Along a narrow valley in the Picentini Mountains, the flowing water of the Tusiano River gradually excavated a deep natural cavern on the western slopes of Monte Raione. Although the far ends of the cave are cloaked in complete darkness, its large mouth reveals breathtaking vistas of the karst landscape. In the first century A.D., the cavern was dedicated to San Michele Arcangelo, or Saint Michael the Archangel. Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, the cave served as the basic structure for numerous underground burial chambers. The early Christian tombs were heavily influenced by pagan designs and are the oldest archaeological traces at the site. During the Middle Ages, Grottoes of San Michele became a place of worship and seven stone chapels were erected within the large cavern. The rustic churches were adorned with extraordinary frescoes and stucco carvings, exemplifying the finest Byzantine artistic techniques and iconography. In the tenth century, the monumental complex became an affiliate of the Church of Salerno. The sanctuary began to fall into disrepair in the twelfth century.
1996 World Monuments Watch
The most serious threat to the survival of the Grottoes of San Michele has been the varying levels of groundwater within the cavern, but over the years, high humidity levels, deterioration of the chapel walls, and vandalism have greatly damaged the remarkable medieval church frescoes as well. Microorganisms, like mold, have further compromised the integrity of the priceless paintings. When the Grottoes of San Michele were placed on the 1996 World Monuments Watch, the painted layers of plaster were heavily stained and had begun to flake and detach from the walls. A regional conference was organized to discuss the future of the historic cavern soon after it was included on the Watch. After an emergency conservation plan developed, a fundraising campaign was launched in order to raise money for work at the site. In 1998, WMF began a conservation project focusing on the small chapel located immediately to the left of the principle church next to the cave entrance. WMF supported the emergency cleaning and consolidation of the small church’s decorative elements.
Of the seven chapels that once comprised the Grottoes of San Michele, only five have remained intact. The bas-relief decorative braids and foliage motifs that were conserved during the WMF project are the only examples surviving in the complex. Unlike most other cave churches, which use smoothed rock surfaces as both walls and ceilings; the chapels of San Michele were constructed completely independent of the enormous natural cavity. Light reflects off the uneven surfaces of the cave walls creating dramatic and dynamic views of the sacred space. The exceptional frescoes decorating the churches document the settlement of Greek, Egyptian, and Libyan monastic communities on the southern Italian coast during the Middle Ages. Although this era has had a profound influence on Mediterranean Europe, little is known about this epoch in history. The Grottoes of San Michele provide important and rare insight into this period and have remained an important religious shrine for the local community.