Hadrian (2nd century AD), probably purchased by the Doria and formerly part of their collections.

The ‘Public’ Church

The ‘public’ (or parish) church was built by raising the roof of the Medieval church, after the monks had gone and the Abbey had passed into the hands of Andrea Doria. The main altar contains the silver reliquary that protects the remains of the martyrs Fruttuoso, Augurius and Eulogius. Elements of particular merit are the apse – carved out of the naked rock –; the middle Byzantine cupola (dome), trimmed and decorated with 17 small arches in pietra del monte, and the subsequent imposing octagonal Bell Tower that contains it, which can be referred to a Bourguignon architectural style, with roof shingles in slate. The compound formed by the cupola and the tower is built precisely on the vertical of the spring of Capodimonte – symbolic and spiritual focal point of the entire complex.

The Doria Tower

Following the lane that leads from the Abbey to the small fishing village (which dates back to the 16th century), one finds a steep flight of stairs that takes to the Andrea Doria tower. Erected in 1562 by the Admiral’s heirs as a bulwark to defend the settlement against the incursions of the Barbary pirates, the two sides facing the sea bear the seal of the house of the Doria – depicting the Imperial Eagle spreading its wings.

Return from San Fruttuoso to Portofino

Return from San Fruttuoso to Italy-Tours-in-Nature

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