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A Writer's Life in Rome & Tuscia

A Visit to Santa Lucia, a Hermitage in the Tuscan Woods

Secluded by a dense wood of ilex, oak, and beech trees, high on a ridge just a few miles southwest of Rosia stand the crumbling ruins of the hermitage of Santa Lucia. To visit this place, you leave your car along the road near a medieval bridge, the Ponte della Pia, that arches gracefully across the torrent of Rosia and takes you straight into the thick woods. The winding trail up to the hermitage is well-marked by red arrows painted on the barks of trees.
I pay my visit to the hermitage this cold winter morning dedicated to St. Lucy, patron saint of the blind, whose saint’s day, December 13th, was traditionally considered the shortest day of the year, after which the light returned. In most homes tonight, candles will be lit before her icon, showing a young woman bearing a plate on which two eyes rest, symbolizing the miraculous restoring of her eyesight.
Icicles drip from the bridge and glisten along the frozen stream. Heading into the woods, beneath the soft layers of leaves baked in frost underfoot, I glimpse the paving stones of the road which once brought pilgrims to this place. Like the nearby abbey of Torri, the hermitage of Santa Lucia was located along the detour that sidetracked away from the pilgrims’ road, the Via Francigena. Across the centuries, this spot served as a rest stop along the way to Rome. ,
It is a twenty minute walk up through the thick of the forest. The trail is lined with wild asparagus and butcher’s broom, a showy scrubby evergreen shrub with bright red berries. When I reach the top of the hill, I come out into a sunny clearing you would never expect to find in such dense woods. Before me rise the moldering gray ruins of Santa Lucia, like a decayed jewel box, or a half-eaten, petrified wedding cake.
The Hermitage of Santa Lucia is believed to have begun as a community of hermits living in caves in these woods centuries ago, dedicating themselves to prayer, contemplation and the practice of austerities. Eremitism, the vocation of religious hermits, was a religious movement which began in Egypt in the third century, then spread from the East throughout the Christian world. By the end of the third century, Italy was full of such people dwelling in the most spectacular surroundings, deep in the woods, in caves above waterfalls, high on the cliffs of far flung islands, wherever the Spirit was to be found in the contemplation of rock, forest, or water. Far from the turmoil and luxury of Rome, far from the control of ecclesiastical authorities, hermits flourished, doing it their own way. Though one thinks of hermits as shying away from other human beings, the isolation of these men and women was not total, for they frequently met together to share meals or to worship, forming a very loosely banded community. What distinguished these groups was the lack of any regimentation and hierarchy. There was no religious superior or leader supervising the inner or outer lives of the community.
The original community of hermits here in Santa Lucia is said to have been founded by Augustinian anchorites who came from Africa in the fourth century and followed the rule of Saint Augustine, practicing charity, poverty, detachment from the world, silence, fasting, and abstinence. When they reached Tuscany, the group split into five small groups and each went off in a different direction to found a new community of hermits in the forest, and one group came to what is now Santa Lucia.
This community of hermits managed to exist for over five hundred years, living in caves and later in shelters made of leaves and branches. In the mid tenth century, when hermits throughout Christendom were being pressured by the Church to organize into monasteries, the first permanent structures were built in these woods and the hermits submitted to monastic rule. Up until that time, their communities were self-regulating according to each individual’s conscience. All this ended when they became monks.
Five hundred years is a long time for a community of hermits to exist in the woods before building a permanent structure and becoming monks. It was obviously a way of life one could take a liking to, although it was a hard life, and many died young, like San Galgano. Today, there are still a few hermits in isolated spots in the Apennines who follow the austere teachings of Saint Augustine and the blessed simplicity of Saint Francis. This I discovered while on a bus, eavesdropping on two older women who were traveling to their jobs as cleaners in the city, and were chatting about a hermit of their acquaintance named Padre Rubino.
From their conversation, I learned that Padre Rubino lives in an unspecified spot in nearby Umbria. Well into his nineties, he spends his days in a hut high up in the mountains, fetches his water from an icy stream, and leaves his seclusion only once a year, when he comes down to say mass in a tiny mountain chapel that should have been declared unsafe decades ago. And indeed, it may have tumbled in the last earthquake. Many elderly people from the surrounding area visit him for advice at that time, undertaking a rugged climb up a steep, stony trail all the way to the chapel. They revere the old hermit as a saint, as a relic of their ancestral past. Padre Rubino inhabits the inaccessible, timeless realm of their imagination, linking them to memories of their childhood, of stories perhaps they heard at the fireside of saints and pious monks.
Like a figure in an icon, Padre Rubino does not change, except perhaps that he does become gaunter and frailer, his beard longer and whiter , with age. He does not go in for check ups or wear a hearing aid. He dispenses with taxes, doctors, and retirement funds. He lives without television, telephone, internet, news, heating, or running water, and somehow gets his living tilling a small square of stony mountain soil, warming himself in the winter with brushwood. His way of life, like that of Saint Francis, of an old Zen monk, or of a Tibetan recluse, is a purely spiritual exercise. It was men like him who first flocked to these woods over a thousand years ago in search of some direct contact with what they defined as spirit, a calling still heeded by some.
-- From an upcoming memoir, A Tuscan Interior  Read More 
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Fra Angelico and a Tuscan Interior

The Annunciation, Fra Angelico, Convent of San Marco, Florence
My next stop is the former Dominican convent of San Marco , a monument to the interior life containing some of the greatest religious art ever created, painted by the hand of a monk known to us as Fra Angelico or Beato Angelico. The names translate as “the Angelic Brother” and the “Blessed Angelic,” but his real name was Guido di Pietro and he was known to his contemporaries simply as Brother John of Fiesole. The convent was established by Cosimo the Elder De Medici in 1438 on the site of a previously existing monastery inhabited by Benedictine Silvestrine monks who were literally chased out to make room for the Dominicans. Although the Silvestrine order is devoted to poverty, silence, and hospitality, it seems the ones in San Marco had been misbehaving, running up debts, hoarding goods on the sly, and other unacceptable behavior which is why they were replaced by the more austere Dominicans. , Cosimo had the old monastery, dating from the thirteenth century, completely rebuilt, entrusting the job to the Florentine architect Michelozzo Michelozzi whose design included two cloisters, a chapter house, two refectories, and workrooms where the monks labored over illuminated manuscripts, all on the ground floor. Upstairs on the first floor is a dormitory with forty-two individual cells. The decision to provide the monks with private accommodations in single cells was an innovation in their living arrangements, for prior to that time, shared dormitories were the most common form of sleeping quarters in Italian convents and monasteries. There is also a library upstairs, a long, narrow room with elegant columns and abundant natural light , the first public library of the Renaissance, where today you may admire exquisite illuminated manuscripts on display under glass cases.
These two innovations, private cells for the monks and a public library of devotional tomes are by no means insignificant details in the overall organization of this convent, but point to important developments in the concept of the Christian spiritual vocation, which has always sought a balance between the meditative life and active service within the community of Christ. They clearly suggest that the balance was tipping back towards the former, a tendency also corroborated by Cosimo’s wish to have each cell decorated with a fresco illustrating a major episode from the life of Christ.
With the exception of two double cells, one of which was set aside for Cosimo’s own personal use while on spiritual retreat at the convent, the monks’ cells are tiny, hardly big enough for a cot, writing table, and window. Yet on their bare white walls, each one contains a large, ethereal fresco in magical colors, painted between 1440 and 1445 by Fra Angelico, resident friar and acclaimed painter of the era. Although it was customary for monks to have sacred images, usually small icons, among their very few possessions, which might also have included a rosary, hair shirt or other articles of clothing, one or two books, and maybe a skull for the purposes of contemplation, the decorating of each cell with such a splendid fresco was yet another innovation. The frescoes were intended not only as a visual means of religious instruction and spiritual enhancement for the community at large, such as the scenes of the crucifixion or annunciation, placed in areas where the monks convened as a community, in the chapel, cloisters and refectories, but also as a guide to individual prayer and inner life. The prior of the convent had indeed instructed his monks to kneel before these pictures and contemplate them in the privacy of their cells. Perhaps they were also used as a memory aid to imaginative prayer, a practice of meditative visualization which would later be described in great detail in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola .
This same period in the mid fifteenth century witnessed throughout Christendom a return to stricter observance of monastic rule, which in some convents had gone a bit lax, with too many papal dispensations which may have allowed some monks to be distracted by worldly affairs. The new rigor brought a reaffirmation of the value of contemplative life and withdrawal from the world, as outlined in Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. This devotional work, published between 1418 and 1427, second only to the Bible in Christian readership, emphasized that the spiritual life was to be sought in solitude, study, and prayer. "I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not save in a little nook and in a little book,” Thomas a Kempis writes, emphasizing prayer and meditation over good works in the world.

One of the most famous frescoes by Fra Angelico in the convent of San Marco is the large Annunciation along the corridor, just at the top of the stairway, which greeted the monks, day in and day out, as they ascended from the ground floor to their cells and to the library. The fresco shows the Virgin seated on a humble wooden stool, resembling a milking stool, under a lovely loggia whose airy vaulting and handsome columns resemble those of the convent’s own library. The Virgin is listening to an angel who has alighted on her porch, the edge of which borders a garden full of leafy, low-growing plants, very much like the salad greens and medicinal herbs which might have been cultivated in the cloister for the convent’s use. The garden is enclosed by a wooden stake fence separating it from a wood with tall, lush trees and stark, spindly cypresses so common in the Tuscan countryside. The scene resonates with quiet joy.
Before painting this fresco, Fra Angelico had painted other Annunciation scenes, such as the one now in the Diocesan Museum of Cortona, which are quite different from this one in mood and spirit. In the Cortona Annunciation, painted a decade earlier and intended as an altarpiece, the Virgin, dressed in unadorned garments of sumptuous red and blue, sits on a chair upholstered in gold brocade. A golden dove floats above her head, symbolizing the divine energies about to enter her body to work the miracle of the immaculate conception. Behind her, a red curtain has been pulled across a doorway, limiting our view of the interior of her home. The angel, clad in a pink gown with ornate, gold embroidery, presses towards her in a dynamic, even perhaps aggressive pose, as if about to spring towards her, pointing at her with his right index finger, while his left hand gestures upwards towards heaven. His message appears in little gold words tumbling from his mouth through the air. Mary, with a book in her lap, seems quite taken aback, even terrified by the unexpected visitor. Although there is no fanfare of trumpets or cherubs, as we sometimes find in gothic representations of the Annunciation, the angel’s stance and gestures, the gold trimming and opulent colors, all hold a strong emphasis marking this extraordinary moment when the divine and human merged. The use of gold and rich fabrics denotes the spiritual elevation of the figures. As future queen of heaven, it is quite appropriate that Mary should be seated upon a brocade cushions, as emissary of God, it is equally appropriate that the angel should be garbed in luxury.
Nothing could be further from the austere beauty of the San Marco Annunciation, although the settings of the loggias, arches, trees and garden with salad greens are almost identical in the two paintings. In the San Marco Annunciation, the colors are more subdued, Mary’s drab, black and white garment is much plainer than the dress she wears in the Cortona scene, recalling the sackcloth robes worn by the Dominican friars of San Marco. Gold has been sparingly employed only for the halos of the two figures, the modest trimming on the angel’s gown, and in a few bits of glitter sprinkled throughout his rainbow wings which twinkle randomly, depending on the light in the corridor. The wings seem to be inspired by those of a butterfly or bird and are the most colorful detail in the painting. The use of perspective invites the eye to follow the vanishing point through a door in the background and to a window beyond that, which, very similar in shape to the windows in the convent cells, must face out over the trees. But what is most extraordinary is the attitude of the two figures, bowing towards each other gently, in mutual recognition, in a moment of deeply intimate exchange. The angel seems to be confiding something to the Virgin, a secret perhaps. There are no outward displays of glory, no outer emphasis, only the record of an intensely personal experience. It is all interior.
The prominent positioning of this fresco at the top of the stairs, where it would be seen every day by all was chosen to capture the attention of the monks and strike home to their hearts, reminding them that they too had received the good news of the annunciation which had led them to choose a spiritual vocation. They were not only climbing a staircase made of marble, but also one of the spirit, which required them to make ceaseless efforts in order to progress. “There is no harder fight than the struggle to overcome oneself,” wrote Thomas a Kempis.
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