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from issue no. 12 - 2010

“Where Benedict is still resplendent today for miracles”
St Gregory the Great

The present abbot of the ancient Benedictine monastery traces its history: the first monastic settlements of Benedict, the artistic and documentary treasures, the pilgrimages

by Dom Mauro Meacci

The interior of the upper church of Sacro Speco, with frescoes of the Sienese school from the second half of the fourteenth century <BR>[© Massimo Quattrucci]

The interior of the upper church of Sacro Speco, with frescoes of the Sienese school from the second half of the fourteenth century
[© Massimo Quattrucci]

Saint Benedict, born in Norcia around 480, was sent by his family to Rome to complete the studies that, probably, would have launched him on an honest career as a public servant. The young man, however, sickened by the milieu of the city, marked by deep civil and ecclesiastical divisions, who wanted to “be pleasing only to God”, as his biographer Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) says (Dialogorum libri II, Prologus), left the City just before 500 and headed for desert-like Subiaco. After a first stop in the town of Enfide, the modern Affile, he chose the grotto of Mount Taleo, next to the monastery of the monk Romano, to acquire, through meditation on the Sacred Scripture, prayer and penance, the wisdom that will make him ignorant in the eyes of the world but wise in those of God.
The monastery of the monk Romano, located right above the Sacro Speco was, and still is called, Saint Biagio. Over the centuries it has been used repeatedly as a hermitage; now it is inhabited by a community of Salesian Sisters.
After nearly three years of a life of retreat, Benedict began to gather around him many disciples, finding accommodation in some halls of Nero’s villa situated lower down, near the dam that formed the Subiaco reservoir; there the monastery of Saint Clement was to arise. These disciples came from all the social categories of the time: peasants, nobles of the Roman patrician class and even “barbarians”.
As the number of monks increased, St Benedict grouped them according to the symbolism of the apostolic college, in twelve small monasteries, each of which was inhabited by twelve men headed by an abbot.
Of all these monasteries we know the name and the exact location of almost all. But we cannot say much about their history and it is easy to imagine that they soon fell in ruin.
Among these the monastery of Santa Maria di Morrabotte stands out, which survived over the centuries, inhabited by hermits or small groups of monks continuously in relation with the monastery of Subiaco. In particular, in the thirteenth century a great hermit lived there: Blessed Lorenzo Loricato († 1243), famous for the austerity and the heroism of his penitential life. This site, also known as the monastery or hermitage of Blessed Lorenzo, continued to exert a particular fascination even in recent times and figures from the monastic world and others have found prayerful refuge and inspiration there. Among these I remember Don Giussani, who loved to frequent the hermitage with his young followers; or the American painter Bill Congdon, who chose the hermitage as a spiritual retreat and a very significant place for his artistic production.
After the departure of St Benedict to Monte Cassino, which occurred around 529, the monastic life of Subiaco focused more and more on the monastery of Saint Sylvester, located a little above Saint Clement, in a place with abundant water, but less humid and more exposed to the sun. This monastery which was later to be called Saint Scholastica, grew gradually until it reached its present aspect.The evolution of its building followed the outline of Mount Taleo: the first nucleus of the monastery was placed in the open space currently occupied by the courtyard of the Assumption; later, in the eighth-ninth century, the building grew to the south toward the edge of the valley: this is the Romanesque nucleus that is crowned with the building of the bell tower of Abbot Umberto in1052, and the twelfth century cosmatesque cloister. Subsequently, the monastery expanded westward with the construction of the Gothic cloister of the fourteenth-fifteenth century and, finally, with the addition of the Renaissance cloister begun in the sixteenth century by Abbot Cirillo of Montefiascone (1577-1581). Recently, the buildings in front of Santa Scholastica have been restored and host a large guesthouse. This centuries-long evolution and the assembling of the most widespread variety of architectural models in this building caused Pope Paul VI to exclaim: “This monastery is a museum of architecture”.
It is impossible to summarize the history of the monastery of Subiaco in a few lines: certainly, from the ninth century, it was an undisputed leader in the history of middle Lazio and in particular of the upper Aniene valley. The monastic community and the abbots, despite the vicissitudes of history, have exercised a profound spiritual, cultural and social influence on the people of this territory, which has found its concrete expression in some institutions. I want to dwell on the library and the archive of Subiaco that are still today an indispensable tool for understanding the identity of our people. Around the fifteenth century the library had about ten thousand manuscripts, making it one of the largest of the time, and the scriptorium already had a centuries old reputation. The archive was gathering, like fruitful dust, thousands and thousands of documents that describe not only the vitality of Subiaco’s monastic history but also that of a land rich and populous in those days. In this context, in 1464, two German clerics came to Subiaco, Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, cultured experts of the brand new art of printing, and here, on 29 October 1465, they finished the printing of the famous Divinae institutiones by Firmanus Lactantius, the first book printed in Italy.
Following the route of St Gregory’s Dialoghi which, after describing the life of Saint Benedict at Monte Cassino, return to the Speco, where “still today he is resplendent with miracles” (Dialogorum libri II, 37), I too want to go back there where it all began.
Little is known of the fate of the cave after the descent of St Benedict to Nero’s villa. Tradition has it that hermits continued to live near it and that pilgrims climbed up to it, attracted by the place’s renown for holiness. Already in the ninth century wonderful frescoes adorned those rock walls, attested to by remains in the so-called Shepherds cave. Around the eleventh century, larger buildings began to be built and finally, from the thirteenth century, a small community began to live there permanently, while still remaining in relation with the community of St Scholastica and under the guidance of the abbot of Subiaco. The buildings soon assumed the grandeur that is still possible to admire today, and over time were enriched by a series of frescoes that are a wonderful artistic celebration of the life and glory of the Saint from Norcia revered today as the patron saint of Europe.
How many pilgrims and devout people have climbed up there! Traces of them remain in the thousands of graffiti adorning, indeed defacing, the frescoes, but which were meant to express affection and the desire to place themselves under the protection of St Benedict in the place that Petrarch rightly called “limen paradisi” and that always had the protection of remarkable popes, including Pope Innocent III, whose image stands out, dominating the lower part of the Subiaco church.

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