Wherever you live or where ever you are there are, around you, dozens of little things to see, to experience. By “little,” I mean insignificant, something here or there that doesn’t seem much yet shouldn’t be overlooked.
Driving along the highway from Brianza to Lecco and the Lake District, Marco has always pointed out each peak in the distance, one seemingly unrecognizable from the next, telling me the name and usually a story of a time hiking there. He does this just as his parents do this, “See that one, that’s Cornizzolo. There, next to it, the one that looks like a saw is Resegone.”
As a foreigner I usually just nod and listen, not putting too much effort into remembering the names – matching gender nouns and conjugating verbs correctly is enough for me.
Then a certain place on one of those hills was brought up two, three times in one weekend, San Pietro al Monte Pedale, and I decided it was time to see. Sunday we made our way to Civate in the province of Lecco, the town that sits at the feet of Monte Pedale. Marco’s mom pointed, “See that? That’s Cornizzolo. Underneath it is St. Peter’s.” Though it’s only March it was summertime-hot and a perfect day to relax on a hill (what, you don’t do that?)
St. Peter’s was once a modest monastery that started around the 8th century with a history as remote as it is legendary.
Supposedly during a great period of peace, the prince of Lombardy was able to rest and take a break from the usual pillaging and plundering that princes are wont to do during wartime.
One day Adalgiso (or maybe Adelchi it’s hard to be sure so many years later) decided to go hunting, hiking through the hills in the chance that he’d see something worth catching. There he saw a wild boar, its huge body huffing and snorting as it ate truffles and roots in the woods. The chase was on.
The boar, for his part, was just trying to escape and hoisted his weight up the mountain, frantically searching for a refuge until he found the entrance to a little church and ran inside, strangely showing no fear of the confined space. It was a church created by a man named Duro, a servant of God, who chose the remote and quiet location as his home and built the humble church to honor St. Peter.
The prince followed the boar, intent on killing his prey, but right as he was about to finish the deed he felt an extraordinary sensation. Suddenly the light of the day disappeared, spent like the flame of a candle, and the young prince was unable to see. Duro, being a man of God, began supplicating God to heal Adalgiso/Adelchi’s blindness. The prince himself, realizing that he could no longer see the light, prayed as well, promising to build an even larger homage to St. Peter and to bring relics of the saint to the church on the mount. Only then, from divine intervention, the prince could suddenly see again!
No one truly knows the exact origins of the old stone monastery. Whether it was Adalgiso and his wild boar hunt, simply a strategic military point converted to a monastery or whether the king, converted to Christianity after his son’s miraculous recovery, replaced a pagan temple with a Christian church. In any case the beautiful building, painstakingly built stone by stone 600 meters above the lakes below, remains.
Today it’s an easier walk – about 40 minutes on a well-made path though we had decided to take a less traveled (and steeper) route. Passing a small fountain we stopped to put our wine in the icy water to cool and examined the stone bathtub strangely present in the alcove. Actually, it is the remains of a Lombard sarcophagus, carved from stone and just sitting there, unprotected and without fanfare.
Bottles up and we continued on, finishing the last part of the hike with a team of people who suddenly materialized. Coming over a crest I saw the stone building, squat, unassuming yet solid with dozens of people lying in the grass below. The basilica’s stoned-in yard was covered with families on blankets, children running in circles, picnics and smoking teenagers – as insignificant as it seems, the monastery is no secret. The easy hike and great view make it a well-known place to relax and soak up the sun.
After a panino and some white wine I was lucky enough to jump in on a tour given by volunteers looking to preserve the location. The basilica was cool and smelled like stone and chalk and dampness, less dark on the inside than I expected thanks to the lateral windows.
Covering the wall above the door as you exit is the “last message of the faithful,” an image of the Apocalypse, of man and christ fighting off a seven headed dragon. Though the people might seem weak (especially weaker than a seven headed dragon) and though the power of evil can be terrifying, it cannot win over goodness. While most Medieval churches leave a message of the Universal Judgement, intimidating man away from badness, at St. Peter’s you are left with a message of courage.
Underground we saw the rust colored walls of the crypt, most of the frescoes long scratched away. In fact not much of the crypt remains, the whole monastery being used as a stable for sheep during the in-between decline after the monks left and before it was re-found as a historic gem, but what remains is soaked in symbolism. A closed door leading from the crypt is said to be the entrance of the original church, the one the wild boar chose as his salvation.
For centuries St. Peter’s was the seat of Benedictine monks and the goal of innumerable pilgrimages on the search for spiritual peace and healing for the body, most notably for the eyes. A book about the location suggests that “even today it is appropriate to interpret [the church’s] artistic reality in this dimension of the human quest for liberation and salvation. Yes, it’s likely Italians being overly poetic but perhaps in its own way it’s not so far off. After all, we were the ones who decided to go on a short Sunday hike, walking in the fresh air with company, puppies, wine, to ultimately reach a remote basilica. To enjoy the day and escape the city. To find peace in the hills over Civate.