Spoleto's Sacred Mountain
UMBRIA, Italy, was my favorite province to visit on weekend trips when I lived in Napoli. When you approach Spoleto by car, you’ll see rising above the medieval town a sacred mountain called Monteluco. Long ago, Saint Francis of Assisi came here to meditate for peace. On the ilex-covered slopes of the mountain, surrounded by the shadows of the trees, you’ll find an old hermitage. But you won’t find any more monks. They are long gone. The sanctuary is now an inn, schemed by an old dentist who had worked in the Vatican for the Hitler’s Pope.
UMBRIA’S SECLUDED INN OF EREMO DELLE GRAZIE
One year, my wife and I had sought refuge in Umbria from our hectic work in Napoli. We checked into the Hermitage Inn of Eremo delle Grazie and stood gazing from its terrace toward the rolling hills below. Under the Umbrian afternoon sun, the scenery sprawled like undulating quilt stitched with vineyards, olive groves, brown patches of fields, and farm houses. No sound around us but the rustles of trees, branches swaying in the autumn breeze.
“Bella panoramica, non è vero?”
I turned toward the voice. “Yes, it’s a beautiful view,” I said.
An old man sat in the shade of a nearby portico. When he smiled, his eyes became slits in his wrinkled face. He wore a brown tweed jacket. His hands were folded over the handle of a cane between his thighs. At his feet napped a Yorkshire terrier.
Pope Pius XII’s Dentist
THE OLD MAN IS THE MASTER OF EREMO DELLE GRAZIE
“I am Dr. Lalli Pio.” He introduced himself in English tinged with the musical flare of the spoken Italian language. “I am the inn’s owner.”
“You have a beautiful place,” I told him.
“I am 87 years old,” he said, taking my wife’s hand. “I taught dentistry at the Rome University.” He winked at her. “I was Pope Pius XII’s personal dentist.” He raised her hand to his lips and kissed.
He told us that his old aristocratic Roman family in had bought the abandoned hermitage in 1918. After his retirement from dentistry, Dr. Pio left the Eternal City for Umbria to spend a quiet life at Monteluco. But he soon became lonely. So in 2001 he opened his sanctuary as an inn.
For three nights we stayed at Dr. Pio’s inn, steeped in the warm hospitality of the old gentleman. When he saw us, he’d make a point of talking to us. When we left, he waved goodbye.
“We shall return,” I promised.
Dr. Pio’s Treasure
UMBRIA WAS MICHELANGELO’S PLACE OF SOLITUDE
“Che sol nei boschi è pace,” Dr. Lalli Pio told us, gesticulating the beauty of the words with his hand. “Only in the woods there is peace.” These are the words of Michelangelo, the great Renaissance artist.
In 1556, Michelangelo wrote those words in a letter sent to his friend, Vasari, in Rome. He wrote them at Eremo delle Gracie, a place where he had sojourned to escape the stress of working for Pope Julius XII.
What Am I Doing Here?
UMBRIA – OUR WEEKEND TRIPS
Years have gone by since we stayed at Eremo delle Grazie. We never returned to see the old man as I had promised him.
A few times we drove by Spoleto. Each time I looked up at the sacred mountain of Monteluco and thought of stopping to see the old man. But we never did.
I admit, I felt a bit of fear, perhaps, in the passage of seasons of not seen the old man. Perhaps, I was afraid he may be gone, as Saint Francis is gone, as Michelangelo is gone. Perhaps, I was afraid to face the impermanence of life.
The last time I visited Spoleto, I looked up again at the sacred mountain of Monteluco. I imagined the Pope’s old dentist smiling at us from the shade of the portico, nestled amongst the trees, where only in the woods there is peace. That memory of him in me is still alive. That memory is my everlasting treasure.