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Of Hermits and Saints: The Abbey of Sant’Eutizio

They say that there are certain places on earth which somehow speak to the spirit. The molecules there vibrate at a certain frequency, or the auras become more defined, or the souls of those who have left their bodies on that spot continue to abide.

I’m not sure what I think about this (one area which is considered intensely spiritual is Assisi, but since I live here and spend my days distracted by electric bills and dentist appointments and work deadlines, I might not be tuned in enough to pick up on all the molecular vibration going on), but it is true that Umbria has produced an inordinate number of saints in its long history, many of whom passed at least part of their life in spiritual contemplation as hermits.

The Sant’Eutizio Abbey in the lush Val Castoriana as seen from the hiking path above.

The lush Nera River Valley (known as the Valnerina, and hands down one of my favorite areas of this region) is a veritable saint and hermit factory. This breathtaking area, with its winding river gorge lined on both sides with towering, craggy mountain slopes, has churned out an impressive number of holy figures over the past millenium and continues to host—in a manner almost inconceivably anacronistic—about ten monastic hermits today.

I recently spent a day hiking in the hills above the tiny town of Preci on the Campiano river (one of the tributaries of the Nera which has carved out a branch of the Valnerina: the pastoral Val Castoriana), where I was able to revisit the origins of a thousand years of hermitic life.

The Benedictine abbey of Sant’Eutizio–or, to be more precise, the caves in the rock wall above the abbey itself–mark the beginning of this long and rich history. Here I wandered through what remains of the living quarters of Saint Eutizio, disciple of Saint Spes (Latin for “hope”), one of the first wave of converts to Christianity who chose the cliffs above the Val Castoriana (known locally as the “Sponga” for the rock’s sponge-like texture) to search for God in solitude.

The pretty rose window in the church’s simple Romanesque facade.

The mountains attracted a number of disciples of Spes over the following decades, who followed in his contemplatory footsteps and formed a vast, loose spiritual community (Benedict from the nearby town of Norcia was also inspired by Spes’ asceticism, leading him to found a small community with an oratory on this spot). Legend holds that Spes, who had spent forty years in complete blindness, regained his sight shortly before his death and spent his final days visiting and ministering to his disciples in the surrounding woods and caves.

After Spes’ death, his disciple Eutizio was appointed abbot of the fledgling Benedictine community but maintained a hermitic lifestyle by carving out a home in these rock caves (now accessible through the abbey courtyard). Eutizio was widely loved and revered for his spiritual integrity, and the valley was soon populated with both religious and lay followers who became the founders of many of the hamlets which still dot these hillsides today (don’t miss delightful Campi, by the way…especially the church portico at sunset).

Eutizio was buried under the primitive Benedictine oratory upon his death in 540, and it took another 500 years for the monastic community to slowly transform itself from hermitic to cenobitic, gradually moving out of solitary caves and huts and organizing around the abbey, built in the 1200s on the spot where the Saints Spes and Eutizio were buried centuries before.

The bell tower rests on the craggy cliffs above the church.

The Abbazia di Sant’Eutizio’s simple stone Romanesque church and rustic cloister remains one of the prettiest spots to visit in the upper Valnerina. The remains of the saints are kept in the carved marble urn behind the church’s altar, and the delicate rose window in the spare facade and ornate 17th century belltower on the rough cliff above make for some beautiful pictures.

Sant’Eutizio continues to be a central figure in local spiritual lore, and his mantle is said to have rain-producing properties. As the monk told me when I visited, during times of drought the mantle is displayed in a religious procession. If rain doesn’t come within a week, it’s taken out again. And again. And—miracle!—sooner or later it always rains.

The ivy-covered, silent courtyard. Where just a little vibration may be felt.

And maybe the miracle of molecular vibration is like the miracle of rain. It’s not so much about the laws of physics as it is about the the depth of faith and the gift of patience. Sooner or later, with a little of both, something is bound to resonate.

These photos were taken by friend and hiking partner-in-crime Armando Lanoce, whom I thank for his generous use of them.


From Chicago to Città di Castello: Arriving at Burri’s Abstract Expressionism

I feel very lucky to have grown up in Chicago, though I take delight in ribbing my hometown for its spit and swagger. Chicago gave me many things: the knowledge that hot dogs are meant to be served with celery salt; the knowledge that even if your team hasn’t won the Super Bowl in over twenty years, they’re still better than the Packers; the knowledge that there is a difference between the temperature and the windchill factor, and you damned well better pay attention to the latter.

But the most important thing that Chicago gave me was a deep, broad, lasting knowledge of the arts. The Windy City may be gritty (or was when I grew up there…the past twenty years have transformed her into a jewel of pristine parks, reclaimed neighborhoods, and haute cuisine), but it is also home to some of the best architecture, music, dance, and literature of any American metropolis.

Not to mention art, of course.

Chicago’s Art Institute is a local landmark and is one of the largest and most important art museums in the world (it is second in size in the US only to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City). This is not why it was so influential in my life-long love of art, however. It was influential for these two reasons: 1) when I was a kid, it was free (kind of) and 2) the most important collection is also one of the most accessible to art newbies.

When I was a kid, entrance to the Art Institute was a “suggested donation”. So, you could pay the de facto ticket price or pretty much anything (or nothing) to get in. Which meant, of course, that when I was a penniless teenager, it was cheap option to pass a freezing Sunday afternoon. And pass, I did. I would throw my buck or two at the ticket counter and head right to the museum’s crown jewel collection: Impressionists. Which was fabulous, because Impressionism is the perfect gateway drug to an appreciation of other art periods and styles. It’s pretty, figurative, easy to decipher, and reproduced on handy posters to hang in your teen bedroom. It also, in my case and I think in many people’s, lit the flame of curiosity to explore what came before the Impressionists (which, in many cases, inspired their works) and what came after (which is, in many cases, inspired by Impressionism).

I am bored with that period now…I overdosed as a teen and when I find myself in the Museé d’Orsay spend more time looking at the fabulous architecture rather than the paintings. But I do know that if I hadn’t had that exposure at a time that I was becoming curious about art, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate Guercino or Caravaggio or—and here I come to my point—Burri.

Alberto Burri, Italy’s pioneer Abstract Expressionist, produced art from the 1950s until his death in 1995 which is the antithesis of Impressionism. Decidedly unpretty (though often majestically gorgeous), unfigurative (though viewers are hard-pressed not to have organic forms jump out from his bold collages and torched canvases), impenetrable in meaning (Burri declared, “I see beauty and that is all” regarding how to interpret his works), and almost completely uncommercialized (this giant of modern art is little known abroad; even the Tate Modern owns only a single example of his work), Burri’s works at once fierce and violent yet lyrical and evocative.

It is perhaps for these very reasons that I found myself a late convert to Burri. He had a revival, as artists often do, upon his death in the mid-1990s, and out of curiosity I was drawn to the museum dedicated to his life and work in his hometown of Città di Castello in northern Umbria. The first portion of the museum is housed in a the 15th century Palazzo Albizzini and opened to the public in 1980; the dramatic annex completing the collection opened in 1990 in a restored mid-century tobacco drying house outside of town.

Here I found some of the most engrossing and captivating works of 20th century art in Italy. Burri’s early quirky “Sacks” collages—using materials from burlap sacking, tar, pumice, PVC glue, netting, and resin—segued into the “Hunchback” period of warped canvases and the charred works of his “Combustion” series that give his art a three-dimensional look, to end in his “Cracked” series, in which canvases were thickly covered in monochrome paste left to dry and crack like the parched fields of a plain in drought. He later went on to use plastic, metal, and the industrial insulation Celotex to create works that are at once abstract yet undeniably natural in form. His paintings (if one can call them that) invoke the natural beauty of his rural home region of Umbria, the bloodshed of WWII (during which he was held as a war prisoner for 18 months in Texas), and the energy of an industrializing post-War Italy.

His works were considered subversive when first shown, but to the contemporary eye they are simply powerfully dramatic, elegantly unconventional, and, considering their dates, surprisingly avant-garde. It seems that everyone and their brother is taking a blowtorch to their canvases these days, but Burri was the first to show how precise destruction can be the most beautiful of all forms of creation.

To visit the Burri Museum and his collection, check the Burri foundation’s website for opening times and information.