La Certosa di Galluzo

It was very late in the morning by the time we drove out of Florence, and wound our way up into the hills to the south of the city, where the Ema and Greve rivers meet at Galluzzo. The rivers this time of year are slow-moving, and green. Galluzzo is a sleepy town with a Tuesday market, but is the gateway to the Certosa di Galluzzo, which holds court as it has for centuries from a hill high above town.

We were with Jason’s Italian colleagues, Elsa and Susanna, medievalists all three of them. This was a very special visit to the Certosa for them, as Jason’s associate Don Alessandro, a Catholic priest with all the keys, was to meet us in the courtyard. His order, San Leolino, are the newest custodians and residents of the Certosa. They plan to eventually grow it into more of a retreat center.

Don Alessandro says Mass at Gonzaga in Florence on a regular basis. He is a very friendly man, with a wide smile and blue eyes. A youthful priest in the best sense, we are on warm terms with him, having even been to his local parish at Panzano in Chianti a couple of times for Mass (followed by an amazing pranzo at Cecchini.)

Elsa and I sat in the back seat and worked on deriving the etymology of “Galluzzo” – “gallo” means “rooster” in Italian, but the ending brought another shade to the definition, which we debated at length, much to the amusement of the professors up front. Was it a big ugly rooster? Or just an ugly rooster? or a strange, ugly rooster? Maybe a weird rooster.

Jason and I had been to the Certosa (the Charterhouse, as in the Stendhal novel) before, but had only picked our way around the parking lot, and seen the courtyard, as we had arrived too late to make the final guided tour. This time, as we pulled in the car and got out, a squinting attendant asked us our business, and Jason was quick to inform him that we were meeting Don Alessandro. The attendant quickly desisted and ambled back to his small table and chair under a canvas lean-to.

The midday sun was strong, and bright white. I kept to the shadows of the buildings. Olive groves lined up in martial formations in the hills around the Certosa. We waited in the courtyard, admiring the distillery and the gift shop, the front of a smaller chapel, until Don Alessandro strode up in a clerical collar, smiling and gave each of us a strong handshake. Elsa and Susanna wanted to make a few purchases in the gift shop, so Don Alessandro called a couple of his companions to attend to us. I perused the books, noting that none other than Oriana Fallaci had historic links to Don Alessandro’s Order of San Leolino, based in Panzano in Chianti. I also scrutinized the many monastic remedies available to purchase, of contents both herbal and alcohol. Susanna selected a small wall ornament designed to hold holy water in the home, for her mother in Viareggio.

Pick up your medieval liquor here.

We paid for all our small things (bottles of liquor, books, postcards, ceramics, honey, rosaries), and walked with Don Alessandro up the long flight of stairs to the adjacent Palazzo Acciaiuoli, where the founder and namesake Niccolo had imagined all manner of humanistic erudition would take place. Today used as a conference center, the two main halls adjoin in an L-shape, with vaulted ceilings and enormous oil portraits of assorted patron saints and leaders, chief among them San Bruno and San Lorenzo. The palazzo itself was never intended to be a sacred space, but rather a sort of college appended to the Certosa in which learned study might take place.

A few quick historic notes here for non-medievalists. The Carthusian Order was founded by San Bruno in 1084, in Grenoble, France, where it remains headquartered. It is a hermetic order that maintains vows of silence. The brothers remained in seclusion, and even received their meals through a specially-designed cupboard with offset openings so that they never saw the faces or hands of those who waited on them.

Boccaccio is a special figure in the Certosa, as Niccolo Acciaiuoli was his patron, and so his personal history closely intertwined with that of the institution. Indeed, the Certosa’s geographic location (high on a hill, fresh air, sewage runs downhill) made it an ideal escape from which to ride out the bouts of plague that so often swept through Florence.

Boccaccio was a signatory on the document that established the financial gift from Acciaiuoli to begin the project. About 10 years later, after Boccaccio fell out with Acciaiuoli, he made fun of the Certosa, calling it a pile of rocks on a hill that would never bring everlasting fame to its patron Acciaiuoli. But history proved him wrong, and let that be a cautionary tale for readers here.

From the Palazzo Acciaiuoli (very successful! historically noted!) we stepped out onto a grand piazza, in full sun, crowned by the facade of the church. 
One big piazza, check.
The inside, like almost every building in Florence, was surfaced in an amount of fine marble sufficient for a thousand luxury bathrooms. Don Alessandro explained that the foyer of the church was for the public, and lay monastics, whereas the interior of the church remained closed to the public to maintain the Carthusian seclusion. We went into the main sanctuary. The ambient temperature progressively dropped. Don Alessandro kept up his knowledgeable patter, supplemented by the exclamations of the medievalists who offered facts or confirmation here and there. I hung back to look at the wooden choir stalls, with their bare, buxom mermaids leaning out as though from the prows of ships.

Choir stalls, Certosa.

We followed Don Alessandro into the sacristy to see the liturgical treasures: chalices and tabernacles, votives and relics. He unlocked an
d opened an enormous set of cupboard doors that reminded me of my recent trip to the Great Synagogue, and where the Torah is kept. Around the walls of the sacristy were frescoed, in a kind of wainscot, images in single-tone of what England did to Catholics in the early seventeenth century. “The English were incredible,” Don Alessandro smirked. “If there was a way to torture a person, they would do it without hesitation.” The depictions on the wall attested to this, as Carthusians were shown being drawn and quartered, beheaded, crucified, burned, and more. Farm carts were piled high with torsos, legs, and arms. A calligraphied narrative clarified the facts of the scene – quite a counterpoint to the serene icons and portraits of saints, and the gleaming gold in the sacristy’s cupboard. Oh, England, I thought.

We twisted through a maze of halls, down an unlit two flights of stairs, to reach the crypt of Acciaiuoli family. Cells phones with flashlight apps came out. The medievalists were beside themselves. There in a small chapel at the end of the crypt were Niccolo himself, and his wife, and a sister and brother, in their marble tombs since the fourteenth century, their long fingers clasped in silent, eternal prayer. It was cold. I began to shiver, but after the heat and the sun above, it felt good. A voto was set within the wall, with more remains in a vault.

Wife of Niccolo Acciaiuoli, Margherita degli Spini.
She’s been resting here now for quite some time, since the fourteenth century.
No telling where his mistress Catherine of Taranto is laid.

Outside of the Acciaiuoli chapel were laid what appeared to be every member of the Ricasoli family who passed to eternal rest in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their marble lapidaries attesting to the enduring one or two basic facts of their life (“distinguished solder,” “long and painful illness,” “grieving wife,” “epilepsy.”) A few more altars were tucked here and there in dark spaces, and one more tomb of a Bishop of Florence, gleaming in white marble with a small rope hung around it like a hapless fence.

We climbed our way back up the dark and dusty staircase, until it became warmer and warmer. A small gallery with wooden seats set into the wall was situated between the sanctuary and the courtyard. This place, Don Alessandro said, A sign at the end of the hall over the door read “Penitentibus” (for penitents, plural ablative, thank you Peggy Chambers) and I imagined what sins a secluded monk under vows of silence might confess. Had unkind thoughts about another brother? Perhaps caught a glimpse of his weekday waiter through the offset windows in the wall?

We passed into the courtyard preceding the refectory, which was situated like another set of cloisters, with a massive stone lavandone that had three metal taps, and bore an inscription about washing off iniquity.

The grand cloister of the Certosa is huge, like a residential college at Yale or Oxford. The doors of the monastic cells open onto its cloistered path, shaded from the sun, looking out onto a massive garden of grass and lavender. A huge well was sunk into its center. The green space in front of the cells was matched by a private garden, with lavender and oleander and a bench, a place to sit and contemplate God’s works. I mentioned their dinner cupboard above, but also, next to the cupboard, was bored a small opening above the monk’s bed. This, Don Alessandro explained, was so that the good health – or not – of the monk might be verified if he had not been seen or heard from in more than a day or two. When the questioning knock came, he was to reply, “Deo gratias” – thanks be to God.

Outside in the cloister, along the main wall of the building and the low wall surrounding the garden,  were more tombs, hundreds of them, seemingly of parish members. I was struck by a memorial for a baby who died at three days old, and the many tombs for the laity, again with the one or two remaining facts of their lives chiseled into marble plaques. A smaller, sectioned off cemetery contained the graves of nameless monks, whose extreme abdication of the ego brought them closer to God even in death.

Grand cloister.

We made a quick final loop through the refectory, which looked much like the choir stalls. A dais at the east end of the room was, presumably, for the abbot, and a lectern set high into the corner to the left of the abbot’s place ensured that the lectio divino read out by one of the brothers would be heard by all the monks, chewing carefully and in silent contemplation, with their one or two possibly sinful thoughts pushed away for the moment.

Our tour complete, Don Alessandro again shook hands warmly with each of us while Jason and the medievalists continued their conversation about the conference they planned to hold on the grounds next year. The monastery had taken on the midday hush of Italian midsummer, save for a lone woman speaking loudly into a cellphone, who was greeted by name by Don Alessandro, after which she seemed to pipe down. Don Alessandro got into a small car outside the Certosa walls and waved goodbye from the window as he departed down the gravel road.

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