A Tuscan Summer Resort – Camaldoli

CAMALDOLI, most charming of summer resorts, is situated in that part of Tuscany known as the Casentino. It is actually within the modern province, and in the ancient and modern diocese, of Arezzo, thirty miles from the city of Arezzo itself, and about forty-two miles south-east of Florence.

Camaldoli, like many another delightful place in old Tuscany, is not easy of access. If you are at Florence—and at least you can get there very easily—you will take the train thence to Arezzo, and the journey of fifty-four miles will last two, three, or four hours, according as your train may be ” very direct,” ” direct,” or “omnibus.” At Arezzo you will get on to the quaintest diminutive branch-line, ending right in the heart of the Casentino at the busy little manufacturing town of Stia. The line runs for the most part through high acacia hedges, alongside the Arno, here little better than a turbulent rivulet. Descend at Bibbiena station or at Poppi, just beyond it. Both are about equi-distant from Camaldoli. The majolicas of Andrea della Robbia in the Church of San Lorenzo at Bibbiena are of surpassing beauty, but the castle and donjon of the once powerful Counts Guidi at Poppi is more imposing. Choose the station of descent according to your taste: you will have time to see either the majolicas or the castle before undertaking the two hours’ drive which will bring you up to Camaldoli, most charming of summer resorts.

Camaldoli is situated, as the geography books would put it, at an altitude of 2 718 feet above the sea-level, on that range of the Tuscan Apennines which practically divides Tuscany from the Romagna. Camaldoli is not a village, not even a hamlet. It simply consists of one huge block of buildings, of plainest, severest architecture, comprising an hotel, a church, and a monastery, all adjoining and communicating. The hotel is kept by Signor Fortunato Chiari, famous among Tuscan hotel-keepers, for he is part proprietor of the Savoy and the Grande Bretagne at Florence, and sole proprietor of the Victoria on the Lung’ Arno. The monastery is inhabited by the White Monks of St. Romuald, known throughout the world as the Camaldolese Order. The Church, dividing hotel and monastery, is common ground to monks and visitors. High up above the hotel and monastery, a good hour’s walk through dense pine forests, is situated, fronting a splendid amphitheatre of pine trees, the Sacro Eremo, or Holy Hermitage (368o feet), where live in separate cells the Camaldolese Hermits as distinguished from the Camaldolese Monks.

Very soon you come to see that the monks and hermits add an indefinable charm to the whole place, and begin to try and find out what the Camaldolese Order is. Romuald, of the noble family of the Onesti, Dukes of Ravenna, having renounced the world and joined the Benedictine Order about the year 980, came in course of time to aspire to a still higher form of the religious state. He wished to revive the hermit life in the Church, and with five followers settled about A.D. 1012 in a wild deserted spot on the Apennines, called the Campo Amabile, the gift of the Aretine Count Maldolo. The fame of the sanctity of Romuald and his hermits drew crowds of people to see and consult them. These had to be housed and fed in accordance with monastic dictates of hospitality and charity, but to the sore hindrance of the holy hermits in their devotions and avocations. Then Romuald hit upon the device of starting a hospice below at Campus Maldoli, another gift of the good Count. To the hospice was attached a monastery with monks of a less rigid observance, and to them was as-signed the duty of entertaining all visitors, so that the hermits might be left in greater freedom from constant interruption. The modern hotel is simply the ancient hospice. It will thus be seen that there are two distinct religious states in the Camaldolese Order—the Eremitic and the Monastic–as is typified in the arms of the Order: on a field celestial, two silver doves drinking out of the same golden chalice.

The Hermitage, as at present constituted, consists of some twenty separate cells or little cottages, divided by paved footpaths after the manner of a village, a beautiful church which is practically one choir, a building in which the lay-brothers live (for they do not live the life of hermits), and an Observatory, the whole enclosed by a high stone wall. Each cell contains a little chapel or oratory with altar, a living room with bed let into the wall, a passage entrance, and a room for the storage of firewood. Attached to each cell is a goodly piece of flower and kitchen garden, cultivated by the hermit himself in the brief leisure which his avocations allow him.

The ” rule” of the hermits, if somewhat mitigated since the days of St. Romuald, is still abundantly severe. They eat no meat, observe two Lents every year, and on all Fridays dine off bread and water. Each hermit takes his meals by himself: his food is passed into his cell by a revolving dumb-waiter, so that he does not even see the lay-brother who brings it. No meat is allowed in the hermitage under any consideration. A father who falls sick is removed down to the monastery infirmary, and even there it is only by a dispensation obtained some thirty years ago that meat may be eaten. Seven times in the twenty-four hours the hermits leave their cells, however inclement the weather, whatever the season of the year, and betake themselves to the hermitage church to sing the Divine Office.’ They rise at half-past one in the night-time for Matins, Lauds, and Meditation, lasting an hour and a half. The strictest silence is observed, and speaking or a brotherly reunion only allowed on stated occasions. Twelve times alone in the year—on the principal festivals, that is—do the hermits eat together, and even then speaking is not allowed until the meal is over.

The monks at the monastery below live much the same life, but it is less trying in being cenobitic, and daily walks abroad are permitted. Of course their raison d’etre has to some extent disappeared. They are no longer foresters, be-cause their woods have been taken from them; they are no longer hosts, because their hospice has been turned into a modern hotel. Up to the year 1866, any man, whether rich or poor, could have three days’ hotel accommodation at Camaldoli free of cost—so different are mediaeval ideas to modern. Most of the modern monks have been hermits at one time or another, and it is astonishing how readily they return to the severer form of life when their superiors allow it. The monks are by no means unapproachable. They mix freely enough with the hotel guests, and are ever on the look-out to render you some kindly service. And I observed that both they, and the two or three hermits with whom I had speech, were full of that sunny cheerfulness which I have ever noted as a characteristic of monastic orders. Curiously enough — or perhaps not curiously—the severer the Order and its rule, the more cheerful do its members seem. I well remember, years ago, my head then full of very different notions, how the famous hagiographer, Alban Butler, startled me when I first came across a passage in which he says: ” Gaiety of soul (which always attends virtue) is particularly necessary in all who are called to a life of perfect solitude, in which nothing is more pernicious than sadness. 1 The gaiety of soul ” of the Camaldolese, if unobtrusive, is most captivating.

The Camaldolese are dressed in white. Romuald had at first given his children the traditional black habit of the Benedictines, but one day, sleeping by the fount near his cell, he was favoured with a vision of a great ladder leading from earth to heaven, on which he saw a host innumerable of his brethren mounting to Paradise, but all clothed in white. He awoke to change the colour of their habit from black to white—so, at least, runs the legend. The habit of both monks and hermits is exactly similar: a white tunic and scapular, a long white cloak worn on certain occasions abroad and in choir, and the ample wide-sleeved cowl of the Benedictines, worn only in choir. Their heads are shaven, save for a very narrow corona, and their beards are allowed to grow. In summer the monks wear a huge broad-brimmed straw hat when taking their walks abroad. The dress of the lay-brothers has a few scarcely perceptible differences, but you will easily recognise a lay-brother by his leathern belt, whereas a father or novice wears a girdle of white webbing. In winter and rough weather, when the blinding snow is falling, the hermits wrap themselves up in yet another cloak when summoned to church, so that they may reach the choir as dry as possible. You will notice a room in the church entrance with rows of pegs where these cloaks are hung up to dry during the chanting of the Divine Office.

The hermitage and the monastery are each ruled by a Father Superior (he is not called a Prior as with other Benedictines) tinder the governance of the “Padre Maggiore,” the head of the whole Order. On our first visit to the hermitage we had the good fortune to be overtaken in the forest by the Padre Maggiore, Dom Costanzo Giovanelli, who greeted us with all the cheerful courtesy and gentle ” gaiety of soul ” of the real solitary, and, learning our errand, took us under his guidance. A living Saint he seemed to me, but my old oxen-driver called him ” un Angelo del Paradiso,”—a juster description perhaps. The Superior of the monastery was Dom Pietro Orseolo Stoppa, cheeriest of companions and kindest of friends, and at the head of the hermitage was Dom Ambrogio Pieratelli, a majestic and very devout solitary, now gone to Brazil to start a hermitage in the wild pampas of Rio Grande do Sul.

The whole property of the Camaldolese Order —the hermitage, the monastery, the hospice, the library, the church itself, and the vast pine forests which for centuries they had so sedulously cultivated—was appropriated by the Government in 1866. The Order pay rent to the Government for such portions of their own property as they now occupy (the hermitage and the monastery), and the forestry work is in the hands of Government officials. Their splendid library has been removed to Poppi. Even in the stormy times of 1866, an Italian deputy was found with the courage to raise his voice in the Chamber against this wholesale confiscation, and prayed that an exception to the general law of suppression might be made in favour of the Camaldolese Order,’ so beloved of Dante, the greatest son of Italy. The suggestion was greeted with ” laughter,” and Camaldoli shared the same fate as many other noble religious monuments.

But monks and hermits are not the only attraction of Camaldoli. There is our own very secular daily and delightful existence, the mountain excursions, the riding, shooting, and fishing in trout streams. Camaldoli abounds in an astonishing diversity of walks and climbs, and not only in walks and climbs, but in strolls and rambles. You can take a bath-chair up to the hermitage by the new road, or you can go to the summit of La Falterona, a stiff excursion which takes two days. Hors+, ponies, and donkeys can be got from the neighbouring village of Serravalle. By an excellent system the charge for them is put in the hotel bill, so that you cannot possibly be overcharged by their genial owners, though the easy art of fleecing the foreigner is but little known as yet in the Casentino. The animals seem to have picked up the gentle manners of the monks: they do not kick, so that one pony is quite enough for two people: the pedestrian for the time being has but to hang on to the animal’s tail, and he will be comfortably pulled up the steepest declivity. The people of the Casentino are simple and unspoiled. Here they still speak of a man not as a “man,” but as a “Christian”: to them the world is divided into Christians (i.e. Catholics), Jews, whom they do not count, and pagans, whom they have never seen. Hence all the real world to them is composed of Christians. “They have more Christians than ever in the hotel this year,” I heard an old hewer of wood explaining to a Protestant lady. Passing through a field I called the attention of our donkey-driver, rather anxiously, to an indubitable bull: ” Have no fear,” he made answer, I know the animal, and he is quite accustomed to the presence of Christians. Eh! when they are not in the habit of seeing Christians, they will even run a Christian down. Eh! sfido! ” Still better was his remark about the donkey, Giorgio, who one day drank up a bucket of wine, “and,” says he, “the young rascal got as drunk as a Christian!”

A delightful excursion, and which may be done in a day, is that to the summit of the Poggio Scali. And mountaineering, if you wish it, is made very easy at Camaldoli. The halt, the maimed, the blind, need shrink from no ordinary excursion if they go in a treggia. A treggia is a species of rough sleigh, on which is placed a basket frame capable of seating two people, and comfortably arranged with slanting back and cushions. It is drawn by a pair of the magnificent white oxen of Tuscany. No matter how steep or how stony, how crooked or how narrow the path, these patient, sure-footed brutes go steadily and smoothly onwards and upwards until the very pinnacle of your destination is reached. And really the treggia glides along with wonderful smoothness, and the motion is far from unpleasant. Coming down is, of course, another matter from the point of view of comfort, but a descent of some 2000 feet in a treggia would assuredly cure the worst liver complaint from which evil liver ever suffered.

The road to the Poggio Scali leads us first up the path to the hermitage, through the dense and dark pine-forests which afford cool shelter even from the fierce August sun of Italy. Here we dawdle, never weary of watching the teams of oxen dragging up the pine-trees which have been felled in the valleys below. It is a difficult and arduous operation. It takes a team of eight of these great beasts to drag up one tree, for the ascent is almost sheer. And it needs much art on the part of the drivers, and the wildest cries, with which the whole valley resounds, to keep the eight oxen moving at once. The trees are taken down to Camaldoli by the new road from the Eremo, and sawn in a mill near the monastery.

The Camaldolese Order in 1458 set up the first hydraulic saw-mill in Tuscany. This is one of the long list of their benefits to civilisation, and standing in the shelter of the forests no longer their own, we remember gratefully that, if they felled trees and sold them, the rule of the Order obliged them to plant five thousand new pines every year, and that they usually planted double the number of their obligation.

Arrived at the hermitage—it is true that we were up very early and have already had a cold douche in the hotel bath—we confess to a feeling not unakin to hunger, to a sensation that may be frankly described as thirst. But it is not our first visit to the Sacro Eremo, and we know that in the lay-brothers’ quarter there we can, at trifling cost, purchase refreshment that will send us strengthened on our way. Soon on a wooden table in the courtyard there is spread before us fresh brown bread, butter (such butter!), anchovies, and preserved tunny, to be followed hard after by a flagon of deep-coloured, sweet, yellow wine, tasting like the juice squeezed straight from the grape, and which must surely

1 One of their many benefits to scholars are the “Annales Camaldulenses” (907 to 1764), “quibus plura interseruntur tum ceteras Italico-monasticas res, tum historiam Ecclesiasticam remque Diplomaticam illustrantia.” This is but a modest description of their varied contents. Publication commenced at Venice in 1755. Authors, Dom Giovanni Benedetto Mittarelli and Dom Anselmo Costadoni, monks of the Order, have been the kind of liquor brewed by the Patriarch Noah, so sound is it and so strong. How many a time, on the return from a stiff climb in keenest Apennine air, have I blessed the holy hermitage and its simple, wholesome, ever-welcome fare.

On leaving the Eremo, by a path trying at times even to the oxen and treggia, we climb to the Prato Bertone, and along the ridge of the Giogana, to the Prato al Soglio, to Giogo Seccheta, and, finally, after a journey that need only have lasted three hours but for constant dawdling, botanising, and refreshing at the hermitage, to Poggio Scali, our destination (4952 feet). Here the splendour of the view takes away the remnants of the breath left in us. To the east, over the bare arid range of the Romagna Mountains, with scarce a trace of vegetation visible, and not a solitary habitation, we see the bright glitter of the Adriatic; to the west, though but faintly to-day, a silver sheen that must reflect from the Tyrrhenian Sea; right opposite to us, with its curious fringe of ragged, storm-tossed beech, the Mountain of La Penna, where the eagle nests and the Tuscan chamois 1 climbs to sniff the night air; to the south-east, in the far dim distance the three peaks which mark the old-world Republic of San Marino; to the south, distant only some 20 miles, the noble crest of Mount La Verna, where the dearest Saint that ever lived, now close upon seven hundred years ago, received the marks of the sacred Stigmata; in the far south-east Monte Amiata, whence comes all the wealth of Tuscan quicksilver, and the red earths and ochres called after Sienna; and again, in the west, the range of the Secchieta, whither, by the Consuma Pass, you may return to Florence and the outer Tuscan world beyond.

Every mountain, every valley, has its name and history, and Poldo, the old treggia driver, can tell us something about most of them. It seems as if one could gaze forever on so splendid, so varied an array of Nature’s beauties. But after half-an-hour in the keen air of this mountain summit, our minds wander naturally to things more mundane, and forth from the depths of the treggia we produce an ample basket, placed there by Signor Gagliardi, most thoughtful of hotel managers. It contains a number of packets done up in spotless white paper, each bearing a most inviting legend. There are thin slices of the small juicy ham of the Casentino, slices of Tuscan tongue, of cold veal, and the rosbiffi of old Italy; a cold pullet all ready divided for use with Nature’s knives and forks; a hunch of goat’s-milk cheese; a bag of purple plums and a bag of purple peaches; and—dulcis in fundo—two lordly bottles of the purple wine of Mount Chianti. Old Poldo has already, before our last steep ascent, filled a two-litre flask with the ice-cold limpid water of the Fonte Porcareccia. For condiment we have the best of all sauces—an appetite born of Apennine air, and behind the shelter of a stunted beech-clump, we make a meal that neither Paris nor London could have furnished forth.

This is a fair type of a daily excursion from Camaldoli, but the great expedition is to La Falterona (5410 feet), the highest point in this range of the Apennines. It is a six hours’ climb, and cannot comfortably be undertaken in one day; besides, you will want to see the sun set and the sun rise. It is possible to sleep on the summit. In 1882 the Italian Alpine Club opened a comfortable shelter there, which is denominated the ” Ricovero Dante ” in memory of the place which the Falterona finds in the Divine Comedy. It consists of three rooms, a kitchen, and an attic

one room is always open, the others are accessible by keys to be obtained at the Alpine Station of Stia. About one thousand feet below the summit is an historical spot celebrated by Dante, a bubbling rill of clear water, which is nothing less than the source of the Arno.’ It is difficult to say which is the finer of the sights we have come out to see —the rising of the sun over the Adriatic, or its slow fall to rest behind the Tyrrhenian Sea.

The comfortable hotel, with that simple good taste which characterises every detail of its management, is not called an hotel as though one were in Paris or London, but is designated by the good old-fashioned Italian word Albergo: the Grande Albergo di Camaldoli is its full style and title. It consists of two main quadrangles, with passages, cloister-like, running round, and rooms opening out of them. The effect is monastic, and pleasing as being so thoroughly in harmony with the surroundings. Portraits of Camaldolese Cardinals decorate the walls of the lofty reading-room, and old prints of a more or less ecclesiastical character greet one at every turn. There is no tinsel, or gilt, or plush, or great staring mirrors, such as the Philistine so dearly loves. But there is solidity, comfort, spotless cleanliness, and a table wholesome and liberal, justly based on the appetite Camaldoli is famed for producing. Within the hotel precincts is a post and telegraph office; letters leave once a day and come twice. Attached to the monastery is an ancient pharmacy, once the property of the monks, and where their old-time cordials and balsams can still be purchased from the modern lessee, our postmaster. And down in the basement, well out of our way, is a rustic hostelry frequented by the contadini of the mountain sides, and the travelling pedlars, who come great distances to offer us their quaint wares. This, though in the same building, has no connection with the Grande Albergo. It is kept by a famous character and charming conversationalist called Francesco Salvi, but who is much better known by his sobriquet Pisello, given him because he cooks peas so well. Nicknames run in a family in Tuscany, and so his wife is called Pisella or Mistress Pea, his son Pisellino or young Pea, and his daughter Pisellina or Sweet Pea.

The society of the Grande Albergo is very select. It is much affected by diplomatists accredited to the Quirinal or the Vatican, who often for reasons of distance cannot get home on leave, but who as foreigners cannot possibly weather the summer heats of the Eternal City. And Camaldoli is a great favourite with the aristocracy of Florence and Rome. The diversions of the place are of the simplest—we walk, ride, shoot, fish, get up an occasional picnic, and come home thoroughly tired and ready for early bed. No one dreams of starting dances or concerts or charades. No strolling players or musicians ever trouble us, and not even the inevitable conjuror ventures near Camaldoli—he would fear to find us in bed. Thus the summer slips away in simple, healthy, tranquil happiness, and in early September we descend to the plains fortified in body and spirit, and blessing the kind fate that has guided our footsteps to Camaldoli, most charming of summer resorts.

Let not the elect accuse me of breach of trust in thus seeking to make Camaldoli more widely known in the wide world. They need fear no descent of the Philistines. Or if the Philistine should come he could not stand the life of the place for more than two days. The Spartan simplicity and cleanliness of the hotel, the order and decency, the wholesome fare, the pure unadulterated wine, above all the near neighbour-hood of holy monks and hermits, reminding him of a past which he scorns and a future for which he has no liking, would soon cause him to take precipitate flight. He will return and tell his kind that Camaldoli is a “hole,” that the hotel is a ” barn,” that there isn’t a ” blessed thing” to do or to see, not even a ” caffee-chontong ” in the evening, that the hermits look like “cut-throats” and the monks like ” escaped lunatics.” He will go back to his Jungfrau and his Dolomites, to hotels that will fleece him, and to adventurers that will flatter him, and Camaldoli will be reserved forever to the few who ask nothing better than the unalloyed delights of simple summer-holiday happiness.