Monasteries in Italy have had a tough time of it. La Cervara, a monastery constructed in 1361 which sits above the road between Santa Margherita and Portofino, is no exception. When France invaded at the end of the 18th century the monastic orders here were suppressed and the resident Benedictines had to abandon La Cervara.
The monastery has been in a state of loving rehabilitation since 1990; the present owners report that the work is 50% complete. It’s hard to believe there’s as much to do as has already been done. It looks perfect to the casual visitor. In fact, when a friend and I recently took the tour I was reminded of nothing so much as the exquisitet restorations that one sees all through Tuscany, and which are not as common here in Liguria.
The first building was erected by Ottone Lanfranco, a Genovese priest, on land owned by the Carthusians. Around 1420 ownership was transferred to the Benedictine order, who stayed until the above mentioned troubles.
As was the case for Montallegro, bad weather played a role in La Cervara’s history. Pope Gregory XI was returning the papacy from Avignon to Rome in 1377 when a tempest arose, and his ship took shelter in the harbor near La Cervara. The Pope rested with the monks there for a while, and got to know and respect them. Upon his return to Rome he showed favor to the monastery, eventually elevating it to the status of Abbey.
The monks at La Cervara were not uneducated simple men; rather they were cosmopolitan, well-traveled and worldly wise. La Cervara was a prestigious abbey and its inhabitants, usually about twenty in number, were frequently looked to for counsel in the great houses of Genova and throughout Europe.
The 15th and 16th centuries were the high points of La Cervara’s history. More buildings were added to the complex, including, in the 16th century, a tower from which to watch for the raiding pirates from Africa, those pesky Saracens.
In 1525 poor King Francis I of France was defeated by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at nearby Pavia. He was brought to La Cervara where he was imprisoned in a different tower, one with a lovely view looking out to sea.
During the suppression, most of La Cervara’s beautiful artifacts and art works were removed. The Polyptych, painted by Gerard David was separated. Four panels are now in Palazzo Bianco in Genova, and the other three are in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Louvre in Paris.
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
In the beginning of the 19th century La Cervara again became a religious house, passing through the hands of several orders (Trappists, Somaschi, Carthusians) and eventually it was placed under the Diocese of Chiavari. Finally in 1937 it passed into private hands. The first private owner added a long hall and built a grand double stairway and a very large room. More interested in sport and socializing, he did little to preserve or augment the chapel (but neither did he do any damage).
The present owners have been painstaking in their restoration of La Cervara. The work has been under the direction of architect Mide Osculati and the art restoration has been overseen by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, who restored the famous painting of The Last Supper in Milano. A private home, La Cervara is also available to rent for conferences, weddings, parties and the like. A fortunate friend has been to several evening events there and describes how the soft candlelight inside echoes the twinkling lights on the coast across the bay. No electric lights – only candles; it is, she says, ‘magical.’ Her favorite place, she says, “is the cloister at night with only one single shiny jet of water ….not a big splashy fountain, one single jet is all it takes to create beauty.” You can see the fountain, elegant and eloquent in its simplicity in two of the photos above. Thank you for sharing that lovely image, fortunate friend!
An example of the care taken in the restoration: it was thought the original floor of the chapel was ardesia, the dark slate indigenous to this area, because that’s what was there, albeit in deplorable condition. The architect was reluctant to use that material again because it is so dark. Further digging revealed, though, that before the ardesia was put down, the floor had been brick. Unable to find hand-made bricks that matched the light original color, the architect procured the new bricks from Spain. They look just right, too.
Instead of trying to recreate the missing sacred art in the chapel the owners have installed four enormous tapestries – not religious in theme, but somehow absolutely appropriate for the setting. You can see just a wee bit of one in the photo above.
In an extraordinary and successful attempt to save a 150-year old wisteria, the owners used a crane to life the ancient branches from where they had fallen on the ground, one or two inches every week. It took over a year to get the vine into position, but the wisteria survived and is splendid.
Center pole supports some of the branches, which also grow along the wall on the left.
Ancient branch, now well supported
Unfortunately one is not allowed to take photographs inside the buildings, but the gardens (formerly the monks’ orchard) are fair game.
La Cervara is open to the public on the first and third Sunday of each month from March through October; guided tours are run at 10, 11 and 12 o’clock.