On a hill overlooking Rome in the Castelli Romani, 15 ageing monks are about to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the foundation of an unusual abbey.
It is the abbey of S. Nilo, which dominates the tiny village of Grottaferrata, three km downhill from Frascati and 20 km from Rome. The main road swishes by it, which is perhaps why few people have heard of it.
The abbey, built atop a Roman villa which some scholars think may have belonged to Cicero, looks as though it could be straight out of Umberto Ecos The Name of the Rose. It is protected within a Renaissance castle with thick cannon-proof walls, corner bastions, a serious-looking defence tower and a dried-up moat. It is a sprawling place, with five inner cloisters, two monastery blocks, the church, a lofty refectory and two libraries housing 50,000 volumes, the fiercely out-of-bounds older one guarding 1,000 ancient manuscripts, some dating back to the seventh century.
However, it could never be the setting for Ecos whodunit. For one thing, visitors roam around it daily, and there are popular guided tours at weekends. For another, its walls are plastered with inscriptions in Greek, and the monks chant in Greek. The abbey is unique in Italy: an Italian-Byzantine monastery following the Greek-Byzantine rite, yet its monks are Catholics.
We are the only Byzantine monastery in Italy to have remained faithful to Rome after the east-west schism, explained the archimandrite or abbot. In that consists our uniqueness, he said. The schism took place in 1054, tearing Christianity apart, splitting it up into opposing eastern (in Constantinople) and western (in Rome) camps. (See below.)
The abbot, Father Emiliano Fabbricatore, was born of Albanian parents in S. Sofia dEpiro, Calabria, one of the centuries-old Albanian enclaves in southern Italy, which meant he was steeped in the Byzantine tradition from birth. All his monks come from similar backgrounds, except one from the Ukraine. Calabria was also where the abbeys founder, S. Nilo came from, before fleeing northwards in 980 AD to escape Saracen invaders, eventually making it to Rome to establish his abbey 50 years before the schism and four years before his death.
Were all getting old, confessed the abbot, who arrived in Grottaferrata 48 years ago. Ive officiated at nine funerals in the past three years, he said sadly. Thats why we all hope that the publicity the millennium is bringing us will attract new, young vocations. After all, our very history embodies ecumenism. Thats what were all about up here. We preach it all the time. We hope that will act as a magnet.
How has the abbey survived so long? Were lucky. Recently it was declared a national monument, so were now state-owned. Were just the caretakers. But we get free board and lodging. We have an excellent coffee machine as well, he quipped. Do you want to try it?
What do the locals make of celebrations which include an ecumenical congress, and an exhibition of Russian icons? Theyre all trying to take part. Their affection for us dates from the last war when everything around here was bombed to bits. They took refuge in the abbey and we fed them. Look, Ill show you something.
We entered the great library. He pulled down two big manuscript volumes, each with an ugly lump of shrapnel lodged in it.
From an American bomb dropped in June 1944. They dropped 20 on us but that was the only one that went off. It was a miracle.
Gabriella Monti, a lively volunteer guide, bore him out as we paused on a long, panoramic terrace overlooking a luxuriant valley; all that is left of the Roman villa.
Yes, the monks are old. We dont want the abbey to fade away with them. The monks are ours, part of us. But what has the local council done about the problem? Nothing.
She pointed down to a prestigious classical high school run by the monks. They also manage a specialised laboratory for restoring ancient volumes, for example some of those that were damaged in the floods in Florence in the 1960s.
The abbeys ancient church has been largely remodeled in the baroque style, but as Monti demonstrated, it is still loudly eloquent on the differences between eastern and western rites. A 12th-century mosaic depicts the apostles on either side of an empty throne, which is reserved for God when he arrives on earth and heals all religious divisions. There is a venerated 11th-century Byzantine icon of the Madonna of Grottaferrata. However the surprise is a side-chapel with large frescoes of the life of S. Nilo by Domenichino, one of them with a Caravaggio-like touch showing the construction of the abbey, with a frustrated peasant yelling at his supine donkey.
The Eastern Catholic Church
The monastery of S. Nilo at Grottaferrata belongs to the Eastern Catholic Church. In 330 AD the capital of the Roman Empire moved from Rome to Constantinople and a struggle began between supporters of the bishops of the two cities. This ended in 1054 with the schism of the Catholic Church into the Orthodox Church, which would not accept the dominion of the pope, in the east, and the Roman Catholic Church in the west. There are, however, millions of Eastern Catholics, who do accept the authority of the pope while at the same time sharing many features with the Orthodox Church. Some of the traditions of the Eastern Church differ from those of the Roman Catholic Church; for example, babies are baptised, confirmed and given first communion all at the same service at a very early age.
There are several Eastern Catholic churches in Rome, including Greek and Italo-Albanian, as well as the best-known one, the Melkite church of S. Maria in Cosmedin (Bocca della Verit).
Guided tours: Saturday 16.00, Sunday 16.30.
Restaurants: The town of Grottaferrata abounds in porchetta stalls and places to eat, including Valerio, opposite the abbey, where you can eat well and warmly for 21 per person. Taverna dello Spuntino is considered one of the best rustic restaurants in the village but costs more, about 35 per person. Via Cicerone 22, tel 069459366.
Village fair: Grottaferratas fair is in its 404th edition, and this year over 200 stalls will set up along Viale S. Nilo 20-28 March. For information contact the Comune di Grottaferrata, tel. 069454011.
Picture: The ancient abbey is protected behind thick castle walls. Photo by Paul Rossi.