In the footsteps of st Benedict

Even though the history of Monasticism in the Western world goes back much further, starting from the 6th century it saw a remarkable resurgence thanks to St Benedict, whose ascetic life had a great influence on the shape and character of monastic communities. As the Benedictine Order started to flourish, monks no longer lived as hermits, but started forming communities where to work, pray and live together. This was the rule that governed the Benedictine monasteries and abbeys that arose throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and quickly became important centres of culture and education.

In 529 St Benedict founded Montecassino, where he lived until his death. Here he wrote his Regula Monachorum, whose motto Ora et Labora (pray and work) shaped monastic life for the centuries to come. In one of the most turbulent times in the history of Europe, which saw a clash of cultures between Romans and barbarians, monasteries became more and more involved in the spiritual, social, and economic growth of Europe.

This itinerary touches on some of the oldest Benedictine monasteries in the Emilia-Romagna region: Pomposa, Nonantola, Chiaravalle, San Pietro in Modena, Santa Maria della Neve in Torrechiara and the Abbey of Santa Maria del Monte in Cesena.

With its majestic bell tower dominating the Po Delta Park, the splendid Pomposa Abbey never fails to impress those who visit it as they travel along the Romea Way. Built during the Byzantine age (between the 6th and 7th centuries), it reached its maximum splendour around 1000, becoming one of the most important Benedectine monasteries in Italy. It was, at one time, home to Peter Damian and even Dante Alighieri during his exile.

The second stop is Nonantola Abbey, which was founded in the 8th century by Lombard Duke Aistulf and soon became one of the great pilgrimage destinations of the Middle Ages. Popes and emperors would meet in this abbey, which also housed one of the largest libraries of the Middle Ages, with official documents and scrolls that belonged to Charlemagne, Matilda of Tuscany, and Frederick I. The abbey is also the starting point of two pilgrimage routes: the Romea Nonantolana Way and the Romea Strata Longobarda Way.

The third stop is Chiaravalle Abbey, a true gem of medieval art. Built in 1136 by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the Abbey acquired its final form over the following two centuries. The 14th-century cloister still retains its original Romanesque-Gothic features and is definitely worth a visit. Being situated on the Francigena Way, the Abbey still hosts pilgrims, who can enjoy recently renovated facilities with a kitchen and several beds.

The fourth stop is the Monastery and Church of San Pietro in Modena, which still houses a community of Benedictine monks. Founded over a thousand years ago, it underwent extensive reconstruction works between the late 15th and early 16th century. Today it is one of the most important religious buildings in Modena. Besides being an impressive example of Renaissance architecture, the church houses a magnificent cycle of frescoes and one of the most important church organs in Italy. Dating back to 1524, it was made in the workshop of Giovanni Battista Facchetti and renovated by Ruffatti, a company based in Padua.

The fifth stop is the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria ad Nives in Torrechiara, a secluded haven of tranquillity. Surrounded by the rolling green hills of Parma, this 15th-century monastery is a masterpiece of the Emilian Renaissance and boasts a breath-taking view on the Parma stream.

The journey ends with the Abbey of Santa Maria del Monte in Cesena. Founded around 1000, it survived raids, invasions, sieges, earthquakes and bombings, and today it still retains its original splendour. Besides housing an incredible collection of votive offerings (ex-votos), the Abbey is also renowned for its prestigious workshop specialising in the restoration of ancient books and for the herbal products that the monks still make according to tradition and ancient recipes.