The Monastery of Lecceto near Sienna, Tuscany

In italiano

L'Eremo e Monastero di Lecceto

Sovicille

Hermitage Rosia

Villa Celsa

Monastery Lecceto

Castle Spannocchia

Tuscany is the homeland of the Augustinian Friars. It was here in the environs of Sienna, Pisa and Lucca that numerous eremitical communities, some following the Rule of St. Augustine and others not, were brought together to form this mendicant order, much like the Franciscan and Dominican Orders which predated the Augustinians by some twenty or so years. It is here in Tuscany that the oldest tradition lies and the roots of the Augustinians are to be found.

Hermitage and Monastery of Lecceto Lecceto

Monastery of Lecceto

Monastery of Lecceto main door Monastery of Lecceto frescoes

There is some evidence of an eremitical settlement long before the union of 1244. However, the first written record comes from the year 1223. At that time, the area was called 'Selva di Lago' ('Woods of the Lake') because of the forest around it and its location near Lake Verano. The hermitage was not Augustinian initially, but when the community took part in the Little Union of 1244, they then assumed the Rule of St. Augustine and began a long history of Augustinian religious life. In time, the name changed too and became 'Lecceto' because of all the ilex trees (lecce), a type of oak, that surround the monastery.

Lecceto eventually also made claim to a much earlier Augustinian presence. In the first cloister there is a marble slab that commemorates the visit that Augustine made when he stayed at Lecceto for a while in the year 400, an impossibility because by then, he was already a bishop in Africa and never left that continent thereafter. The legend probably arose from an effort to prove the continuity they had with Augustine's North African monastic life by means of his companions who fled the invasion of the Vandals soon after his death. It was asserted that they came to Italy and proceeded to found monastic settlements here in Tuscany where they lived independently until the Church brought them all together in the 13 C. They were keen to claim Augustine as the true founder of the newly established Augustinian Order.

However, the greatness of Lecceto came later when it became a place of intense contemplation within the Order. There are some stories (and legends) of friars of extraordinary sanctity, some of them amusing for their simplicity and quaintness, others well-documented and still inspiring. In the sacristy of the Church, there is a painting of the famous 'Blessed of Lecceto' designed much like a family tree, depicting friars who achieved fame for their holiness even though they were never formally beatified. In the inner cloister, there are frescoes on the walls depicting some of the legends, including the life of those special friars who spent long periods of prayer in the caves a little beyond the boundaries or the monastery. A few of the caves are still there.

Interior of the church of Lecceto

Interior of the church of Lecceto

It is a fact that friars from different parts of Europe sought out Lecceto in order to live a contemplative life. We know of members of the community who had come from different parts of Italy as well as from France and England. The most famous was William Flete, an Englishman from Cambridge University at the time of Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. In the year 1359, when he was about to attain his Master of theology degree at Cambridge University in England, Flete had a change of heart about how he was to live as an Augustinian. He chose to leave England and come to Lecceto to give himself over to prayer. He stayed for the remainder of his life. He became a master of the spiritual life, a guide to many persons and a personal confidant of St. Catherine of Siena.

It was at Lecceto that the Observant Movement within the Augustinian Order was born. The Observant Movement was a way of returning to a more faithful to the Rule of St. Augustine and the Constitutions of the Order at a time when a certain amount of confusion and compromise within the religious life had set in. From the Observant Congregation of Lecceto, other similar groups began in other parts of the world, including Germany, where Martin Luther, a few centuries later, made his profession of vows within the Observant Congregation of Saxony. In its heyday, Lecceto gave to the Order four of its most distinguished Prior Generals.

Difficult times came at the end of the 18 C and the beginning of the 19 C. In 1782, the Grand Duke of Tuscany suppressed the entire Congregation of Lecceto, and in 1808, the government of Napoleon closed the community itself. Two years later, the sixteen friars left the monastery for other parts of the Order. From then on, the building fell into ruin, victim of vandalism and neglect. By 1968, the roof had fallen in, the wood had rotted, the insides were burned in several places, chickens and pigs occupied the ground floor. In a word, the place had fallen to bits.

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At about this time, the Bishop of Sienna, a Dominican friar, decided that he wanted to bring the Augustinian spirituality of Lecceto back to the local church of Sienna. He began a project to restore it to its former grandeur and to invite the Augustinian contemplative nuns of the city of Sienna to transfer their community there. They arrived in 1972 when the restoration work was only partially completed. Soon, Lecceto was visited by a few persons who sought quiet and solitude in the midst of their busy lives. Little by little, Lecceto began to be known throughout Italy and beyond.

The woods, the walls, the cloister, the towers and the history of Lecceto make it a place of prayer. But it is the community of Augustinian nuns that make it an authentic place of contemplation. The present community of Augustinian cloistered, contemplative nuns is a living testimony of this aspect of the Augustinian way of life. Currently, there are some twenty five relatively young women - medical doctors, former professors, many with university degrees - who make up this community. Without interfering with their cloistered life, they open their monastery and its contemplative surroundings to people from all walks of life who come for a time of retreat, prayer and reflection. Overnight guests are welcome and often join the nuns at their various times of chanting the Liturgy of the Hours in the church.

well of St. Catherine of Siena

The "well of St. Catherine of Sienna".

Notable parts of Lecceto to visit are: the two cloisters, the inner, "Nuns'" cloister dating from the 14 C with its 'well of St. Catherine of Siena' where it is said the saint used to rest after walking here from Siena, the defense tower that overlooks the whole complex, the frescoes of the life of Lecceto, the refectory, the church, originally gothic and later converted to baroque, the monastery garden with its chapel of Blessed Giovanni, the trees, and most of all, the silence.

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