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The Casamari Abbey:  A Narrative Tour

By Darren Peterson

      Situated in the mountains, about two hours north of Naples is one of the most stunning reminders of the middle ages that you will ever encounter.  The Casamari Abbey provides a glimpse into the evolution of religious customs that are still practiced today, in addition to providing clues about the daily existence of people living in the Middle Ages. 

     The first impression of the monastery will be one that you will not soon forget.  To the peasants of the 11th century, the high stone walls must have made it seem like only the will of God could have created such a place. 

     Once you pass through the entrance, you will continue towards the right.  Walking through the courtyard, you will pass a beautiful garden  on your left.  As you enter the inner complex, be sure to watch your step.  The ground is quite uneven due to the fact that the ancient, roughly  hewn stones have settled a bit since they were put in place in the 11th century.  You will step down into another courtyard.  This one is rectangular in shape, with a garden in the center containing a statue and a fountain.  The courtyard overlooks a small garden where the monks have grown their own vegetables for several centuries.

     Next, continue up the stairs to the cloister where an Arabesque style of architecture can be readily observed. The cloister is a square yard, approximately 20 meters on each side, surrounded by a covered walkway.  You will find a well at the center of the cloister.  Be sure to have a look at the artful, twisted, geometric patterns used to decorate the double columns that adorn the openings between the covered walkway and the inner courtyard.  You will see a blending of  Arabesque and classical styles. 

     As you walk around the cloister, you will find several doorways. There are five of them, one leading to the church, one leading to the Antico Dispensarium, one leading to the Sala dei Reunione de Monari  and two that lead back to the rectangular courtyard that overlooks the vegetable garden. As you examine the Sala dei Reunione de Monari you may begin to find that things are arranged in sets of  seven.  Take notice of the number of rough marble steps that descend to the smooth marble floor of the Sala dei Reunione de Monari.   You will find that there are seven.  Is this significant? You will have to judge for yourself.

     If you are there at 10:45 on a Sunday morning, you will hear mass being called by the melodic sound of bells ringing in the tower high above.  It has been done that way for 800 years.  After you hear the bells, you should make your way to the church.  You will be able  to experience a ceremony that has been performed there for the last 800 years. It is a re-creation of The Last Supper which is performed in Gregorian chant. 

     In the church, the trend of groups of seven continues.  There are seven columns.  There are seven windows along each wall.  There are seven vaulted chambers along each side of the chapel.  Finally, each of the seven windows have a stair-like decoration containing ( Yes, you guessed it.) seven steps.  Do you still think that itís a coincidence?  I believe that there  may be some connection with the Seven Sacraments; seven elaborate rituals that are intended to shorten ones time in Purgatory.

    As you tour this site, stop for a moment to close your eyes and think about what things would have been like 800 years ago.  Imagine the church at the Casamari Abbey without the Baroque altar and lit only by fire light. Envision the mass as it would have been.  Think about how the average peasant of the 11th century would have perceived the opulence of this place.  As you tour the Abbey, take the time to step out of your daily existence and consider what life was like in medieval times. 

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