Words by Carla Passino

An intricate forest of firs and beech. A steep, forbidding road. A last bend, and then the Benedictine Eremo di Camaldoli, hidden behind thick, tall walls from which only the tip of two belltowers emerge. Until the wrought iron gate opens to reveal the cream-white purity of its cells and its monks’ robes.
Saint Romualdo, son of the Duke of Ravenna, founded the Eremo in 1012. Romualdo—long white beard streaming down a time-carved face, at least in the 17th century portrait by Guercino found in Ravenna—was a wandering monk who sought a life of penitence and meditation in the islets that pepper the River Po, in the Apennines and along Istria’s jagged coastline. Then he fell in love with the solitary wilderness of the Casentino forest near Arezzo—powerful trees standing tall over a soft carpet of moss, a gentle mist wrapping the mountains, a softly whistling wind breaking the leafy silence—and built a hermitage with just five cells.
Today, the Eremo has twenty tiny huts, whitewashed under sloping red roofs. Only a wisp of smoke and the penetrating scent of a log fire hint at life behind the gate that keeps them apart from the world. But the ancient cell of San Romualdo, which is open to the public, gives a glimpse of what the other ones are like—medieval places of dark, ligneous austerity where the only splashes of colour are the rough pallor of a straw pallet and the fecund green of an orchard.
It is a sharp contrast with the Baroque decadence of the Church of the Saviour, where the monks congregate in prayer four times a day. The nave is a cloying triumph of stuccoes and gilded cornices, grandiose frescoes and plump putti with prominent tummies. Only the wooden starkness of the benches and the haunting beauty of the Virgin—pure white against a periwinkle background in a 16th century alter-piece by Andrea della Robbia—speak of meditation and penitence. That, and the still, white figure of a genuflected monk, lost in prayer in the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament.
The Eremo di Camaldoli (+39 0575 556021) is in Via Eremo 5, Camaldoli, near Arezzo (a steep drive or a bracing walk up the forest from the larger Monastery, also in Camaldoli). It is open daily from 8.30am to 12.30pm and from 3pm to 7pm, and can be reached by public transport during summer (in winter, buses only get to the Monastery). Visitors can access the church and Saint Romualdo’s cell. Guests, including women but not children, can stay in the Eremo’s small Foresteria—the guest quarters—by prior arrangement, while families can stay in the Monastery’s guesthouse (call in advance as they aren’t always open). Perhaps incongruously for a place that looks stuck in the Middle Ages, it has an email and a website (www.camaldoli.it, eremo@camaldoli.it) where you can find more information on the hermitage, the monastery and the monks’ life.