Camaldoli Monastery, in the Casentino forest

Saint Benedict, often referred to as the father of European monasticism, founded his monastery at Monte Cassino (in the region of Lazio) in the early sixth century. Monasteries are typically located outside of urban communities because, as the name of their inmates suggest, monks (derived from the adjective form of the Greek noun, monos, meaning alone or solitary) dedicate their time to work and prayer. Their motto is  prayer and work (ora et labora).

Benedictine motto above a door in the Monastery of San Miniato al Monte, Florence
In the eleventh century, many changes occurred within the traditional organisation of the Benedictines. Religious reformers within the monasteries, in different areas of Europe, began to react against the laxity of observance to the St Benedict’s rule, the decadence of those in higher positions and the lack of spiritual direction and devotion in the general ambiance of religious practices. The common link between these reformers was a desire to return to the austerity and simplicity of the early monastic period. These reformers branched off and created new monastic orders within the orthodox Benedictine hierarchy. In Citeaux, near Dijon there was the Cistercian order, Bruno of Cologne created the Carthusians in Chartreuse in France, and in Tuscany, two new orders were established; the Vallombrosans by the local Florentine, Giovanni Gualberto in Vallombrosa (about one hour from Florence), and Romuald created the Camaldolese order in Camaldoli (about 1.5 hours from Florence). This last order is celebrating their 1000th anniversary this year, a pretty big milestone indeed, one which deserves to be noted.Romuald, the founder of the Camaldolese order, was not from the Tuscan area, but from Ravenna (on the Adriatic coast, in the region of Emilia-Romagna). From a wealthy family, he became a monk at twenty years old after witnessing his father kill a man in a duel. From the onset of his religious path, he was particularly drawn to the austerity and solitude of spiritual life and spent much time living as a hermit. His spiritual devotion, severity and obedience came to become well known in religious communities. He spent years wandering both Spain and Italy, going from monastery to monastery in spiritual discovery, and began to establish new monastic communities and hermitages in various places with likeminded others who desired to return to a simpler more sincere religious life.
San Romualdo, painted for the church of San Romualdo, Ravenna by Guercino, 1641, showing an angel using the abbot’s baton to chastise an errant figure (Pinatoceca Comunale, Ravenna)
When in the area of Arezzo in Tuscany in 1012, he was given some land in the middle of a forest by a man who had had a vision of monks in white garments ascending to heaven. The land was known as Campus Maldoli, or Camaldoli, (when the two words are run together). He built a monastery and shortly after five cells for a hermitage for those monks who wished to completely abandon community life and live in the cloisters in the forest, the life that he most felt at ease with. Two years later this monastery became the mother-house of the Camaldolese Order, which followed the rule of St Benedict but highlighted and embraced certain aspects of the rule more than others.  His order was a combination of the various influences that he had been exposed to. The admonition in his rule Empty yourself completely and sit waiting illustrates the emphasis Romuald placed on interior passivity and intellectual stillness in meditation.
Monks’ cells in Camaldoli Hermitage in winter
The Benedictines typically wear a black robe, however there are a few exceptions, the Camaldolese being one as is another Tuscan order, the Olivetans, who wear a white robe. The monastery and the hermitage are considered to be the two parts of the lungs that make the order breathe and survive. The symbol of the order, two peacocks (symbol of immortality) balancing on the rim of a golden chalice drinking from the contents, can be interpretated as the two life bloods of the congregation, as well as a symbol of the life represented by the Eucharistic chalice.
The symbol of Camaldoli on the fountain in front of the monastery of Camaldoli from which the monks draw water every day ( the water is said to possess diuretic powers)
One thousand years later, the monastery and hermitage (there are about 18 monks currently living in the hermitage) are flourishing today, and organise very interesting spiritual debates, retreats, lectures series, and meets with religious men embracing various cultures. Located in the heart of the forest of the Casentino valley in the province of Arezzo, there couldn’t be a more suggestive place to discover, question and meditate. Both the hermitage and monastery churches are able to be visited. The hermitage is even further into the forest and higher up than the monastery, and it is not uncommon for the monks to have snow.
It’s a beautiful drive up to the monastery and hermitage through the Casentino forest
There is also a pharmacy in the monastery, open daily to the public, where you can buy products made by the Order. The monks began a hospital next to the monastery in 1046 to help the sick from the surrounding villages. They paid a salary to a doctor who lived in Poppi who would come to the monastery when needed. The pharmacy is where the monks made their herbal remedies and potions for the sick. The walnut wooden furniture dates to 1543. The hospital was in use until the Napoleonic suppressions on 1810. The pharmacy today sells fabulous soaps, creams and lip balm, shampoo, essences, and herbal drops amongst other products, in various scents and flavours.
My favourite hand cream from the pharmacy
Since the thirteenth century the Camaldolese monks also have tended a large plot of land out of the forest down in the flat of the valley. Today the area extends over 270 hectares, most of which is used for animal grazing. Nine of the hectares, however, are dedicated to vineyards, which are all cultivated organically. The fermentation and bottling all takes place at the farm called ‘La Mausolea’ on site run by the monks. The farm has been receiving more and more attention and acclaim in the past few years, the red and dessert wine can be bought directly from the La Mausolea.
La Mausolea farm
The Casentino valley is the best kept secret in Tuscany. When most other areas are have been written about, filmed and are generally busy in the summer season with international tourism, this zone is still pretty much for the locals, with day tripper Florentines fleeing the heat of the city for the cool and serenity of the valley. It is separated from Florence by a mountain pass and there is no direct train route. The Sita bus company services the area and the wonderfully beautiful journey from Florence takes two hours. Just after Pontassieve, the road to the Casentino valley goes through the extensive terrain owned by the Frescobaldi family, their vineyards of Nipozzano and Pomino. Then, climbing higher, the forest becomes dense, often with snow at the top, where there is the village called Consuma, named after the Consumi family who migrated there from Ferrara in the sixteenth century, and where some are still living today. Their family bar is a pit-stop for all who pass through here; the filled sciacciata (with artichokes or sausage, porcini mushrooms, potato), cakes and chocolates, are famous.

Poppi, jewel of the Casentino valley
After Consuma is the descent into the luscious green valley of the Casentino. Little villages are nestled in pockets scattered around. Poppi is a small medieval town perched on a hill at the bottom of the valley and its magnificent fortress palace of the Guidi counts, built in the mid-thirteenth century, now used as the town hall, rises above like a beacon to guide the traveller to safety. Camaldoli is close to Poppi, about ten kilometres distance, driving high up into the forest, and the hermitage a few kilometres higher again.