As you drive over the Passo Pian delle Fugazze in Italy, between Vivenza and Rovereto for the first time you are due for something of a surprise. The Leno valley of the Trento province is home to the Hermitage of San Colombano. You would expect a hermitage to be somewhat off the beaten track but this takes isolation to a new height – literally.
One hundred and twenty meters up a cliff face, seemingly carved into the side of the deep valley the hermitage is in clear view. Yet it also sends a clear message that it was built for a specific reason – to remove its inhabitants far from the madding crown below. It was intended to be a place of isolated spiritual contemplation. Once it had been ridden of a pesky dragon, that is...
The hermitage was built almost seven hundred years ago, in 1319. It is named after the Irish Saint: Colombano in Italian and Colomban in English. It is said that he travelled extensively in the area in the late sixth and early seventh century and founded the nearby monastery of Bobbio.
The saint arrived in Italy after chastising a king, Theuderic , for adultery. Colombano met with a warm welcome by the King of the Lombards who allocated to him a plot of land in Bobbio where he founded the new monastery and he came to the end of his days on 21 November 615.
The building looks as if it is excavated directly from the rock and indeed it is. The visitor must pass through the Leno gorge and then climb a precarious 102 steps up the gorge. It is said that the saint killed a terrible dragon who had taken to pillaging the area. The cave had been its lair and once slain the place became a pilgrimage.
The river Leno, one hundred and twenty meters below had been the site of baptism for the children of the area. During the baptism ceremony the dragon would swoop down and snatch the children, returning with them to its lair and devouring them there. The battle was epic but Colombano eventually destroyed the creature.
Although the hermitage was not built until centuries after the death of the saint, it was in use as a hermitage from the middle of the eight century. The hermitage as we see it now had its inception in 1319 and was in use until 1782. This year saw the prohibition by the Catholic Church of eremitic practice. It was left in the hands of the local people to tend to it – and they did their best. Yet it did need extensive renovation before its reopening in 1996.
It was the interior which was in direst need of renovation and many frescoes have now been returned, as much as they can, to their former glory. You can also see the graffiti of the centuries of pilgrims who made it to the hermitage. The frescoes include the battle between Colombano and the dragon as well as a depiction of paradise – what would await the pilgrims if they led a good life.
Each Christmas a small but evocative torchlight procession is made up the steps to the hermitage which re-enacts the final steps of the pilgrims as they climb the steep stairs hewn from rock to pay their respects to the dragon slaying saint.