In the caves on the slope of Monte Subasio just outside the walls of Assisi, St. Francis (1181-1226) and his followers established their first home at the Eremo delle Carceri (Carceri Hermitage). He often returned here during his life to pray and contemplate. The word Carceri is from the Latin carceres and means "isolated places" (as well as "prisons").
History of Eremo delle Carceri
St. Francis first began coming to this beautiful place in the forest in 1205. At the time, the only building here was a tiny 12th-century oratory. Francis lived alone in a cave, where he prayed fervently and did penance. Soon other men followed him to the mountain, finding their own isolated caves nearby in which to pray.
When the friars gathered together for communal prayer, they would use the existing oratory, which became known as Santa Maria delle Carceri after the small "prisons" occupied by friars in the area.
The site and the oratory was probably given by the Benedictines to St. Francis in 1215, at the same time they gave him the Porziuncola in the valley below. Francis dedicated himself to a life of preaching and missions, but throughout his life he would frequently withdraw to the Carceri to pray.
In the centuries that followed, various buildings were added around St. Francis' cave and the original oratory, forming the sizeable complex that exists today. (The Eremo's website has useful drawings of the development here - '400 corresponds to 1400 and so on.) Today, the hermitage is still occupied by Franciscan friars.
What to See at Eremo delle Carceri
The peacefully isolated church and monastery on the densely wooded slopes retain the tranquil, contemplative air loved by St. Francis. In addition to the atmosphere, the Eremo is well worth visiting to for its medieval architecture and art and several sites associated with episodes in the life of the saint.
The self-guided tour through the site (with resident friars usually available to provide guided tours) is a wonderfully convoluted circuit that involves ducking through tiny medieval doorways and squeezing down narrow stone stairways.
An entrance gate and short tunnel leads into an open courtyard with magnificent views and a well that is said to have yielded water after a prayer of St. Francis. A round door marked Santuario at the end of the courtyard leads into a small 15th-century oratory built by St. Bernardine of Siena.
St. Bernardine also built a small friary, which includes a little choir with wood stalls of c.1400 and a simple refectory with the original tables from c.1400. These two interesting areas can only be visited if accompanied by a friar of the community.
After Bernardine's oratory, visitors pass the older (12th-century) and more rustic Cappella della Madonna, with an altarpiece fresco of the Virgin and Child. From here, a short but narrow stairway leads down to the Grotto of St. Francis, where the saint prayed and slept on a stone bed while on retreat toward the end of his life.
Squeezing through another doorway and rounding a corner, visitors emerge into a small porch. Just outside the door, look down for a quatrefoil-shaped hole in the smooth pink stone. This is the "Devil Hole," which looks into the not-very-deep crevasse into which St. Francis is said to have tossed a troublesome demon who tempted Brother Rufino. Many visitors throw coins into the hole.
The porch opens onto a walkway along the top of the buttressing wall that supports the convent. At the end of the walkway, look for a tree braced by iron crutches on the right - this is said to be the tree of St. Francis' birds.
From here, one can either turn left up some steep stairs to head towards the exit and the grottoes of St. Francis' followers, or continue right on a wide trail that leads to a peaceful wooded area with an outdoor chapel and occasional benches.
Just after turning right, there are some charming modern bronze statues of St. Francis and his followers. Francis lies on the ground, his hands behind his head and his sandals off, gazing at the sky, while two friars look hard at the constellations and record them on the ground.
The Eremo receives quite a few visitors, and the cramped quarters inside do not allow much pause for contemplation, but the crowds are far less than at the Basilica of St. Francis and a modern chapel near the entrance is set aside for prayer and quiet reflection.
The hermitage also makes a good starting point for longer walks in the woods. Monte Subasio is a protected regional park, and there are plenty of marked trails to follow. Maps are available in town.
With a car:There is parking near the Eremo, but there is still about a 10-minute walk through the woods to reach it.
Without a car: You can walk or take a taxi up the winding mountain road (paved) from Piazza Santa Chiara. We walked - it was beautiful but long and tiring! There are not many signs along the way and it feels like the middle of nowhere, but don't be discouraged - there is really only one road so it's difficult to get lost.
Quick Facts on Eremo delle Carceri
|Names:||Carceri Hermitage · Eremo delle Carceri|
|Categories:||monasteries; World Heritage Sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||43.063152° N, 12.651792° E|
|Address:||Via Santuario delle Carceri|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Eremo delle Carceri|
- Personal visit (April 25, 2008).
- Eremo delle Carceri - official website
- Costantino Troiano and Alfonso Pompei, trans. Benedict Fagone, Illustrated Guide of Assisi (Assisi: CEFA), 110.
- Frommer's Florence, Tuscany & Umbria, 5th Edition.
Map of Eremo delle Carceri, Assisi
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