It’s easy to be seduced by Sardinia‘s irregular beauty. The island’s ragged mountains framed by sandy beaches and crystal clear waters make for a pristine landscape one can hardly forget. Most villages proudly boast a great resilience against the waves of globalization, and although some traditions do struggle to survive, locals are very jealous of their historical and cultural heritage.
Sometimes I feel my extensive traveling to far-flung destinations is also helping me discover my own native surroundings. Who’s been following me for some time is aware I love history, culture and traditions, the lesser known, the better. Lately, although I’ve been an expat for some six-seven years, I devoted longer periods to visiting Sardinia, lingering in its natural wonders, interviewing locals who have something interesting to share and unearthing the island’s personality.
One of the topics that has always tickled my curiosity is the presence in Sardinia of the Knights Templar, ancient religious order created as “the army” of the holy land.
To be entirely honest, my interest in studying the Templars arose from a personal issue, which will be explained in due time.
The history of these Knights is packed with mystery, conflicts, inconvenient wealth and dangerous rivalries. All knighthood and combatant orders within Christianity were created after the first crusade, when the members of the orders, once completed the conquest of Jerusalem were given the duty of protecting the Holy Sepulchre. The knights were named after Solomon Temple in Jerusalem, their headquarter in the holy city, and their main “job” was to protect pilgrims on their way to and from Palestine.
Probably it was the devotion kings, queens and well-heeled noble families held towards this sacred order what made them lavish huge amounts of money and goods, entire lands and palaces to the Knights Templar, who became extremely rich quite quickly. After wealth came the power with which the Knights could exert on rulers. The Order became so rich that it even funded wars and campaigns on behalf of royal families, even creating a proper credit-banking system, which was, apparently, one of the main reasons that brought about their tragic end.
It seems, in fact, that French King Philippe Le Bel (Philip the Fair), crashed by debts towards the Templars, decided to solve his financial situation in a drastic and definitive way: sentencing them all to death, starting from their last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. However, the crowned head counted his chickens before they hatched and belittled the fact that de Molay knew a thing or two on divine retaliation. The Grand Master, in fact, had an ace up his sleeve: a curse.
On Friday the 13th of October 1307, King Philip gave order to arrest all Knights Templar who, under torture, confessed all kinds of crimes, morally authorizing Pope Clement V to suppress the Order in 1312. As history goes, de Molay, moments before being burned to death, allegedly cast a curse on both the King and the Pope saying he would have met them both within a year before God to be sentenced for their wrong accusations. As it happens, the curse is shrouded in mystery, most historians believing it’s a popular myth. However, whether it was spoken or not, both Philip the Fair and Pope Clement did die within a year of de Molay.
Remains of the Templars can be found in many places in Europe, like Edinburgh’s Rosslyn Chapel that is believed to have strong links with the Knights and the Freemasonry, or France, obviously, since they were created there, but not many people know that the Knights Templar had settled, before and especially after their end, also in Sardinia.
If it’s true that today’s Masonic Lodges are the direct legacy of the Templars, here these once secret associations have been active for a long time, even during the Fascist era, althoug Mussolini had outlawed them. Masonry comes in both legal and illegal lodges. Only recently in Italy illegal P2 Lodge, created in the ’60s as “the eyes” of Gladio, CIA’s secret organization in Western Europe, the most criminal association operating in Italy since the Second World War, and which introduced notorious Silvio Berlusconi into power, was exposed and shut down.
Now back to the Middle Ages, when everything started. From the historical record of the time it seems that neither in Sardinia, nor Corsica, nor Sicily the Templars had left any mark, but this is obviously inaccurate since, as historians such as Gianfranco Pirodda say, wherever the Knights went, they used to leave their symbols, and Sardinia still has a rich sample of them. It would be more correct to say that while in other parts of Europe, this Chivalric order has been extensively researched, in Sardinia this is still a work in progress.
With all this in mind, I grew always more curious on why the Knights Templar actually came, how they lived, and what legacy they left us.
Today we constantly see and use Templar’s and masonic symbols without even knowing their meaning, and this is why my journey through yet another mysterious aspect of the island has been an interesting interplay of flashbacks and present days. Tellingly, here the presence of the Templars was so widespread that some claim even our regional flag is a subtle reference, having the four Moors divided by a red cross in the middle.
Apparently, the area where this mysterious religious order has left more imprints is precisely where I grew up, the province of Oristano. This is why my quest started very close to where I’m usually based when I come home, a charmingly unhandy hamlet perched on a dead volcano, religiously named Santu Lussurgiu after its saint patron. Here, 7km away from the village lies San Leonardo church, one of the best-preserved remains of the controversial religious order. If now this has become the heart of the annual local feast, in its heyday it was the headquarter of the Order of Hospitalliers, a branch of the Knights of Malta.
As chosen spot for their settlement, the area is obviously beautiful and blessed with a source of mineral water that still now
attracts people from all over the island who drive all the way up here with bottles and cans to fill in. The excellent conditions of this place is probably the very first aspect the monks considered when they decided to settle, as Sardinia in the Middle Ages was mainly an insalubrious land, more so along its coastline.
Today’s remains are a small church, San Leonardo de Siete Fuentes, always busy with pilgrims paying tribute to Saint Leonard, and the former hospital that apparently still belongs to the Knights of Malta, of which the church displays their big, characteristic red cross. As history goes, the site was the last-ditch attempt of Guelfo della Gherardesca, son of Italian politician and nobleman Count Ugolino, to fight the Pisans in the 13° century. Guelfo della Gherardesca, after killing his father’s murderer, took refuge in this church, where he died not long after.
The landing of the Templars in Sardinia didn’t happen during a quiet moment, if there were any throughout the stormy past of the island. Right in those years the power was shifting to Aragonese-Catalan hands, and many of the Templars’ assets were seized by local clerics and lords. The beginning of the 14° century in Sardinia saw the Franciscan monks living together with the fugitive Templars, and some see this at the base of Franciscans later evolution towards orthodoxy.
I can almost picture some desperate monks trying to escape French guards’ fury when the deadly combination King/Pope declared the end of the order that until then had been conveniently used to accumulate material fortunes. Sardinia must have seemed the perfect shelter, and journeying today throughout their settlements inevitably shows they did have a knack for spotting heavenly corners.
The legacy these monks have left us is mainly unknown, shrouded in mystery and to some extent bearing controversial features. Are they really linked to today’s masonic lodges? How? Why haven’t we researched this part of our history deep enough to answer these questions?
As I resumed my journey from Santu Lussurgiu towards the eastern coast always in the quest of Templars’ traces, I ended up in Dorgali, as picturesque and unhandy a hamlet as Santu Lussurgiu. Wandering up and down the alleys of this village (on board of an old Fiat 500) has been a fascinating immersion in what seemed a stronghold of the warrior monks. Here, too, they were in charge of a hospital and had different lands. What now is the city center was a sort of complex of hospitals and healing places run by the monks.
Even though we know them under the single name of Templars, the order had four branches, and the one of the Knights, supposed to be the noble and most powerful one, was not based in Sardinia. Here, in fact, there were probably the ones in charge of looking after their lands.
Their symbols today are so embedded in our cultural heritage and sometimes even confusedly attributed to different periods and civilizations, show us that the Templars had settled and were very powerful in Sardinia.
In fact, at the Council of Vienna in 1312, when Philip the Fair and Clement V announced the suppression of the order, there were seven bishops from Sardinia, to testify the power the order had in the island. Sculptures, carvings, paintings, statues representing symbols from the ancient Mesopotamia of the summer taking over from the spring, of the good against the evil, all images that today we know derive from Templars’ legacy and not Byzantine or generic Medieval as superficially thought before.
According to historians, there is no doubt that the Knights Templar were present and very active in Sardinia. At that time the island was not a unified territory but, as many like to define it, a “Continent”, consisting in four distinctive states called Giudicati, from Giudice (Judge), because the head of each state was called iudex, and Templars in most of them had the duty of some kind of revenue office, collecting the money of the taxes. It even seems they have played an important role within the island’s tangled history: they were asked to fight against the Pisans to protect the territories, and the Pope himself
appointed them as protectors of clergymen’s families.
From Santu Lussurgiu to Dorgali, from Oristano to Bonarcado, from Iglesias to Milis, historic finds are the evidence that members of this order were scattered all throughout the territory of the four Giudicati, of which maybe the one where they were less present was Gallura, in the northeastern part of the island, staring point of popular Emerald Coast.
It seems that recently a document has been found in the Vatican archives stating that, after having suppressed the Order and tortured its members, Pope Clement V absolved the Knights Templar. Obviously, historians are a bit skeptical: why coming out with this document today after seven centuries and after having condemned the Templars to such a tragic end?
And this brings to the next question: Why is there such an interest in this religious Order today?
Is there really a connection between Templars and Masonry? According to Sardinian academic and historian Francesco
Cesare Casula, the principles that had been at the origins of the Templars, first and foremost the struggle of good against evil, came back to life around the 16° century through masonic lodges, when their members meant to embody the good aspects of the religious order. However, symbols of the Templars date back already to the 13° century: in the Scottish Rosslyn Chapel, built by the Sinclair family whose members, as stated in many historic documents, went to America more than a century before Columbus, are even the so-called Apprentice Pillar and Master’s Pillar (1400s), prelude of what will be the masonic vital elements. This is why many are the historians who want to push their research towards a future explanation of how masons can be considered the descendants of the Templars.
And what does all this have to do with me?
As I like studying general history, one day I decided I wanted to find out more about my own family. I never met my paternal grandfather as he died some ten years before I was born, and every time I tried to know more about him I was met with a puzzled look. People who remember him start whispering when his name is mentioned, and all the information I managed to gather from them is that he was very wealthy, thing I knew already. I have also learned he was a very nasty person, until I met a lady, whose father used to work for my grandfather, who told me he was one of the very few who always paid well and on time. If not more, this research made me find out my grandfather had also some good quality.
Then I digged a little deeper, led by a constant refrain I could hear (whispered, again) according to which he was a member of a local Masonic Lodge. Being a freemason during the Fascism was not a walk in the park, since Mussolini had declared Masonry illegal, but thanks to some people who knew him and the former mayor of my village, I found the records of masonic lodges of the time, where it appears his name and initiation date.
Going back of another generation, I found that his uncle, also a freemason, the man who commissioned my house in 1870, was very wealthy, founded a sugar factory in my hometown (where the street behind my house is named after him), and since he was not married, he left all the inheritance to my grandfather. Obviously also today there are many lodges in Sardinia, and their members (none from my family!) usually hold important roles in the society, such as head of leading industry sectors, media, education.
Although my research on the Templars proved more complicated than expected, I found it fascinating to carry out parallel studies on the history of my hometown, and now I understand what Sardinian historian Gianfranco Pirodda means by saying that it would be very interesting to better explore the relation between Templars and Masonry.
I have to thank for their precious help historian Salvatore Mele from Dorgali who brought me up and down his village with his worn-out yet sturdy Fiat 500 and CEO, Manager Director and editor of local TV station Videolina, who provided me with an essential video about the Knights Templar in Sardinia.