The abbey built by “my” pope!

I spent several years researching Pope Celestine V, and wrote a novel in which he was a significant character. Don’t bother looking at Amazon–it remains unpublished.

Touring the abbey, September 2004

Touring the abbey, September 2004

One of the most exciting days during my research in Italy was visiting the Abbey of the Holy Spirit, which was founded by Pope Celestine in the late 1200s. At the time of our visit, nine years ago, the abbey was in the middle of an extensive renovation, and was closed to the public. However, with the help of an Italian friend, I was given a tour guided by the architect who had worked on the restoration from its beginning.

At that time, we picked our way through construction debris and materials, plastic draping, and electrical cords. The paintings on the walls were just emerging as a blanket of grime was removed.

But most meaningful to me was a visit to the crypt–probably the oldest section of the abbey, because much of the existing construction was done after a devastating earthquake in the early 1700s. Long strings of construction lights left shadowy corners in the crypt, and dust from the restoration work covered the floor. The architect pointed out a fresco picturing the future pope, Peter of Morrone, with a group of monks.

I noticed a large panel of concrete in the floor with an iron ring set into it. When I asked what it was, the architect and my friend placed an iron bar through the ring and lifted the panel to one side. We peered in, but the poor lighting revealed nothing. Then my husband aimed his camera down the hole, and the flash went off.

The ossuary of the Abbey of the Holy Spirit

The ossuary of the Abbey of the Holy Spirit

The resulting photo is my favorite of our travels, an image that awes me to this day. We were looking into the ossuary, the place where monks’ bones were laid to rest. Amidst the dust, the human bones are visible, bones of men who served God hundreds of years ago. The monastery was closed more than 200 years ago, so the remains we saw were from the 18th century and earlier.

Today, the restoration is done, and the results are beautiful! Here is a video tour, narrated in English, of the Abbey and a couple of other nearby sites.

Have you visited a monastery? Is there a particular one whose history intrigues you? Tell us about it in the comments!


Book Week: The Pope Who Quit by Jon M. Sweeney

PopeWhoQuitThose of you who know my interests in history won’t be surprised at all that I was eager to read a book about Pope Celestine V, elected in 1294. And with the recent resignation of Pope Benedict, Celestine’s abdication has been mentioned in news stories, editorials, and blogs around the world.

From the time I first heard of this book, a year or more before its 2012 publication, I felt an affinity with Sweeney. I spent years researching the events surrounding Celestine’s election and resignation, as I’m sure Sweeney did. And considering the wide-ranging sources and research on the subject, it’s not too surprising that we came to slightly different conclusions about some of the characters involved.

The book is essentially a biography of Peter of Morrone, who took the name Celestine as pope. Thorough, well-written, and not too densely academic, I enjoyed reading it very much–burning my Nook late into a few nights to finish it. Little is known about Celestine’s early life, and even up to middle age he was a man of obscurity, seeking a life of isolation. Sweeney presents this unusual life in a well-0rganized yet lively way.

My disappointments came with his presentation of corollary characters: namely, the succeeding pope, Boniface VIII, and the King most directly involved with Celestine, King Charles II of Naples. I admit, I have a bias against Boniface. (I am certainly not alone in this.)

My fists went up in the prologue when Sweeney describes Boniface (Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, prior to becoming pope) as Celestine’s “trusted adviser”. I suppose, technically, this is true. Celestine trusted his advice on various things, and depended on his help in carrying out his desire to resign. But in light of the subsequent betrayal–imprisoning Celestine for the rest of his life–the term “trusted adviser” stuck in my craw.

Then there is the negative portrayal of the king of Naples, Charles II. Here is a weak king, and a man at the mercy of the papacy. An earlier pope had established Charles’ father as “King of Naples” in exchange for fighting some of the papacy’s worldly battles, and his kingdom (which initially included the island of Sicily) was subject to the pope as overlord. Charles II himself spent years as a prisoner of war in those battles. While Sweeney presents Charles as manipulating Celestine, he omits entirely the fact that Charles’s three sons, including his heir, were prisoners in Aragon for the previous five years. Only the pope could confirm a treaty to free them, and by the time Celestine was elected, there had been a vacancy for more than two years in the papacy. The previous pope flatly refused to approve the treaty that both kings involved had agreed to. I view Charles as a man desperate to free his sons, and doing all he can to gain influence with the one man who can help him.

Yes, I know. I’ve slipped from book review to historical rant. As you can see, what happened in history is far from settled, even though the events are long past. The true motivations of those involved are rarely known with certainty, and always subject to nuances of interpretation.

The end notes are thorough and interesting, mentioning numerous of Sweeney’s sources. There is no bibliography or index, but that’s not unusual in a book presented for public rather than scholarly interest. I most appreciate Sweeney bringing Celestine into the public view, more than he has been in a while. And I suppose I should thank the former Pope, Benedict, for his recent resignation which revived the interest in Celestine even more.

The Pope Who Quit is a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in the thirteenth century, church history, or the medieval Kingdom of Sicily/Kingdom of Naples.

Off the beaten path: Discover Scontrone

The beautiful mountains of central Italy.

Italy has its share of tourist attractions, but don’t be fooled. Out in the countryside, in villages and hamlets, many unsung gems await discovery. Scontrone offered us such a discovery.

During one week of a two-month stay in Italy, my husband and I connected with my brother and his daughter in Abruzzo.

A trusting place–keys in the door!

And on one brilliant August day, we drove south from Sulmona in a loop that took us through Castel di Sangro, Scontrone, Barrea and a bit of the National Park of Abruzzo, then through Scanno and back to Sulmona.

Another reason to stop: to have a cool one.

We stopped at Scontrone to have a look around, attracted mainly because of its connection with Pope Celestine V, who lived there briefly in his early twenties, seeking a place of solitude, and found it in a cave. We did not find the cave, but wandered around the quiet (nearly deserted) village, taking photos, which I share with you today.

We admired the “public art”.

And along with these, I encourage you, when you visit Italy, to leave the line to get into the museum, the stiff neck from staring at grand ceilings, leave all that behind at least for a while, and get off the beaten path, practice your “Buon giorno” in a village piazza or bar, and enjoy what you find there.

A member of the welcoming committee.

A Castle Tour to Remember: Fumone

Ever arrive at a hotel or bed and breakfast and immediately regret making the reservation? We had a close call like that when trying to cram in lots of research into a short amount of time.

The research subject was Pope Celestine V—you’ve seen his name on this blog before. He resigned as pope in 1294, and was promptly taken prisoner by his successor, Pope Boniface VIII, to prevent Celestine’s friends from claiming that his resignation was coerced. (I don’t believe it was.) Boniface sent the former pope to the castle of Fumone, on a hilltop two hours north of Naples, where he died in 1296.

We phoned the day before our visit, and a man with a fine command of the English language assured us there were tours available in English, and even overnight accommodations. As our travel times were uncertain, we decided to play it loose and didn’t reserve a room.
Fumone’s hilltop fortress, between Rome and Naples.

Fumone is a spectacular sample of a medieval hilltop fortress, with parking outside the walls, and narrow twisting cobblestone streets.  We parked and walked through the gates in mid-afternoon, eager to find the castle inside the fortress, and begin our tour. We enjoyed wandering through the streets, but could not find the castle entrance, nor any real help finding it, because the
town was pretty deserted.

Darkness was falling by the time we knocked—and waited—at the castle door. It looked like no one was home, but after a few minutes a light came on, and a young man of Pakistani or maybe Indian origin opened the door. When we explained we wanted a tour in English, he reluctantly invited us to step into the entryway, then yelled up the stairs to an older man of similar origin, in a language we did not understand. They argued, apparently about who would be stuck showing us around, and the older man lost, so off we went with him. He turned lights off as we left the entry, and lights on as we came to each new room, so it seemed that whatever room we were in was the only lighted room in the castle. A little eerie.

As our guide began to describe…  ?? What was he saying? We came to realize he was speaking English, but with his thick south Asian accent, pretty much everything required two or three repetitions for us to understand. Our first stop was the chapel built adjacent to the “cell” where Pope Celestine spent his last months. The chapel was built at a later date, from the room which housed Celestine’s companions during his imprisonment. On the chapel wall hangs a shadowbox style reliquary containing relics of various saints and holy objects, and in true Roman Catholic style, it contains a relic of Celestine himself—a tooth.

Then, in dramatic tones our guide says there is another very sad story connected to the castle’s history, and it is difficult for some people. Are we sure we want to see it? Yes?  He leads us to another room with a portrait on the wall of a mother and child. This woman and her husband had only daughters, and prayed for a son. They were overjoyed when their prayer was answered, but their daughters knew very well that their brother would inherit all the family’s wealth. They poisoned their brother. But the mother, unable to part with her son, kept his body preserved (we are directed to look at a closed cabinet) so she could always be
near him. Inside the cupboard we are shown a glass case holding said child, and his little wardrobe of clothes and toys stored with him.

Then there is the virgin’s well…. I’m just going to let you read about that on the castle’s website here:

We no longer had any interest in lodging at the castle, even though lodging at castles is always an enthralling prospect for me. No, we completed the tour, made our way down the hill in the dark, and were glad to find a room at a dreary, cold hotel a few miles away.

Hermit Monk, Pope, Saint

The man who first drew my heart to the Italian south was a hermit monk. A pope. A saint, even. I read just a few paragraphs in an old Penguin Dictionary of Saints, and I was hooked.

The unlikeliness of his path through life intrigued me then, and still does today. A younger son of  a poor family, Peter found the religious life suited him. He felt the need to separate himself from the world, and spent several long periods living as a hermit in the remote mountains of Abruzzo.

He couldn’t stay alone, because people kept seeking him out for spiritual wisdom, healing, and prayer. Eventually he founded a monastic order, built several monasteries and churches, and became known as a man of spiritual power.

In his early eighties, he retired to a hermitage near Sulmona. Nothing prepared him for the turn his life took next.

In 1294, there had been no pope for two years. Rome was in chaos, and the continued to bicker but came no closer to agreement. Abbot Peter of Morrone wrote to his old friend Cardinal Latino Malabranca, urging a swift election to avoid the wrath of God.
Malabranca nominated Peter—to the shock of his fellow cardinals, who barely knew who Peter was.

The schemers did know that Peter was unschooled in papal politics, therefore someone who might be used for their own ends. And they knew he was quite old, and not likely to live long if he was elected. So they elected him.

The cardinals were meeting in Perugia at the time, and their next order of business was to notify Peter of his elevation to the papal throne. None of them wanted to make the arduous mountain journey, and the delay of several days gave another interested party
an unexpected opportunity.

King Charles of Naples had been waiting five years for papal approval of a treaty that would free three of his sons from imprisonment in Aragon. His spies in Perugia raced south to Melfi with the news, and Charles raced north to Sulmona, arriving before the cardinals’ delegation. Charles prevailed on the new pope to help him, and offered to host him in Naples.

Peter, who took the name Celestine V as his papal title, was pulled from all sides by men wanting favors, by powerful cardinals protecting their own interests, and by King Charles and others hoping to influence him.

The coronation of Pope Celestine V

He was crowned in L’Aquila in August of 1294, to the horror of the cardinals, who felt Rome was the proper place for the coronation. He spent months in Naples as a guest of the king, against the cardinals’ wishes again.

His spiritual wisdom could not make up for his political naivety, however, and by December of 1294 Peter knew he was making a mess of his job. All he wanted was to go back to his hermitage. But there was no provision for the resignation of a pope.

For that, he called on one of the cardinals for legal help: Benedict Gaetani, one of the brightest legal minds of the 13th century.
After years of enmity with King Charles, Gaetani allied with the king to ensure the resignation would be accepted—and that Gaetani himself would be the successor.

Then, Gaetani double-crossed them both, forcing Charles to bring the former pope to Gaetani as a prisoner before Gaetani would complete the political maneuvers necessary to free the king’s sons.

Peter spent the last two years of his life imprisoned in a castle in Fumone, one of the Gaetani family holdings, where he died in 1296. Dante consigned him to hell for the cowardice of his resignation, but others considered him a saint—and he was canonized with the name Saint Peter Celestine in 1313. He is even mentioned in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.

I walked the path to his hermitage near Sulmona, and visited the church in L’Aquila where his remains lie in a glass case. I am convinced he was a great spiritual leader, but the church of his day wanted a politician, which he certainly was not. I like to
think of him in his prime, surrounded by people who wanted to learn from him, and who saw him as an example of all the good in Christian life.