Hermitage Le Celle

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Eremo Le Celle is the first hermitage to be founded by San Francesco and this is probably why it still retains all the simplicity that the 'poor man of Assisi' sought after in the places where he used to immerse himself in prayers. In addition, the Saint, who was an ecologist ante litteram, chose a place where nature can be seen in all its splendour as the setting for his first monastery: Holm oak trees, evergreen plants that add a touch of colour to ‘white’ winters and a stream of fresh water. Peacefulness and serenity pervade the atmosphere of this place even if, contrary to what you might think, there is no absolute silence. There are no 'artificial sounds' but only 'sounds of nature' : the sound of the wind brushing against tree branches, the noise of water flowing, the birds singing in every season. And so, after rigorously switching off your mobile phones, you may hear something that you cannot usually hear amidst the chaos of our cities: yourself!

WHERE IS THE HERMITAGE OF CELLE AND HOW TO GET THERE. 'Le Celle' are just 4 km from Cortona, the delightful village of Val di Chiana in the province of Arezzo. The Monastery is perched on Monte Sant'Egidio and in the gorge dividing the two buildings runs a mountain stream. If you are wondering how to get at the Celle hermitage from Cortona, take the Strada Provinciale 34 Umbro Cortonese and, once you reach the destination, you can easily leave your car in the parking lot. In the summer and especially if you are sporty, you might enjoy reaching the hermitage on foot. Walking through the woods you will immediately immerse yourself in the wonderful nature that surrounds the monastic structure.

EREMO LE CELLE CORTONA: HISTORY. Let's start with the name the ‘Celle', which does not refer to the little buildings friars used to live in, but rather to some constructions built from the rock by shepherds and peasants. Some of them were built using the energy produced by the stream and also had small mills. San Francesco arrived in Cortona around the year 1211 and here he met Guido Vagnotelli, a young man from a good-to-do  family who often welcomed Francesco in his home to pray. Soon, fascinated by the words and fervour of St. Francis, Guido decided to follow a religious vocation. But he did more: he offered the saint the place where the Hermit would have been built later on. In fact, he believed that the isolated location, guarded by the thick woods and immersed in the unspoilt nature of Mount Sant'Egidio, would have been perfect for praying. And he was not wrong! Eremo Le Celle in Cortona was the first to be built by St. Francis and its edification preceded by four years even the renowned one of La Verna. Among other things, it is also one of the few to have survived nearly unaltered, thus giving us a clear idea of ​​the places of prayer the saint preferred: immersed in silence to encourage contemplation and surrounded by nature so as to incite praises to the Lord.
At first, Eremo Le Celle in Cortona, Italy only included the cell of St. Francis and a small oratory. The cell was very Spartan: it only contained a bed, a chair and a wooden plank fixed to the wall so as to make a desk. Saint Francis often stayed at Le Celle di Cortona: he used it as a stopover when he travelled from La Verna to Assisi or to Siena. There, according to sources, in May 1226 he dictated his 'Testament' where his whole spiritual journey is retraced. At that time he was staying at the Monastery of Cortona to try to cure a serious eye problem, but unfortunately the fresh air and the peace of the Cells could not improve neither that problem nor others, and in October of that same year, Saint Francis died in Assisi. After having completed the construction of the Basilica of Assisi, from 1239, Friar Elijah, nicknamed 'the bricklayer of St. Francis', devoted himself to the Cells of Cortona. He used the stone from the caves, cutting it into blocks, to build a small oratorio in front of the cell of St. Francis to which he added eight more, equal in structure and in Spartan simplicity. In the small rooms on the slopes of Monte Sant'Egidio it seems that Friar Elia, Il Beato Guido (the one who had donated the place to St. Francis), Il Beato Vito dei Viti, S. Antonio da Padova, S. Bonaventura and Lorenzo da Brindisi all stayed or lived here.
The relationship between Saint Francis and Cortona has proved to have been fundamental in the life story of one of the most important figures in the history of Franciscanism: Margherita di Cortona, born in the village of Valdarno in 1247 and undoubtedly inspired by the preaching of St. Francis. As a very young woman she became the 'concubine' of a Montepulciano merchant from whom she bore a son, a real scandal at that time. When, following the contrasts between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, the merchant was killed, Margherita Venuti regretted the life she had lead until then and devoted herself to prayer and to the poor, just as Saint Francis had preached. From 1253, when Friar Elia died, until 1537, ‘Le Celle' monastery in Cortona went through a series of periods in which it was virtually uninhabited; finally, the Bishop of Cortona Leonardo Bonafede entrusted it to the newly-born Order of the Capuchins, who until 1988 used it as the home of the novitiates. At present only six monks reside there, who continue the experience of prayer inherited from St. Francis.

EREMO LE CELLE TODAY. Upon arriving you will notice the terraced structure that traces the shape of the mountain side, as wanted by Friar Elia. He had also directed everything so as to receive the sun's rays as much as possible. The original nucleus included the cell of St. Francis, an oratory that was actually used for moments of community and other cells. In 1232, during the construction work, Friar Elia mostly used the stones he found in the mountains and in the river. Observing the hermitage, you can perceive the difference compared to the Capuchin buildings, which, instead, mix local stone and bricks. Yet it is true that the Capuchins needed more space and probably did not have enough time to find the right stones. The structure now includes the Church, the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, the Oratory of Saint Francis, two guesthouses to welcome visitors and some characteristic bridges.

  • Cell of San Francesco. It is located at the highest part of the Hermitage and is basically the origin of everything. Needless to say, it is the most visited of all the convent... You just have to look at the entrance to understand why. Just think that there, among those walls, Saint Francis actually prayed and lived... It really gives you the shivers. The icon of the Virgin in front of which he used to pray is a copy, but this does not damage the charm of the place. Even seeing the humble room in which he slept will really make you think. How could he find so much fulfilment in that bare room, isolated from the rest of the world? It’s fascinating, isn’t it?
  • Ancient Oratory and Chapel of the Trinity. The ancient rectangular oratory was used in the past as a dormitory for friars. Upstairs there was a space used as a storage room but in 1988, when the main church was renovated, it was turned into a small chapel. Even today it is a place where people who come to the Cells can find some time to pray and recollect in tranquillity, whilst also having the opportunity to admire the fresco of the Santa Trinità.
  • The Church. It is a typical Franciscan church, bare inside and characterized by a simple structure with one central nave. It is dedicated to Sant'Antonio da Padova who spent time in one of the old cells. The saint is embodied by the statue contained in a niche to the right of the altar, while on the left there is the one of St. Francis. The wooden altar was built by Fra Remigio from Florence in 1695 to give greater emphasis to the palace of Giovanni Marracci. To the right of the facade of the Church you can also see the Chapel of San Felice da Cantalice which was commissioned by Maria Venuti nicknamed 'the Popess'. She also commissioned to Simone Piginoni the construction of the altarpiece that depicts San Felice.
  • The bridges. The bridges that connect the two riverbanks are perhaps the symbol itself of the St. Francis Hermitage in Cortona. Indeed, these two, together with the 'stone houses', give it the appearance of a nativity scene which even includes a small stream. The central bridge, called 'Barbierini', owes its name to an illustrious novice belonging to the famous Roman family who was also the brother of Pope Urban VIII. ‘Ponte del Granduca’, instead, was built in 1728 to replace an old bridge which was about to collapse. The new bridge was erected in just over two weeks and was dedicated to the Grand Duke, even though the funding came from the town of Cortona. The bridge at the top of the mountain is the one that had the most troubled life: first it was made of wood, then of iron, but it was still washed away by a river overflow. In 1979 it was finally built with a solid stone structure that adapts to the environment and for now also seems to be able to resist the force of the lively stream!
  • San Franceschino Oratory. You can see it just before entering inside the Sanctuary of Celle, Cortona, to the side of the entrance gate: it has a single nave and the canvases inside are quite recent. The Chapel was entrusted to the Capuchin friars in 1785 and was already the seat of the Company of St. Francis.

Although the convent is no longer the place where novices receive religious education, it is still inhabited by some friars who, like all Capuchins, follow a very strict rule. For this reason many of the buildings cannot be visited. At 'Le Celle' visiting times will almost always allow you to visit all parts that are open to the public: the hermitage is open daily from 9am to 7pm. You can walk among the houses, admire the panorama and follow the path that leads into the woods. You can also buy some 'souvenirs' in a shop which, true to the spirit of the place, does not even have a cashier. No, there are no automatic cashiers like in modern supermarkets! Here you simply take what interests you and leave the money in the box.

But the most beautiful memory you will treasure once you return from the Hermitage of Celle and Cortona will be something intangible, priceless and unique in its value: the peace and serenity you will have experienced, both whether you are religious or a non-believer. There is something mysterious, primordial and eternal about this place. It is good to think that this atmosphere, fortunately untouched for centuries, is the same that prompted St. Francis to choose it as the location for his hermitage. As one of the many wooden signposts hung along the walkways says, ‘fermati nel silenzio e davanti a Dio riscopri chi sei’ which, translated, means ‘stop in silence, and before God, rediscover who you really are.' Here lies the magic of the Hermitage of Le Celle, Italy: it offers us the chance to surround ourselves with silence and nature, letting us establish a deeper contact with ourselves. Whether it is to pray, to reflect or to think....