Tag: San Pietro

Sanctuary in a Time of Covid




By Francesco Bianchini



Someday I will write my memoirs and talk about the many houses – infested by mice, inhabited by bats, wet and neglected, sore in spirit and physique, mistreated, squeezed like lemons – and the part I’ve always had in taking charge of theirs needs, and to their appeals otherwise unheard. It’s clear that homes in good health and dazzling shape have not taken a hold on me, while those – perhaps of noble birth but fatally fallen – exert an irresistible appeal. In my vision, instead of filthy and lackluster floors, I see expanses of shiny tiles, scented with beeswax. I imagine surfaces that invite one to touch, not recoil from moldy and moth-eaten furniture; there are immaculate and well-stocked kitchens where now there is nothing but soot and grime. I am not so short-sighted to not recognize that life has served me magnificent opportunities, although some of them on the tin and dented platters.

In this spirit, as well as celebrating the end of lockdown and fleeing the shipwreck of our tourist season, Dan and I decided to return to San Pietro, the family property at the top of the Umbrian Apennines where I spent my summers as a child. Little was left of the abbey at the time of my great-grandfather’s purchase, nothing but a pile of stones on a spur of rock, but overlooking the entire middle Tiber valley from our mountains to those of Tuscany and Lazio. Sepia photos record the abbey in all its exotic antiquity, as in a Piranese engraving, its windows like the empty sockets of a mummified skull; stones crumbling and suffocated by weeds. In this condition, San Pietro survived for seven hundred years after a fire dispersed its last occupants, a small community of Cluniac monks. 

San Pietro, about twenty years after my great-grandfather’s 1904 purchase and complete renovation

I’ve actually kept dating San Pietro over the years, spending periods in solitude or testing the endurance of friends and companions. In every season the arrival there is followed by the same rituals: one pushes open the door of the former guardian’s cottage, swollen by humidity, and is hit by the smell of dry leaves, mold, and cold ashes. You go to the belvedere hunting for pine cones and kindling, and climb the slope, along the edge of the woods to collect fallen branches to light a good fire. Afterward, doors and windows of the abbey must be thrown open to air it out. The paved floor will be swept, the butts of wax candles replaced by dozens of new ones, and the fire will be stoked, water drawn to drink and cook, and – finally! – one can relax and contemplate the work done.

The new generation, me with friends and family, Ferragosto 1986

But after six years of absence, it was me for once who was severely tested. The first bad surprise came before our arrival. The generator was broken and needed to be replaced as soon as possible if we were to have running water in the house, hot water in the morning, a minimum to run the refrigerator, and recharge our computers and phones. The entry drive, five kilometers of dirt with no shoulders or guardrails, and full of exposed bends had been damaged in multiple places by bad weather in recent years. The three monumental beech trees on the crest of the mountain – planted at the time Magellan embarked on his circumnavigation of the globe – had been struck by lightning. The huge trees isolated on the grassy slope – iconic images whose branches spread almost as if to shake hands – appeared forever disfigured. When Dan and I opened the door of the cottage, which we approached cautiously because of the tall grass, we were overwhelmed by a sense of pervasive coldness and rot, the kind with an impenetrable crust. The fireplace looked so derelict as to negate the very idea of its function, and everything looked bleak and covered with a patina of wet and fungous dust.

I abandoned Dan to the first reclamation operations, and trekked disconsolately up the slope, which the morning’s slanting rays were caressing in golden blond. For over a century my family had come here to enjoy the view of the valley, the good air, the excellent spring water so good for the teeth, the priceless quiet. Family photos tell the story: in my great-grandfather’s day, Austrian POWs he’d housed during World War I posing under the beeches in their uniforms, pausing in their work of reforestation. Girls in fresh summer frocks flowered hats and turbans, and armed with binoculars and walking sticks; young men in shorts and hiking shoes, standing in groups on the side of the hill with the abbey ruins in the background. And women laughing from under their parasols and big hats, while tanned men in sporting clothes, wearing boots, and carrying hunting rifles, saunter past. Older chaperones admonishing children to stop fidgeting in front of the lens, while cows, horses, mules, sheep, and dogs wander in the background. And now all I wanted to do was walk away!

Summer idyll before WW1, grandfather Giuseppe and his family camping among the ruins

Austrian POWs under one of the monumental beach trees, circa 1915

 The hunting party, circa 1927

Cleaning lasted a week, as in Genesis. On the first day, we separated the good from the bad and filled four giant leaf bags with garbage. On the second day, we tamed the vegetation back within its boundaries, and on the third day, we polished everything in the house so that sunlight would gleam on surfaces again. And so it went, day by day until the work was completed. The plank floors sparkled with beeswax, the copper pots and pans glistened in the candlelight, every kitchen drawer and shelf was emptied and sanitized, every item washed carefully and stored away.

On the seventh day, we rested and contemplated the work done. It was then that Quinto, the old caretaker Ascenzio’s son, now also an old man, dropped by. He brought us a basket of mushrooms he’d picked under the shadow of the beech trees. There were large ones with brown caps, and smaller rounded ones, bright white in color. Torini, they call them – but the name tends to vary from place to place. (Prataioli, I think is the official name.) we removed the clumps of dirt and cut them into pieces. They simmered in a pan on the woodstove with garlic and a pinch or two of the wild mint that flourishes at San Pietro. We served them with spaghetti that night, licking our poor bruised and scratched fingertips.

Quinto’s simple gift

7th night dinner…


San Pietro Honeymoon

Mamma and Papa at the start of their trail





By Francesco Bianchini


Wild Italian mint and thyme, mentuccia and serpillo, are for me the aromas of long summers at San Pietro, my family’s mountain-top retreat. Whole months of my childhood and adolescence were spent there—as were those of my mother and father and of my grandparents, and even my great-grandparents. Old photographs tell the story: each generation lined up in front of the lens, year-after-year, in a variety of geometric combinations. Mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, groups of just boys or girls, aunts and uncles, cousins – even distant ones – family and friends from far and wide, standing in order of height, like so many strutting organ pipes.

My grandmother and grandfather, great-aunt Maria and their cousin Luigi, San Pietro circa 1927

Family group with my mother (third from right) circa 1948

San Pietro, the remains of a 10th-century Benedictine abbey, straddles the Umbrian Apennines, 900 meters above sea level. My great-grandfather adored such places, far from civilization and practically inaccessible–refuges of an austere and contemplative spirituality. And San Pietro remained inaccessible until the 1970s, reachable only on horseback or on the back of mules, the animals making their way along barely traced tracks, snaking along the side of the mountain, shaded by turkey oaks, chestnut, and beech trees, and along stony stretches on the edge of open ravines.

Aerial view of the Abbey of San Pietro ai Monti

On a hot morning in late July 1960, my father and mother were married in Rome. First cousins, they were basically ordered to spend their honeymoon at San Pietro. This marrying of cousins was the original sin in my family so their marriage was not celebrated in the usual way. Their parents decided to mark the event with only a few family members, and after a hasty reception, the newly married couple left for Umbria and for their exile on the mountain top. At the gate to the property, where the caretaker lived, they left their car and mounted horses to reach the abbey. Rodolfo, my father’s eccentric valet, awaited them, flitting back and forth from the house to the overlook so that he would be the first to spot them as they rode into view.

A few days earlier, while servants were busy preparing the place, there had been an earthquake of some intensity along the Apennine ridge. The caretaker, who was repairing a window at the top of a high ladder, heard the roar swelling from the bowels of the mountain, then saw the wall retracting from his perch, leaving him swinging critically into the void for a few seconds before repositioning him against the wall. The poor maids also got a good scare and ran away at breakneck speed to the valley below. In their panic, they managed to swap the salt for the sugar – so the first meals of my newly-married parents certainly had no claim to haute cuisine.

There are only a few photos of that stay: mother sitting on a deckchair in front of the abbey, reading and surrounded by a flock of sheep; walking along a woodland path in tennis shoes, summer frock, and sunglasses. I try to imagine her happy, savoring the long afternoons, lulled by the chirping of cicadas, dreaming of the future; of a life in the country without pomp and circumstance, rather serene, with lots of children and perhaps – at some point – a better house than the damp, ancient stone “castello” she was destined for in our old family home at Collevalenza.

Mamma on her honeymoon

Italy was at that time in the midst of an economic boom. To beat the summer heat, Italians got behind the wheel of their brand-new cars. Women teased their hair with spray, and the children made a racket on the leatherette seats. In record numbers they clogged the new highways, heading for beaches or mountains – as far from home as possible. But unlike so many members of the new Italian middle class, my family drove only a few miles from the center of Collevalenza to the keeper’s lodge in San Pietro where we’d mount the mules, already saddled and ready to haul us to the top of the mountain for the entire summer.

Me and my younger brother playing in front of the Abbey

There was no electricity or running water at San Pietro and I am reminded, like a series of didactic illustrations of the history of costume, of the arsenal of household goods and kitchen utensils, now extinct, that littered our summer: hand-wound skewers for the fireplace, with the accompanying set of tongs and pokers; copper pots and pans; nickel-plated cutlery; earthenware and blue and white enamel plates; fancy Deruta tableware; the suspended cages for storing cheese and cold cuts out of the reach of mice; oil lamps and candles; archaic coffee pots; antique kettles; and finally, of course, chamber pots by the dozen. In the chapel adjacent to the house—the coolest and most ventilated room—pears, plums, peaches, and tomatoes ripened on wicker trays arranged on the benches in the presence of the Deruta majolica Christ, and the Roman funeral stele of a certain Massellia, entrusted to the deities at the age of twenty-one in the second century BC.

The great fireplace in the Abbey

On the occasion of my parents’ tenth wedding anniversary in 1970, a road was cleared into the mountain that for the first time allowed cars to reach the top. Mama and Papa hosted a grand reception to mark the occasion, and a millstone dated 1830 was transported by tractor and placed on the belvedere in front of the abbey to serve as a base for cocktails and appetizers. If for mom and dad San Pietro had been a kind of “exile on Elba”, for us–even after the inauguration of the road–it was more like Saint Helena. Kilometers of dirt road separated us from the rest of humanity, and an excursion into the civilized world below was no small matter. Once installed on the mountain, we were cut off from the world, and from all the things that drew our attention: friends, radio, television, record players, stores. When any sort of vehicle arrived at San Pietro (we could hear the laboring hum of the engine at several hairpins bends below), we rushed to meet it like the desperate inhabitants of a deserted isle.

The flavor I associate most with San Pietro summers is that of black truffle. Ascenzio, the grounds-keeper guardian, managed the land where truffles could be found. He never revealed the best spots for truffle hunting, but as he passed the abbey with his dogs, Ascenzio would often give us a handful. This rarity was saved for special occasions, one of which was the mid-August lunch, when Ascenzio’s wife roasted lamb and potatoes. There were also chops and sausages barbequed with serpillo in the immense Renaissance fireplace; rice salads, grilled vegetables seasoned with oil, chopped garlic, and mint; tarts and fruit salads. Before we gathered at the table for lunch, we children were expected to circulate among the guests with trays of toasted bread smeared with truffle sauce. We made sure that everyone had helped themselves at least a few times before we quarreled over what was left.