Key to Umbria

Image  courtesy of Wikipedia

The abbey is at Farfa di Sabina, some 100 km south of Spoleto and 30 km south of Rome, beside the river Farfa, a tributary of the Tiber.


A privilege that Pope John VII granted to the abbey in 705 (see below) affirms that it had been founded by Laurence, formerly a bishop, of blessed memory, a pilgrim come to the  estate called Acutianus in the Sabina.   Acutianus refers to the nearby Monte Acuziano. 

The development of the hagiography of this figure, variously said to have been Bishop of Spoleto or the Sabina before relinquishing his office to live as a monk, is set out on the page on St Laurence the Illuminator.

The date of the original foundation is unclear, but archeological evidence suggests that it occurred in the 6th century.  The hagiographical tradition that has St Laurence as a Syrian who established a hermitage here is supported by the fact that traces of such a hermitage survive on the top of Monte Acuziano.   Whatever the precise nature of the first monastic settlement here, it was probably destroyed during the Lombard invasion of ca. 576.

First Restoration

Thomas of Maurienne, a monk from Savoy restored the abbey in ca. 705 with the help of Duke Faroald II of Spoleto.  The papal privilege noted above was issued at the request of Faroald II.  The privilege noted the patronage of Faroald II and the abbey’s independence of the diocese.  By the time that  Thomas of Maurienne died in 720, it had acquired substantial lands and other endowments.

The abbey’s principal patrons during the following decades continued to be the dukes of Spoleto and other members of the Lombard nobility. 

In 751, King Aistulf wrote to the Abbazia di Farfa confirming the donation of four properties in the duchy that Duke Lupis (his predecessor) had made.

Imperial Abbey

Duke Hildeprand of Spoleto submitted to the Emperor Charlemagne in 775.  Almost immediately, Charlemagne granted the abbey’s  first Imperial privilege: indeed, it became the first monastery in Italy to be declared independent of the local civic and episcopal authorities and thus on a par with the great monasteries of the Frankish kingdom. 

A lost document apparently recorded that Teodoro, an inhabitant of "Castri Urbb." (Orvieto), gave the oratory of Sant' Angelo there to the Abbazia di Farfa in 767.

In 781, Charlemagne formally transferred the Sabina from the Duchy of Spoleto to Pope Hadrian I.   However, he did not withdraw the abbey’s privileges; indeed, he confirmed them in 803. 

From this point, the abbots of Farfa were usually Franks, and most of them enjoyed close relations with the Imperial court at Aachen.  It also remained close to the Carolingian Dukes of Spoleto: indeed Duke Hildeprand was among the most generous of the donors who enriched the abbey in the following period.   Bishop  Adeodatus II of Spoleto is mentioned in  a number of documents that Duke Hildeprand issued in relation to the abbey.

A dispute over property between Duke Winigis of Spoleto and the Abbazia di Farfa culminated in a hearing at Norcia in 821 at which a representative of the Emperor Louis the Pious officiated.  Two Umbrian bishops attended: Bishop Sigualdus of Spoleto and Bishop Magione of Assisi.

The fabric of the abbey flourished under Abbot Sichardus (ca. 830-42):

  1. Pope Gregory IV translated the relics of St Alexander along Via Salaria to Farfa, probably in 830; and

  2. Sichardus built a church with a crypt for the relics of SS Valentine and Hilarius, which he had translated from the church of San Valentino outside Viterbo, which belonged to Farfa.  (The authenticity of the relics at Farfa was later contested: it was claimed that they remained in their original location in until 1303, when they were translated to the Duomo of Viterbo).

After the death of Abbot Sichardus in 842, the Emperor Lothar I entrusted the abbey to Bishop Peter II of Spoleto.  He persuaded Lothar I to confirm the election of Abbot Hildericus in 844.  Bishop Peter is also documented in connection with Farfa in 864 in support of its negotiations with the Emperor Louis II in connection with an estate at Massa Torana (near Rieti).

The Libellus Constructionis Farfensis (ca. 850-7), by an anonymous monk, charts the history of Farfa from its foundation until the death of Abbot Hildericus in 857.

The first recorded imperial visit to Farfa is that of the Emperor Louis II in 872, who visited it after his coronation in Rome.  He subsequently confirmed its Imperial privileges.

The Benedictine Rule was introduced during the last two decades of the 9th century.

Saracen Invasion

Abbot Marinus asked the Emperor Charles the Fat for military protection from the Saracens in 883.  He reconfirmed the abbey’s privileges, but no military assistance was forthcoming.

Abbot Peter (890-919) held out against Saracen raids in the period 890-7 before abandoning the abbey.  The Saracens established a fortress in the abbey, and it was subsequently destroyed when robbers set fire to it, probably by mistake. 

Some of the monks went to Rome and others to Rieti.  Abbot Peter and most of the monks settles first at the monastery of SS Giovanni e Ippolito near Fermo but soon found greater security by founding a fortified abbey at what is now Santa Vittoria in Matenano, some 40 km north of Ascoli Piceno (see below). 

Pope John X  and Duke Alberic I of Spoleto defeated the Saracens in 915 at Trebula Mutuesca near modern Monteleone Sabina some 20 km east of Farfa.  The Saracens fell back and John X and his allies defeated them decisively on the River Garigliano later that year.

Abbot Ratfredus managed to re-open the abbey at Farfa in ca. 933.  At about this time, the Bishop of Rieti seems to have tried to take ownership of the church of Santa Vittoria near Trebula Mutuesca, which was also claimed by Farfa.  Abbott Ratfredus therefore translated the relics of St Victoria from the church to the monastery in the Appenines, which thus became known as Santa Vittoria in Matenano.  Farfa subsequently acquired considerable territory in Ascoli and Macerata.

Abbott Ratfredus was poisoned in 936 by two monks, Campo and Hildebrand, who had moved to Rome.  Campo took over as abbot at Farfa while Hildebrand took over Santa Vittoria in Matenano.

Cluniac Reform

Duke Alberic II enlisted the help of Odo, Abbot of Cluny to reform the other important monasteries of Subiaco and Monte Cassino in 936-42, but he never managed to effect entry at Farfa, which had descended into decadence. 

King Hugh deposed Duke Sarlione of Spoleto in 943.  He might have given him the Abbazia di Farfa in comendam: an Abbot Sarlione is recorded here in 945.

In 947, a small group of monks who tried to introduce Cluniac reform were driven away.  In response, Alberic II stormed the monastery and used force to install a Cluniac, Dagibert of Cuma as abbot.  This first attempt at the reform of Farfa came to an end when Dagibert was poisoned in 953.


Under the Emperor Otto I, Farfa returned to Imperial protection in 967.

Abbot John III (966-997) re-established a semblance of order. 

In 996 Odilo of Cluny (994-1049) visited Italy to promote reform at Sant’ Apollinaire in Ravenna.  The Emperor  Otto III persuaded the future St Romuald to become Abbot of Sant’ Apollinaire (996-9).

Pope Benedict VIII (1012-24) used armed force to restore to the Abbazia di Farfa certain possessions that the Crescenti had stolen. 

Abbot Hugh (997- 1038), who took office at the age of only 25, got to grips with the reform at Farfa, supported by both Odilo and St Romuald.  His inauguration was inauspicious: he had paid Pope Gregory V for the appointment, so Otto III dismissed him.  However, at the request of the monks, Otto III relented and invested him as abbot.  He wrote the Destructio Monasterii Farfensis, an account of the decline of Farfa after the Saracen attack that was intended to set the scene for reform.

Farfa now prospered, acquiring property in the Abruzzi, Umbria and Marche, and began to resemble a small state with its own army that was used to protect its property from the local nobles, notably the Crescenzi family. 

The string of important visitors is impressive:

  1. Pope Silvester II, Otto III and Abbot Odilo stayed here in 999; and

  2. the Emperor Henry II visited in 1022.

Farfa was probably at the height of its powers and prosperity under Abbot Berardus I (1048-89), who enjoyed good relations with the Emperor Henry III, Pope Leo IX and, at least initially, with the Crescenzi family. 

In 1050, Henry III conceded some of its privileges of San Fortunato, Montefalco, an important parish church that was responsible for about 50 other churches, to the Abbazia di Farfa.

Pope Nicholas II visited twice, in 1059 and 1061, to  re-consecrate the cathedral and some of its altars.  After the second visit, he cemented the good relations between Farfa and the papacy by confirming its privileges.  All that was to change as Farfa became engulfed in the Investiture Crisis.

Investiture Crisis

Farfa inevitably became involved in the impending crisis over the Imperial prerogative within the Church.  In 1065, the young Emperor Henry IV reaffirmed that Farfa was solely responsible to him.  His mother, the Empress Agnes, visited Farfa in 1072 and gave it lavish gifts.  Meanwhile, Berardus’ efforts to maintain good relations with the papacy failed to the extent that Pope Gregory VII threatened him with excommunication in 1078.  In 1082, at the height of the crisis, Henry IV himself visited the abbey. 

By the time that Berardus I died in 1089, Farfa was dangerously isolated from the papacy and the local nobility.

In 1091, Henry IV imposed a new abbot, Berardus II (the nephew of his namesake) on the monks by force. 

The monks were riven by faction and it was fortunate that Berardus II died in 1099.  The new abbot, Berardus III was an able military leader who succeeded in recovering territory lost to the local nobility.  He also supported the campaign of the Emperor Henry V against Pope Paschal II.

Henry V imposed another abbot, Berardus IV, by force in 1121.  His opponent, Guido fled, taking with him much of the treasury of Farfa, to the protective embrace of Pope Callistus II

Gregory of Catino

Gregory of Catino, a monk who witnessed most of these upheavals, wrote several works that preserve the records of Farfa:

  1. the Regestum Farfense (1092-1100), a register of charters:

  2. the Liber Largitorius (from 1103), a land register; and

  3. the Chronicon Farfensis (1107-19).

He probably wrote the influential Orthodoxa defensio imperialis (Orthodox Defence of the Empire) in 1111, at the time of the (temporary) capitulation of Paschal II to Henry V.

He wrote the Liber Floriger (1130-2), after Farfa had passed to papal control (see below).   Some of these documents survive in the Vatican Library, but others have been lost.

Donations to Farfa during the Investiture Crisis

Three donations in Narni were made in this period:

  1. Bishop Rodolfo of Narni conceded the Abbazzia di San Cassiano to Farfa in 1091;

  2. a noble couple donated the church of “Sancta Maria in Pisile” (Santa Maria Impensole) to Farfa in 1100; and

  3. a certain Beraldo di Rolando gave a piece of land in Narni to Farfa, also in 1100.  (This was described as “maccla mortua quae vocatur Ferone” (the place of the dead woman known as Ferone), the ancient cult site dedicated to the Sabine goddess Feronia, which became the site of the Sorgente di Feronia).

The Abbazia di San Faustino (near modern Massa Martana) was subordinated to the Abbazia di Farfa in 1104, an arrangement that Henry V confirmed in 1118.  He also confirmed the transfer of the nearby monastery of Santa Maria in Pantano from Count Rapizzone to the Abbazia di Farfa in 1118.

Papal Control of Farfa

After the Concordat of Worms (1122), which settled the Investiture Crisis, Farfa became subject to the papacy.  

Guido emerged as its new abbot but he was soon forced to abdicate.  The monks were initially better served by his successor, Abbot Adenolfus (1125-44).  However, he was forced into exile in 1130, during the papal schism, when he sided with Pope Innocent II while Pope Anacletus II held Rome.  The end of Imperial protection and the absence of Adenolfus left Farfa’s lands open to attack.  By the time that the death of Anacletus II in 1138 ended the schism, Farfa was in a ruinous state.

In 1145, the Roman Commune drove the pope-elect from Rome and he was consecrated as Pope Eugene III at Farfa.  (The new pope is recorded as a monk at San Salvatore di Scandriglia, a possession of the Abbazia di Farfa, in 1140).

Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa

The over-riding objective of the Italian policy of Frederick I was to regain Imperial rights in Italy.  Thus he re-imposed Imperial taxes on Farfa in 1155.  After his coronation in Rome that year, he visited the abbey.  Thus, in 1159, Farfa backed the imperial candidate, Pope Victor IV, against Pope Alexander III: some sources say that his coronation was performed at Farfa.

Papal Control Regained

The Imperial hegemony at Farfa did not outlast the death of the Emperor Henry VI in 1197.  Pope Honorius III visited the abbey in 1219 and initiated a programme of administrative reform. 

Pope Urban IV subjected it to the direct jurisdiction of the papacy in 1261.  The great days of Farfa were over.


Pope Bonifacio IX transferred the abbey to his nephew Cardinal Francesco Carbone Tomacelli in 1400.  He introduced a group of German monks from the monastery tSubiaco to help reform the community.

The commendam passed to the Orsini family in 1420: they built the present church, which was consecrated in 1494.  They retained the rights until 1542, except for an interval in which they passed to the della Rovere family.

The abbey than passed to the Farnese family.  In 1567, under Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Farfa joined the Cassinese Congregation and the remaining German monks were expelled. 

Modern History

Farfa was sacked by French soldiers and then suppressed  in 1798.  It was suppressed again in 1861, when most of its remaining possessions were sold to private citizens. 

In 1920, Abbot (later Cardinal) Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster of San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome, organised the merger of his own abbey with that of Farfa.  In 1928, Farfa became a national monument.  It still houses a small Benedictine community.

Possessions of Farfa in Umbria

In 956, Abbot Hildebrand of Farfa sold a parcel of land adjoining Abbazia di San Marco, between the city wall and the property of "Sancta Maria Episcopii Spolitani".  This record is important because:

  1. it suggests that San Marco was already a dependency of Farfa at this time; and

  2. it constitutes the first record of a church dedicated to the Virgin on the site of the present Duomo of Spoleto.

San Benedetto al Monte Subasio, Assisi and the nearby San Benedetto di Satriano were both recorded as possessions of the Abbazia di Farfa in an undated document written at the time of the election of Berardus I (i.e. 1048): however, neither appears in lists of possessions of Farfa after 1084.

In 1088, Ubertino di Guittone gave the church of San Giacomo, Assisi (which he had built in as part of his penance for murder) to the Abbazia di Farfa, along with other lands that would provide an annuity for its upkeep, in return for absolution.  In 1255, the Abbot of Farfa gave the complex to the nuns of San Damiano, Assisi as part of a complex set of transactions that led to the construction of Santa Chiara, Assisi.

A noble couple donated the church of Santa Maria Impensole, Narni to the Abbazia di Farfa in 1100.  This might have been the earlier church (8th or 9th century) below the present structure,

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Abbazia di Farfa (6th century ?)

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