Friday, January 09, 2009


While Tuscany can boast creating the Renaissance, with figures like Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Dante, Umbria is known as “terre di santi” or the land of the Saints. This quiet, landlocked and largely undiscovered corner of Italy lays claim to some of the big hitters within the Christian faith. San Francesco (Saint Francis), Santa Chiara (Saint Clare) and San Benedict all come from this region.

If you are looking to go on a religious retreat, re-new your faith or just spend time unwinding from the rigours of the modern life Umbria will provide a tranquil rest place. There is no need for all the bells, smells and 40 days fasting in a cave, just a quiet peaceful time discovering the simple joys these people of God found.

Why not stay at the Monastery, the Brothers of the Mount of Olives – La Preghiera, this reconstructed building can trace its roots back 1000 years and evidence indicates that it has been a site of religious activity for even longer. Situated in the Seano Valley on the Francescian trail from Cortona it provides an excellent base to discover the places frequented by the Saints.

San Francesco

Born Giovanni in Assisi 1181 – Died Assisi 1226. The son of a wealthy cloth merchant and soldier. He was captured during a battle with Perugian forces and spent a year imprisoned there. Here he had his first thoughts about living a more simplistic life.

Whilst preaching at the Church of Saint Giorgio, Assisi he decided to renounce his wealth and possessions in the main piazza and left to establish his first church by re-building the ruined Porziuncola chapel. This can still be seen as part of the Basilica Santa Maria Degli Angeli, Assisi. The St Francesco Church in Gubbio was built on the site of the merchant Spadalungo’s house, he was a good friend of St Francis and where he initially went after renouncing his worldly possessions in Assisi.

During his time here he would often walk into the hills and woods of the surrounding Mount Subasio and established a hermitage at Eremo della Carceri where he and fellow brothers would retreat to pray.

Whilst travelling back to Assisi he became ill and recuperated in the second Franciscan Monastery just outside the town walls of Norcia. This small complex and the Giardino della Aqua can still be visited today.

In December 1223, Francis performed the first living Nativity at Christmas in a grotto in Greccio, nearly 800 years later this practice is still carried out with up to 70 locals dressed in period costume and featuring live animals as well.

In the following year 1224 he spent 40 days fasting in the hills of Tuscany at La Verna on route to Arezzo. The collection of stone built huts amongst the rocky outcrops is still a popular attraction.

At the end of his life, he fell ill in Cortona, Tuscany. In an attempt to avoid Perugian troops who wanted to take him there to die, he travelled through the mountains so as to end his days in Assisi. Part of this journey is re-enacted annually in the Cavalcata di Santriano, stopping at Rocca Postignano, the Chaple of Santriano and crossing the Ponte Marchetto on their way to Assisi.

Santa Chiara

Chiara was born in Assisi 1194 and died in 1254, born into a wealthy noble family. At the age of nineteen upon hearing the preaching’s of Saint Francis in Assisi she begged him to let her join. Initially she was placed in the Benedictine Abbey at St Paolo, Bastia and later moved to St Angelo, in Panzo. She was the founder and lifelong Abbess of the Poor Clare’s based in the St Domiano Abbey, Assisi and stayed there for the rest of her life.

Santa Agnese

1197 – 1253, Saint Agnes was the younger sister of Chiara and along with another sister, their mother and an aunty they helped firmly establish the Poor Clare’s missions. She founded the Abbey at Monticelli, near Florence and a number of other monasteries in Nothern Italy. She is buried in the Basilica Santa Chiara, Assisi with her sister.

San Benedict

Born Nurcia 480 – died 543, after studying in Rome he decided to travel and after talking to a hermit he met along the way went into the hills around Enfide, Subiaco where he spent the next three years living in a cave above a lake on the river Anio. In the surrounding hills and valleys he established twelve monasteries, he also established the rules by which all Benedictine monks still live by today. Santa Scolsatica, Benedict’s twin sister also came from Nurcia.

San Ubald Baldasini

1084 – 1160, born into nobility in Gubbio, is credited with turning back Frederick Barbarossa from sacking the town in 1155. Every year on 16th May, his Feast Day, the Corsa dei Ceri is held in Gubbio. The race has three giant candles, representing San Ubald, San Giorgio and San Antonio and the whole town is taken over for the festival.

Santa Rita

Corcia, Rocca Porena 1386 – 1456. Married by her elderly parents at the age of 12 to a drunk, violent man and bore him two sons. When this abusive man died and her sons were killed subsequently trying to take revenge she decided to become a nun. However being a widow, this was forbidden. Not to be discouraged she persisted until eventually the Augustian Convent of Corcia accepted her. She is acknowledged as the patron saint of lost causes. San Valentine Not much is known of him, other than he is one of three Saints with the same name, all associated with the 14th February. He was the Bishop of Intreamna, modern day Terni.

San Ercolano

Died in 549 AD in Perugia. Flayed to death after trying to negotiate a truce with King Totila of the Ostrogoths who was attacking the city. Ironically Perugia is the city where some years later the Flagellists began their practice of whipping themselves to atone for their sins.

San Constantius

Died 170 AD, martyred in Foligno, buried in Perugia.

San Issac

Issac was born in Syria but fled persecution to Italy at around 550 AD. While praying in one of the cities Churches he was driven out by a sacristan who subsequently became possessed by a demon which Issac drove out. After this he moved to live the life of a hermit on Mount Luco where he led a group of similar minded hermits in prayer.

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