Heading south from the Alps takes you to Sacra di San Michele. This ancient religious complex is situated on a rocky spur as the Alps give way to the flat plain of the river Po. Dedicated to the Archangel Michael, it shares its vertiginous positioning with other sites dedicated to Michael such as Mont Saint-Michel in Brittany and Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.
According to legend it was founded in the second half of the 10th century by a hermit. Other monks joined the founder and so the monastery grew. Over the years it became a stopping place for pilgrims following the pilgrimage route of the Via Francigena and was taken over by the Benedictines. It was suppressed by the Pope in 1622 and remained abandoned until 1835. Today it has been restored and is currently maintained by a Catholic organisation called the Rosiminians.
Main access is via the Scalone dei Morti, or the Great Staircase of the Dead, so called because of the bodies of dead monks that used to be left on display in niches on its sides. At the top the 12th century Porta del Zodiaco is a beautiful example of the sculpture of the time, the subject being taken from a poem called Phenomena by the pre-Christian Greek poet, Aratus. I am not sure how that fits with the religious nature of the building but an argument can be made that it signifies leaving the material world to enter the celestial realm in much the same way as Dante describes his entry to Paradise rising through the celestial spheres to enter Empyrean.
The whole complex is built from dark volcanic rock and the dour Romanesque architectural style adds to the feeling of gloomy austerity but this is contrasted by the simply glorious views. It is said that this was the inspiration for the abbey in Umberto Eco’s famous novel The Name of the Rose – this is definitely not to be missed.
Visit the website at www.sacradisanmichele.com to see all the guided tours on offer.