Situated in the Paduan lowlands, just a few kilometres southwest of Este, St Mary’s Abbey is a lovely historic religious site. If you enjoy visiting medieval churches and monasteries, and prefer the calm and cosy atmosphere of the countryside to noisy crowds in big cities, this place could be the perfect one for you.
St Mary’s Abbey of Carceri was founded in around the 12th century by a group of Augustinian monks, who established a monastic settlement near Este. Henry the Black, Duke of Bavaria, granted the monks with land called “le Carcere”, on which the Augustinians erected a new church. It was consecrated in 1189 in the presence of all the civil and religious authorities of the Veneto region.
The historic origin of the name “Carceri” is very unclear, and is perhaps lost forever in the distant past. The name probably derives from “Carceres”, which means small stables or horse enclosures. As an interesting historical footnote, in ancient times, Carceri was a land of horse breeding, public performances and competitions. However, for local inhabitants, this name is reminiscent of a place of solitude, silence and religious prayer.
Monastic life in the Abbey did not only consist of prayers, quietness and peace. For about four centuries, Augustinian monks reclaimed the land, erected embankments, built roads and developed agriculture, promoting population growth in the countryside.
Over time, St Mary’s Abbey grew to become one of the most powerful monasteries in the Veneto region. However, its prosperity and power were cut short by a profound crisis caused by plague and famine, which caused the death of one third of the population. To return the monastery to normality, Pope Gregorio XII transferred the Abbey’s ownership to the Camaldolese monks. The entire Abbey complex was greatly extended and was at its most prosperous under the rule of the Camaldolese, who ruled the Abbey for the next three centuries until 1690.
After gradually losing its importance and prestige, the Abbey was dissolved by Pope Alessandro VIII and sold to the Venetian Carminati merchants in the 17th century. This very culturally rich Abbey in northern Italy ceased to exist, and its monks were dispersed across different monasteries in the Veneto region. Thus, this place of prayer, culture, silence and hospitality was transformed into a large agricultural farm.
Today, visitors to Carceri can marvel at some of the fine architectural structures of St Mary’s Abbey, including an entrance gate, a former guesthouse, a granary, a church, two cloisters, an ancient library with frescos and an abbot residence.
The entrance gate belongs to the early period of monasticism in Carceri, and served as the Abbey’s only official gate. Over the centuries, it underwent several important changes. Above the arch, a 19th-century capital built by the Camaldolese is still preserved, while the top of the gate walls is decorated with merlons and small ornaments.
Just a few steps from the entrance gate stands the guesthouse, or foresteria, where the monks once hosted pilgrims and travellers. The western façade is divided into three sections by four pilasters. A noteworthy feature of this façade is that its doorways are turned towards the entrance gate as a sign of hospitality. From an architectural point of view, this monastic building is considered to be one of the most imposing buildings in the monastery. Today, however, it looks rather haunting.
The focal point of the Abbey is the church, which has its own rich and fascinating history and which is worth setting aside some time to explore. The present fabric of the church was erected by the Camaldolese monks, probably on the site of an earlier parish church.
Behind the church, a lovely small cloister can be found, which is known as “Romanico”. It was built by the Augustinian monks at the beginning of the 13th century. However, only part adjacent to the church remains of its original structure. Nonetheless, visitors can still admire its particular style, beautiful red marble columns and a basin at the end of a covered path. A small courtyard with a charming fountain at its centre can be found next to the cloister.
Adjacent to the courtyard is another cloister, which is known as “Rinascimentale”. Built in accordance with the Renaissance style, it consists of wide arcades supported by Tuscan columns. A trabeation placed above the columns divides the arcade level from the windowed upper level. The cloister has an elegant loggia on the first floor, which is beautifully decorated with slender columns. At the centre of the cloister, there is a splendid monumental well. Made of red marble, the top of the well is embellished with the Camaldolese coat of arms: two doves drinking water from the same goblet. It was a symbol of hermits and coenobites, who got their strength from Christ. Originally built to provide monks with rooms for study and rest, the “Rinascimentale” cloister currently houses the Museum of Rural Life, and hosts a variety of children’s activities.
Nestled in a peaceful countryside setting, St Mary’s Abbey is a perfect place to immerse yourself in the great history of Carceri’s monks, to find out about the rural life of local people and, finally, to enjoy a little solitude.