In August I spent part of a day in a national park in the region of Reggio Emilia of central Italy I was there escaping the blistering heat of Rome, where air conditioning is largely absent. The place is part of the National Park of the Tuscan-Emilian Appennines, called “Pietra (Rock) di Bismantova,” a very distinct and majestic geological formation, located a few hours from Rome. The rock is basically a huge mesa or plateau of compact sandstone with steep rock walls, rising some four hundred feet out of the ground like a silent monolith of unknown origin or destiny. The stunning formation is between the Enza Valley to the west and the Secchia River to the east.
The Bismantova ship-shaped rock is believed to date back to the middle lower Miocene period, about fifteen million years ago. The area was a sea bottom, and the rock is a gigantic example of “residual erosion.” Fossils found in the area include remains of sponge as well as fish teeth, especially sharks! The oval summit of the rock is about one kilometer long and two-hundred fifty meters wide, once used for pasture, but no longer. Deer, rabbits, pheasant, porcupine and squirrels populate the area around the rock. Surrounded by woods, the Bismantova area abounds in hazel nut, oak, juniper and maple trees.
Dante Alieghieri, who lived from 1265 to 1321, the great Italian author of the “Divine Comedy,” had the Bismantova rock formation in mind when he composed the “Purgatory” section of his classic poem. He visited the area in 1306 and in the fourth Canto of “Purgatorio,” Cantos 25 to 30, Dante recounts the difficult ascent up the otherworldly hill where the souls waiting to reach Heaven are temporarily held. Dante writes: “One climbs Sanleo and descends in Noli, And mounts the summit of Bismantova, With feet alone; but here (at Bismantova) one needs must fly.”
Benvenuto da Imola, who lived from 1330-1388, the first to write a commentary on the Divine Comedy, explains Dante’s thought this way: “Bismantova, like the Purgatory hill, reaches for the sky. It is extremely robust, safe from enemies, made of live rock, and accessible only from a single, circular, very narrow street. Every kind of good is encountered going up the Purgatory hill; and when a soul has reached the top, looking down gives a glimpse of hell below, just like looking down from the top of Bismantova. Dante’s message is that man can reach the top of the hill on his own, although with outstanding physical effort (‘with feet alone’); but on the Purgatory hill he must fly (‘one needs must fly’): since men do not have wings like angels, Dante is saying that they can make their own light and fast wings with feathers of a dedicated and steadfast will, following [the poet] Virgil—his guide and hope—like him.” In short, Bismantova is “a mountain of similes and metaphors,” as contemporary writer Francesco Spaggiari expresses it.
At the end of the 19th century, the French artist Gustave Dore, who lived from 1832 to 1883, illustrated the Divine Comedy, in his distinctive black and white art, and made many illustrations of the Bismantova rock formation as a visual representation of Purgatory.
The Bismantova rock and the area around it have long been considered “sacred ground,” and called by the songwriter and singer Giovanni Lindo Ferretti, “a cyclopic altar, extended towards the sky.” Pre-Christian religious pilgrimage was common and popular devotion in Christian times led people to the place as well. There is a theory that a necropolis was built at the base of the rock in the 11th century before Christ. For centuries, military camps and fortifications were constructed on summits of hills and also near places of worship.
Today at the foot of the rock walls there stands a small jewel, a Benedictine hermitage-monastery, built in 1617 dedicated to the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose feast is September 8th. Prior to the building of the present monastery structure, the first mention of a hermitage at the foot of the rock is 1411, where a chapel dedicated to the Most Holy Savior was located. It is believed to have been built by one of the medieval Christian hermit monks who lived among the grottos cut into the walls of Bismantova rock. The location was chosen by the monk because of the constant flow of fresh water that to this day gushes from the rock.
Beginning in 1925 monks of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint John the Evangelist in Parma, Italy, had monks at Bismantova until 2001, when they left the area and returned to Parma. Today the monastery church and other buildings are undergoing much needed restoration, though Mass is celebrated in the church each Sunday. A few years ago a part of the rock walls directly above the monastery tumbled down and did some amount of damage, but fortunately no lives were lost. A statue of Saint Benedict at the entrance to the monastery, however, was completely destroyed by the falling rock.
The monastery buildings now belong to the Catholic diocese of Reggio Emilia and the former guesthouse, close to the monastery buildings, is a restaurant and small three-star hotel, called “Foresteria San Benedetto,” or “Saint Benedict Guesthouse,” open throughout the year, with seven double rooms. The Saint Benedict Guesthouse hotel had been a farm building of the monastery, dating from the 1600s. The transformation of the building took place in 2000, just a year before the monks left the area.
In addition to guest rooms, the restaurant at “Foresteria San Benedetto” has two halls. The main one can accommodate up to fifty for meals. The second room, with a fireplace, can host up to forty. From April to October the restaurant can also host outdoor groups of up to two hundred.
The area around Bismonteva is a very popular destination for rock-climbers, hikers, mountain bikers and campers. It is another place in Italy that “has to be seen to be believed.” It is certainly an inspiration to those who love God’s majestic creation and all who are dedicated to or appreciate the enduring values of the Christian faith. For many centuries this locale has been a privileged place of pilgrimage and worship of God and veneration of the saints, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Thankfully the hermitage church of Our Lady is being restored and the former monastery buildings are being renovated. The former monastery will function as a center of documentation for the National Park of the Tuscan-Emilian Appennines and as a museum. The little church will remain as a place of prayer and celebration of the Sacraments of the Church.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.