Every year, countless numbers of visitors visit St. Benedict’s Monastery and Hermitage in Subiaco, as well as the Convent of San Cosimato in Vicovaro-Mandela. These are symbolic locations in the Saint’s vocation and also for the order of Benedictine monks.
Once you have seen the monasteries in Subiaco we recommend you go to Jenne, a small mountain village, famous for its live nativity shows and also the base for the Simbruini Mountains’ Regional Nature Park Visitors Centre.
When travelling from Rome to Subiaco, you can also stop off at the small but suggestive sanctuary of the Madre delle Grazie at Mentorella. This place was very dear to Pope John Paul II, who came here in the days just before the conclave where he was elected and returned immediately after he became Pope.
It is set on a rocky spur in the Prenestini mountains at a height of 1,220 metres and can be reached via the “Wojtyla Path” which starts from the Guadagnolo neighbourhood in Capranica Prenestina.
Traditional has it that Saint Benedict San lived in its natural cave for two years. Inside the church you will find a beautiful 13th century wooden statue of the Madonna delle Grazie.
1st stop: In Subiaco between green mountains and monasteries
At the entrance to the city of Subiaco is the St. Francis Convent, built on the spot where the saint had his hermitage. Inside you will find works by Antoniazzo Romano, an altar piece by Pinturicchio and canvases by Sebastiano del Piombo and Giulio Romano.
Once leaving the church you come across the medieval bridge of St. Francis, which has just one arch spanning 30 metres and is overlooked by a small watchtower. Further along the route is the triumphal arch erected by the population in honour of Pope Pius VI. Close by is the Church of St. Peter with a bell tower that is the first example of Romanesque architecture in Lazio.
The next stop on your way to the monasteries is the Borgia Fort on the summit of the hill. You can visit the Fort and admire its wonderful view over the valley below.
After passing a few hair pin bends carved into the rock and the ruins of Nero’s Villa you come to the stone facade of the St. Scolastica Monastery.
After abandoning the ascetical life to dedicate himself to teaching and preaching, Benedict of Norcia founded a community of 13 small monasteries in the valley of Subiaco, each with its own abbot and 12 monks, all coming under his spiritual guidance. Santa Scolastica is the only one of these monasteries still standing today.
It is the first example of a gothic abbey made in Italy, with a few frescoes still visible in the vault built after the devastation caused by the Lombards in the late 18th century. The building is 510 metres above sea level and is surrounding by high walls. Inside you can see the Romanesque bell tower from the 11th century and three cloisters: the first in Renaissance style at the entrance, the second is gothic and the third is in Cosmati-style.
This was the site of the first Italian printing press set up in 1464 by three Germans, followers of Gutenberg and today the monastery is home to the prestigious state library of Santa Scolastica.
Moving on, and beneath the walls of Mount Taleo we find the Monastery of Sacro Speco (the Holy Cave), at a height of 640 metres and covering an area of approximately 30,000 hectares. It dates from the 12th century and is above the cave where St. Benedict lived a life of solitude and prayer for three years.
This monastery is made of up of number of buildings with two small churches above and a series of chapels and caves. Standing above
the entrance is an ancient watchtower.
Once inside the Church you will be overwhelmed by the magnificence and the sheer number of frescoes from the Umbrian-Sinese schools. In the upper Church there are also frescoes, this time from the Umbrian and Marches schools, illustrating St, Benedict’s life in Subiaco. The lower church contains the cave where the saint lived as a hermit. Once the monastery was built, the cave became a real focal point for the cult of St. Benedict. A white marble statue carved by one of Bernini’s pupils is set in the centre, surrounded by walls covered in marble from Nero’s villa nearby, and the colours of the Cosmati-style flooring shine in the light of twelve oil lamps.
2nd Stop: Vicovaro and the Convent of St. Cosimato
Continue along the Subiaco main road for about 30 minutes and you reach Vicovaro, the gateway to the Lucretili Mountains Park where eagles nest on Mount Pellecchia (1368M). It is also known as the village of the “pagnotta”, for its famous wood oven baked bread, celebrated in a traditional feast held in June.
Here you should visit the Convent of St. Cosimato, the last stop on our trail in the footsteps of St Benedict, where you can see the intact cells where the first fathers of the ascetic life shut themselves up. These tiny rooms were carved into the walls, linked by narrow passageways and overlook the deep canyon carved by the river.
The small square in front of the Church gives access to the first group of caves, including the former Oratory of St. Michele, believed to be the site of the famous dining room, which held the stone stained by the poisoned wine meant to kill St Benedict, a relic kept here for centuries.
You can reach another group of caves from the garden behind the Church, using the staircase carved into the rock in 1682 to reach the Chapel of St. Benedict, believed to be the cell where he lived. Groups of visitors are received in the recently restored Convent. You should not miss the Christmas crib made by the Friars Minor from the Oasi Francescana.
The descent to the bottom of the valley offers visitors a surprise: crossing part of the Claudius Aqueduct, carved into the rock and perfectly preserved.
Here, the River Aniene forms an artificial lake.
3rd stop: Jenne, the living Christmas crib and the Simbruini Mountains’ Park
You are strongly recommended to visit the living Christmas Crib at Jenne around the Xmas period. The nativity scene involves hundreds of people; characters and locations are recreated on an actual scale with additional mannequins and old objects that have been restored or rebuilt
The costumes replicate the clothes typically worn in Jenne, based on styles from the start of the 20th century. They recreate the atmosphere, crafts and workshops closely linked to mountain life, with demonstrations of how old equipment was used. The villagers pay particular attention to searching for and preserving objects from old farming traditions to eventually put on display.
The visit to the living nativity display may whet your appetite to return in a more temperate season, like spring or summer, to visit the Simbruini Mountains’ Park, the largest in Lazio stretching over an area of 35,000 hectares.
Food and wine and typical produce
• fried pizzas;
• ring sponge cake with anise (ciambelle con l'anice);
• pagnotta bread from Vicovaro, with its own feast in June.
During the Christmas period you will also find cavallucci biscuits with anise and dolls made out of marbled pastry to give the kids on the holiday of January 6.
How to get there
By coach: from the Co.Tra.L station at Ponte Mammolo take a coach heading for Subiaco.
By car: take the A24 motorway and head towards L’Aquila. There are two possible exits for Subiaco: Vicovaro-Mandela or Carsoli-Oricola. Turn off onto the SS 5 Tiburtina Valeria and then onto the SS 411 Sublacense.