Of Bells and Believers in Agnone, Molise

Agnone, a small mountain town in the Molise region, is the kind of town you would miss if you were not looking for it.

Agnone, Molise
Agnone, Molise

We were driving from Rome to Puglia and wanted to break up our trip with a stop overnight. Molise, Italy’s second smallest region and once part of a greater region with Abruzzo known collectively until 1970 as the Abruzzi, is so unknown amongst Italians that many joke that it doesn’t exist–Molise non esiste.

So what better time than Easter to test one’s faith in the existence of something?

With its population hovering only around 5,000, Agnone, like many other small towns in Italy, punches above its weight. Agnone’s fame is thanks to the Marinelli Pontificia Fonderia di Campane, a continuously family-run bell foundry that has been in operation since 1339. The Marinelli foundry has produced bronze bells for churches throughout Italy and the world, including for the reconstructed Montecassino Abbey following World War II.

It stands to reason that a town known for its church bells must also have several churches. In fact the center of Agnone contains block after block of churches, many dating from the mid-15th century or earlier. Among the most important are Sant’Emidio (1443), which is unique for its austere, Tuscan-like facade and asymmetrial, double-naved interior, and Sant’Antonio (1128), the end point for the famous ‘Ndocciata, a Christmas Eve torch parade.

The asymmetric interior of Sant'Emidio in Agnone, Molise
The asymmetric interior of Sant’Emidio in Agnone, Molise

But we were here for Easter, a much more somber time, at least during Settimana Santa, Holy Week. It was on Good Friday when quiet Agnone came to life with its procession of the Dead Christ. This morbid parade is lead each year by the Congregation of the Dead, a group of black hooded congregants from the church of Santa Croce (1446).

Perhaps it is said that Molise doesn’t exist because there exists a part of Italy that is no longer recognizable to so many–the Italy of rugged, rural landscapes and traditional rituals practically untouched by tourism. There’s also the logistics of traveling to Molise that keep the region out of sight and mind. At more than two hours by car or train from Rome, Molise is difficult to reach especially when you consider that a Freccia fast train will whisk you from Rome to Florence or Naples in about an hour.

And so it is likely that Agnone, despite its efforts to attract tourists, will remain hidden to all but those who seek her out.

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