14 June 2020

Meditations on a version of the lock down


Fonte Avellana 

Many years ago, while living in Italy, I attempted to put together a book about Italian monasteries.  I travelled extensively throughout the country, photographing and researching many many religious establishments - some grand, and some very humble - and put together a proposal, with some sample work, for a literary agent.

La Verna 

And I was accepted by one, who tried to sell the idea to a number of publishers in the UK.  However, no one would take it up, and eventually the idea was dropped.


Recent events have turned my thoughts again to the kind of lock down that is sometimes imposed on the inhabitants of monasteries - not only Christian ones of course - and I got to thinking about the way of life sustained within some walls.


So here is a section of text from the original draft. Sometime around the mid eighties, I guess, I manoeuvred our Red Renault 4 (always in memory of Aldo Moro) up through Le Marche, and paused at Fonte Avellana.....

Beautiful spring weather; blue skies and catkins, the birds excitedly active, thinking that February is March, the meadows beginning to look green and flowery, when they should be carpeted in snow.  Monte Càtria rising before us, bare and dry at the head of the Cesano valley, Monte Acuto to the north with its green and useless ski-slopes.  

It is a beautiful wooded valley, winding steadily up beside the river.  Evidently, from the carefully tabled picnic spots, it is a popular place, probably crowded on summer weekends, but we don't see a soul, nor hear a car but for our own.  And then, appearing through the thickets above us, there is the silent white shape of the monastery, carved and arranged out of the clean limestone around.
We are 680 metres above the sea here, and the air is clean as a whistle; cowbells and birds create the natural background to the ringing of the hours; the colours are light, and quiet.
Fonte Avellana was originally (and until 1325) a hermitage, founded, some say, by S Romualdo in 980.  Other historians claim that the founder of this community was Bishop Ludolfo of Gubbio, and even the date is disputed, varying up to the year 1000, though the present occupants resolutely celebrated their millennium in 1980, inviting Pope Giovanni Paolo II to participate.  Unfortunately, the intervention of Alì Agcà in Piazza S Pietro delayed his arrival until September 5th 1982.  
What is certain, historically, however, is that in 1035 S Pier Damiano arrived at Fonte Avellana, and he stayed to become not only the Abbot (from 1043 until his death - at Faenza - in 1072) but also an influential authority on monasticism.  He was said to be highly severe, and wrote a book called The Gomorrah Book that is about clerical misconduct, and he once ticked off a bishop for playing chess, but he also wrote hymns and treatises on many other subjects, and was enrolled among the doctors of the church in 1828 by Pope Leo XII without previously having been made a saint.  He was also made Cardinal archbishop of Ostia in 1057 by Pope Stephen IX, but it seems that this was much against his will, and that despite this, and several reforming journeys into France and Germany, Pier Damiano much preferred the silence and beauty of the hills to the business of more popular sites,

che pur con cibi di liquor d'ulivi
lievemente passava caldi e geli,
contento ne' pensier contemplativi.

(Dante, Paradiso XXI, lines 115-117; roughly translated this is, that with only food seasoned with olive oil, I comfortably passed through heat and cold, content in contemplative thoughts.)
Dante himself visited this place in 1318 expressly to read the works of S Pier Damiano, and he then placed him in Paradiso, where Beatrice introduces his spirit, referring particularly to this locality in lines 106 to 120, part of which is now inscribed in stone on the facade of the church:

"Tra 'due liti d'Italia surgon sassi,
e non molto distanti a la tua patria,
tanto che 'troni assai suonan più bassi,
e fanno un gibbo che si chiama Catria,
di sotto al quale è consecrato un ermo,
che suole esser disposto a sola latria."

(NB 'un Gibbo'.....)

(XXI lines 106-111:  Between the two shores of Italy rise rocks, not too far from your native land, so high that thunder forms below them, and they make a hump that is called Càtria, beneath which is consecrated a hermitage which was once wholly given to worship.)
These days academics, particularly from the Universities of Le Marche (as this region of Italy is known) come to stay and to study both these writers in the library, and other men (only men) are permitted to stay for spiritual retreat, joining fully in the life of the monastery.  Other groups are allowed to stay in the foresterie, on a self-sufficient basis, though even these are only allowed for prayer or retreat.
The passing visitor is welcomed morning and afternoon (though not on Sunday or feast-day mornings) and is shown round by one of the ten Camaldolese monks (it has belonged officially to Camaldoli since 1570 - but please note this was written over thirty years ago: the numbers may well have changed).  

The tour includes the ancient scriptorium, a light, cold room with high windows and recently cleaned stone walls that dates from the twelfth century; the library, which has display cases of manuscripts copied here in early times (though most of the really important works have been removed to the Vatican library);  the dark, close, cloister;  the sala capitolare, and then the interesting and evocative crypt, which is the oldest part of the complex (from the tenth century).  Above this is the basilica, from the century after, which is dominated by a wooden crucifix from 1500.  
To the right of the main altar you can reach a tiny modern (1975) chapel which is called the chapel of the Eucharist, and which our guide was obviously very taken with, referring to Beatrice and Dante and Paradise as he lit the throbbing lights behind the altar.  To my philistine mind this tiny gem is costume jewellery, cheap and nasty as coloured glass (though the altar is made of an extraordinary  hunk of stone, folded and crusty like flake chocolate,  worthy of a better setting), and it very nearly spoils the quietude and harmony of a very fine monastery;  but then I don't really understand modern spirituality, and maybe I am wrong, maybe it is the finest thing they have?  It is odd though that recent restoration has lifted all the baroque decorations from the church and the scriptorium (where it may even have been added to make the place slightly warmer) - I wonder how many centuries it will be before they strip out the twentieth century embellishments, to get back to the 'original' purity?
Outside the monastery, by a tree-lined car-park of worrying proportions, there is a pleasant ristoro, or snack bar/souvenir shop, which just happened to open for us as the owner was delivering some hams to himself.  It is open more regularly at weekends and in the summer months, and it would be a good place to take refreshments before or after a good hike in the surrounding mountain pastures.  Apart from the usual trinketry, however, this place is notable because it stocks all the healthy products of the pharmacy of the mother house at Camaldoli, which includes their excellent, natural (i.e. not heated or treated in any way other than filtering) honey.


Leaving here, winding up over the hills towards the Via Flaminia, there are superb views back over the Hermitage and the surrounding hills, where there is no other sign of civilisation; just fading blue hills and silver-grey woods with just a sheen of green in the bright February sunlight.

La Verna 

In the 14th century the Hermitage was consecrated as an Abbey, but it was subsequently subjected to the practice of the grants 'in commendam,' which meant the granting of benefices or goods belonging to a monastery or an abbey to persons of high clerical and civil rank for the sole purpose of enriching them. 

Fonte Avellana remained 'in commendam' until almost the end of the 18th century and the Hermitage suffered deeply under the inevitable effects of this, so the decline of its monastic life was, though slow, inexorable. 

Then Napoleon, in 1810, and then the Italian State, in 1866, further suppressed the monastery.

However, Fonte Avellana continued to exist. Once again in the hands of the Camaldolese monks, it has rediscovered the austere beauty of its architecture as well as that faith and culture which have distinguished it since it was founded.

And so life continues 'in Lockdown' for the handful of individuals who choose to separate themselves from the mundane world of commerce and social interaction, preferring a life of interaction with their faith.....  

Beati Voi!

It may be some time before we are able to roam freely in Europe, but we can dream, in our version of Lock down, of such places of culture and tranquillity.

Long may they remain....

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