A few minutes drive uphill from the Tuscan town of Sansepolcro, in the land inhabited by Piero della Francesca, the Hermitage of Montecasale preserves the memory of Saint Francis, just one of the stops along the Franciscan Trail that takes you through Tuscany and Umbria.
While not quite as famous as El Camino de Santiago, this trail that stretches from La Verna to Assisi is frequented by many pilgrims, including present-day Franciscan monks. Along the way the trail passes through the Province of Arezzo and the city of Sansepolcro. If you want to walk a small part of it, it’s only 45 minutes walk from Sansepolcro to Montecasale… all uphill of course.
In the late 12th century, the Spedale di S.Maria di Montecasale was built on the ruins of a feudal castle in this location, when local nobles were forced under the rule of Sansepolcro. The hospice was fiven to St. Francis in 1212, and the hermitage is still a working religious site inhabited by the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor. It’s not surprising to see monks gathered for prayer or individually meditating in this space.
The simple structure is not of particular artistic relevance – it might be considered an example of “poor architecture” – so what is interesting here is how the atmosphere is infused with Franciscan teaching (even if the Capuchins run it) and how in general the location inspires meditation. In fact, the monks offer low-cost hospitality to pilgrims or wary travelers, so if you need a break from the real world, this is an option.
In the main area of the hermitage there are pews and an altar behind which you can find depictions of St. Francis including a painting of him drinking the blood from Jesus’ wounds. Two cells to the side are marked with the names of Saint Bonaventure, General of the Franciscan order and St. Francis’ biographer, and Saint Antonio of Padova where they slept while at the sanctuary.
But what about St. Francis? What mark did he leave on Montecasale? The first answer is the tale of the three thieves. The story goes there were three thieves who lived in the surrounding woods of Montecasale. They would come to ask for food and wine but some of the friars thought it unwise to give alms to such mischievous people. When they asked St. Francis for advice he advised them to bring food and wine to the thieves in their forest encampment. With this act of generosity and kindness, he said, they would slowly win over the thieves and lead them back to the right path. Sure enough, with each passing day the thieves grew more and more devout. The thieves eventually changed their ways, one joining the order directly and the others repenting for their sins. When you leave the main chapel there is a small grotto just before the central courtyard. It holds tiny relics of St. Francis, flanked to the right by two skulls of the supposed thieves.
As you leave the courtyard towards the main terraces you’ll find St. Francis’ garden and his upside-down cabbage. Well, in reality the cabbages are no longer there, but it is said that here St. Francis tested the obedience of his followers by commanding them to plant cabbages with the roots pointed upwards. Some said that cabbage wouldn’t grow upside down so they clearly failed that test! Those who followed St. Francis’ directions were deemed fit to follow him and his teachings.
Winding down the path from the garden you are led to the terraces that give you an incredible view of the Tuscan countryside that Piero della Francesca called home. It’s this view, combined with the silence and tranquility of the site, that makes the trip worthwhile.
Montecasale is best reached by car as it sits above the city of Sansepolcro (the city itself doesn’t have a train station but has bus services that connect it to Arezzo’s station). Visiting hours are from 9:30 to 12:00 and from 15:30 to 18:00, and there also guided tours of the sanctuary.
For more information see www.accoglienzafrancescana.com
ArtTrav’s Christina Craver was a guest in Sansepolcro to attend the Palio della Balestra, a tourism project organized by Advertigo. The other bloggers on the trip were Sofie part of the Ciao Tutti team (in Dutch), Sphimm’s Trip (Italian), “Virgola” (Italian) and Francesca from Abruzzo who writes Italy Travel LAB.