When the torrid summer heat afflicts the city, everyone, even the most avid sea lovers like my husband and I, feels the “passion” for the mountains… and when this passion manifests itself as a decision to escape from the city at the last minute (sometimes we just can’t manage to organize everything in advance), our “trusted destination” is the Sacra di San Michele (aka Saint Michael’s Abbey), because it can be reached in less than an hour by car from Turin even without taking the freeway. Today I would like to propose to you a typical day escaping the summer heat at the Sacra di San Michele.
The beauty and charm of this monument, which in 1994 was chosen as the symbol of the Piedmont Region, are the result of, above all, its position. On the Cottian Alps, within the Rocciavré mountain range, the Sacra is located right at the top of Mount Pirchiriano (an elegant form of the word “Porcarianus” which means mountain of pigs), from where it dominates the Susa Valley and the via Francigena, the only passage that in ancient times allowed one to cross the Alps and pass from Piedmont to France and vice versa.
Mount Pirchiriano, considered strategic and thus exploited for this reason by the Romans, was later chosen as a hermit seat by a religious disciple of San Romualdo (Saint Romuald), Giovanni Vincenzo. Shortly thereafter, in 983, the construction of the current abbey began at the site of the hermitage at the behest of the French nobleman Hugh of Montboissier, Lord of Auvergne. Count Hugh had undertaken a pilgrimage to Rome to redeem himself for his questionable past and once there, he obtained an audience with the Pope to request an indulgence. The Pope allowed him to choose his own penance: a 7-year exile or the construction of an abbey.
In 987 the monastery was finished and became a place frequented by nobles on pilgrimage and in spiritual retreat. It was a place to withdraw to meditate, study or meet other people of a high cultural level. For this reason, even today, the Sacra di San Michele still retains all the charm and fascination of a place with such a unique history and experience. And it was for this reason that the Sacra di San Michele was one of the places (along with the Bobbio Abbey of Saint Columbanus and the Abbey of Saint Gall in Switzerland) from which Umberto Eco was inspired by for the setting of his very successful novel “The Name of the Rose”.
Curiously, however, this place, which under the management of the Benedictine monks for around three hundred years was an example of immeasurable hospitality, was unable to host the film crew that made the film adaptation of Eco’s famous novel and not even the employees of the more recent television series (of which the scenes were mostly shot in Cinecittà Studios and other historical but more accessible locations).
For those who love trekking, there are several routes to reach the Sacra di San Michele on foot while for those arriving by car like us, there is a convenient parking lot (for a fee) in Piazzale Croce Nera (Black Cross Square). From here begins a beautiful path through the middle of the greenery, paved but intended to be walked by foot, and after 10 minutes of ascent, you begin to see the imposing profile of the religious complex.
Arriving at the large space in front of the Sacra di San Michele you will notice the remains of an ancient temple: it is the Sepolcro di Monaci (The Monk’s Sepulchre). So-called because it was always thought that it was a cemetery chapel, but in reality, it is more likely that it was simply a reproduction (dating back to the 12th century) of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. From here the Sacra will appear to you in all its grandeur! And you will have the feeling of not knowing what to focus your attention on: the mighty and fascinating medieval structure or the spectacular panorama all around?
At the foot of the Sacra di San Michele, you will find the ticket office/gift shop from where the Padri Rosminiani (Rosminian Fathers) start their free guided tours. The congregation of the followers of Antonio Rosmini, founder of the Institute of Charity, has been managing the Abbey since 1836 when King Carlo Alberto of Savoy decided to restore this monument and give it back its ancient splendour, which had been lost over the years of abandonment. Thus he moved the entombed bodies of twenty-four members of the House of Savoy there from the Turin Cathedral in order to give it more importance.
To visit the Sacra di San Michele you will need strong, comfortable shoes. Since the building rests on a portion of the rock of Mount Pirchiriano, its structure is a continuous addition of staircases, one after another, to reach the heart of the monastery: the church. Thus, as a metaphor of the Christian life, the visit will seem like an arduous ascent, ramp after ramp, towards the light.
You start by climbing a flight of steps to get to the main facade of the complex and its official entrance. From here, the wonderful view over the whole valley will be the reason for your first stop to catch your breath (unless you are super fit!) and warm up your camera (or smartphone) with the first photos to put on your desktop background.
Turn towards the facade and you will see the statue of Archangel St. Michael (by sculptor Paul dë Doss-Moroder) placed here in 2005 and which gives a contemporary touch to the overall view. The remarkably high facade forewarns us with its solemnity, its geometric shapes, and the alternation of colours, that we are entering a sacred place of great importance and built with significant economic and artistic commitment.
From the gate, we approach the Scalone dei Morti (Stairway of the Dead), a staircase that consists of a double flight with steep steps and is therefore quite physically demanding. The name, contrary to what the visitors who accompanied me commented, is not due to the fact that you die of fatigue while climbing the steps (ahahahahah there are always those who have the right joke and keep the mood of the group high! ) but to the fact that skeletons were found in a niche on the wall.
Nothing mysterious or horror, simply, as was customary in ancient times, the burials of illustrious men always took place under the churches and here too abbots and worthy individuals were buried. There are still five tombs present (but there must have been many more) some with marble decorations and others painted.
The effort of scaling the Scalone dei Morti is well rewarded by the view at the top, of the Portale dello Zodiaco (Portal of the Zodiac), the most precious work of art in the whole complex. The Portale dello Zodiaco, which from the Scalone dei Morti leads outside, was sculpted in the years around 1124 and thus it represents the ancient Romanesque cycle of the Zodiac and constellations.
In fact, on the right pillar within circles of intertwined branches are inserted the twelve signs of the zodiac while on the left, sixteen constellations are represented. Meanwhile, on the right side of the frame is the signature of the master who carved this portion of the portal: Nicholaus. However, the Portale dello Zodiaco is not a homogeneous work, and so several interventions have been recognized over the years, among which are the works of the Master of Rivalta and Pietro da Lione.
After passing through the portal, your gaze will be drawn to the important nineteenth-century work of the buttresses positioned here to ensure the equilibrium of the abbey structure during the restoration commissioned by King Charles Albert of Savoy. And finally, we reach the entrance portal of the abbey church: a Romanesque portal splayed on the sides with successive Gothic columns that form the portico that protects the portal. The doors of the portal are from the 19th century: carved in walnut wood, they reproduce the weapons of St. Michael the Archangel as well as the devil with a human face and snake’s body.
The abbey church preserves the tombs of twenty-four members of the Savoy family and on its walls can be found a triptych by Defendente Ferrari and various frescoes, among which the fresco representing the legend of the foundation of the Sacra di San Michele is interesting for its contents. Opposite the entrance portal, there is on the left, the door that gives access to the terrace from where you can enjoy a spectacular view of the valley below. Below the terrace, you can see the remains of the great Monastero Nuovo (New Monastery), built between the 12th and 15th centuries, a period of greatest prosperity for the monastic complex, and as such was a grandiose five-storey building.
Going down and passing through these ruins you enter the remains of the Torre della Bell’Alda (Tower of Beautiful Alda), which overlooks the precipice of the mountain and which preserves its own mystery. According to the popular fantasy, the young and beautiful Alda went to the Sacra di San Michele to pray and was surprised by soldiers. In order to escape their attentions, and having no other way out, she invokes the help of St. Michael and the Virgin. Desperately, she throws herself from the top of this tower and is saved by her prayers and remains unharmed. Later she decides to challenge her fate again out of vanity, but this time she is not saved and dies.
After the visit, we indulge ourselves in a relaxed picnic (there is a table with benches just below the monastery) and enjoy the fresh mountain air and the unique view from here. After a coffee at the Bar & Ristoro, with its “rough” managers, we are ready to go down and visit the Lakes of Avigliana … but this we will talk about in the next post.
Sacra di San Michele
Address: Via alla Sacra, 14 – 10057 S. Ambrogio (TO), Italy
Contacts: Tel. +39.011.93.91.30