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Church and monastery of San Nicola di Trullas

The church of San Nicola di Trullas stands a short distance from the tiny centre of Semestene, in the province of Sassari. The church building, donated in 1113 by the Athen family to Camaldolese monks, was built according to the "Romanesque" and has a very simple structure: the shape of a box from which protrudes to the east apse.

The façade of the lower part has a simple entrance, with an architrave with a raised supporting arch, while if we look upwards, there is a set of small arches along the wall, supported by pillars (fig. 1). The space between the arches is occupied by four ceramic painted bowls (fig. 2): these are ceramic containers inserted into the wall for decorative purposes, also present on the opposite side of the church, facing east.

Fig. 1 - The church of San Nicola di Trullas (photo by Unicity S.p.A.).
Fig. 2 - Detail of the façade with ceramic bowls (photo by Unicity S.p.A.).

The two side walls of the church are divided in the same way: one vertical architectural element, known as a pilaster, divides it into two parts, in each of which there is an arched single-light window (figs. 3-4).

Fig. 3 - The church of San Nicola seen from the southwest (photo by Unicity S.p.A.).
Fig. 4 - The south side of the church of San Nicola (photo by Unicity S.p.A.).

A number of small arches set against the wall up high are also present on the side of the building opposite the façade. Compared to the other, this side has a semi-circular part jutting out, known as the apse. The side of the apse, like the side walls, it is vertically divided in half by a pilaster and each portion has single-light windows that guarantee lighting for the church (fig. 5).

Fig. 5 - The apse (photo by Unicity S.p.A.).

The inside of the building reflects the simplicity of the outside: a single large rectangular space, known as the nave, is covered by two vaults. On the back wall, right behind the altar, the semi-circular apse opens up, the most important area of the church, once entirely covered by painted decorations, that must have also covered the rest of the walls, but of which only some traces remain.

In fact, during the restoration work carried out in 1997, following the removal of plaster from the interior walls, some frescoes emerged dating back to the early decades of the 13th century. The representations of Christ among the apostles are preserved in the apsidal vault, of twenty-four elders in adoration of the Mystic Lamb on the eastern vault and an angelic court along the western vault, in addition to various painted fragments with plant motifs (figs. 6-7).

Fig. 6 - Frescoes in the apsidal vault (photo by Unicity S.p.A.).
Fig. 7 - Reconstruction hypothesis of frescoes (visual by Unicity S.p.A.).

There may have been a bell tower behind the apse.

The monastery was next to the south side of the church, some of which still remains, bordered by walls that are still visible at foundation height. However, the layout can be seen, with a square cloisters and a well in the middle, surrounded by a covered rectangular walkway leading to some different-sized rooms (fig. 8).

Fig. 8 - Reconstruction hypothesis of the monastery cloisters (visual by Unicity S.p.A.).

Based on the comparison with other monastery sites, there has been a proposal, with some doubts, of recognising: a possible capitular room on the east side, with other gathering rooms such as a visitors’ area. There may have been a refectory on the side opposite the church, a garden in the centre of the cloisters and some environments usually placed along the cloisters corridors: a scriptorium, a reading area, a space for the abbot’s seat and the prior’s seat, and a space which may have been for the priors’ tombs (fig. 9).

Fig. 9 - Reconstruction hypothesis of the church and monastery seen from the northeast (visual by Unicity S.p.A.).

The monastery must have been built in worked stone blocks, but probably covered by a trussed roof, as usually found in this type of building. It is likely that it had wooden floors, that divide the ground floor from the first floor (were the monks’ cells were) and perhaps a lower level along the southern side, that still slopes towards the valley below.

The extension and internal division of the rooms makes one think that the resident community was rather large, as the reconstruction of economic life of the priory by the Condaghe di San Nicola di Trullas also suggests. The relations with the 12th century sources, closer chronologically to the donation of the church, is problematic, as no material has been found that proves the site was frequented in the 12th century. The areas still to be investigated (north side, in front of the façade) may help the reconstruction of the phases of monastery life between the 12th and 13th century and be verified in light of the written sources remaining (fig. 10).

Fig. 10 - Reconstructive hypothesis of the church and monastery seen from the northwest (visual of Unicity S.p.A.).


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Scientific coordination
dr. Maria Grazia Arru

Scientific advisory support
dr. Rossana Martorelli
dr. Alberto Virdis
dr. Silvia Marini
dr. Cristiana Cilla
dr. Marco Muresu