Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Finding St. Francis at Montecasale

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.

Frate Nicola explains Montecasale to us

Frate Nicola explains Montecasale to us

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.

 

Orto di Francesco

Orto di Francesco

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.

Practical info

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

Francis on the terrace

Francis on the terrace

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.

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By: Christina

Christina Craver grew up in Silver Spring, MD, where she lived a stone’s throw away from some of the country’s best (and free!) museums. She is, as the Hawaiians would say, “hapa,” and has garnered many confused looks, and some ridiculous guesses, about her background everywhere she goes, from Los Angeles to Riyadh. Christina completed her Masters in EU policy in Florence and, after a stint in the EU parliament, now resides in Trento, Italy. She works in marketing and communication and writes for the satirical blog More Europe! She enjoys watching formulaic t.v. food competition shows, being mediocre at many languages, and confounding people with who she is, where she comes from, and what she’s doing in their part of the world.

  • http://www.minorsights.com Minor Sights

    looks like a lovely place! I especially like the statue of Francis staring in the distance ;-)

  • Christina Craver

    It was very nice! The valley has some low-lying fog in the morning so it’s impressive to see it as it starts to burn off and you get to see the great view!

  • HuskyNerd

    Sansepolcro’s small train station is served by Umbria Mobilità trains which connect it to nearby Città di Castello as well as Perugia and Terni. At Perugia and Terni you can connect on TrenItalia to sites all over Italy.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Thanks! very useful