One of the excellent mountain roads constructed by Pius IX. leads through a wild district from Olevano to Subiaco. A few miles before reaching Subiaco we skirt a lake, probably one of the Simbrivii Lacus which Nero is believed to have made by damming up the Anio. Here he fished for trout with a golden net, and here he built the mountain villa which he called Sublaqueuma name which still exists in Subiaco.
Four centuries after the valley had witnessed the orgies of Nero, a young patrician of the family of the Anicii-Benedictus, or “the blessed one,” being only fourteen at the time, fled from the seductions of the capital to the rocks of Mentorella, but, being followed thither, sought a more complete solitude in a cave above the falls of the Anio. Here he lived unknown to any except the hermit Romanus, who daily let down food to him, half of his own loaf, by a cord from the top of the cliff. At length the hiding-place was revealed to the village priest in a vision, and pilgrims flocked from all quarters to the valley. Through the disciples who gathered around Benedict, this desolate ravine became the cradle of monastic life in the West, and twelve monasteries rose amid its peaks under the Benedictine rule.. .
Nothing can exceed the solemn grandeur of the situation of the convent dedicated to St. Scholastica, the sainted sister of St. Benedict, which was founded in the fifth century, and which, till quite lately, included as many as sixteen towns and villages among its possessions. The scenery becomes more romantic and savage at every step as we ascend the winding path after leaving St. Scholastica, till a small gate admits us to the famous immemorial Ilex Grove of St. Benedict, which is said to date from the fifth century, and which has never been profaned by ax or hatchet. Beyond it the path narrows, and a steep winding stair, just wide enough to admit one person at a time, leads to the platform before the second convent, which up to that moment is entirely concealed. Its name, Sacro Speco, commemorates the holy cave of St. Benedict.
At the portal, the thrilling interest of the place is suggested by the inscription”Here is the patriarchal cradle of the monks of the West Order of St. Benedict.” The entrance corridor, built on arches over the abyss, has frescoes of four sainted popes, and ends in an ante-chamber with beautiful Umbrian frescoes, and a painted statue of St. Benedict. Here we enter the all-glorious church of 1116, completely covered with ancient frescoes. A number of smaller chapels, hewn out of the rock, are dedicated to the sainted followers of the founder. Some of the paintings are by the rare Umbrian master Concioli. A staircase in front of the high altar leads to the lower church. At the foot of the first flight of steps, above the charter of 1213, setting forth all its privileges, is the frescoed figure of Innocent III., who first raised Subiaco into an abbacy; in the same fresco is represented Abbot John of Tagliacozzo, under whom (1217-1277) many of the paintings were executed.
On the second landing, the figure of Benedict faces us on a window with his finger on his lips, imposing silence. On the left is the coro, on the right the cave where Benedict is said to have passed three years in darkness. A statue by Raggi commemorates his presence here; a basket is a memorial of that lowered with his food by St. Romanus; an ancient bell is shown as that which rang to announce its approach. As we descend the Scala Santa trod-den by the feet of Benedict, and ascended by the monks upon their knees, the solemn beauty of the place increases at every step. On the right is a powerful fresco of Death mowing down the young and sparing the old; on the left, the Preacher shows the young and thoughtless the three states to which the body is reduced after death. Lastly, we reach the Holy of Holies, the second cave, in which Benedict laid down the rule of his order, making its basis the twelve degrees of humility. Here also an inscription enumerates the wonderful series of saints, who, issuing from Subiaco, founded the Benedictine Order throughout the world.