St. Scolastica’s Abbey
Benedict from Norcia is the most important Europe’s Patron Saint and one of the most important historical figure in the Catholic church.
We have got only a biography about him, written by the famous pope St. Gregorio Magno in the sixth Century.
B. lived between the fifth and the sixth century: he was born in Norcia, in 480 (four hundred eighty), from a noble family. Thanks to this fact, he studied in Rome but he didn’t live in this city long. He couldn’t accept the corruption of the city. He chose/decited to come to Subiaco for different reasons.
First of all, at that time it was a well-known place, thanks to its beautiful nature which can be admired still today. The emperor Nero, in the first century, wanted for himself a very big villa here, which ruins can be seen near the river Aniene. The name of the city, Subiaco, which in latin was “Sublaqueum”, takes from the name of Nero’s villa, Sublaquensis, that means “under the lakes”, referring to the three artificial lakes that Nero wanted in his villa.
Besides, on the mountain named Taleo, near Subiaco, lived a little monks community and maybe B. knew this fact. When he arrived in this place he met here the monk Romano, who received him, gave him a tunic and show him a cave. He lived alone and unknown as a hermit in this cave for about three years: the monk Romano only knew him and took care of him.
After a period in the cave, some shepherds started to visit him for praying together; he used to meet them in the today so called “shepherd’s cave”. Slowly his heremitage was finishing and B. started another kind of experience. He lived in Subiaco’s valley for about twenty-five years and he founded thirteen monasteries. The first one near the river Aniene, in the place where the ruins of Nero’s villa can be seen. It was called St. Clemens, the “mother house”, where he lived.
After the experience in Subiaco, he moved to Monte Cassino, where his sister Scolastica lived. He lived there for about thirty years; founded the most famous monastery in the world, which was destroyed at the end of the second world war; wrote the “Regula Benedicti”, the rule which still today is followed by all the Benedictines. He died in Monte Cassino in 547.
Scolastica was Benedict’s twin sister. She lived in Cassino maybe as an enclosed sister, but we don’t know so much about her. According to the St. Gregor’s biography, she has never been in Subiaco: when B. was living here, he used to visit in Cassino his sister once a year.
Santa Scolastica’s Abbey
The monastery of Saint Scolastic is the most ancient benedictine monastery in the world.
According to the biography written by Gregorio Magno, the famous pope, Benedict lived in Subiaco for about thirty years: He spent three years as a hermit in a cave and the rest in a community. During this time he founded here thirteen monasteries with twelve monks and one abbot each, as a symbol of (referring to) the 12 Apostles with Jesus. Anacoretismo and Cenobitismo, living alone or in a community, the two typical monastic ways of life. After this period he went to Cassino where his sister Scolastica lived. He lived there for about thirty years, founded the famous monastery, destroyed and rebuilt at the end of the second world-war, wrote the rule, the so-called “Regula Benedicti”, and died in 547, knowing the right time of his death, according to his biographer.
Today, only one monastery remains, Santa Scolastica’s abbey: thanks to this fact we can assert that this is the first benedictine monastery of the world, the so-called “Protocenobio Benedettino”: “proto” means the first and “cenobio” means community; the first benedectine community in the history. At the beginning, it was dedicated to San Silvester and in the late thirteen century they chose/wanted the dedication to Santa Scolastica, in order to have her name in Subiaco as Benedict’s twin sister, but she has never been in Subiaco. She lived in Cassino; Benedict used to visit her sister ones a year.
The first cloister is in renaissance style. It was built between the sixteenth and the seventeenth century (1580-1689). At the end of the second world-war part of this cloister was destroyed, because of a bombardment. The façade and the west side are rebuilt. In the pillars there are some frescoes of the seventeenth century. They represent popes who have visited Subiaco and have been generous benefactors: Gregorio the IX (ninth), (in the monastery of St. Benedict there is a little chapel to him dedicated-with his name), Alexander the IV (fourth), who was born in Jenne, a little village not far from the monastery, Urban the VI (sixth) and Pius the II (second) Piccolomini, the most famous one, coming from Pienza.
In the centre of the cloister there is a statue of St. Scholastica, made in 1994 for the fifth anniversary of the second world-war end (to remember the end of the second world-war, fifty years later).
It’s artist’s name is Vincenzo Bianchi.
On the wall some photographs can be admired, about popes who visited Subiaco in the last century. In front of the main entrance to the private zone there is an important fresco. It represents a prince belonging to the Stuart’s House; he is the pretender, the son of James II (the second). He lived in Rome by default, because of the religion, his family was catholic. He came to Subiaco to visit the monasteries and a monk made a fresco writing down, James III (the third), representing/drawing the crown near the feet and not on the head, being the pretender still a prince. It was just a wish, but he never became a king, and he died away from England.
THE GOTHIC CLOISTER
The second cloister is in gothic style and dates back to the beginning of the XIV (fourteenth) century. It has got an irregular shape and besides, very beautiful is the stone which has been used to built it: it isn’t tuff but a kind of travertine called “cardellino”, the typical stone of this zone.
The cloister has got 18 (eighteen) double gothic arches and the main entrance is a large flamboyant arch of the late XV century. It is a double archway with little statues underneath, representing angels, kings, princes, patriarchs. The flamboyant arch celebrates the Madonna Crowning: Two Angels are crowning Maria/Mother Mary/Our Lady under the point.
(When you go away from the arch, the statues slowly disappear and only the most important one, Maria, can be admired: it is a wonderful example of combination between architecture and spirituality.)
In the centre there is a cistern built with marble (the parapet, the two pillars) coming from Nero’s villa. The Emperor Nero, in the first century, wanted a big villa for himself in Subiaco. The villa, 75 hectares according to the description given by the historian writer Tacito, had got three artificial lakes given from three dams in the river Aniene. From the name of the villa, Sublaqueum, takes the city’s name, Subiaco, which means “Under the lakes”. The villa was rich of marble which was used in both monasteries. It is possible to see some ruins still today.
In front of the gothic arch there is the original façade of the gothic church, which dates back to the XIII century. This façade is the only zone/part we can admire from the gothic church because the Neoclassical one, that we have got today, was built inside the gothic one. The frescoes were made in the XIII century, by the so called “Romano Popolare” school. According to the St Gregor biography, they represent episodes/miracles which happened during his life in Subiaco. They are damaged by the dampness/humidity.
On the other side of the first floor, there is part of the important library, which became a national library thanks to its history. It is one of the most ancient library in Europe.
In the library are kept 20.000 paper documents, 380 manuscripts, with beautiful illuminations,(the so-called amanuensi worked very hard through the centuries /through out the middle age, before the printing was born) and 212 incunabula.
The printing was born in Germany, thanks to Johannes Gutemberg, but 20 years later, two men who worked with him in Mainz, Conrad Sweynheim and Arnold Pannartz, came to Subiaco because at that time many German monks were living here, and lived in the monastery for about 3 years. During this time they established here the first printing press in Italy. The first publications were in 1465-’67. Thanks to this fact, we can assert that in the monastery of St. Scholastica was born the first printing in Italy and here were printed the first 4 books, the famous incunabula sublacensi:
- Donato pro puerilis, a little grammar book for children
- De Oratore, by Cicerone
- Divine Institutiones, De Ira Dei, De Opificio Hominis, by Lattanzio
Today it is a National library and a famous touristic attraction.
THE BELL TOWER
The beautiful Romanesque Bell Tower is one of the most ancient (oldest) Tower in this part of Italy. Its base was built in the IX (ninth) century and it was finished in the XI (eleventh) century.
It is made up from seven floors: the first two are hidden because the monastery grew up around it; it is possible to admire the last five floors, with their beautiful three-hole-windows. The pillars come from Nero’s Villa.
It is 30 (thirty) metres high and about 1000 (one thousand) years old. The only possibility to admire the entire/whole Bell Tower is from the base.
Its base was the main entrance of the monastery at that time. It has got four arches. The frescoes are in byzantine style: the lamb of God and the four evangelists with their symbol as animals.
Under the opposite arch can be admired the God’s hand in the act of blessing: the position of his fingers indicates the unity between God and Human nature.
The Romanesque Bell Tower creates a beautiful contrast with the gothic cloister, from where can be taken a wonderful look.
THE ROMANESQUE CLOISTER
The Romanesque cloister represent one of the most beautiful corner in the monastery.
First of all, really interesting is a series of arches built from a roman to gothic style, in order to have a perspective. It is a rare architecture.
Many frescoes are destroyed by the dampness and are already restored. They were made by the “romano popolare” painting school in the XIII (thirteenth) century. This school didn’t know the perspective yet. They represent towns and villages near Subiaco which belonged to this monastery (monastic commends) at that time. Under the ceiling we admire St. Matthew as an angel, his symbol, with the centred eyes: he looks at you from every place. (If you stare at him and you move, you have the impression that he follows you).
The Romanesque cloister is the oldest one and it dates back to the XIII (thirteenth) century. It is a Cosmatan cloister because of the family who built it, that was a very well known family at that time thanks to their beautiful works with marble and especially with mosaics.
The south part was built in 1210 by James Cosmati, called “the old”. The artist’s name is written on the arch. Here the marble’s pieces are marked and those which have the same mark are one near the other. The pillars are numbered from zero to XVII (seventeen). It show us, that this work was made in another place, maybe in Rome, the pieces brought to Subiaco and here reconstructed as a prefabrication.
The other three sides were made up by his son and nephews, some years later, as we can read in the inscription which gives us the artists names too. They worked in Subiaco until 1248 and it means that this cloister was built in 35 years by three generations of this family. This cloister was made up with rubble coming from other cloisters in Rome, from Carrara and from Nero’s Villa. It was built without mosaics, although the Cosmati were known for them.
Thanks to its marble’s variety the cloister is very elegant and harmonious.
In the centre, the cistern with marble from Nero’s Villa. Near the cistern, a pipe (plumbing) was used in order to have direct water in the kitchen. The upper zone of the cloister is the novitiate of the monastery, built in the XV (fifteenth) century.
THE NEOCLASSICAL CATHEDRAL
The monastery’s church is a neoclassical one designed by Giacomo Quarenghi, an architect from Bergamo. He designed it when he was 24 (twenty-four) years old, and it is the only work he made in Italy, before going to Russian, where he became very famous: he worked in St. Petersburg, where he designed many buildings, as the theatre of the Ermitage, the famous museum. The church in Subiaco is a national monument today.
The church was built in 1769 and it shows a wonderful elegance given from the palladio style, the white colour and the natural light coming inside thanks to the window’s position.
The main Altar position is also interesting, in front of the people, a very new idea at that time and thanks to this fact the architect is considered a precursor of the modern churches.
The two big pillars come from Nero’s villa and the marvellous “cipollino” marble comes from Egypt. Giacomo Quarenghi built the neoclassical church inside the gothic one: it means that from the gothic one only the façade can be seen and unfortunately the frescoes inside are closed between the two walls, maybe destroyed. The neoclassical church is covering the gothic one. This church is the city’s cathedral because the abbot is the diocese’s bishop too, being it a nullius abbey. The paintings were made in the XVII (seventeenth) century and the first two on the left side are attributed to Manenti, a famous painter, whereas the other four to his school/followers: on the left side, St. Placido and Mauro, St gregorio Magno, St Andrew; on the right side, St Cosmas and Damiano, the Guardian Angel, St Girolamo. The choir is not very important, although it is an interesting work from XIX (nineteenth) century.