'SAN GIROLAMO': THE HERMITAGE OF MONTE CUCCO
The wooded eastern face of Monte Cucco is scored by a deep incision flanked by overhanging walls. At the bottom runs a torrent whose course is punctuated by foaming waterfalls, deep water-holes and pools, and also by the now famous Rio Freddo Gorge. This ravine, lying on the Umbria-Marche border, cannot be accessed by the ordinary visitor on account of its many precipitous drops.
Travelling along this side of the mountain one passes through large forests of beech-trees. From time to time one reaches wonderful view-points and comes upon great outcrops of that pure limestone rock which went to form one of the most important and extensive underground karst systems in Italy. In fact, such an excursion provides a rich sample of the wonders of the Monte Cucco landscape.
However, it should be added that the beauty of this valley has suffered some severe blows in recent years.
Every trace has been lost of the ancient ruins of the hermitage of St Girolamo, which once clung to the steep sides of the gorge and was only accessible by a steep, narrow path. In its place there is an invasive asphalt road and a large, ugly building, the result of “restoration work”, which has added much and conserved very little.
The forest tracks, although necessary to the economy of the area, have penetrated into the remotest corners of the valley. They often pay scarce attention to the integrity of the environment and, in some cases, are of debatable use.
THE BLESSED PAOLO GIUSTINIANI
The founder of the hermitage of Monte Cucco, in the legal, historical and canonical sense, was the contemplative hermit, the Blessed Paolo Giustiniani. He was born on June 15th 1476, a son of the noble Giustiniani family of Venice.
After serving as Father Superior of the monastery of Camaldori up to 1520, he then obtained permission from Pope Leone X to found a new hermitage, originally called the “Company of San Romualdo”.
Later it adopted the canonical name of “Congregation of the Camaldolite Fathers of Monte Corona”, known in short as the “Montecorenesi”.
After founding the Monte Cucco monastery, and residing there for a period of time, he went on to establish other hermitages, such as that of the grottoes of Cupramontana, and that of San Silvestro on Monte Soratte.
He was thrown into prison at Macerata for his love and defence of the Camaldolite Fathers.
Later, when he was in Rome in 1527, he was imprisoned by the Lanzichenecchi, during the terrible sacking of the city.
He was tortured, together with Saint Gaetano da Thiene, but escaped to liberty.
In the Spring of 1528 he contracted the plague in Viterbo. Although not fully restored to health, he journeyed back to Rome to receive in gift the hermitage of Monte Soratte.
It was at that hermitage that he died of the plague on June 25th 1528, at the early age of 52.
The phenomenon of hermitic life was prevalent in the years between 900-1000 AD and 1100.
At that time, there were many men who sought to flee the world, dedicating themselves to voluntary solitude, silence and converse with God. These were the solitary Christians, anchorites and hermits typical of the time, for whom, in accordance with the teaching of St Girolamo: “The city is a prison; solitude is paradise”. This was a particular phenomenon within the Church, which began after the fall of the Roman Empire and flourished conspicuously in around 1000 AD. The mountains of Italy were widely inhabited by these solitary hermits. They lived in wild, inaccessible places, either in caves, or in huts made of stones and wood.
A collection of these cells together formed the Hermitage. Some individuals, however, felt the need to have a common base, and so the Monastery came into existence: a place where they could live together, with adjacent cells, an oratory, a church and sometimes a cloister, a refectory, a chapter-house, a library and a scriptorium. This is what happened, at different times, at Santa Maria D'Appennino, at Sitria, at Congiuntoli and, most famously, at Fonte Avellana.
The Hermitage was built in the eastern part of the Monte Cucco massif (1,566 m), behind Monte Le Gronde (1,363 m). It is in the Municipality of Scheggia and the Diocese of Gubbio, on the border of the Municipality of Costacciaro, in the Umbria-Marche Apennines. Situated at 656 metres above sea level, it is known as the Hermitage of St Girolamo of Monte Cucco, or alternatively the Hermitage of Pascelupo, after the area in which it is located.
The first historically documented inhabitant of the Hermitage was the Blessed Tomasso da Costacciaro, who lived there for nearly 65 years, and passed away in 1337.
THE LIFE OF THE HERMITS
They always lived a solitary life within the hermitage, even though they shared the roof over their heads. They could never enter each others’ cells: at most they could walk to the confines of the cells. They could talk to each other twice a week, when they went outside the cloister, but within the restricted area they could only converse in whispers. They had an inviolable rule of silence, which always had to be obeyed. On days of abstinence, they took their meals sitting on the floor, with bare feet. Meat was never eaten in the Hermitage, and during Lent the monks abstained from dairy produce (eggs, milk, cheese etc.). The consumption of meat was only permitted when someone was ill, or going on a journey. The monks always slept in their habits, either on wooden palettes or on hard straw mattresses. They dedicated themselves to manual labour, according to their individual capacities: they dug the ground, hoed, pruned, built walls, carried stones and dressed them, made bread, cooked, made clothes, did repairs, wrote and composed. They were very charitable towards guests and to the poor. When they fell ill, they were taken to the infirmary. The dead were interred in the church, in the cemetery next to the Hermitage, or in the graveyard at Pascelupo. The hermits were a mixture of Italians, Austrians, Spanish, French and other nationalities, but very many of them were Polish. This was the case because, in 1605, the Justinian reforms came to Poland and the Polish nobleman, Nicolò Wolski, founded a hermitage near Krakow. This hermitage supplied a large contingent of acolytes for other monasteries. At Monte Cucco, apart from the Blessed Paolo who, after serving at Capaldori, repaired to this Hermitage and secured it for his followers, there were many resident monks who were renowned for their holiness and wisdom. Amongst these was the Blessed Girolamo da Sessa Aurunca (1556), who was chief physician to the supreme Popes Julius II and Leo I, before becoming a hermit. There was also the Venerable Doroteo Zuccari of Fabriano (1783): an account has been written of his life. His body remained conserved after death and was interred in the Church of S. Croce. One of the last hermits was Monsignor Girolamo Bianchi, formerly personal attendant to Popes Pious X and Benedict XV.
EXPANSION OF THE HERMITAGE
From the day on which the Blessed Paolo took possession of the Hermitage, work began to make improvement to the monks’ way of life. They set to work with great vigour, even though they were unaccustomed to such strenuous activity. They made little vegetable gardens, creating terraces down the hillside, held in place by retaining walls. They reduced by half the tower that was at the centre of the complex, and used the space in its base to build a church within the hermitage. This church measured 7.4 metres long and 4.6 metres wide. Monsignor Manciforte, Bishop of Gubbio, consecrated the old oratory on September 25th 1709. On the same day, he consecrated the church inside the Hermitage, which was dedicated to Saints Girolamo and Romualdo, and laid on the altar relics of the Holy Martyrs, Saint Magno and Saint Benedict. Since the sacred stone for the high altar originated from the ancient oratory of Girolamo, as an act of commemoration the date MDCCIX was engraved upon it. The church was open to men only, on Sundays and feast days. Women from the village of Sassoferrato were allowed to enter the Hermitage of San Girolamo just twice a year: on the Tuesday after Easter in March, and on September 30th, the feast of St Girolamo. The bell-tower of the Hermitage contained three bells with distinct tones: one to announce Mattins (at midnight); another for Laudes (at dawn); the third for Vespers (at sunset).
One room acted as a smithy for the hermitage blacksmith. Inside the building an apartment was set aside for the use of dignatories, such as bishops, on religious or pastoral visits. There was a library, where the monks studied and learnt the sciences, and where chapter meetings were held to discuss matters of importance. The buildings were divided into two floors, with store, pantry, tailor’s workshop and cellar. A refectory, infirmary and guests’ quarters were created, consisting of four bedrooms and a sitting-room. The plumbing system was ingenious, and still causes wonderment today. Under the waterfall a stone collecting-trough was discovered, still in perfect condition. From this the water was conducted to the first cistern, also called the “flask”, which was made in 1531. This was positioned between the hay-barn and the smith’s forge, and was used to water the various vegetable gardens; it had a de-silting sump for impurities in the water. The other half of the water was channelled to an older and more distant cistern for the scullery, kitchen and bedrooms. Outside, in the small courtyard, was a very elegant drinking fountain, made in 1735, as one could read on a stone, placed above.
ABANDONMENT AND DESOLATION
In 1583, the hermits came very close to abandoning the monastery. There were two dangers facing them: firstly, rocks falling from above were threatening to overwhelm the monastery; secondly, thieves from neighbouring caves were repeatedly raiding and robbing.
Angry and frightened, they applied to Pope Sestus V for permission to transfer their premises to somewhere less accessible.
“Stay!” said the Pope, “God will save you from the rocks, and I will rid you of the thieves”.
They obeyed, and this is what happened.
They had no more trouble from the rocks; even if sometimes one fell down, it landed harmlessly in front of the door to the inner church; and they had no more bother from the thieves, who were chased off for ever.
There then came the suppression and seizure of the monastery, with grave consequences. It was not the end, however, and the monks remained at Monte Cucco.
In about 1920, Don Beda, father superior at Monte Corona monastery, made a momentous decision. Realizing that the situation for the Camaldolese fraternity was perilous, he thought it would be wise to close some of the monasteries, amongst them Monte Cucco. His hope was to revitalize the brotherhood by concentrating the remaining monks into fewer hermitages. So it was that, after some hesitation, in 1925 a definite decision was finally taken to close the Hermitage.
The last surviving monk from that time was Don Mariano Kizek, who was born in Slesia in 1888, and died at Frascati in 1974.
With the closure of the Hermitage, the ruin and desolation commenced, and anything that was of any use was taken away. The roofs were left without beams and tiles; the eighteenth century door of the inner church was removed: even the dressed stones from the windows were plundered.
Rain, snow and winds did the rest of the work.
Weeds and brambles overran the place, making it inaccessible.
Nevertheless, during the 1939-1944 war, the poor Hermitage was sought out by the people of Pascelupo and Perticano as a refuge from the artillery fire and aerial bombardments.
About fifty people even came from Fabriano, and stayed up there for more than two weeks, seeking shelter in the church sacristy, which had remained intact, as well as in caves in the mountains.
After the fury of the war had passed, the pace of destruction accelerated, and the Hermitage became a grim heap of masonry.
THE HERMITAGE AND ABBEY OF SAINTS EMILIANO AND BARTOLOMEO IN CONGIUNTOLI
Travelling along the road from Scheggia in the direction of Sassoferrato, and crossing the wild and inhospitable Corno Pass, after a distance of 13 km one comes to an old Benedictine Abbey, standing on the right. The Abbey is situated at the foot of Monte Aguzzo, at the confluence of the Rio Freddo and the Rio Sentino. It is known as the Abbey of “Congiuntoli” (joining together) precisely because it stands near the meeting-point of these two rivers. As the monastery archives have been lost, it is not possible to know exactly when the Abbey was founded nor by whom.
In 1235, Bentivoglio di Trasmondo transferred many assets to the Abbey of Fonte Avellana. The Abbot of St Emiliano at that time was called Giacomo: he held possession of the Castle of Leccia, in the territory of Serra S. Abbondio (Pesaro). In 1274, during the time of Abbot Mainardo, the Counts Atti of Sassoferrato donated three castles to the Abbey of St Emiliano: Liceto, Montelago, and a third unidentified castle on the Apennnines. An anonymous author from Sassoferrato claimed in his 1753 “History of the City of Sentino” that there were Cistercian monks living at the monastery of St Emiliano up to 1596, at which time the Hermitage was suppressed, because there were only four monks and the abbot remaining. In 1439, the property of Conguintoli was annexed by the Cathedral Chapter of Urbino. After various vicissitudes, the Napoleonic suppression arrived and, in 1810, the Abbey was stripped of all its wealth. However, this period only lasted a short time and when Pious VII was released from imprisonment he restored the monastery’s possessions. A few years later, in 1836, Gregory XVI issued a papal bull, "inter multiplices", proposing the annexation of the Abbey to Fonte Avellana. The Royal Commissioner for Umbria, Gioacchino Pepoli, finally ended the life of the Abbey, suppressing it by decree on December 11th 1860. The land, woods, and all the buildings except the church and the bell-tower were sold to a private buyer.
THE HERMITAGE AND ABBEY OF ST MARIA DI SITRIA
The Monastery and Church of Sitria are to be found at the foot of Monte Nocria (867 m), hidden away in a remote cleft in the narrow valley of the River Artino. About 5 kilometres further on, is the famous monastery of St Croce di Fonte Avellana, perched on the side of Monte Catria, near the River Cesano (called the Suasano in the past because it flowed through the valley of Castellone di Suasa). The River Artino empties into the Sentino after a few kilometres, near to Isola Fossa. The Cesano, on the other hand, flows straight down to the Adriatic sea: indeed, it is known as a “Royal” river because it is not a tributary of any other.
The Abbey of Sitria was founded in 1014 by St Romualdo, and then consisted of a collection of small cells, built of stones and wood. Subsequently, in about 1020, he founded the cenoby. St Romualdo was born in Ravenna in 952, the son of a Lombardy duke. At the age of 20, he left behind home and riches behind and became a monk in the Monastery of St Apollinare-in-Classe. He was consecrated as a bishop in 978. He then began a series of journeys, inspired by the desire to found monasteries and hermitages for the many followers wanting to live according to the Benedictine Rule. In 1005 he was at Val di Castro, near Fabriano, and founded the Monastery there. Three years later, in 1008, he founded a Monastery at Orvieto. In 1012, he established the Hermitage of Monte Purano near Cagli, and that of Acquabella in the mountains of Fabiano. In 1014 he founded a Monastery at Vallebona, and then finally returned to Sitria. It is written in his biography: "Cum Appenninum desereret, montem Sitriae habitaturus ascendendit". After 1023, he established the Monasteries of Vibo and St Benedetto, close to Monte Amiata, followed by the famous monastery of Camaldoli, before returning again to Sitria. Finally retreating to the Val di Castro, he built himself a solitary cell, and died a saintly death on June 19th 1027. Since 1481, his remains have lain in the Church of Saints Biagio and Romualdo in Fabiano.
The cells which composed the old Hermitage of Sitria were still visible until the C18. Many men who were famous for their sanctity and wisdom lived at the Monastery: apart from the founder, St. Romualdo, there was the Blessed Mainardo, as well as the Blessed Tomasso da Costacciaro, who adopted the monastic habit there and subsequently retreated to the crags of Monte Cucco to become a hermit. There were also St. Pier Loricato and St. Albertino da Montone, the Prior of Sitria from 1275 on. Another illustrious inhabitant of Sitria was the Abbot Sigismondo di Sassoferrato who, in 1288, by virtue of his life and teachings, was made Bishop of Senigallia. In 1448, there was Pandolfo degli Atti di Sassoferrato, the last Abbot at the Monastery.
In 1861, with the new suppression, ordered by the Italian Government, the remaining assets of Sitria, including the Church, passed into private hands. The Church became a farm-house and the old baptismal font was taken to the Parish Church of Isola Fossara in 1580, where it remains to this day. The Church dates from the C11 and is all built of dressed stone with barrel vaulting. It was restored in the C16, and more recently in 1972, thanks to the monks of Fonte Avellana, who still retain it as part of their property. The Church is a very elegant Romanesque-Gothic edifice, built at a time of stylistic transition. It has a single nave in the form of a Latin cross, with a raised presbytery reached by a flight of eight steps. Under the high altar, there is an interesting Romanesque crypt, supported by a column with a capitol which probably came from ancient Sentinum.
THE BENEDICTINE ABBEY OF ST.ANDREA OF "INSULA FILIORUM MANFREDI"
A short distance from Costacciaro and therefore also from Costa S. Savino, there once stood the Abbey of St. Andrea di insula filiorum Manfredi. It was built on top of a steep hill, from which one could admire a wonderful view. That place and the building are still known as “The Abbey”. There are records of it going back to 1130. It was a dependency of the Monastery at Fonte Avellana.
An account of the history of Costacciaro tells us that: "In 1130, Salagrinus, son of Daniele, gives the parsonage of St. Mariano di Gubbio a piece of land in Col Martino, alongside the Scirca, bordering on the property of St. Andrea di Insula. Pope Innocence II, Gregory VIII, Celestine III and Innocence III take the Hermitage of St. Croce di Fonte Avellana under their protection, confirming its possessions, amongst which is the Monastery of St. Andrea of the island of the sons of Manfredo”.
In 1571, during a pastoral visit, the Bishop ordered the rebuilding of the bell-tower. From a visit made in 1635, we learn that the Church was thirteen paces long and eight wide.
Today, there is not a trace left of the Church: just a small chapel which was used for services until a few years ago, and which is reputed to have once been the sacristy of the monastic church. There are two large buildings still remaining, which were used as farmhouses in the past. The monastery passed into private hands, and now belongs to the heirs of
Vittorio Fantozzi. The well still remains, between the two wings of the large buildings, and fields stand all around.
THE BENEDICTINE PRIORY OF ST.CASSIANO
The Priory stands at the foot of Monte Testagrossa (1,175 m), on the Marche side of the border, in Val Bognola e Olivella. Val Bognola was originally called Valle Bagloni, “the valley of the small watering place”. Olivella is the colloquial name for a plant of the oleaceae family which can often be found growing in our woods and hedges. The valley does not get much sun, but is home to rich vegetation and some famous springs, which are possibly the most health-giving in the Mont Cucco massif. From this valley, the road used to leave for the Chiaramonte Pass: the famous “diverticulum” from the present road as it is called by the people of Fabriano, or the “Roman Way” as it is marked at the place where the road left Fossato to cross the Apennines to Helvillum-Anconam. The Monastery of St Cassiano was neither a hermitage nor an abbey. It was denominated a “priory”, perhaps because of the meagre number of monks which it accommodated over the centuries.
According to records no longer in existence, the original foundation dates from the period 1119 – 1153. A surviving document from 1177 confirms this; but the hypothesis cannot be excluded that the priory was established in the golden era of the abbeys and hermitages: that is, around 1050. Many documents relating to S. Cassiano are now preserved in the archives of St. Nicolò di Fabriano. In the C15, there was only one monk still in residence and, for this reason, Eugenius VI issued a papal bull in 1441, uniting and incorporating St. Cassiano with the Church of St.Venanzo di Fabriano (now the Basilican Cathedral). In 1455, the same Pope united it with San Nicolò di Fabriano, and this union became permanent in 1456. St. Nicolò, which took possession of all the property of the priory, assumed responsibility for all the ecclesiastical offices at the priory church until 1860, the year in which the law of state suppression came into effect. The priory property was then sold to private buyers, and remained in their hands for some time. A few years ago, the monks of the Hermitage of St. Silvestro di Monte Fano above Fabriano bought a considerable part of the property and modernized it extensively, making some new apartments, which are principally occupied in the Summer. The most interesting part of the complex is the splendid Romanesque-Gothic church, built all in stone with a beautiful apse. The outside is extremely elegant, with five single lancet windows with drop arches; twelve small, truncated arches; two columns and central consoles. The style is truly exquisite. The facade and the portal are blunt-arched. This mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles makes one suppose that the church was probably originally built around the C11 and then, together with the crypt, later completed or partially rebuilt in middle of the C13. The inside of the church has three bays. The presbytery has a cruciform ceiling and is reached by seven steps. The architect managed to fit the tribune and the crypt into a very restricted space in a highly original manner. The crypt also has a cruciform ceiling and is reached by a flight of stone steps. This makes one think that the original, primitive church was built in about the year 1000, since afterwards the crypt fell into disuse.
THE MONASTERY OF SAINT MARIA D'APPENNINO
The Benedictine Abbey of St.Maria d'Appennino is certainly the oldest of all the monastic centres grouped between Monte Catria and Monte Cucco, and also the one that was built on the highest ground. The first Abbey was situated at 832 m, high up on the left if you are travelling across the Apennines towards Fabriano via the Fossato pass, and stood next to the "Diverticulum Ab Helvillum-Anconam". It is a place still known today by the farmers of Campodiegoli as the “Monastio”. In the middle of the C12, the monks left the original site on the high ground and opened a new monastery in the valley below. This was a locality called Abbazia nelle Marche, and lay in the part of Fabriano near the falls of the River Giano. If the new monastery in the valley was extensively restored in 1264 (as is recorded on a tablet in Villa Serafini in Albacina), we can probably deduce that the monks moved there about a century earlier, in at least 1150. However, this conjecture is not supported by sufficient evidence, particularly since the building in the valley has largely collapsed. A bull issued by Adrian VI informs us that the Pope put the Monastery of St Maria D'Appennino and its possessions under his direct protection. On July 27 1441, Eugene IV issued a papal bull uniting in perpetuity the revenue of St.Maria d'Appennino with the Collegiate Church (now Basilican Cathedral) of St.Venanzo di Fabriano. It did, in fact, not have enough revenue to pay for 20 priests and clerics to provide holy office. Deprived of independent income, the monastery suffered disrepair and final abandonment. The importance of St.Maria d'Appennino is also testified by the numerous works of art in its possession: fourteenth century masterpieces by the Master of St.Biagio in Caprile (Campodonico) and Allegretto Nuzi, both supreme exponents of the school of painting existing in Fabriano at that time. The final collapse of the Monastery occurred after a particularly heavy snowfall on December 30th 1982.