Hermitage of Le Celle

Among the first settlements desired by St Francis, the Hermitage of Le Celle hermitage in Cortona, at the foot of Monte Sant’Egidio, has a special place. The Poverello of Assisi (St Francis of Assisi) obtained the place where he could retire to pray and meditate in 1211 from the Cortonese nobleman Guido Vagnottelli, one of the Umbrian saint’s first companions. There were in fact already small caves in the bare rock, probably ancient shelters for shepherds.

The site became a hermitage, where St Francis returned in 1215 to spend Easter, after having spent the Lenten period on the Isola Maggiore on Lake Trasimeno. The last time the saint stopped at the hermitage was in 1226, the year of his death, on his way back to Assisi but by then very ill. According to tradition, he drew up his spiritual testament here.

In 1235, Elias of Cortona, one of the first followers of St Francis and later Minister General of the Friars Minor Order, had an oratory and new cells built for the friars of the same size as the one used by the saint, transforming the site into one of the first Franciscan sanctuaries after the death of the founder of the order. Here Elias spent the last years of his life.

After about a century, the hermitage was abandoned by the Franciscans and passed to the newly founded Diocese of Cortona. In 1537, the Capuchins, a Franciscan order that had been founded a few years earlier, were called to revive it. They built the new church and the novitiate corridor with twenty cells that were used for five centuries. Until 1988, in fact, Le Celle was the main place to train the new Capuchins. The last major renovation took place in 1969.

Today the Hermitage of the Celle, set in the Via di Francesco, is a “house of prayer” frequented by those in search of inner peace. It is a place full of mysticism and spirituality a short distance from Cortona, straddling a narrow valley that follows the course of the Fosso dei Cappuccini, where one can admire suggestive architecture that matches the orography of the place and the rugged rocky terrain.

Among the most visited places are the holm oak wood surrounding the hermitage, the cells where St Francis and Brother Elias lived, the Oratory of San Franceschino next to the entrance, the Santissima Trinity Chapel and the Church of St. Anthony of Padua with seventeenth-century Tuscan paintings.

The various parts of the hermitage are connected by three bridges. The late sixteenth-century Ponte Barberini (Barberini Bridge) is named after the novice Antonio Barberini, brother of Pope Urban VII. The Ponte del Granduca (Grand Duke’s Bridge) was built in 1728 by Gian Gastone de’ Medici. The Ponte di Ferro (Iron Bridge) dates back to 1897.