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The earliest record of the hermitage dates back to 1206, but it certainly existed long before the Benedictines of the Abbey of Santa Maria di Valdiponte of Perugia decided to settle in the area. Here, they built a cistern to collect drinking water and a church with a monastery dedicated to the Prince of the Apostles. Following the environmental remediation carried out by the monks in the surrounding areas, the hermitage was now amidst vineyards and so, it was defined in Vigneto.

Hermitage of San Pietro in Vigneto

 

The hermitage is placed along a road that was very frequented in ancient times – as evidenced by the ruins of a Roman bridge over the River Chiascio near the Castle of Peglio – and it was probably a detour of Via Flaminia. A route that started from Pontericcioli on the border between Umbria and Marche, crossed Gubbio (perhaps along what today is the state road La Contessa) and, continuing towards Assisi, led to Foligno where it joined Via Flaminia. This constant transit was the reason for the construction of a shelter for pilgrims, for a long time the main function of the hermitage. On 8th August 1463, the hermitage of San Pietro in Vigneto was dissolved by Papal Bull of Pope Pius II and, together with the land, it became the property of the Canons of the Cathedral of Gubbio who still own it today. The earthquakes of 1979 and 1984 required the involvement of the Superintendency that oversaw the restoration of the hermitage and at the same time removed what had been indiscriminately added over the years, correcting what had been altered. It’s located along Via Francigena which still today welcomes travellers and pilgrims thanks to funding offered by a private citizen, Stefano Giombini[1].

The Frescoed Stronghold

The convent, because of its tower and its compactness, looks more like a stronghold than a religious settlement. It is difficult to distinguish and identify the individual buildings due to its architectural continuity and the reuse of the various spaces throughout the centuries. Only the bell gable and a tiny lancet window are a hint of the presence of the chapel in the north-east corner of the complex. In the paved courtyard, overlooked by the buildings, there is a large and beautiful cistern. Inside the church there is a 15th-century fresco of the school of Gubbio; it’s a sweet depiction of Madonna with Child with Saint Sebastian, Saint Anthony, Saint Peter and Saint Rocco at their side.

 

Madonna with Child

Appearing Ruins, Disappearing Ruins

The Castle of Peglio, which stood in proximity of the hermitage, was senselessly destroyed a few years ago to build the dam on the Chiascio: its beautiful, perfectly-cut stones that had survived the centuries are no more there, swept away by bulldozers in 1978. Its remains were impressive: the slits that were used to operate the drawbridge could be seen on the façade and beautiful segmental arches adorned the walls. The water of the dam submerged also a centenary elm that was «so beautiful and large that it would take three men to embrace it»[2].
Due to heavy rain, in 1780 there was a landslide that unearthed the remains of a Pagan temple near the hermitage: clay lanterns, fragments of inscriptions, coins and twelve pieces of a marble statue of Mars Cyprio, the tutelary deity of the temple (today kept in the Archaeological Museum of Florence). An inscription offered evidence that the temple had been restored by some Lucio Avoleno in the 2nd century AD, while 5th-century coins were proof that the inhabitants of the area had been making offerings to the pagan god until that time.

 

 


Sources

For the historical bibliography, see B. Martin, S. Pietro in Vigneto, Vispi&Angeletti, Gubbio 1997, that is also the reference.

P. Pizzichelli, Gubbio Francescana e sentiero francescano della pace, Gavirati, Gubbio 1999, pp. 53-55.

Sentiero francescano della pace da Assisi a Valfabbrica a Gubbio, Provincia di Perugia, Perugia 2000, pp. 30-31.

L. Zazzerini, In ascolto dell’assoluto. Viaggio tra gli eremi in Umbria, Edimond, Città di Castello 2007, pp. 68- 73.


[1]   For information and for bookings, please call 3334789564.

[2]  P. Pizzichelli, Gubbio Francescana e sentiero francescano della pace, Gavirati, Gubbio 1999, p. 52.

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».[1] 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».[2] 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».[3] 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».[4]

hermitage in assisi umbria

The Name

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.[5]

The History

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.[6]
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.

The Structure

mystical places in umbria

The cell

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.[7]


Reference Texts

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.


[1] 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.
[2] T.A. Trollope, A Lenten journey in Umbria and the Marches, London 1862
[3] 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
[4] E. Sciamanna, Santuari francescani minoritici. I luoghi dell’osservanza in Assisi, Minerva, Assisi 2005, page 68.
[5] 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.
[6] 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
[7] 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.