The Hermitage of Santa Maria delle Carceri
di Laura Zazzerini
The hermitage of Santa Maria delle Carceri, evoked, and evokes now, appealing and leading emotions, and feelings for the writers that in the past went there. Now it does that for the people that go there ether to study or to create a guided tour.
A charming place
Once, a Franciscan Belgian priest, of whom we don’t know the true identity, visited this hermitage at the beginning of the XVIII Century, and it defined it «a very devoted desert». A century after his visit, the journalist and writer, Thomas A. Trollope, wrote: «The monastery […] an overhanging ledge of rock, harder and offering greater opposition to the action of the weather than the stratum immediately below it». At the beginning of the XX Century, the poet Olave M. Potter, described the place as «a wrinkle on the side of the mount Subasio, […] a little world of dreams and sweet memories». And again, today Enrico Sciamanna, couldn’t resist making a poetic description of the hermitage: «the Carceri are a white eye in the green of the holm oaks of the woods of Subasio. An always opened eye on the world towards the sky».
The name of this place though, that should represent and hermit for ascetic, may be in contrast with all the poetic feelings and suggestions that we see described by the visitor of ancient times: “Carceri” that means “prisons” from the Latin carcer as a synonym of “heremus”, translated in “hermitage” has been used in some documents from the XIII Century, meaning the will for a spiritual “imprisonment” that Saint Francesco and his followers wanted. But the name can also come from the hermitage that looks much like carceres, meaning prisons.
The history of the hermitage of Saint Maria delle Carceri begins with the place where it is build, chosen by Saint Francesco. He found these karstic caves, a perfect place for mystic ascesis and meditation, and they were near an oratory, that the Saint dedicated to Virgin Mary.
In the second half of the XIII Century, they started to build humble constructions, near the hermitic caves, that can be found by the high horizontal section, parallel to the chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Since then, Carceri represents an important place for the Franciscan religiousness.
From a big vault you get in a suggestive triangular terrace called “Il chiostrino dei frati” translated in “the little cloister of monks” that overlooks on a rock cliff, where the Carceri is build, shaped in two rimmed arms. Above the door of the monastery, you can see a monogram of Saint Bernardino, on the inside you can find the refectory and, upstairs, the dormitory, and the monks’ cells.
From the cloister you can go to the chapel of Saint Bernardino, and above its door you can see an inscription of the name given by Saint Francesco to the original chapel. In the chapel you can find only one window, closed by a French glass from the XIII Century, but moved in here only recently, where the Virgin Mary with the child is represented.
Then, you can see the original chapel of Saint Maria delle Carceri, engraved in the stone. Above the altar we can see a fresco of the Virgin Mary with the child and Saint Francesco, over a Crucifixion of the XIII Century, done by Tiberio d’Assisi in 1506. Close to it, we have the choir, where the wooden stalls form the Saint Bernardino period. Going down from a staircase, you arrive in Saint Francesco cave, now divided in two rooms, one is a stone bed where the Saint used to rest and the other is a little cell where the Saint used to pray and meditate.
On the outside you can see a fresco of the Predica agli uccelli, while on the floor you can see a slab, with a little window from which you can see the end of the cliff. Legend has it that the cliff was made by the devil, once expelled from monk Rufino.
Going up from there, you can go in the chapel of Maddalena, where Barnaba Manassei rests. In the woods over the place you find the caves of Rufino and Masseo. Over a bridge you can see a bronze sculpture of Saint Francesco, represented while he frees some turtle-dove birds, the sculpture was made in the late XIX Century, by Vincenzo Rosignoli. From here you can see a long boulevard and, at the end of it, there’s a theater, engraved in the stone, used for liturgical functions, for the pilgrims. Going down on a steep path, you will arrive to the hermitic caves of monk Leone and the first followers of Saint Francesco.
Guida di Assisi e de’ suoi dintorni, Tip. Metastasio, Assisi 1911, pages 47-49.
Gatti, Le Carceri di San Francesco del Subasio, Lions Club di Assisi, Assisi 1969.
P.M. della Porta-E. Genovesi-E. Lunghi, Guida di Assisi. Storia e arte, Minerva, Assisi 1991, pages 175-178.
Lunghi, Santa Maria delle Carceri, in Eremi e romitori tra Umbria e Marche, Cassa di Risparmio di Foligno, Foligno 2003.
Sciamanna, Santuari francescani minoritici. I luoghi dell’osservanza in Assisi, Minerva, Assisi 2005, pages 60-68.
Zazzerini, Eremo di Santa Maria delle Carceri, in L. Zazzerini, In ascolto dell’Assoluto. Viaggio tra gli eremi in Umbria, Edimond, Città di Castello 2007, pages 2-9.
 The unknown Belgian Franciscan, visited the hermitage between 1726 an 1733, he left a memory, and we can find in a book written by A. Sorbini in Assisi nei libri di viaggio del Sette-Ottocento, Editoriale Umbra – ISUC, Foligno 19, page 46. ⇑
 T.A. Trollope, A Lenten journey in Umbria and the Marches, London 1862 ⇑
 O.M. Potter, A little Pilgrimage of Italy, London 1911, translated from the quote of A. Brilli-S. Neri, Alla ricerca degli eremi francescani fra Toscana, Umbria e Lazio, Le Balze, Montepulciano 2006, pages 23-24 ⇑
 E. Sciamanna, Santuari francescani minoritici. I luoghi dell’osservanza in Assisi, Minerva, Assisi 2005, page 68. ⇑
 Look in M. Sensi, L’Umbria terra di santi e di santuari, in M. Sensi-M. Tosti-C. Fratini, Santuari nel territorio della Provincia di Perugia, Quattroemme, Perugia 2002, page 75. ⇑
 An inscription from the fifteenth century, on the arch of the church door sais “Sancto Francesco puose a q[u]esta chapella el nome di Santa Maria” meaning “Saint Francesco gave at this chapel the name of the virgin Mary”. Look at M. Gatti, pages 35-36 ⇑
 For a better description of the Carceri, look at P.M. Della Porta-E. Genovesi-E. Lunghi, Guida di Assisi. Storia e arte, Minerva, Assisi 1991, pages 175-178.⇑