Using an expression inspired by the Gospel, some have described monasteries as “voices crying out in the desert” of medieval Europe, with echoes in our contemporary history.
Since the 5th century, when the curtain slowly but inexorably drew on Rome’s millenary pomp, monasteries gradually turned into essential reference points on the stage where the Old Continent’s religious, cultural, political and economic events would play out.
Italy is the cradle of a supremely important coenobitic experience in the history of Europe: the one started by Saint Benedict of Nursia (480-549), flanked by the so-called “Celtic” tradition (championed by Irish monks Brendan and Columbanus, who founded monasteries between the 6th and 7th centuries) and the Eastern-inspiration “hermit” tradition, which was especially widespread in the South.
Monasteries and abbeys preserved and passed on Greek and Latin, pagan and Christian culture, thanks to the great work carried out in “scriptoria” – often connected to rich libraries – where legions of patient scribe monks, armed with awls, rulers, pens and ink, copied ancient manuscripts and parchments and manufactured books.
According to great French medievalist Jacques Le Goff, monasteries were also “oases where manual labor was appreciated”. They were indeed active farming and craftsmanship centers, around which farmers and workers often started their own endeavors.
Let’s visit some of these wonderful and ancient places of prayer and work (“ora et labora”, according to the famous Benedictine motto), scattered around Italy.
We have chosen ten of the most isolated and far from urban centers.
First stop: the Hermitage of San Colombano (pictured above) in Trentino-Alto Adige dates back to the 10th century. You can reach it by climbing 102 steps carved into the rock.
Tel.: +39 0464 424615 / +39 0464 433051 (for tour reservations)
We then move to Veneto, to the Sanctuary of Madonna della Corona (15th century) which overlooks the Adige’s valley from 774 meters above sea level.
Go west towards Lombardy, where you can visit the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso (12th century), which overlooks the eastern shore of Lake Maggiore and can be reached by taking a super-modern elevator that runs inside the rocky ridge.
We start moving south and reach Tuscany and the ancient Hermitage of Calomini (also known as Sanctuary of Sancta Maria ad Martyres), in Garfagnana, in the province of Lucca.
Still in Tuscany, the ruins of the medieval, 13th-century Abbey of San Galgano stand out in their solitude in the countryside near Siena.
Località San Galgano, 167
Tel.: +39 0577 756738
In the province of Siena, we can also pay a visit to the wonderful, 9th-century Romanesque Abbey of Saint Antimo, in Montalcino.
Our next stop is further east, in Marche: the Hermitage of San Leonardo (11th century) is at 1,200 meters of height between the Sibillini Mountains.
Rubbiano di Montefortino (Fermo)
City Hall’s Tourist Office: Tel.: +39 0736 859101
Traveling south, we enter Lazio and, in the province of Rieti, find the Hermitage of San Cataldo nestled up in the mountain, where it has been since before the 10th century.
Further south we reach Subiaco, where in the 6th century Saint Benedict founded the Monastery of Saint Scholastica. The building is only a stone’s throw from the gorgeous sanctuary-monastery of the Sacro Speco (of “Holy Cave”), built by the Benedictines after the 12th century, by incorporating the cave where the saint used to pray.
Piazzale Santa Scolastica
Monastery: tel.: +39 0774 82421
Guesthouse: tel.: +39 0774 85569
Library: tel.: +39 0774 85424
Sacro Speco: tel.: +39 0774 85039
And here is our last stop, the Hermitage of Saint Michael the Archangel (9th century) in Formia (Lazio), at the foot of Mount Altino, part of the Aurunci Mountains.
Maranola di Formia (Latina)
Tel.: +39 0771 735025