Key to Umbria: Assisi

Eremo delle Carceri (14th century)

Umbria:  Home   Cities    History    Art    Hagiography    Contact 


Assisi:  Home    History    Art    Saints    Walks    Monuments    Museums 

"Carceri" are literally "prisons", but in this context the word refers to a series of caves on Monte Subasio that were used by hermits.  Brother Sylvester, one of the early followers of St Francis lived in one of them in ca. 1210.  The monks of San Benedetto owned the land until ca. 1215, when they gave it to St Francis. 

The hermitage was among the four specified by Pope Clement VI in 1350, at the behest of  Brother Gentile of Spoleto, “to observe inviolate ... the Rule [of St Francis] in that purity and primal simplicity in which he wrote it”.  However, Pope Innocent VI revoked this concession in 1355, when Gentile da Spoleto was accused of heresy and imprisoned.

The spirit of austerity survived at the Carcere and its friars became associated with the reformed community that the Blessed Paoluccio de' Trinci established at San Bartolomeo di Brogliano in 1368.  Pope Gregory XI approved the way of life of eleven hermitages, including those at Brogliano and le Carcere, in 1373.  Much of its surviving fabric probably dates to this period. The friars of this movement became known as "the brethren of the family of the observance" or the "Zoccolanti" (because they wore wooden clogs). 

According to “ De conformitate” by Bartholomew of Pisa, the Blessed Valentine of Narni  died at the hermitage in 1378, and many miracles occurred at his tomb.  Brother Ludovico da Pietralunga, writing in ca. 1575, recorded that he was commemorated in an inscription near a tomb used for the early friars in the right transept of the lower church of San Francesco.   This inscription said that he had been a “phisicus”(natural philosopher) before he joined the Franciscan Order, but that he decided always to remain a layman (rather than to become ordained, as his education would have normally dictated).   The Cappella di San Valentino in the lower church of San Francesco received this dedication before 1388.  The Blessed Valentine of Narni is depicted in a fresco (ca. 1400, illustrated here) on the pier on the right between this chapel and the adjacent Cappella di Santa Maria Maddalena.

St Bernardino of Siena restored the convent in 1426.


The following structures are all in the “Santuario” near the entrance. 

Cappella di San Bernardino (15th century)

This church near the entrance was largely built under St Bernardino of Siena and was subsequently dedicated to him.  The altar has a fine relief (15th century) of the Pietà.

[There is a small stained glass window (14th century) on the counter-facade.]

Crucifixion (15th century)

This fresco above depicts the Crucifixion and the Virgin with St John the Evangelist and the kneeling St Francis at the foot of the Cross.

Cappellina di Santa Maria delle Carceri (1215)

This tiny chapel, which is reached from San Bernardino, was built into one of the grottoes soon after the Franciscans received the hermitage from San Benedetto.

Madonna and Child with St Francis  (15th century)

The fresco behind the altar, which was painted over another fresco (13th century) of the Crucifixion, is attributed to Tiberio d' Assisi.

Grotta San Francesco 

Although there is no evidence that St Francis ever stayed at the hermitage, tradition has it that he used the so-called Grotta San Francesco as a retreat.  This grotto is reached by the steep staircase on the right in San Bernardino.  The presumed grotto is divided into two rooms:

  1. One of them contains the niche in which St Francis is said to have slept. 

  1. The other is now a chapel.

St Francis Preaching to the Birds (15th century)

As you leave the complex on the lower level, look back at this fresco.  It has been heavily repainted and is very damaged. 

The inscription to the [left] interprets the scene as an allegory, in which the birds represent the friars: “Having received the blessing of St Francis, they divided into four groups and departed for the four corners of the world ...””.

Cappella di Santa Maria Maddalena (15th century)  

This chapel is above the others, on the right as you follow the sign to the exit.  [It contains the monument (1474) to the Blessed Barnaba Manassei da Terni, who founded the Monte di Pietà movement in Umbria in ca. 1462.  He had retired to the Eremo delle Carceri shortly before his death.]

Pietà (15th century)

The altarpiece in the chapel depicts the Pietà with the Virgin and St John the Evangelist.


When you have seen them, there are a number of signed paths on the mountainside that pass caves that are said to have been used by various early Franciscans.  The one illustrated here is said to have been used by Brother Leo.

Return to Monuments of Assisi.

Return to Walk I or the page Around Assisi.

Return to the home page on Assisi.