Saturday, April 9, 2016

Of Monks and Forests

The Casentino Forests and Camaldoli

Our jaunt to the Casentino was largely motivated by a practical question. How best to care for, safeguard, sustain and conserve the woodland at Le Ripe? The guardians of the Casentine Forests might have some answers. We had also heard that the forests are well worth a visit.

The Casentine Forests, a national park covering 36,800 hectares, are renowned for their extension, beauty and age - and for enjoying, for at least eight centuries, the guardianship of various communities of monks. Saint Francis of Assisi chose La Verna as a place of prayer in 1224 and two centuries earlier, in 1012, the Benedictine Saint Romuald, who spent most of his life founding hermitages all over Italy, chose a south-facing hillside in the heart of beech and fir forests in the southern Casentino as one of his last works. 
Saint Romuald, detail from Fra Angelico's Crucifixion and Saints,St Mark's Florence, 1441-2
The territory, known as Campus Maldoli, after its landowner, became Camaldoli over time. Here Romualdo built five cells for hermits and, further down the hillside, founded a monastery to offer hospitality for travellers and those in search of spiritual peace. This double function persists today, with 8 monks leading their life of prayer and work in the hermitage and 22 monks taking care of hospitality and the more material aspects of life in the monastery below. There is a flourishing commercial aspect to the complex, which sells elegantly-packaged cosmetics, edibles and ceramics.

Antica Farmacia and its products recall the more famous one in Florence: but this is possibly older

The 'Casentino' denominates a broad valley in the province of Arezzo, east and north of Florence, through which the infant river Arno flows. The Casentino is separated from the upper Valdarno by the massif of Pratomagno. Soci, Stia, Poppi and Bibbiena lie in the valley and are still famous for their centuries-old production of panno feltrato or felted wool cloth  which was first created for the Camaldolese monks. But behind and above these towns rise the forested hills and mountains we had come to visit. The best is almost invariably in the hills.

traditional bright colours of today's Casentino felted wool cloth with its characteristic pre-pilled look (which apparently adds to its impermeability)
Our first stop was Badia Prataglia, a township in the southernmost part of the national park. The park is so vast, we decided to focus on a town with a visitor centre open on a Sunday which also sounded appealing for its beech wood, tree museum and arboretum. This last, founded by Benedictine monks but developed by a 19th century forest manager, the Czech Karl Siemon, turned out to be a disappointment: the trees, rather venerable and handsome no doubt, were almost all infested with ivy. And despite the Royal Horticultural Society's assurance that this is not a problem, (although it can indicate a tree in decline),  trees so swathed in ivy you cannot see their branches and crowns, are aesthetically troubling.

Arboretum Badia Prataglia
The tree museum we found (there is another tree museum in town which was sadly closed), on two freezing floors of the information office, is a pleasant space aimed at school children with all sorts of information, attractively presented, on trees, their wood, the inhabitants of the forest, and the crafts and work associated with wood, such as that of the carbonari or charcoal burners.

Visitors' Centre and Tree and Wood Crafts museum, open at these times
We had little time for Badia Prataglia, which was a shame as its austere abbey (founded before the year 1000 CE) looked interesting.

Our goal was the Sentiero Natura or Nature Trail in the nearby beech (Fagus sylvatica) and silver fir (Abies alba) forest. Both the silver fir and beech trees grow magnificently straight and tall in this forest. Even in early spring, when beech leaves are to be found only on the forest floor and few tiny unfurlings of green are discernible, the sight is breathtaking. No wonder the monks at nearby Camaldoli deliberately planted 4,000 silver fir each year around their settlement, with strict orders never to fell a tree without the permission of the entire monastic community.

These hills are awash with streams, waterfalls, torrents and rivers. The marl and sandstone bones of the hills have eroded into steps down which the water picturesquely flows. Although we did not see it, the Acquacheta waterfall, the tallest in the park at 80 metres, is famous for being described in Dante's Inferno:

Come quel fiume c'ha proprio cammino
prima dal Monte Viso 'nver' levante,
da la sinistra costa d'Apennino,
che si chiama Acquacheta suso, avante
che si divalli giù nel basso letto,
e a Forlì di quel nome è vacante,
rimbomba là sovra San Benedetto
de l'Alpe per cadere ad una scesa
ove dovea per mille esser recetto;
così, giù d'una ripa discoscesa,
trovammo risonar quell'acqua tinta,
sì che 'n poc'ora avria l'orecchia offesa. 
Inf. XVI 94-102

    And as the stream, which is the first that eastward
    from Monte Veso takes a separate course
    upon the left slope of the Apennines,
    and which above is Acquacheta called,
    before it flows into its lowly bed,
    and at Forlì is of that name deprived,
    booms loud, because of falling o’er a cliff
    above San Benedetto of the Alp,
    where for a thousand there should refuge be;
even thus, as o’er a precipice it fell,
    we found that coloured water roaring so,
    that very soon it would have hurt our ears.
trans.Courtney Langdon
a small waterfall along the Nature Trail: the rock is remarkably smooth
beech roots: there is a metaphor lurking here
medieval stone bridge over the river in the beech wood; since ancient times these hills were traversed by man-worn paths and from the Middle Ages the forest was one route for pilgrims to Rome
many trees sport mossy socks in this forest
the singular beech forest near Badia Prataglia
rocks which go back 30 million years
For the Camaldolese monks their trees, aside from their usefulness, possessed intrinsic spiritual significance. You will be a silver fir in the heights of your contemplation...the monk, cultivating the fir helps himself grow in the love of God, to reach out to God, in the splendour of the green cathedral of Camaldoli. Paraphrased from Rules of Hermit Life, Beato Giustiniani, 1520. It is not difficult to appreciate that the monks considered the forest an open-air cathedral.

The hermitage is situated at 1000m above sea level and the monastery is 200m below; the former enjoys a more open view of hills and woods, and inevitably greater seclusion, surrounded as it is by these marvellous woods.

the small chapel inside the monastery at Camaldoli: all the functional areas are partially underground while the monks' cells are on the upper floors

the monastery cloister
Antica Farmacia museum, Camaldoli, full of interesting equipment for the processing and storage of treatments

inside the hermitage which lies above the monastery
Each cell has its own garden, living area, bedroom, study and tiny chapel constructed like a snail's shell with the study-bedroom at its heart: the design with its timber-lined walls and ceilings was intended to protect the monks from the cold. These cells are out of bounds but the one associated with Romuald can be visited.
1. corridor 2. storage room 3. bathroom 4. interior of cell 5. bed 6. study 7. woodstore 8. chapel: the entire structure occupies about 60sqm and in front of each cell is a garden of about the same size
outside Saint Romuald's cell: the serving hatch. Although he founded the order Romuald spent only two years at Camaldoli
Romuald's Brief Rule for Camaldolese monks contains the exhortation: Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother brings him. 
No better place to do that.

the bed niche

So the Neapolitan rococo church comes as a shock. The prior who commissioned it in the late 17th century apparently came from the Neapolitan Camaldolese branch - and left his mark. In a side chapel is a della Robbia glazed pottery Virgin and Saints (late 15th century).  Surprisingly not a few of the hermits who resided at Camaldoli were or became religious figures of note.

culture clash: this neapolitan baroque-rococo interior to the hermitage's church, commissioned by a prior from Naples is, to say the least, a contrast with the austerity and simplicity of the rest
Despite all this interesting background what really caught our attention was the monks' role as custodians of the forest. For nigh on 800 years they cultivated the surrounding woods, altering the environment to their needs and vocation. Yet once the forests were handed over to the Italian State and the various institutions which now oversee them, the monks' work was undermined. 
aerial view of the hermitage and its cloak of silver fir

A forest 'monoculture' of silver fir is sustainable only if closely monitored and controlled. The monks' continual replanting meant that their forest cathedral regenerated over time - and indeed thrived for centuries. Nowadays that beautiful, monumental forest is in danger of decay: without the regular replanting it will simply die, for the conifers create a carpet of needles that thwarts spontaneous new growth. And no one is replanting.

a monoculture forest like this at Camaldoli needs renovation and maintenance

On the other hand, this monumental forest is in no way a natural forest. It resembles a plantation, and despite the monks' spiritual link with their creation, in the past it was economically important too. Now that function has vanished, the forest's existence is at risk.

Sasso Fratino mountain and its Natural Reserve
Yet perhaps there is no need to despair. The Casentine Forests host, at their heart, another forest of even greater significance. The Integral Natural Reserve of Sasso Fratino is pure wilderness. Composed mostly of steep mountainsides where man has rarely set foot (the charcoal burners were the only ones to venture this far, but their product has been superseded by other fuels), they were founded as Italy's first true wilderness in 1959 and haven't looked back since; indeed they have been augmented.

Eco-museum of the Charcoal Burners at Cetica in the Casentino, where an old craft has become a museum piece
Although not virgin forest it is the most natural area in the entire park and as such is closed to the general public; only researchers can obtain permission to visit. Beech trees dominate the heights of the reserve and in the lower reaches mingle with holly, yew (Taxus baccata) and other broad-leaved trees. Left to itself, the forest hosts a multiplicity of flora and fauna and lives and regenerates in the most natural way possible. And with luck more and more land might be assigned to the reserve which together with others in the Casentino today totals 924 hectares.

dead, standing trees can house birds and climbing animals; fallen trunks are home to other animals, insects, fungi and create clearings which let in more light to regenerate diversity

For while we were in the monoculture cathedral-forest of silver fir and beech we heard no birds singing.

a coal tit photographed by Massimiliano Masci at 1600m on Mount Falterona in the Casentine Forests
So, after further research and study we have come to a partial conclusion: at Le Ripe we either let the woods around us 'return to nature', to create their own self-regenerating bio-system over time, or we intervene, cutting and clearing and using the wood but managing the forest. Which would you choose?

An excellent guidebook which covers all aspects of the park, from history to environmental issues to its topography and man's intervention, available at the Badia Prataglia Visitor Centre but doubtless to be found throughout the area, is The National Park of the Casentine Forests - where the trees touch the sky, Giunti 2003.

For dates, times and other information consult:
Parco Nazionale Foreste Casentinesi  

We shall be returning to the forests -
there is so much left to see and understand.
More anon.

1 comment:

  1. Crisply and lovingly written, and at times breathtakingly illustrated, this post is a particular delight for anyone who cherishes trees and rough country: a genuine tour de force.


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