Religious communities have existed for centuries in Italy, home to monks and nuns living in abbeys (a type of monastery) of various orders. These abbeys were used for religious activities and to provide work opportunities for both the religious order and oblates. Oblates are individuals, either laypersons or clergy, who, while not speciﬁcally members of a religious order, had individually afﬁliated themselves with a monastic community of their choice. The term oblate – from the Latin oblatus – refers to someone who has been offered.
Abbeys are often self-sufﬁcient, using any abundance of produce or skill to provide care to the poor and needy, refuge to the persecuted, or education to the young. Some abbeys offer lodging to people who are seeking a period of spiritual reﬂection. Many of these abbeys now lie in ruins but there are a number of them which can be visited across the peninsula.
The ﬁrst abbey I ever visited in Italy was L’abbazia di Casamari, a Cistercian abbey near Veroli which is part of the Ciociaria, a geographical area of the province of Frosinone. Founded in the ninth century and built on the ruins of the ancient Roman municipality of Cereatae, it was dedicated to the goddess Ceres. The abbey is located at Marianae (present-day Casamari), the birthplace, or at least a residence, of Gaius Marius, from whom the abbey later derived its name. Gaius Marius, who was born around 157 B.C. and died around 86 B.C., was a skilled military commander and politician who was lauded for saving Rome from the brink of collapse.
It was initially a Benedictine monastery and was a small community with a simple church dedicated to Saints John and Paul. There was an expansion of the buildings in the mid-11th century by Abbot Giovanni and the abbey became influential in the region due to the substantial number of donations it received and the purchase of many chapels in the area. Revenues from all these chapels were fundamental to the abbey’s maintenance.
In the 12th century, severe financial issues led to a long decline for the abbey. One reason for this was the contentious rule of both Antipope Anacletus II and Pope Innocent II as both fought for the papacy. During this period, one of the major religious figures of the day, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, promoted the Cisterian reforms of monasticism as the best way to ensure loyalty and obedience to the Church.
He arranged the incorporation of Casamari in the new order, officially listing it in the Cistercian directory as the 29th foundation of the first order founded in France. Under the Cistercians the abbey and its church were completely rebuilt between 1203 and 1217. The abbey is still under Cistercian rule to this day and plays a vital role in the surrounding area. A plan of the abbey shows twelve distinct areas which are part of the overall structure.
The cloister court is the heart of the complex as it represents both the center of monastic life and the center of the complex. From the court, an open area resplendent with flowers, visitors can access the other areas of the complex. From the east side one can access the church through an entrance which was once where the choir would pass into the church.
The church, in the form of a Latin cross, has three naves supported by massive pillars. It is simplistic in design, in keeping with the monk’s pledge of poverty and is devoid of paintings, statues and ornaments which could distract from prayer and reflection.
At the beginning of the right nave, another door leads back to the cloister from where one can access the refectory. Here the monks take their meals in a grand area that has massive columns and arches which soar above the simplistic dining area below. This room’s original use was as a dispensarium or storage room for produce grown at the abbey.
From the refectory we walked across the cloister to access the capitular hall. This area is where the monastic community meets each morning to listen to martyrology, a catalogue or list of martyrs and other saints arranged in the calendar order of their anniversaries or feasts. They will also read a chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict. Also in this grand area, the community elects its abbot by secret ballot, they receive initiates and discuss issues both personal and communal.
Further along this side are rooms hosting the museum and art gallery. Here we saw a fresco, removed from the church of Santa Maria di Reggimento, depicting “The Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket.” Another key piece was a somber, yet very realistic work entitled “St. Lawrence Distributing Alms” by Giovanni Serodine. There were also a number of archeological pieces which were primarily found in the area surrounding the abbey.
While the nature of the monastic order calls for a simplistic life the abbey does have a repository which holds relics donated to the abbey by various pontiffs during a period when the community was granted a dispensation from its strict rule of poverty. From the end of the twelfth century through the following, the abbey received objects from various abbots who went on diplomatic missions for the Holy See.
In 1572 relics were transferred and locked up in the Cathedral of Sant’Andrea in Veroli to protect them from military raids. The most important relics were brought out each year for processions during Ascension Thursday. Relics included crosses, the largest in silver with gold relief decorated with stones and glass from the 13th century. Another is the head-shaped reliquary of Sts. John and Paul which is in hammered silver and tinctures. Two stone reliquaries hold nine medallions in painted glass depicting saints connected to the order.
The next area we visited was the pharmacy which provided everything needed to maintain the health of the monks and for residents or travelers who arrived in need. The monks grew their own herbs and berries and learned how to brew leaves and roots for medicinal purposes.
The abbey also had a distillery to prepare liqueurs used for medicinal purposes. These are available to purchase with names such as Elixir San Bernardo, Sambuca “Milleﬁ ori” Gran Casamari and Rosolio al mandarino. One can also purchase guides and religious books, ceramics, and religious articles.
Our last stop, which was my favorite, was the library. Between 1140-1152
the Benedictines, and later Cistercians, took great care in creating a place of learning. They carefully copied books by hand, especially those used for liturgical and spiritual purposes. Many of these handwritten manuscripts, copied on parchment, were later taken from the abbey. Around 1717 the monks again began to recopy these texts and also assembled journals of the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is fascinating to view these incredibly old manuscripts, protected under glass, and to imagine the dedication it took to replicate older documents and to create new ones. During the period when Italians fought to unify Italy, the monks would often need to hide books and manuscripts in nearby homes which led to many being lost or damaged.
In 1873 the library contents, which numbered around 1,692 volumes, became state property. In 1907 the library fell under the auspices of the Ministry of Instruction although direct oversight was left to the monks. At the time we visited (around 2009) the library was home to approximately 80,000 items.
We also learned that the abbey opened the Instituto San Bernardo in 1898 to provide education to the young monks which became a seminary in 1916. In 1962, under the direction of Abbot Nivardo Buttarazzi, the seminary became an institute offering educational opportunities to children of the area. Eventually it was recognized as a middle and high school by the state. On the day we visited we saw a number of students using the library.
The abbey is a working monastery and continues to serve as a site of worship for its congregants even as it offers tours on a daily basis. The beauty of the site has made it a popular place for wedding photos and pictures for other special events.
A visit to the Abbey gives an up-close view of stunning architecture and a historical perspective of both religious and cultural mores of both the past and present. It demonstrates the importance of abbeys across Italy as much more than just a spiritual center, but also a focal point of support for the surrounding communities and, through their missions, to people in need across the globe.