With the fall of the empire an important bulwark against the invasions of peoples defined as “barbarians” by the Romans was lost. The Valdarno also became a zone through which the hordes passed, and suffered the most tragic side of the invasions: fields devastated and harvests burned, villages razed to the ground, and the population massacred. The few inhabitants who managed to save themselves did so by abandoning open areas and fleeing to the hills and mountains, where they hoped they would escape the invaders who were laying everything to waste. The historian Procopius of Caesarea (c. 490-565) wrote about Tuscans forced to nourish themselves with bread made from the flour of acorns (The Gothic War, II, 20), and where famine and privations did not finish them off an epidemic of plague further decimated the population.
The invading Ostrogoths were fighting in what would pass into history as the Greek-Gothic War of 535-555, against the Byzantines who would dominate until 575. In the meantime, already by 568, peoples of central-European origin, only recently converted to Arian Christianity, were arriving in Italy. Known in Latin as
Langobardi (anglicized to Lombards) because of the men’s wearing long beards “never touched by a razor,” as Paul the Deacon recorded in his Historia Langobardorum (I, 9), the Lombards settled in Tuscany, and in the piviere (parish) of Gropina as well. From then on the term plebs was used in Italy to designate the “Roman” peoples subdued by and required to pay taxes to the Lombard conquerors, who constituted fare (settlements of military clans). In a broad sense the two terms reflect two diverse cultures and societies.
However it did not take long for the Lombards to assimilate the dominant religion: Theodolinda, queen from 570 to 627 and her nephew Aripert I, king from 653 to 661, converted to Catholicism, even if a more major turning point was made by Liutprand, king from 712 to 744, who was to set up new churches and administrative dispositions.
Therefore, in Gropina, too, there was furious building activity: the faithful were more numerous and needed a larger pieve, which was constructed by almost completely incorporating the paleo-christian one and perhaps maintaining its dedication to the principal apostle, even though the holy figures most dear to the Lombards were the Archangel Michael, St. George, and the Saviour. The date of the new pieve is uncertain: it might go back to the reign of Liutprand, or to a successive period, even after the Lombard defeat of 774 by the Franks under Charlemagne. In either case many Lombards remained in the parish of Gropina and their artistic tastes continued to be influential for a long time. In Tuscany Charlemagne was to limit himself to making few changes in the administrative apparatus, permitting the Lombards to continue their traditions. In addition, in the arts, the stylistic traits of the Lombards were to spread to the local craftsmen, who were to dedicate themselves almost exclusively to architectural decoration.
All of this shows why a precise dating of the second pieve of Gropina is difficult. The finds of 1968-1971 have established that the church had two naves with apses, the one on the right shorter and narrower, divided by at least two large columns. The apse is elevated and a small burial-place was found below. Today, below the present Romanesque pieve, one can see a part of the stairs of the smaller nave and the apse around the ruins of the first paleo-christian church, fragments of the Lombard columns and also the burial-place with several stone tombs, among which there is a sculpted sandstone slab with a cross in bas-relief. It is a typically Lombard cross pattée, i.e. with four splayed feet, and the lateral arms slightly shorter than the vertical ones, a form not unlike the famous cross of Agilulf (of the beginning of the 7th century) or the small crosses in rolled gold made to be pinned on clothes or deposited in graves, such as the beautiful 7
th century one in the Museum of Castelvecchio in Verona. The stele with the cross belonged to the largest tomb, near one which for its size would have been for an infant, and another grave was discovered to the right of the early medieval apse. It is not known who was buried in the three graves: however this was not a Lombard cemetery for fallen warriors, where a pole (pertica) would have been placed at the head of each grave holding the remains of a warrior. On top of a pertica the image of a dove was always placed, facing the battlefield in which the warrior’s body was found, symbolic of his soul.
Among the traces of the Lombards found during the excavations, the most striking is a man’s head in high relief. This presents stylistic elements close to works of sculpture and gold, such as, for example, the relief on a sarcophagus in the cathedral of Calvi (Caserta) or the gold bracteate on display in Monza in 2010 at the exhibition
Petala Aurea, from a private collection. Such motifs include the mop-like long hair, in Italian zazzera (a word of Lombard origin), the eyes, the form of the nose, and the typical smile which seems to form a V and which greets the viewer from the foundations of the new pieve, the Romanesque church, for which it was used as recycled material. Its original place is unknown, but even from where it is now the mysterious Lombard exerts his charm on anyone who encounters his smile.