If you’re looking for a day trip out of Rome where you can find an oasis of peace immersed in spectacular natural beauty, yet rich with Italian history, art and culture then Subiaco is a perfect choice.
Subiaco is located about an hour and a half southeast of Rome in the upper Aniene Valley and is easily reachable by car or bus. The oldest part of the town is medieval with homes built around a huge impressive rocca, and full of small, winding streets. The lower part of Subiaco was built towards the end of the 18th century.
The economy of Subiaco is based on agriculture activities, primarily the cultivation of olives and grapes for wine making. There are also a number of artisans with woodworking and iron working shops. The area attracts a large tourist trade mainly due to the extraordinary monasteries located just above Subiaco. The two monasteries are dedicated to St. Scholastica and her twin brother St. Benedict.
Towards the end of the fifth century Benedict, a young man from Norcia in Umbria who was disillusioned with his studies, chose instead to live as a hermit in a cave (the Sacro Speco) in the upper Aniene Valley. This holy cave was the beginning of what would become an impressive Benedictine monastery.
During his three years living as a hermit St. Benedict’s reputation spread throughout the area. Local shepherds would lower food down to Benedict into the Sacro Speco. Eventually Benedict was invited to become the abbot of a local monastery in Vicovaro. It was at this time that Benedict developed and transcribed his ideas on how a true Christian should live. These ideas became known as the Rule of St. Benedict, and governed the way Benedictine monks should live their lives. In 529, after 20 years in Subiaco, St. Benedict moved on to head south towards Cassino where he established the renowned Monte Cassino monastery. St. Benedict died on March 21, 547.
St. Benedict lived his life in a number of spiritual locations, along with his sister Scholastica, and monasteries were established in each of these areas. For this reason Benedict was named the patron saint of Europe by Pope Paul the sixth in 1964.
St. Benedict’s monastery in Subiaco is embedded into the rocky mountainside of Mount Taleo, with a spectacular view of the Aniene Valley.
The monastery is composed of two churches, one above the other. There are also numerous small chapels that follow along the windy passageways of the rocky wall into which the monastery is embedded.
Supposedly during the time of St. Benedict there were thorns instead of roses in the garden and Benedict would punish himself with the thorns when he had unholy thoughts. When St. Francis of Assisi visited the monastery in 1223 he transformed the garden into a rose garden.
Among the numerous splendid frescoes that decorate the monastery walls is the oldest portrait in existence of Saint Francis of Assisi. His pilgrimage brought him to Subiaco in 1223. In this painting he’s portrayed without the halo that you see in future portraits, similar to the one to the left of the painting that the monk is holding up for comparison. St. Francis is holding a document with the words “Peace to this house”. The fresco portrait was painted by a local, unknown Subiaco painter. He signed the painting using the method of the day: a tiny self-portrait located in the bottom left corner of the painting.
The monastery was built up over many centuries and finally completed in 1243. Its bell tower dates back to 1053. The entire monastery is full of splendid medieval paintings and frescoes from the 13th and 14th centuries.
The most sacred part of the monastery is located in a chapel on the left side of the lower church, where the Sacro Speco is located. Here you’ll find a marble sculpture of St. Benedict, by Antonio Raji, a disciple of Bernini.
The statue was carved in white Carrara marble but one foot is gold. The gold metal covering was placed on the marble foot to protect it as over the years the constant touch of each pilgrim who passed by was wearing away the marble.
The St. Scholastica monastery is a two-mile walk downhill from St. Benedict’s monastery. As you descend the hill following a number of winding turns you’ll encounter interesting antiquities, including several chapels and the ruins of one of Nero’s villas. After you pass Nero’s villa you see the St. Scholastica monastery to your left. This is one of the 12 monasteries St. Benedict built for his disciples.
The oldest part of the St. Scholastica monastery is near the bell-tower and the elongated part of the building was added in the 17th century. The monastery also has a hostel and restaurant for pilgrims,
and three cloisters and the church.
This monastery is notable because it contains a library with originals of the very first books ever printed in Italy. The printing press was set up in the 1400’s by two German ecclesiastics. At the time many spiritual works were printed, along with a grammar book for children. After some years the printing press was moved to the Palazzo Massimo in Rome.
The St. Scholastica monastery is a mixture of different architectural styles: an 11th century Romanesque belltower, a 10th-century church that was redesigned in Gothic style in the 14th century. The inside of the church was completely renovated by Giacomo Quarenghi. The church interior has a stark and unusual look because of the unique style used to paint the frescoes. Normally one expects to see bright and colorful frescoes but, apart from the ceiling fresco, these are black and white and use what was known as a grissaio style.
The restaurant within the St. Scholastica complex prepares casareccio, country-style meals for visitors. Francesca, the delightful woman who works in the restaurant, bakes dozens upon dozens of delicious cakes and cookies daily which you’ll find for sale. She spends about fifteen hours a day baking and packaging these goodies. She also makes a variety of jams which you can also purchase.
Both monasteries are easily reachable by car and if you prefer to make a day trip using public transportation that’s possible too. Take the Rome metro line B to the Ponte Mammolo stop. From here you can get a bus to Piazza Falcone in Subiaco. Buses run all day long, (every 15 – 30 minutes depending on the time of day) beginning at 4:30 am until 8:30 pm. You can purchase a ticket at the Ponte Mammolo station (€4.30) or on board the bus (€7.00). It’s a good idea to purchase a round trip ticket at Ponte Mammolo so you don’t have to worry about it when you’re ready to leave Subiaco.
Getting to the monasteries is another story. To reach the upper monastery (St. Benedict) it’s about a 4 kilometer steep walk uphill that will take just under an hour. It’s a gorgeous walk but strenuous.
One option is to take a taxi up to the monasteries. Otherwise there are a few buses daily that leave from Piazza Falcone going up to the monasteries. This schedule was effective May 27, 2018 but be sure to verify the schedule online. The Cotral bus route is Subiaco-Vallepietra: Monday – Saturday: 6am, 10am, 2:15pm* and 6:30pm. Sundays 8:50am and 3:20pm. (*Saturday 2pm)
The return schedule from the monasteries to Piazza Falcone, Subiaco: Monday – Saturday: 7am, 11am, 3:15pm and 7:30pm. Sundays 9:40am and 4:10pm.
Would you like to read more about Saint Benedict? Check out this book
Or try this book for an in depth history of Subiaco.
One of my favorite gifts for friends and family are prints of places I’ve visited in Italy. This is a lovely print of Subiaco.