Archivi tag: Monastic Archaeology

Monastic archaeology by the Tyrrenian sea. Recording stone finds at benedictine cloister of San Quirico di Populonia


The remains of the monastery of San Quirico stand on the slopes of Poggio Tondo, a hill close from the ancient city of Populonia. They overlook the Tyrrhenian Sea, with the islands of the Tuscan archipelago not so far away.

Field research at this site carried out since 2002 until 2006. At the same time, a project for the recording of stone finds, architectural materials, spolia and slabs was carried out.

The research was conducted by first distinguishing the types of stone, systematically recording the marks left by tools, and the techniques and devices used to make the individual architectural components.

Bearing in mind these aspects, as well as the way they were assembled, the various phases in which the production process was divided were highlighted (supply, processing, setting in place), in a backward-looking conceptual process leading from the particular – the architectural element – to the general context – the building- which it belonged to.

The stone types identified are: white marble of saccharoid type, used for architectural, decorative and sculptural elements; solid sandstone, used as a building material in the first church and in the later phases, as well as in the internal perimeter of the monastery compound and in the various parts of the monastery; calcarenite, for structural and architectural elements, or as a building material; clay schists/clay levels within palombino limestone formation, for paving slabs; and other sporadic types, especially metamorphic, quarzite rock; magmatic rock, rich in quartz; and finally granite, used exclusively for millstones.

tav. 5 reperti BN

Even only with reference to tool marks, the possibility of observing parts that were intended to be hidden in the fabric of the building, once set in place, and of sampling hundreds of elements, was an opportunity that rarely presents itself. Thus, tracing the first appearance of the artefact, and going as far as to reconstruct how the building operations themselves were organized, it is possible to assess the extent to which all this becomes translated into constant features and changes within sculptural production, keeping the technical analysis distinct from stylistic analysis.

Thus, tools and litotechnical analysis become one of the indexes for assessing the operational skills of the artisans. We can see the use of the typical array of tools used by skilled workers in this period: tools for striking objects directly, awls of various sizes, flat-blade chisels, other kinds of chisels, and drills .

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The production process of the individual elements is divided into the four phases involving the preparation of the stone block, shaping it, adding details, and finishing. As well as the procedures followed todress the stone block, sometimes prior to the creation of architectural elements, the techniques adopted are the same as those frequently used at contemporary building sites, such as bas-relief, achieved by lowering individual levels, intaglio, and carving in the round.

Finally, sockets and pegs for assembling the piece when it was mounted in position can be seen on column bases and column drums, with a protrusion and a cavity designed to house it, as well as in the extrados of certain archivolt elements, and at the top of blocks shaped for use in arches. These latter examples sometimes feature iron parts covered in lead, or iron residue due to the presence of iron elements.

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A particular indicator of modes of execution, shedding light on how the construction operations were organized, is represented by stone-masons’ marks. The cases found at San Quirico can be ascribed to the planning phase, and to the phase of actual execution.

Other marks are to be connected to the assembly of the stone elements, and how they were set or laid in place, in particular diverging line sand the letter “B” (4.4×1.9 cm) visible on the top of bases for mullions. These can be interpreted as organizational marks, connected to how the stone parts prepared by the stone-masons were to be set in place.

The production cycle of the structural and sculptural elements is connected to the cycle of the construction of the building itself. In order to try to suggest approaches to interpretation, it is necessary to set out from what we have available, namely the analysis of aspects of production, and comparisons with techniques and procedures that are to be observed also in other local buildings; a stylistic analysis and comparisons with contemporary production and creations; and relations between the commissioning authority and institutions and donors.

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A group of stone-masons, following a donation and/or as a product of a specific commissioning authority, is tasked with reconstructing and decorating the monastery cloister, probably in the second half of 12th century. In construction work throughout this period, the various parts of the monastery are often renovated, and such interventions are some times limited to these monastery areas, as seen also in the case of other institutions in the same cultural and territorial context.

The artisans who carried out this work were presumably aware of a number of methods, such that one may suppose that they had already done similar work before, in line with a consolidated practice that enabled them to accomplish the task of construction in a fairly short period, there by keeping down the cost.

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A number of questions are yet to be answered. These relate to the role of the commissioning authority – the abbot – who, by probably making the material available, allowed the skilled stone-workers to achieve the end result, or who perhaps explicitly requested that result. Equally, we do not know the extent to which the commissioning authority was able to influence the choice of the builders. And, in particular, whether they may have been selected from a larger reference context than offered, for example, by the skilled workforce offered by the city of Pisa, via the monastic network itself, perhaps leading to their presence in the local area, and the presence of their work here, as a result. Indeed, here weare not dealing with the work of an individual sculptor, arriving to work in a context that was already delineated, and passing through as an isolated phenomenon.

Instead, it is a collective undertaking, the product of the coordinated work of a specialized group of artisans, as a further contribution to our understanding of the technical field that has for some time been the subject of investigation in this local geographical area.

published by Riccardo Belcari, Per una definizione del ciclo produttivo. Il cantiere per il chiostro del XII secolo / Towards a definition of the production cycle. Building operations for the 12th century cloister, in Un monastero sul mare. Ricerche archeologiche a San Quirico di Populonia (Piombino, LI) / A monastery by the sea. Archaeological Research at San Quirico di Populonia (Piombino-LI)  (edd. G. Bianchi, S. Gelichi, ), Firenze, 2016, pp. 325-333.


Alexander 1996 = J. S. Alexander, Mason’s marks and stone bonding, in T. Tatton-Brown, J. Munby (edd.), The Archaeology of cathedrals, Oxford, pp. 219-236.

Belcari 2009 = R. Belcari, Romanico tirrenico. Chiese e monasteri medievali dell’arcipelago toscano e del litorale livornese, prefazione di A. Peroni, Pisa, pp. 174-185.

Benoit  1985= P. Benoit, Le plomb dans le batiment en France à la fin du Moyen Age: l’apport des comptes de construction et de rèparation, in O. Chapelot, P. Benoit (edd.), Pierre et metal dans le batiment au Moyen Age, Paris, pp. 339-355.

Bessac 1986= J. C. Bessac, L’outillage traditionnel du tailleur de pierre de l’Antiquité à nos jours, “Revue Archéologique de Narbonnaise”, Suppléement 14, Paris.

Bianchi, Gelichi 2016= Un monastero sul mare. Ricerche archeologiche a San Quirico di Populonia (Piombino, LI) / A monastery by the sea. Archaeological Research at San Quirico di Populonia (Piombino-LI), Firenze.

Cagnana  1996= A. Cagnana, I materiali dell’architettura come esito dei cicli produttivi, in G. P. Brogiolo, A. Cagnana, Archeologia dell’Architettura. Metodi e interpretazioni, Firenze, pp. 69-142.

Stasolla 2010= F. R. Stasolla, L’organizzazione dei cantieri monastici, in M. C. Somma (ed.) Cantieri e maestranze nell’Italia medievale, Atti del Convegno di Studio (Chieti – San Salvo, 16-18 maggio 2008),Spoleto, pp. 73-95.

Van Belle 1983 = J. L. Van Belle, Les signes lapidaires: essai de terminologie, in Actes du Colloque international de Glyptographie de Saragosse (7-12 juillet 1982 – Centre International de Recherches Glyptographiques), Zaragoza, pp. 29-43.