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Not long ago our friends Elena and Michela took me to see the Badia di Tiglieto, also known as the Abbazia Santa Maria e Santa Croce, located in the town of Tiglieto  in the hills to the northwest of Genova.  Founded in 1120, Santa Maria was the first Italian monastery of the Cistercian Order; in fact it was the first monastery founded outside of Burgundy, France where Saint Robert founded the order in 1098.

Nestled against the hills it lies on the plain of the Orba River and is surrounded by the Beigua Regional Park.  It’s a full day’s outing to visit the monastery and take the ring hike in the adjacent park.

The Abby has had its ups and downs over the centuries.  For the first century or two of its existence it grew and prospered.  Farming and agriculture are hallmarks of the Cistercian Order, and the monks at Santa Maria were no exception.  Their holdings grew to be quite large over the years, and because of excellent relations with both the nobility and the ordinary people of the region they were able to get seasonal help for their agricultural pursuits.  They raised corn, wheat, rye, hay and veggies, made flour from chestnuts, and harvested the plentiful wood from the surrounding forests.  They reclaimed boggy areas in the lowlands, turning them into productive fields.

In addition to their physical pursuits the monks had a lively spiritual life.  They were renowned for their even-handedness, neutrality and their attentiveness to local problems.  Frequently they were called upon to adjudicate disputes among the region’s inhabitants.  An indication of their value and importance in this area is that they helped negotiate the peace between Genova and Pisa.

The booklet available in the monastery store presents an image of an idyllic country existence, a life well balanced between hard physical labor and intense spiritual meditation and practice.  It was not always perfect, however; the records indicate numerous cases of disagreements about boundaries, water usage and the like between the brothers and others.

The decline of Santa Maria began somewhere along the middle of the 1200’s.  Unlike the mendicant orders based in cities, the agrarian Cistercians had a hard time finding novices to join the order; there simply was not an ample enough population to provide the needed monks.  As their numbers lessened they were less able to look after their holdings and had either to sell or to lease them.  As their holdings and prosperity declined, so did their prestige, and by the middle of the 14th century they were in a total economic, moral and spiritual decline.

Pope Eugenio IV delivered the death blow when, in 1442, he gave the abby to Cardinal Giorgio Fieschi as Commendatory Abbot.  (A commendatory abbot is one who draws the revenues of the Abby but has no jurisdiction over its spiritual life and practice; he is not obliged to live at the Abby.)  Cardinal Fieschi was not frequently at Santa Maria.  What happened to the remaining monks is unknown.  Perhaps attrition finished them off, or perhaps they moved to other orders; in any event, they were no longer at Santa Maria.

The local populace was not happy about this state of affairs, and did not accept it willingly, being obstructive and even destructive to Fieschi and successive  commendatory abbots whenever possible.  This was the case until 1635 when Pope Innocent X gave the title to Cardinal Lorenzo Raggi who immediately began to improve the premises.  In 1648 Cardinal Raggi recieved the Abby for his family in perpetuity.  He moved to Santa Maria, which has been in the Raggi (now Salvago-Raggi) family ever since.

The Abby underwent major restorations in 1953, 1977, and 1999, with efforts made to restore the structures to their medieval forms.  Unfortunately the cloisters are irretrievably lost, but several rooms have been beautifully restored, notably the chapel and the chapter room.

This is the Chapter Room, the Sala Capitolare. The lovely white and red stripes are not medieval; probably they date from the 16th century.

The Chapel is beautiful in both its proportions and its simplicity.

Above the altar there is a silver dove with a golden feather in its wing. The silver represents Christ’s humanity, the golden feather his divinity.

In 2001 the Cistercian monks returned to Santa Maria, through the cooperation of marchesa Camilla Salvago Raggi, the owner of the property, and the Cistercian Congregation of San Bernardo in Italy.  There are now four monks in residence; three are in rather poor health, but one, Brother Walter, is still able to work and, with help from a local family, tends an enormous garden, makes honey and soap, and minds the monastery shop.

I was amused in the shop to see this display:

Apparently someone amongst the brothers has an interest in things automotive.

Three pomegranates, symbols of hope and transformation, were drying on the window ledge – one for each of us.  Of course we left the fruit there, but we took the hope with us when we left the peaceful Badia di Tiglieto.