Symmetrical, solemn and red: the Abbey of St Gervasius of Bulgaria in Mondolfo greets the onlooker amid the lush countryside, on the left bank of the Cesano River. A few paces round the church, which has an unmistakable basilica floor plan, are enough to dispel any doubts: the town overlooking the Adriatic Sea houses an authentic gem with a hidden, mysterious charm. Among the most ancient churches in the Diocese of Senigallia, and certainly one of the most charming and enigmatic within the Province of Pesaro and Urbino, the Church of St Gervasius awaits the curious visitor to unravel its treasures of faith, history, archaeology and art. The abbey is of Paleo-Christian origin and lies along the byway of the ancient Via Flaminia consular road, which—after bending south near Cagli—crossed the Cesano River Valley roughly along the route of the present-day provincial road and touched S. Gervasio, Sterpettine and Senigallia before ending in Ancona, the major port on the central Adriatic coast. The abbey’s location along an important road is not surprising, as the first places of worship were built near major communication routes to help spread the Gospel throughout the world. In fact, the Ad Pirum Filumeni trading post, which is also marked on the Tabula Peutingeriana map, was most probably situated here during the late Roman period: besides the customary trading activities, the site was used for other purposes too, as revealed by finds from the largely unexplored archaeological area. The abbey’s exterior reveals the typical three-nave basilica layout only partly visible in the interior, due to the 18th-century alterations: in fact, upon entering the church, only the central nave can be clearly distinguished at first. The church’s basilica floor plan is symmetrically arranged around a central longitudinal axis, while specific restoration interventions partly reveal the columns that once lined the lateral naves of the place of worship. The altar faces east, where the sun rises, as the Church venerates the Sun of Justice, Christ the Lord. Roughly midway down the nave, the brick surface on the ancient floor level contains traces of a pre-existing door located on a structure believed to be the oldest room of the Abbey of St Gervasius. It had a square floor plan and thicker walls (traces can be found where the central and lateral naves divide) compared to the rest of the church Much uncertainty surrounds its origin: perhaps it was a martyrium, namely a place reserved for worshipping relics of a saint, though it might well indicate an ancient narthex, or even the iconostasis. Certainly the most fascinating area of the entire St Gervasius complex is the mushroomshaped crypt, lined with blind archlets along its perimeter and supported by a single cipollino marble column. The dominating element, however, is the Ravenna-style sarcophagus in the centre of the room, the largest of its kind to be found in the Marches, datable to the early 6th century. The work—presumably containing the remains of St Gervasius—is decorated with relief images expressing the ardent faith of the early Christians, including the Cross, peacocks, Constantine’s cross and ivy.Granted that ‘nobody is immortal’—ac- Marotta – Marotta cording to the Greek inscription on the quadrangular alabaster slab placed upside-down on top of the crypt’s central column (perhaps the early medieval mason who walled it couldn’t read!)— Christians nevertheless believe that Baptism introduces into eternal life: this explains the presence of the baptismal font—the door to eternity for the believer—within the church. This finely-worked structure, datable to the 12th century (though some scholars date it to the 7th-8th centuries), is now kept in Mondolfo’s Town Hall. Beneath the central nave, a gallery carved out of the cement mortar dating from the Roman period leads to the south nave of the church. From here, the restoration works offer a clearer understanding of the entire structure, including the nave how it originally appeared with its colonnade. The history of the Abbey of St Gervasius of Bulgaria appears to be strictly tied to that of Mondolfo. According to some scholars, the powerful abbey was founded well before the year 1000 by the Offonidi family, which would give its name to Mondolfo (Mons Offo) and ruled over the walled town for several years. The annual feast day is celebrated in the abbey on the Saturday after Easter, namely ‘Saturday in albis’.
Reconstruction drawing of the Abbey of St Gervasius View