BENEDICT AND FRANCIS IN NOCERA UMBRA-GUALDO TADINO-GUBBIO
Saintly and mystical Umbria; the land where, over the course of time, highly significant and intense religious experiences and events have taken place giving rise to examples and patterns of behaviour which have enriched the spiritual dimension of Christian religious practice. Following upon the Lombard invasion, which took place in the second half of the 6th century CE, not all of the monastic communities present in the region of Umbria and The Marches were suppressed or disbanded. Beginning in the second half of the 10th century they underwent a veritable rebirth. The gradual and sustained conversion of the Lombard rulers to Christianity encouraged the feudal overlords to appreciate the value of these institutions which could bring them the protection of God and His Saints through the prayers of the monks.
The two central figures in Umbrian spirituality are Benedict of Norcia and Francis of Assisi, whose lives unfolded within a time span going from the 5th to the 13th century, periods of great upheaval and difficulty for Christianity and for Western civilisation.
Within the area covered by the Diocese of Nocera Umbra and Gualdo, the ancient hermitage of Fonte Avellana, situated on the borders of Umbria and The Marches, is a nodal point from where the reformed Benedictine Rule was disseminated. Its origins can be dated back to the end of the 10th century and more precisely, to about 980 when a group of hermits decided to build some cells and form a hermitage there. Over the succeeding centuries the hermitage grew larger, expanding until it reached the size of the present-day monastery. The hermits had been inspired by Saint Romuald of Ravenna, the founder of the Benedictine Camaldolese Congegation.
The hermitic life manifests itself as an independent form of monasticism, not necessarily involving the communal practice of religion.
Saint Rinaldo, patron of Nocera, was a monk and hermit in 1182 in the Congregation of Fonte Avellana and, after living for some years in a hermitage near Gualdo, he set out for Mount Catria where the Congregation was in the process of expansion. Many of the monks and hermits followed a rigid set of rules, drawn up by Saint Peter Damian (Ravenna 1007 – Faenza 1072), one of the most illustrious leaders of the Congregation. After 36 years of monastic life, Rinaldo was called upon to govern the Church in Nocera from 1218 – 1225(?).
During the period of his bishopric, Rinaldo was a friend and admirer of Francis and promoted the development of the Order of Friars Minor.
Within the framework of the pre-existing abbeys, churches and parishes constituting the nodal points of Benedictine monasticism, new centres of religious life grew up inspired by Franciscanism.
One of the oldest in the district of Nocera is the hermitage of Sant’Angelo di Bagnara, also called the “Golden Grotto”, the ancient rock-face monastery of Santi Angeli de Bagnaria sive de Appennino, already mentioned in documents dating from the 8th century CE, was dedicated to the cult of Saint Michael. There is no documentary evidence, but it seems that this ancient mystical site may have been visited by St. Francis during his final stay in Nocera Umbra.
One of the many churches and monasteries belonging to the Abbey of Fonte Avellana is Santa Croce della Ficarella. It is a parish church lying about one mile south of the town of Nocera, on the lower slope of a hill, surrounded by vineyards and orchards. Until the end of the 15th century, the pastoral care of the parishioners was carried out by the monks from the Monastery and subsequently, from the beginning of the following century until the present day, it has been assigned to a parish priest of the Diocese.
Since that time, the Church and Monastery have been under the pastoral care of the Chapter of Nocera Cathedral.
About a mile outside Nocera Umbra, there is a densely populated and interesting route which passes by way of small clusters of habitation.
Historical ties with Ponte Parrano date from 1020 when “Count Radulfo”, son of Monaldo, Count of Nocera and the Taino Region, who belonged to the Trinci family from Foligno, commissioned the building of the Abbey of Santo Stefano. The Count had a magnificent monastery built for the Black Benedictine Monks, installing an Abbot and “giving him many powers and jurisdictions”.
In later times, the Cistercians alternated its occupation with the monks of Santa Croce di Fonte Avellana.
A descendent of Count Radulfo, whose name was Parre, together with his wife, had the Church and the Monastery restored and bestowed upon it the Castle of Parrano, named after him, and all the surrounding “Regione”.
The building now appears largely restructured, the original architectural design having been obliterated by earthquakes and neglect, but recent restoration has ensured the retrieval of many traces of the historical importance of this place.
Numerous documents in the Diocesan Archives of Nocera Umbra attest the founding of another Benedictine monastery, that of Saint Paolo di Tiratolo.
Its existence is also confirmed in 15th century legal deeds now held in the Municipal Archive in Nocera and in the Diocesan Registry Office.
Towards the end of the 13th century there was a return to the independent hermitic life which continued here until the 15th century, when this movement was largely reabsorbed into the Observant communities especially the Franciscan ones.
Devotion to St. Francis was widespread in Nocera. The Saint visited the town many times, partly due to his friendship with Bishop Rinaldo, according to a source who knew him well. His popularity was also linked to a miraculous resurrection performed on a young man called Gafaro, a story which is also related by his most important biographers. A further incitement to popular devotion was another event which took place in the town a few months before his death. This must have occurred in 1226 when Francis, already gravely ill, was in Siena receiving treatment for his diseased eyes and indicated his wish to make a speedy return to Assisi. He set out on the journey accompanied by his most faithful disciples and expressed the desire to stop in Nocera in order to attempt a cure with the acque bianche, (therapeutic waters). There is no clear evidence of the places where he stayed, but the Eremo dell’Angelo near Bagnara, the source of the river Topino, is mentioned. Not far from the spring there is an ancient Hermitage, now known as the Romita, previously inhabited by Benedictines, where Francis found comfort among the Brothers of his Order. With his life hanging by a thread, Francis was sought out here by a group of horsemen from Assisi on a mission to escort him home. The ancient hill road linking Assisi and Nocera, which, in the Middle Ages, was much travelled as it coincided, in part, with the main route to the Marches, was often used by the Saint on his frequent journeys to Ancona. This itinerary is today reputed to be the final journey of Saint Francis.
The Friars Minor settled in Nocera in 1215, just five years after Innocence III gave his approval to the Order. They were located outside of the medieval walls (“trans muros”), on the woody hill of San Pietro, not far from the Via Flaminia.
In 1319, with the approval of the Pope, the friars transferred the community inside the walls (“intus muros”), where they occupied a small oratory belonging to the Commune. Towards the end of the 14th century, this building, located opposite the Bishop’s Palace and next to the Palazzo dei Priori, was enlarged to incorporate “a section of the adjacent building, so that the resulting space was practically doubled. Along the new section of external wall facing the Platea Communis,(Public Square) a large entrance was opened, with a magnificent ogival polychrome portal.”
An inscription commemorating the new occupancy was placed beside the Gothic portal and dated 1386, telling of the tribulations the Franciscans had previously suffered for more than a century.
However, the current structure of the Church with the new rectangular body divided by five large arches is the result of the design by the Lombard architect, Antonio da Castelrotto, carried out between 1494 and 1497. The enlargement of the building complex included the construction of a small monastery in the area to the left of the apse. The Church was occupied by the Franciscan Order until the Napoleonic Dissolution in 1809 when all the property of the Papal States was brought under State ownership.
In 1934 the Office for Monuments in Umbria gave the go-ahead for an enhancement project to transform the building into an art gallery.
As the Franciscan Order evolved, in 1257, the followers of Saint Clare, now forming the Order of the Poor Clares, moved from Valle Feggio to a church in the town called Santa Maria del Borgo, which was a late Romanesque structure with brick facing. Later on it was dedicated to Saint Clare.
Prior to the destruction of Nocera, in 1248, the major church in the town, Santa Maria Vecchia, was the Bishop’s residence and also housed the Canons of Nocera. In the mid-15th century, it became the convent of the Third Order Sisterhood. Until the 1997 earthquake, the Poor Clares were the custodians of this sanctuary, but this responsibility is now shared between the Municipality and the Church.
In 1481, the Observant Friars, who occupied the monastery in the modern-day Piazza Caprera, obtained by legal deed, from the Confraternity of The Holy Spirit, whose seat was near the Bishop’s Palace, the use of a plot of land adjacent to the old Romita, in the district of Nocera, near the source of the River Topino. The new construction was dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The Franciscan friars remained at the Nocera Hermitage from 1481 until 1870.
THE PRESENCE OF BENEDICTINES AND FRANCISCANS IN THE DISTRICT OF GUALDO TADINO
The silence and tranquillity of the woods here, the summits of the hospitable mountains with their gentle slopes, the abundance of spring water have always, since the dawn of the Christian Era, favoured the presence of men noted for their sanctity. Even prior to the followers of Saint Francis, Saint Romuald, the founder of the Camaldolese Order, (1009 – 1011), Saint Facondino, Bishop of Tadino and his Deacon, Blessed Gioventino, Saint Peter Damian, Saint Giovanni da Lodi, Bishop of Gubbio, Saint Rinaldo, Bishop of Nocera, and Saint Felicissimo all lived as hermits, for longer or shorter periods, on the mountaintop overlooking the ancient Gualdo di Valdigorgo which owes its name, Mount Serrasanta, to the presence of these hermits and where, still today, there is an ancient church dedicated to the Holy Trinity. In ancient times, other servants of God isolated themselves in prayer in the Hermitage of Campitella, which lies in a ravine between Mount Serrasanta and Mount Fringuello, beyond the Rochetta mineral water springs. In the second half of the 15th century, in this area, there were five ancient hermitages, in proximity to each other, so close in effect that they were known collectively as “Le Romite”. The Hermitage of San Marzio, also in Valdigorgo, owes its name to its most famous resident.
On two sides of the Apennine ridge, there are numerous traces of settlements where, in case of necessity, besides the religious communities, defenceless inhabitants could find refuge. Apart from the Hermitage of Serrasanta, we should recall the Hermitage of Sant’Anna and the Hermitage of San Maurizio.
The Serrasanta Hermitage lies on the summit of the mountain in Valdigorgo, at a height of 1348 m. The exact date of its foundation is not known, but it was celebrated for the presence of men living in prayer and penitence, who were following in the footsteps of Saint Facondino. In 1177, the young Rinaldo came to live in this holy place before leaving for Fonte Avellana. The place was also frequented by the earliest Franciscans to live in the territory of Gualdo. Blessed Angelo, Patron Saint of Gualdo was also drawn to this hermitic life. At that time the Hermitage was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, only taking the name of the Holy Trinity in the 15th century when it was inhabited by a vibrant confraternity.
The Hermitage of San Marzio was constructed, in about 1219, by the first Franciscans to settle in Gualdo. In the Middle Ages, it was a place of penitence made holy by the presence of a number of hermits and early sources record the presence of Saint Francis there around 1224.
The construction of the Abbey of San Pietro in Val Resina was the work of the young Count Monaldo II, who was reconfirmed to the Vicariate of Nocera and Tadino by the German Emperor Otto III. In about 1006, this descendant of Monaldo I had the Abbey built to house the Benedictine nuns and made a gift of it to his daughter Armengarda, who was the first Abbess and was buried there after her death. In a short space of time, the Abbey became very important and the Benedictine nuns continued to live there for more than a century, after which time, they were replaced by monks of the same Order.
Many different events have taken place there and now, after considerable restoration it has been destined for another use.
The Co-cathedral Church of San Benedetto
Built in the second half of the 13th century, at the same time as the adjacent Camoldolite abbey, it dominates the main square, Piazza Martiri della Libertà. At one time, it lay outside of the present-day city walls and it became one of the most important Benedictine abbeys in the area. As it was poorly protected and subjected to numerous raids, the monks asked for permission to transfer to a more easily defensible site. It has a magnificent Early Gothic façade featuring a large exquisitely sculpted rose window and a neo-Romanesque bell tower. The body of Blessed Angelo, the Patron Saint, was carried into the town, accompanied by a multitude of the population, and laid to rest in the Church of San Benedetto. The interior is eclectic in style with decorative elements featuring Renaissance revival motifs. Of particular importance is the high relief on the main altar, dating from 1893, which depicts the encounter between Totila and St. Benedict at Montecassino, as recounted by St. Gregory the Great.
Monumental Church of San Francesco
The Church of San Francesco is a splendid example of the devotional art linked to the Franciscan Order. It was built at the end of the 13th century to house the Observant Franciscans and was consecrated in 1315. It has a gabled façade and its imposing portal is adorned with capitals while the interior consists of a single wide nave. The walls are richly decorated with frescoes dating from between the 14th and the 16th centuries painted by artists from Umbria and The Marches. The most important works are, without doubt, those by Matteo da Gualdo, the Renaissance painter- notary, namely: the “Enthroned Madonna and Child with St. Francis of Assisi and St. Sebastian” and the “Madonna and Child with St. Francis”.
THE BENEDICTINES IN GUBBIO
There are a great number of Benedictine monasteries and hermitages in Gubbio and in its surrounding district in which the principles of Benedictine architecture, based on the Rule of St. Benedict, are clearly discernible, since the rule “ora et labora”(prayer and work) translates into the separation of those buildings necessary to the practicalities of daily life, from the one reserved for liturgical use. They also functioned as points of convergence in the territory since the roads travelled by pilgrims and wayfarers, as well as the main trading routes, all passed by way of the monasteries, hermitages or abbeys. This is the case of the Badia di San Bartolomeo, at Camporeggiano, which was built in 1053 by St. Peter Damian, founder of the congregation of Fonte Avellana.
By 1063, the Abbey was of such importance as to be directly under the authority of the Holy See and, in 1419, it was united with the Monastery of San Pietro and assigned to the Olivetans. The Abbey of San Benedetto Vecchio also belonged to the Olivetans, but it is first cited in 1191 in a list of properties bestowed upon the citizens of Gubbio by the Emperor Henry VI.
As in the case of San Bartolomeo di Camporeggiano, the Commune of Gubbio took charge of ensuring the stability of the structure and also the safety of the monks, by constructing fortifications and providing them with a garrison of armed guards. The Abbey of San Verecondo de Spissis, more generally known as the Abbey of Vallingegno, was also linked to the main communication routes, as it was built along the direct road between Gubbio and Perugia around 1000 CE, but all that survives from the earliest period is the crypt. In the 14th century, this Benedictine community exercised such great influence that together with the nearby castle it demanded independence from Gubbio. The Abbey of San Pietro in Vigneto is also in the proximity of the main road from Gubbio to Perugia. In 1336, several additions were made to the church in the form of a tower, a fortified building and a refuge for pilgrims and wayfarers, who, in exchange for hospitality, would perform useful tasks for the monks. Diversely, the Abbey d’Alfiolo was originally incorporated in the structure of an ancient castle which, until 1096, belonged to the Counts d’Alfiolo, when it was given to the Bishop of Gubbio, who then assigned it to the Benedictines. The presence of the Benedictines has not only been felt in the rural areas but also in the town of Gubbio itself and its immediate surroundings. The Monastery of San Donato della Foce provides an example of a Benedictine community in a suburban location, but now the only surviving part is the church, which is frequently cited in documents dating from the 12th century and is one of the few buildings to have maintained intact its original architectural features. The monasteries of San Secondo, San Benedetto and San Pietro, on the other hand, were located inside the town. San Benedetto was founded by the Black Benedictine Monks and then, in 1338, handed over to the Olivetans of San Donato, who fervently encouraged the presence of artists in the monastery, such as the accomplished miniaturists they hosted in the 15th century. In 1519, Pope Leo X ordered the transferral of the community to the magnificent Monastery of San Pietro, originally founded in 966, in the reign of Emperor Otto I, as a Cassinese Benedictine community. We know that its church was consecrated in 1058 by the Bishop of Cagli. By 1097, it enjoyed enormous prestige and considerable wealth being the second most important religious building in the town after the Cathedral and, in 1163, Frederick Barbarossa accorded it his personal protection. The Cistercians took it over in the 15th century and then, in 1505, it was handed over to the Olivetan monks, who transformed the church and the abbey in Renaissance style and occupied it until 1831.
THE FRANCISCANS IN GUBBIO
In the Spring of 1207, Gubbio became the first place to welcome the Poor Man of Assisi as a man sent by God. He was received into the house of his friend, Spadalonga, located in the market square, where he was fed, and given a tunic of grey homespun cloth to wear, which would become the first habit of the Franciscan Order. The Church of San Francesco was built over the storeroom of Spadalongo’s house. This church exemplifies both how during the 13th century it was through Franciscan architecture that the new Gothic style developed, and how the sites occupied by their sacred buildings differentiate the Benedictines from the Mendicant Order. In fact, the latter did not seek silence and meditation in remote places, but installed themselves in the heart of towns, where they were in constant contact with the populace. It was this closeness to the communities that determined the enormous and broad-based financial contribution made by townspeople to the construction of Franciscan churches. Such is indeed the case with the Church of San Francesco in Gubbio, which the citizens of Gubbio ardently desired and supported in the period immediately following the death of the Saint, to such an extent that it became one of the largest churches in Umbria. Its elegant exterior in blocks of white and pink stone, and the massive octagonal pilasters on the inside, mark out its space into a nave and two aisles culminating in the apse. The cycle of frescoes has been attributed to artists who had worked in the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, prior to Giotto, such as the Maestro Espressionista di Santa Chiara, and concludes with the late Gothic Marian cycle by Ottaviano Nelli all of which are indicative of its artistic splendour between the 13th and the 15th centuries.
As we trace the episodes of the life of St. Francis in Gubbio we encounter another two sites in the town of symbolic importance to Franciscans. Santa Maria della Vittorina and San Francesco della Pace. According to tradition, the first of these was erected in 853 CE to commemorate the Christian victory over the Saracens. However, the real claim to fame of this little church derives from the encounter St. Francis’s had here with the Wolf of Gubbio, as described in number XXI of “The Little Flowers of St. Francis”. It was here, in about 1220, that St. Francis confronted and tamed the wolf which had been killing people and animals. In 1213 St. Francis obtained the use of the Church della Vittorina from the bishop, Blessed Villano, with the consent of the Benedictines, who were the beneficiaries, and created on this site the first home of the Franciscan community. The second significant place is the Church of San Francesco della Pace built at the intersection of three streets, known as “mors lupi”( the death of the wolf), in remembrance of the place in the town where the wolf, tamed by the POOR MAN OF ASSISI, lived and died. In fact, it was erected over the grotto where, according to tradition, the wolf had its lair. The name San Francesco della Pace was attributed to the church in 1584, when the stone on which St. Francis had preached, after taming the wolf, was transferred from the Vittorina and placed here to serve as the altar. The stone which once covered the wolf’s grave is also preserved in the crypt.
Another episode linking Gubbio to the Franciscan story centres on the little church in Caprignone where, it appears, the first Chapter of the Franciscan Order, to be held outside of Assisi, took place in 1223. The little church, which had a tiny monastery attached, was given to St. Francis by the Lord of the Castle of Coccorano and had been built on the ruins of a late 11th century church previously constructed over a small pagan temple.
THE BENEDICTINES IN SCHEGGIA AND PASCELUPO
The Abbey of Sant’Emiliano in Congiuntoli
It was founded in the tenth century as a Cistercian monastery and, during the twelfth century, the Counts of Sassoferrato were its benefactors, endowing it with castles, mills and woods. In 1836 it was annexed to the Monastery of Fonte Avellana. The church has maintained its original structure intact.
The Abbey of Santa Maria di Sitria
Founded in 1017 by Saint Romuald, it lies along the road leading to Fonte Avellana and was a dependence of that monastery. Tradition has it that Saint Romuald spent several years cloistered here in total isolation in a cell which still exists and is known as “Saint Romuald’s prison”. The interior is laid out in the shape of a ‘T’ with the apse above the elevated presbytery, under which there is the crypt.