A tale of three abbeys

Off the well-beaten tourist circuit in Umbria, a fascinating story links three small and secluded abbeys. Follow us along this winding road.

Umbria is well-known for its gentle hills, medieval towns, and large monasteries that sheltered saints and mystics. Towns like Spoleto, Assisi, and Orvieto are visited by pilgrims eager to nourish their souls and tourists ready to feast their eyes on spectacular landscapes and the architectural treasures of past centuries.

But it is not just the deep blue hues of Giotto’s frescoes or the gilded gables of the Orvieto cathedral that have the power to fascinate the discerning visitor. Humbler artworks and less imposing churches reveal the surprising bonds that linked refugees from the Levant to the people of Umbria during the dark centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire.

Leaving the city of Terni for the magnificent ducal town of Spoleto on the Via Flaminia  (a road that follows the route of an ancient Roman highway of the same name), the traveler comes across a nondescript gorge, half-hidden by derelict factories. This is the entrance to Valnerina, a narrow valley carved by the river Nera over the course of eons. A winding road following the vagaries of the river through this valley connects the Tyrrhenian coast to the Adriatic.

After a few kilometers, just past the Marmore waterfall, signs of modernity become scarcer, and centuries-old buildings dot the landscape. With some imagination, one can picture the valley as it was during the 6th Century AD, Italy’s darkest hour. 

At the time, Italy was ravaged by war, famine, and the breakdown of the peace and prosperity once buttressed by the authority of Rome. The doomed attempt by the Byzantine emperor Justinian to restore imperial power in the peninsula had brought only destruction, an invasion by the Germanic Longobard people, and the first continental bubonic plague epidemic. Amid the upheaval brought about by the collapse of the old social order, a group of 300 monks from Syria, fleeing civil strife fuelled by obscure theological disputes, petitioned Pope Horsmidas to grant them refuge – not unlike contemporary Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war that has torn that country apart.  The Pope allowed them to settle in Italy and tasked them with evangelizing the Valnerina. And so the monks went in pairs, leaving the still well-paved Roman roads for the goat tracks trailing up the Valnerina.

Following the tradition of eastern monasticism, the monks lived in caves, praying, fasting, and spreading the good word to the still largely pagan inhabitants of this backwater valley, Christianity being a predominantly urban phenomenon in Western Europe at the time.

Abbey of Santi Felice e Mauro

Moving uphill towards the source of the Nera river, not far from the caves the Syrian hermits inhabited, the traveler encounters the Abbey of San Pietro in Valle, a lonely structure amid lush green forests. The frescoes in this abbey bear witness to how Longobard invaders, despite wielding military and political power, were persuaded to exchange their blood-thirsty warrior heroes for Christian saints and integrate with the native Italic peoples. 

Siegfried, a legendary hero immortalized in the Germanic epics, became syncretized with the warrior archangel St. Michael. Within the neat Romanesque lines of the church, there is further proof of the blending of Germanic and Italic elements: the remains of the Longobard Dukes of Spoleto are interred in re-used Roman sarcophagi, and the altar stele depicts Duke Liderico receiving the baptism.

The second abbey (actually a priory), Santi Felice e Mauro, sits on a spur of rock close to the river and to an ancient stone bridge. The clean lines of the church betray the Eastern heritage of its builders, while the proportions of the main building respect the Egyptian cubit, a unit of measurement common during the early centuries AD in Syria. The frieze that embellishes its austere facade tells the story of the two saints, father and son, who slayed a dragon and freed the valley from the scourge of its breath – probably a metaphor for the disease-laden “bad air” emanating from the swamps from which we get the word “malaria.” In all likelihood, the Syrian monks built a canal that drained the swampy area surrounding the church. 

The slender body of the church abuts an old cemetery that yielded, during recent excavations, some glass vessels of Syrian origin – further evidence of links with the Levant. Another vestige of the period comes from a crypt that shelters the saints’ remains and features a Roman column at its center. Interestingly, the column is positioned upside down as if to exorcize its pagan origins.

Sant'Eutizio Abbey, near Preci, Umbria

The third abbey, San Eutizio, near the village of Preci, was famous across Europe for the skill of its surgeons, whose bladder stone and cataract surgeries were highly prized by royal courts across Europe. The abbey was built at the foot of a cliff right below the caves of the original Syrian hermits but is barely recognizable now because the 2016 earthquake heavily damaged the abbey buildings and felled its bell tower. The monks of San Eutizio did not just bring the gospel but also a treasure trove of Greek and Roman manuscripts that helped to establish the surgery school, which later opened to the laymen of the village nearby. It is a small consolation that the medical manuscripts of the library survived the earthquake unscathed. 

The saints that founded the monastic communities that later became abbeys and priories still have a devout following in the area. The faithful believe that the holy men have been answering their prayers for centuries, performing miracles, and interceding with God on their behalf. 

While we may be skeptical of the fantastical claims of monks slaying dragons, ending droughts, or resurrecting the dead, in a way, these learned men truly did work miracles. They cured the ailing with knowledge acquired from Greek and Roman manuscripts, helped to unite northern overlords with Italic peasants, and engineered public works to free the valley from the scourge of malaria.

Little wonder these holy men are still venerated in the valley after fifteen centuries.

Cover image: Abbey of San Pietro in Valle. Photo Inu