13th Century Augustinian Monasteries

Text by Fr. Brian Lowery, OSA, Ph.D

The Order of St. Augustine had its beginnings in the heart of Tuscany . Here, in the area around Siena, Pisa, and Lucca, sixty-one eremetical settlements, some following the Rule of St. Augustine and others not, were brought together by Pope Innocent IV in 1244 to compose the Hermits of the Order of St. Augustine. Twelve years later this Order was enlarged and further defined as a Mendicant order of friars, the Order of Hermits of St. Augustine, by Pope Alexander IV in the famous “Grand Union” of 1256. It is right here that our longest tradition lies and our roots can still be found.

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Eremo di Santa Lucia at Rosia

A few miles from Siena, along the road leading southwest towards the coast, one’s attention is suddenly taken up by an ancient, single-arched, bridge. This where one’s visit to the eremo (hermitage) of Santa Lucia begins. It is called the “Ponte della Pia” because it was over this bridge that the noble lady, Pia de’ Tolmei, as written in Dante’s Puratoria (Canto V, 133-136), passed on her way to banishment from Siena and eventual murder by her cruel husband, Nello Pannocchieschi.

Crossing the bridge over the Rosia River and following the visible remnants of an ancient, perhaps even Roman, road, you make your way through the woods to the ruins of the oldest Augustinian site. During medieval times this road was a westward spur off the via Francegena from Siena to Grosseto. This was the pilgrim route from Cantebury to the shrines of Rome and further down the Appian Way to the port of Brindisi and on to the Holy Land.

The eremo (Italian for hermitage) was situated a short distance from the road but close enough to be visited by wayfarers. Its site cut into the slope of the hill and was leveled by the use of retaining walls, before and behind the house. The complex consisted of a church, the hermits’ dwelling, outbuildings for storage and work, a cloister with a slanted roof on two sides, and a conduit for bringing in fresh water.

Eremo de Sanata LuciaSanta Lucia was one of the early settlements that went to form the Augustinian Order in 1244. It was started by a hermit named Bonacorso somewhere around the year 1170, but seems to have been inhabited centuries before that. There is evidence of another church beneath the present one. Tombs have been found that date from the tenth century, and walls underneath the house that indicate ninth century origins. We know that Bonacorso attracted a number of followers who came and built their huts around his and constructed a small church. A community was already flourishing by 1200 when it is mentioned in written documents. As in the case of other Augustinian sites such as Lucceto and Centumcelle, Rosia made a claim to a visit from St. Augustine during the year before his return to Africa. What is for sure is that its Augustinian nature is attested to by the acts of the General Chapter of 1250, when its prior, Dominic, was elected as Econome General of the Order. In all likelihood the community adopted the Rule of St. Augustine in 1244 at the moment of the unification of the hermitages of Tuscanay. The church was consecrated in the year 1267. There is a plaque in the Communal Library of Siena which attests to its completion by the architect, Magister Martinus.

By 1575 the eremo had been reduced to a farmhouse for the community of Sant’Agostino in Siena. In 1638 only two friars were left.That is just about the last we hear of Santa Lucia. All that is found of the hermitage today is ruins. The church still shows an elegant simplicity in its one standing wall. The house was greatly transformed during the years it was in private hands. Its most interesting pieces were taken away and placed in the home of the landowner. But three Gothic arches and a number of narrow windows with white stone lintels above them remain to give evidence of that it must have looked like.

In 1969 the site was excavated by Wayne State and Northern Kentucky Universities and the Tuscan American and Etruscan Foundations. At that time a coin from Henry II of Saxony, king of Pavia (1040) was found at the level of the primitive church. Ceramics from the tenth century were also founds. These are a testimony to the antiquity of eremetical presence.

Sants.Lucia.Church.Corner Santa.Lucia.Church.Wall

Eremo Di San Leonardo Al Lago

San Leandro ChurchAlthough San Leonardo al Lago is the oldest of all the Augustinian sites in the Tuscany area, it did not take on the Augustinian Rule until 1250. However as a place of prayer it can be dated back to the year 1112 by a document attesting to the donation of land by a certain Brunetto and his wife to a religious community there. The site is called San Leandro al Lago (by the lake) because it was situated on a hillside by the edge of Lake Verano. The lake was drained in the nineteenth century to halt the spread of malaria. However you can still see the outline of the lake amid the farmland surrounded by a circle of low hills.

The eremo was represented at the Order’s General Chapter of 1250 at Cascin, near Pisa. A year later it was joined to the nearby eremo of Lecceto. A new church was built in 1350 and decorated with frescos by Lippo Vanni in 1370. Frescos by Lippo Vani decorated the walls of the church. At one time there were forty-seven friars in the community. There were two cloisters, one of stone and other of wood. The friar’s cells were along the four sides of the main cloister, part of which can still be seen today.

Since it occupied a strategic location for reaching Siena without having to cross the whole lake, San Leandro Wallthe entire complex was fortified with strong walls and defense towers. The nearby dwellers could come inside for protection from bandits and marauding troops. The refectory (or possibly chapter hall) was once much longer. It is now dwarfed by a large crucifixion scene on its front wall. When the eremo was turned into a farmhouse, a loft was built to store hay and grain.  A blank streak accounts for the now missing storage loft.

San Leandro also has a special archeological interest. There are three levels to the church, each from different times in history. The most recent level is Gothic. Beneath that is a Romanesque oratory. Still further down is a cave which appears to have been squared off  a bit with seats carved in a semi-circle. Small holes are cut in the wall which could have been used for torches. All this suggests a place of worship. From 1975 to 1980 the Augustinian Provinces of Villanova and Chicago, in collaboration with the Augustinian Historical Institue of Villanova University, conducted excavations under the church and within the cloister to see if they could establish the history of monastic life here. They turned up outlines of the cloister and the fortified walls. In the middle of the cloister they discovered fragments of pottery from around the year 1000 and an ancient cistern used by the friars to conserve water. The cave, however, still remains a mystery. It was a wine cellar for over two hundred years and according to some never served any other purpose. For others, it has something yet to reveal.

Leandro GateDuring the rest of the years of its existence, the ermeno of San Leandro has seen ups and downs. It was eventually suppressed by the Grand Duke of Tuscany and passed into private hands. It now belongs to the Italian state, which has restored it. They supply a caretaker who lives in the old hermitage, and will open the gate every day from 9:30AM to 3:00PM except Mondays.

Eremo di Lecceto

Lecceto was one of those sixty-one original settlements. Not long after the Grand Union the eremo began to be revered as a holy place and a center of Augustinian contemplation. The earliest written evidence of a settlement comes from the year 1223. At that time the area was called “Lake Wood” (Selva di Lago) because of its forest and nearby Lake Verano.The community was not Augustinian at the beginning, but with the union of 1244 assumed the Rule of St. Augustine. In time its name changed as well and it became known as “Lecceto” on account of all the surrounding ilex (a class of oak) trees.

Lecceto made claims to very early Augustinian presence. A marble plaque in the first cloister states that Augustine himself passed by in the year 400. That, is impossible however as because by then he was already a bishop in Africa and never left the continent thereafter. Another approach to the question of Augustinian antiquity comes from through monks who who fled the invasion of the Vandals soon after Augustine’s death. It is asserted that many came to Italy and proceeded to found monastic settlements in Tuscany where they lived independently until the Church brought them all together in the thirteenth century.

Lecceto.30The real fame of Lecceto came later. There are stories and legends of friars of exceptional sanctity among theWell.of.St.Catherine brethren. In the sacristy of the Church there hangs a painting of the famous Blessed of Lecceto, thirty friars who received wide notoriety for the holiness of their lives and the profundity of their prayer. Friars from different parts of the Order sought out Lecceto in order to follow a more contemplative life.These friars came from different parts of Italy as well as France and England. The most famous was William Flete, an Englishman from Cambridge University at the time of Julian of Norwich. In 1359 when he was about to earn his bachelor of theology, he had a change of heart about how he was to live as an Augustinian. He came to Lecceto to give himself to to prayer and stayed the rest of his life. He became a master of the spiritual life, a guide to many persons and a personal confidant of St. Catherine of Siena. The inner cloister holds the “well of St. Catherine” where she rested after walking from Siena to Lecceto.

Lecceto.Chapel.DdoorIt was at Lecceto that the observant movement of the Augustinian Order was born. This movement consisted in a return to a more faithful following of the Rule of St. Augustine and the Constitutions of the Order when confusion and compromise had set in within religious life. The well-worn door step into the Church from the monastery speaks to many Augustinian friars, and later cloistered Augustian nuns, who entered the chapel to pray and to celebrate and attend Mass from the thirteenth Century to the present time.

Difficult times came at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. In 1782, Pietro Leoplodo, Grand Duke of Tuscany, suppressed the Congregation of Lecceto. In 1808 the government of Napoleon closed down the community itself and the sixteen friars had to leave the eremo. From then on the building fell into ruin, victim of vandalism and neglect.

OSA Monastry Sign San Lorenzo

In 1969 the bishop of Siena, a Dominican, decided that he wanted to bring back the Augustinian spirituality of Lecceto to his local Lecceto.NunsChurch. He began a project of restoration and invited the Augustinian contemplative nuns of Siena to transfer their community there. They came to live when the restoration work was only partially completed and gave themselves to prayer and hard work. The beginnings were very trying. But progress eventually came. Soon Lecceto was visited by a few persons who sought quiet and solitude in the midst of their busy lives. Little by little it began to know others.

In 1978, the first vocation arrived, and a year later another. Since then the numbers have grown constantly and the spiritual influence of this young community is now felt far beyond Lecetto. The woods, the church, the cloisters, the towers, the long history and the quiet make Lecceto a place of prayer and reflection with its modern community of Augustinian nuns that give it its life of contemplation.

Convento di Santé Agostino in San Gimignano

SGChurchThere was no original Augustinian hermitage in San Gimignano. In the year 1272 friars settled about five kilometers outside the city in the small village of Racciano. You can walk there in about forty minutes and still find the small stone house they lived in. However, it wasn’t a safe place. Bands of roving brigands and troops from the nearby Republic of Pisa were ready to pillage and plunder it at anytime. So, in the year 1280 the Augustinians made a formal request to the Podestà of San Gimignano to establish a convento within the city walls, which were then under construction. The permission was granted, the planned perimeter of the walls was broadened in its northern section, and the town council donated 20,000 bricks for the construction of the church. That was the beginning of a long history, as well as the start of a warm relationship with the people of San Gimignano.

In the center of the convento you can find the lovely cloister which unites the church and the house with its two floors of arches andSanGimignanoGarden walkways. The church and the east wing are from the end of the thirteenth century; the other two wings are from the fifteenth at the time of the Renaissance. The dimensions of the cloister and the relationship of squared and curved architectural elements are all designed to invite one to contemplation by their tension and harmony. The well in the middle represents Christ, the source of living water.

The layout of the building around the cloister reflects the Augustinian forma monasterii, or monastery plan, according to which all the Order’s houses were built to meet the daily needs of the friars. The main door of an Augustinian convento always opened onto the square where the townspeople were coming and going, selling and buying, the kids were playing (soccer today or some medieval game then) and the mothers were chatting. The conventual church would have its sacristy right off its main body. Next came the chapter hall where the brothers met to discuss communal and spiritual issues. This hall was always one of the most attractive parts of the house with its large Gothic windows, ribbed ceiling and wooden benches along the walls.

SGChapterHallIn 1805 the Augustinian community was suppressed by the government of Napoleon, the friars sent away, and the convento taken over. After 1860 it was turned into army barracks by the new state of Italy. Some of our neighbors still remember the file of Bersaglieri troops marching out every day to take up their posts in the prison up the hill. In 1927 it was returned to the Order and two friars, Fra Giuseppe Frediani and Padre Giuseppe Nannini, uncle and nephew, moved in, bringing back the Augustinians after 122 years.  However, the convento and church still belong to the Italian State.

During the bombardments of the town in July of 1944 (cf. Zeffirelli’s film Tea with Mussolini) about 200 people took refuge in the tunnels underneath the convento. Many remember those days well and tell their stories. At that time the western wing was occupied by the fascist version of the SS. Citizens were interrogated there and the townspeople were in constant fear of these “repubblichini”. But a friend told us that when they all had to share the tunnels during the raids the policemen were quite courteous, perhaps because they were just as scared as they were. It remained a police station until 1958. From 1948 to 1968 the convento was used as the novitiate for the Italian Augustinians. The people still talk about the “frattini bianchi”, the little friars in white (color of the novice’s habit) as they played soccer on the field below the house.

The convento now houses an Augustinian community and is a place of retreat used by Augustinians and Augustinian-sponsored groups from around the world.