The Longobards in Naples

Longobardo sword

NAPLES - Why hold an exhibiton about the Longobards in Naples? Their presence is tangible in Cividale dei Friuli and their capital for centuries was Pavia but they never conquered Naples.

Yet they were in southern Italy for centuries after they had lost control of northern Italy because of the conquest of Pavia by Charlemagne in 774.

In southern Italy they lasted for almost another three centuries. At first their capital was Benevento, then Capua and Salerno became autonomous centres of power.

They interacted with Naples through commerce and arms. And both Naples and Benevento wanted the martyr, San Gennaro.

While Benevento was attacking Naples in 831, a Beneventan prince stole the remains of the saint which returned to Naples only in 1497. Gennaro was a cause of division then but now he is seen as a shared interest in the Longobard exhibition at the NaplesArchaeologicalMuseum until 25 March.

The well-mounted exhibition, which has been hailed as the most important ever on the Longobards, benefits from the great progress in studies about these invaders in the past decade.

The Longobards ( the ‘long beards’ whose name has determined that of Italy’s richest region, Lombardy) have been accused of fragmenting Italian unity which had been largely maintained by the Goths who had taken over from the Western Roman empire. But the exhibition shows how close the Longobards came to unifying Italy under their own control even though they probably numbered less than 100,000 when, in the 6th century, they came through the Alps into Italy. The papacy was a key factor in preventing Longobard suzeranity. The Longobards were Germanic Christians but gradually converted to the Catholicism of the Italians which aided unity.

The exhibition is in darkened rooms where the weapons, buckles, jewellery, garments, coins, domestic utensils documents, inscriptions on stone, bas relief sculptures- most strikingly of animals- are spotlighted. This dark-light contrast creates the effect of a different world, but also problems because the captions are difficult to read. There should be an annual Italian prize for legible captions in exhibitions because often they are ill-served by the labelling.

The exhibition is divided into 8 sections which follow a chronological order with attention to the economy, religion, the role of Pavia as capital, the Longobard writing which began after they reached Italy, relations with the Carolingian empire, the Longobards in southern Italy and, finally, its monasteries, such as Montecassino, which are one reason why southern Italy is the richest source of Longobard remains.

The exhibition answers some queries about the Longobards but raises other – a Longobard book of laws is displayed which inspires questions about how it differed from the previous law and how extensively it was applied.

The exhibition was first held in Pavia and, after Naples, will be displayed at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

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Longobard ring