When I was eleven, my brother, my mother and I visited the Reggia di Caserta–a royal residence that historically belonged to the Bourbons of the Two Sicilies and is also known as the Versailles of Italy. After carefully inspecting the rooms and making sure that everything was greatly to my taste, I said to my mom: “When I grow up, I want a house like this one.” Obviously, like any significant human story, destiny reserved something else for me: housing from a university apartment with just one bathroom (shared with six other girls!) to a hole without a lift or air-conditioning, but with a domestic gecko named Sauro.
That passion for greatness and majesty, however, is still inside me. Since then, I have always preferred airy spaces full of art, history and beauty. I found one such pearl in the little-traveled area of the Vallo di Diano, a fertile basin in Campania on the border of Basilicata. Right here, in Padula (in the province of Salerno), stands the Certosa di San Lorenzo, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
As the name itself suggests, the Certosa di San Lorenzo is a complex that was built for the Certosini religious order, one of the most rigorous monastic orders of the Catholic Church, vowed to solitude and silence. The Certosa di San Lorenzo, the Certosa di San Martino in Naples and the one of San Giacomo in Capri are the only three certose in Campania. The Certosa di Padula, however, is the largest in Italy and one of the largest in Europe.
Before stepping foot in the Certosa, these sizable conditions had already satisfied most of my personal aspirations and preferences. Learning that it’s enhanced with about three hundred and fifty rooms (!) and the largest cloister in the world made me feel like a child with that wonderful purity of discovery again.
More than an ordinary monastic complex, the Certosa is a little town that came to life back in 1306. Centuries and centuries of adventures and changing hands created this place full of charm today.
Maybe these last years have left a deep break within each of us or maybe because I have never liked crowds (and because the food in the area is so good), the Certosa di Padula is a true haven for those like me who are looking for peace, for a wide and slow breath. You have to be really patient to visit it, because it’s easy to miss something in its 51,000 square meters. The Certosini (and the female order the Certosine) knew what they were doing, so much so that they obtained a specific adjective in the vocabulary. It’s a resilient, very austere order, maybe the most severe and contemplative of them all. Pursuant to their well-coded rules, their chosen place must also reflect their lifestyle. So the structure of the Certosa di Padula is divided into two large functional areas: the dòmus infèrior, or “the low house”, with spaces dedicated to work, such as the veggie garden, the pharmacy, the library, the stables, the granaries, and the kitchens; and the dòmus supèrior, “the upper house”, with spaces dedicated to contemplation and the residences of i Padri (“the Fathers”)–a kingdom of silence and seclusion.
Because the Certosa is in Campania, every detail bears the mark and the testimony of belonging to an exceptional place: the library’s floor is covered with mattonelle di Vietri (hand-painted tiles in shades of blue); the church has stucchi (“stucco”), majolica floors and marbled altars typical of the Barocco Napoletano; and the elliptical staircase, on the western side of the complex, is made entirely of pietra di Padula, a typical stone from the Cilento area that is widely used in sculpture and architecture. This monumental construction was one of my specific reasons for visiting the Certosa. In fact, calling it a staircase doesn’t do it justice: it has a double ramp, built in the stile vanvitelliano–a very rich and majestic Baroque style–to link the two levels of the cloister. Looking closely at it makes you feel really small. It looks a little like those Disney fairytale staircases, except that it’s more open: there are seven huge windows overlooking an Italian garden, making this incredible place even more ethereal and enchanted.
I think I spent almost half an hour contemplating this place and its panorama, and it was precisely at that moment that I understood why the Certosini are so inflexible in their monastic obligations. Their Latin motto “stat crux dum volvitur orbis” means “the cross stands still while the world moves”. Looking at the world through those windows gave me the impression of being inside something motionless, imperturbable, unaware of what happens outside its centuries-old walls.
As I stared at the gardens, I found myself a little envious of the Certosini, just as, at the age of eleven, I envied the Neapolitan kings and queens who lived in the Reggia di Caserta: living in these places must not have been unpleasant at all, despite the privations. Although the Certosini are devoted to silence, to renouncing the world and all vanity, they still manage to live in peace, accepting renunciation with maturity and joy. Within the walls of the Certosa, you can breathe a sense of serenity that is truly rare, but it’s the little gardens that give the most vivid emotions. And it’s the prior’s, among all, that makes you go four centuries back in time. The private garden, for the exclusive use of the priore della Certosa, can be accessed directly from his quarto (“quarters”). It might even be defined as more than a garden: perhaps a real cloister on which some of the Certosini’s cells overlook. Walking in this place, admiring the loggia painted with bucolic and sea life scenes, is the closest thing to a dream there could be: the rustle of trees, the flight of some swallows and an intense scent of old flowers.
I’m a little sad that the Certosa di Padula is no longer active. There are just 24 certose in the world still inhabited by the Carthusians, just four of which are in Italy: two male orders (the Certosa di Serra San Bruno in the province of Vibo Valentia and the Certosa di Farneta in the province of Lucca) and two female orders (the Certosa di Vedana near Belluno and the Certosa della Trinità in the province of Savona). Some might wonder what the purpose of the undeterred existence of their order is nowadays, but visiting one of these wonders removes any doubt. Contemplation and meditation are not the antithesis of beauty: instead, they nourish themselves and enrich each other.
I find it extremely fascinating that “we” are so many, a little adrift in this crazy world, and “they” are so few, gathered in silence, choosing a solitary life. Maybe, just for this reason, the Certosini exist bravely in the modern world: they make choices upstream, far from what most people seek. They make the strong decision to live according to rules that could appear incomprehensible and obsolete to us–us who are caught up in modernity, following fashions at any cost, rushing to keep up with the times, taking time away from what is really important, namely ourselves and the value of human bonds.
Yet, while visiting the Certosa di Padula, nothing seemed obsolete. I found myself walking along the portico of the large cloister, wondering what it would be like to experience a life made up of quiet days, all alike, without those compelling obligations to which everyone is subjected daily. For a long moment, I forgot the glory of the Reggia di Caserta and my childish desire to be “important”, and I was surprised to realize that maybe, I say maybe, true fortune lies in the simplicity of a modest life.
I would have liked to meet one of the Certosini to ask him why, how, where. Though the charm of these places is probably in the awareness and testimony of a glorious past which has almost disappeared, but is no less important.
If you are planning a visit, I recommend taking advantage of the periods when there are no crowds–spring or autumn. According to my experience, the best time of the day to fully enjoy the wonderful light that filters through the gardens is late afternoon. After your visit, to top it all off, head to the Fattoria Alvaneta farmhouse, a few kilometers from the Certosa: you will dine surrounded by greenery and admire a breathtaking landscape.