The Territory surrounding the town of Monte Sant’Angelo appears to be full of artistic-architectural features that integrate with the other landscape natural, demologic and socio-environmental aspects.
The “Via Sacra Langobardorum“ is proof of the presence of the Longobards in the Gargano and their policy of spreading the worship of Saint Michael. The “Via Sacra” of the Longobards was an important traffic route, but above all it was the route that brought pilgrims from the northern plateau and, through the Valley of Stignano, led to San Marco in Lamis, San Giovanni Rotondo and Monte Sant’ Angelo.
The Longobard presence in the area surrounding Monte Sant’Angelo is rather evident; it is also possible to find traces of pilgrims from Ireland, Northern Europe, bearing witness to the diffusion of the worship of Saint Michael. Therefore the Via Sacra Langobardorum was found to be a crowded crossroads for pilgrims, but also for warriors during the Crusades as the geographic position of the Gargano made journeys to the Holy Land easier.
Several monasteries, churches and refuges for pilgrims were built along the Holy Route equipped with wells that often lay over more ancient structures: Santa Maria in Stignano, San Giovanni de Lama, Sant’Egidio, San Nicola al Pantano, San Lorenzo di Siponto. Once the Fratta Valley was passed, the road continued near to a late-antique or high middle ages settlement in the Cassana area, and then led to the abbey of Santa Maria in Pulsano and to Monte Sant’Angelo.
The pilgrims could then continue to the plateau and visit the Church of Santa Maria in Siponto, the Abbey of San Leonardo in Siponto, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Icona Vetere in Foggia and the Sanctuary of the Incoronata in Foggia.
The Abbey of Santa Maria di Pulsano in Pulsano is a few kilometres from the town of Monte Sant’Angelo, to the southwest, on a large plain that looks over the sheer valley towards Siponto. A road partly on the flatland and partly in the mountains led to this centre that, in the past, also led to the basilica of San Michele.
According to tradition, towards the end of the 6th century, the community of the Equizi built a monastery in the same place, which was then passed to the Cluniacensi and was destroyed by the Saracens.
In 1129 San Giovanni Salcione da Matera, after leading a life as a hermit in southern Italy, moved to Pulsano and founded the Benedictine Congregation of the Pulsano hermits, also known as the “Barefooted”.
In the 12th century, the Abbey achieved its maximum splendour, becoming one of the most powerful monasteries in the south of Italy, thanks to the large donation from benefactors, including monarchs such as Ruggero II d’Altavilla and Frederick II. It also became a famous centre for producing illuminations.
The most important part of the Monastery site is the romanesque style church, partly hewn from a natural grotto, occupied by the apse. The church has a single nave with barrel vaults interspersed with large cross arches on semi-pillars near to the walls. It has a wonderful oval door, finely decorated by animal relief works and ancient coats of arms that are very similar to the side door of the abbey of San Leonardo di Siponto. The most precious elements of the abbey are probably attributed to the extension work carried out by the Abbot Gioele (1144 - 1177).
Some excellent fragments of sculptures and remains of the furnishing of the Monastery in Pulsano, currently preserved in the museum of the Sanctuary of San Michele in Monte Sant’Angelo, are considered to be the work of the same artists in Siponto, Foggia master craftsmen who worked in both Capitanata and in Abruzzo (S.Clemente in Casauria, S. Pelino in Corfinio) in the second half of the 12th century.
The Abbey church was dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary, Mother of God and the altar was consecrated by Pope Alexander III after work was completed. The Pope moved the holy remains of some Roman martyrs for the occasion, such as Lorenzo, Ippolito, Nicandro and Valeriano, the reliquary, (in bronze) and the Papal seal in leather are kept in the Abbey church.
The Monastery is surrounded by thick walls. In the Middle Ages, this Monastery played a primary role in reorganising the area and in founding new centres in the Gargano. The limestone walls of the three gorges surrounding the Monastery are filled with grottoes, cells and dwelling places, where hermits, saints and monks met for centuries to live near to the great Sanctuary of the Archangel Michael, searching for a vow of contemplation and ascent.
The Monastery of San Leonardo in Lama Volara in Siponto was founded in the final years of the 11th century and the beginning of the 12th century by the Canon Regulars of Sant’Agostino as a hospice for the pilgrims coming to the Sanctuary of Saint Michael and for the crusading knights who, after praying, at the Sanctuary, left for the Holy Land.
In 1261 it was entrusted to the Teutonic Knights by Pope Alexander IV, who made it the centre of their activities in Puglia up to the 1480. The cross-bearing shields of these soldiers can still be seen inside the Church.
The Church has one aisle and two naves, with arches on semi-pillars and cross pillars in the centre. The central aisle is covered by two unequal domes. Outside, the western façade has a door that is a simple architrave shape, with a plain fanlight above it and finished by an archivolt. On the side façade facing north, there is a wonderful door (one of the best romanesque examples in Puglia) that was probably built at a later stage, perhaps in the Swabian period.
The decoration around this door are similar to those at Santa Maria di Pulsano. In the outer part, two columns stand on the back of two column-bearing lions, which in turn bear two winged animals that support the archivolt. The right hand lion is holding a human (sinner) in his mouth. The sinner holds his foot while begging for mercy; the left hand lion, injured, as it appears, seems to be biting a snake.
The frames and posts of the door, arch and fanlight are sculpted with vegetable, animal and human decorations. The two inner capitals are made up of two trapezoid blocks with anecdote sculptures.
The naturalistic-environmental context of Monte Sant’Angelo is characterized by the presence of the National Park of Gargano, that covers about 121,118 hectares, including a series of unique habitats. From the thick, large forests, famous for the Mediterranean scrub, the karstic high plains rich in dolinas and swallow-holes the steep cliffs down to the sea, full of wonderful grottoes, the steep, woody valleys that descend towards the sea, the coastal lagoons in Lesina and Varano, the hills and steppelike plains and the swamps of Federico II. The four Tremiti islands are also part of the park, surrounded by a crystal clear sea and full of grottoes.
Each of these areas described has a varied flora. In particular, there are more than 2,200 botanic species, which represent about 35% of the entire national flora. Thanks to particular climatic conditions and northern winds that are full of humidity, about 1300 mm of rainwater falls each year on the headland, allowing the development of a special micro-climate in which some trees managed to survive in conditions that do not exists anywhere else in Italy and the world: beech groves in the inland and on the north side, Aleppo pine forests.
Mediterranean scrub along the coast all interspersed with oak groves with turkey oaks and holm oaks, and mixed woods filled with manna ash trees, ash trees, elm trees, holly, chestnut trees, maple trees, oak trees, and beech trees etc. In the glades, there are prickly pears and the steppe-like areas are filled with wild orchids of which 85 species can be found inside the Gargano Park, making it the richest orchid area in Europe. The sun-kissed slopes are home to olive trees, pear trees and apple trees, hawthorn surrounded by mastic trees, brambles, junipers, thyme, prickly pears and a beautiful tree called the “devil’s tree” or the locust tree. The foothills see a great change in the vegetation and the steppe is dominated by olive groves, vines and wheat fields.
Other particular areas are the swamp areas in Frattarolo and the Salso Lake Oasis, together with the coastal lagoons in Lesina and Varano.
The lakes of Lesina and Varano are characterised by coastal woodland that grows along the strip of sand that separates them from the sea and where the Cisto di clusio and reeds grow, surrounding the banks. There are large areas of beech trees, holm-oaks, turkey oaks and sometimes elm trees, ash trees and Hungarian oaks further inland on the headland, with the Ischitellia, Manatecco, Ginestra, Sfilzi, Umbra, Bosco Quarto, Umereta delle Ripe and Lacotenente forests.
Monte Sant’Angelo stands on the edge of the Umbra forest, which with its 11.000 hectares of surface area entirely covered by woodland, is the green lung of the National Park of Gargano, and the largest forest of broadleaf trees in Puglia.
In the heart of the Umbra Forest it is possible to visit the Naturalistic Museum made up of three sections indoors and one section outdoors. The internal arrangement comprises:
• a section on the Gargano flora, with various illuminated panels on the most precious species in the National Park of Gargano;
• a section on Gargano archaeology, with several artefacts dating to the Palaeolithic and Neolithic ages found in the Gargano;
• A section on the fauna, with almost two hundred animals (mammals and birds) on show, that live or stay in the humid areas of the National Park of Gargano during their migration.
The open-air section of the museum is dedicated to Gargano lumberjacks and miners. This section is made up of an educational path along which it is possible to visit the lumberjack’s house and observe the tools he uses each day, a coal cellar and the tools and techniques used by the miners to carry out their work. There are various types of fauna, corresponding to the large range of flora and landscape. About 170 species of birds nest in the park, out of a total of 237 species in the whole of Italy. Nesting birds of prey include: buzzards, kestrels, sparrow hawks, and peregrine falcons.