Key to Umbria: Gubbio

Eremo di Fonte Avellana (late 10th century)

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In his “Vite de’ Santi e Beati dell’ Umbria” (1647-61), Ludovico Jacobili writes that the Blessed Ludolf Pamphili founded the first hermitage at Fonte Avellana, which was dedicated to St Andrew, in ca. 1000.  The monks followed the Benedictine Rule and adopted constitutions similar to those that St Romuald devised for what became the eremetical  Camaldolesian Order.  He served reluctantly as Bishop of Gubbio in 1009-12 and died in 1046 at the age of 91.

Jacobili also records that St Forte Gabrielli , who belonged to the Gabrielli family of Gubbio, joined the new community after he had spent a period living as a hermit in the mountains near Scheggia.  He led a life of outstanding sanctity there until his death in 1040, and was then buried in the Duomo.  (His cult was approved for Gubbio in 1756 and his relics still survive in the Duomo, under the 6th altar on the left).

Although no documentary evidence survives for this early history, the hermitage was documented in 1003, when Pope Sylvester II took it under papal protection.  St Peter Damian joined the community in 1034 and became its prior from ca. 1043.  He was created Cardinal Bishop of Ostia and administrator of the diocese of Gubbio in 1057, and retained his association with Fonte Avellana until his death (see below).

According to a late tradition, the widow Rozia Gabrielli and her sons Peter, John and Rudolf (see the page on saints claimed by the Gabrielli family) donated lands in Camporeggiano to St Peter Damian  for a new monastery, which was dedicated as San Bartolomeo.   Peter and Rudolf joined the community at Fonte Avellana, while John became prior of San Bartolomeo.  (While two brothers Rudolf and Peter were documented at Fonte Avellana at this time, their membership of the Gabrielli family is sometimes questioned).

  1. St Rudolf, the younger of the two brothers, seems to have been prior of Fonte Avellana in 1057, when St Peter Damian suggested to Pope Nicholas II that he should be appointed as Bishop of Gubbio, despite the fact that he was only 25 years old.  In 1058, he attended a synod in Rome at which this appointment was made, and  held this post his early death in ca. 1064.  In the previous year, he had arranged for Pope Alexander II to exempt San Bartlomeo from episcopal control. although he safeguarded its association with Fonte Avellana.

  2. St Peter Damian wrote to Pope Alexander II of his immense grief at hearing the news.  St Peter Damian wrote the “Vita Sancti Rodulphi Episcopi Eugubini” (BHL 2239), in which he elaborated on the account of the holy life of St Rudolf that he had given in his letter to Alexander II. He extolled St Rudolf’s devotion to prayer and penance and his profound theological knowledge.  He underlined that St Rudolf was a prime example of the maxim “quod in eremo didicit, in ecclesia non omisit”  (what is learned in the hermitage , do not forget in the church) and thus of the humility and spirituality required of a perfect bishop.  His relics, which were translated from the old to the new Duomo in 1188, were lost during the restoration of the Duomo in 1670.

  3. The Blessed Peter, the older of the two brothers, is documented as prior of Fonte Avellana in 1059.

St John of Lodi probably met St Peter Damian when the latter was in Milan in 1059 on a diplomatic mission for Pope Nicholas II dealing with problems of simony and clerical concubinage there.   Soon after, he joined the community at Fonte Avellana.  When St Peter Damian died in 1072, St John of Lodi wrote an account of his life and produced a collection of his biblical commentaries.

According to one of his letters, St Peter Damian spent a period of time (probably in ca. 1050) governing and reforming the Abbazia di San Salvatore di Monte Acuto.  St John of Lodi consecrated its church in 1105.  This suggests a close association between the two establishments at this time.

In 1076, Pope Gregory VII formally recognised the Congregazione Avellanita (Congregation of Fonte Avellana).

St John of Lodi served as Prior of Fonte Avellano in 1082-4 and again in 1100-1 and was Bishop of Gubbio for a few months before his death in 1105.  During this short period, St John of Lodi began the reform of the canonical community of San Mariano and persuaded the future St Ubaldus to rejoin this canonical community.  When a fire in 1126 destroyed much of Gubbio, including the Duomo and the Canonica, St Ubaldus fled toFonte Avellana, intent on dedicating himself to the monastic life.  He was however persuaded to return to Gubbio, and he became its bishop in 1129.

St Raynaldus of Nocera was a member of the community at Fonte Avellana for a period in ca. 1200. 

In 1260, Pope Alexander IV sent an apostolic visitor to Fonte Avellana as “inquisitore, correttore e riformatore”.  An outsider, the future St Albert of Montone, was appointed as prior, presumably to carry out the necessary reforms.  He became Prior General of the Congregation of Fonte Avellana in 1275.  He died here in 1294 and his relics are still revered in the church. 

Dante is believed to have stayed here in 1318, and he referred to it in the Divine Comedy.  Pope John XXII raised the hermitage to the status of an abbey in 1325. 

The decline of the community began in 1393 when the abbey was given in commendam to Cardinal Bartolomeo Mediavacca

The Venetian Paolo Giustiniani failed in his efforts to bring Fonte Avellana into the reformed Camaldolesian congregation (later the Hermits of Montecorona) that he had formed in 1524. 

In 1568, Cardinal Giulio della Rovere (the future Pope Julius II), the abbot in commendam, urged Pope Pius V to send an apostolic visitor to investigate the situation at the hermitage.  Giambattista Barba, the general of the Camaldolesian Order was duly sent in 1569.  His report must have been highly critical: the Congregation of Fonte Avellana was suppressed and the hermitage were transferred to the Camaldolesian Order, to which it still belongs. 

Possessions of the hermitage included:

  1. the Abbazia di San Bartolomeo (see above);

  2. the Abbazia di Santa Maria di Sitria;

  3. the Abbazia di Sant’ Emiliano in Congiuntoli (in the 12th century);

  4. Santa Maria di Tadino (documented as a possession in 1139);

  5. the church of San Fabiano, Trevi (from the 12th until the 16th century);

  6. the church of Santa Croce del Mercato in Gubbio and its adjacent hospice and palace, (from 1256 until 1598);

  7. Sant’ Egidio, Città di Castello, in the 13th century; and

  8. the following churches in Perugia:

  9. San Martino del Verzaro (whose ownership was held jointly by the Duomo there and the Abbazia di San Michele Arcangelo, Chiaserna, which in turn belonged to the Eremo di Fonte Avellana.  This situation existed from the 12th century until 1257);

  10. San Matteo in Campo d' Orto (from at least 1218 until 1256, when it was transferred to the Franciscans of San Francesco al Prato after fierce resistance); and

  11. the church of Santa Maria Maddalena  (in the period 1345-1404).

When Pope Gregory XVI suppressed the Olivetan Congregation in 1831, the Abbazia di San Pietro in Gubbio passed to Fonte Avellana.  San Bartolomeo.

Architecture and Art

The large monastic complex remains in something like its original form, protected by its isolation from the fate of many other religious houses of the period, and it has recently been beautifully restored. 

The extraordinary scriptorium (11th century) near the entrance, in which the monks used to copy and illuminate manuscripts, is one of the oldest and the best preserved of its kind.  It is in the form of a large room with two rows of windows that are ingeniously arranged to allow the maximum amount of light into the room throughout the day.  Only the upper tier of windows is actually original.  The hermitage also houses the Dante Alighieri Library, which contains a collection of rare books and manuscripts. 

St Peter Damian built the cloister (1053) at the centre of the complex.   This leads to the chapter house (12th century), which preserves traces of frescoes (14th – 17th centuries).  It also contains the Madonna Nera di Czestochowa, a Polish icon that Pope John Paul II presented in 1982 to commemorate 1,000 years of the history of the hermitage. 

A door in the chapter house leads to the crypt (10th–11th centuries), which was part of the first church on the site.  It has three apses supported by fine Romanesque arches and preserves the original altar in the central apse. 

Stairs lead to the church (1171-97) above, which was extended in the 13th century.  The future Pope Julius II, who was Abbot in Commendam of Fonte Avellana, built the campanile (1482).

The church is in the form of a Latin cross.   A wide flight of steps leads from the barrel-vaulted nave to a raised presbytery, which was rebuilt in 1854.  The Cappella del Sacramento (1972-5) in the right transept was built to commemorate the death of St Peter Damian some 900 years before.  The Cappella della Croce [in the left transept??] is named for a Byzantine reliquary (12th century) that contains a fragment of the True Cross.  The baroque altar on the left of the nave preserves the relics of St Albertino (died 1294), who was Prior of Fonte Avellana.   The altar opposite contains the relics of St Victoria, which were brought here from the Catacomb di  Priscilla in Rome.  The Pamphili family commissioned the altarpiece (18th century), which shows their ancestor Lodolfo before the Madonna and Child.