In August, I attended the Association of Italian Canadian Writers (AICW) 16th biennial conference ‘Italian Canadian Literature: Departures, Journeys, Destinations’ where I read my first short story in public. 38 speakers, AICW members and friends came from across Canada, Italy, Germany, Spain, the United States and the United Kingdom. The conference presentations were amazing and an anthology will be published next year.
The conference was held in Padula (Salerno, Campania) at La Certosa di Padula, a Carthusian Monastery built in 1306 and added onto over the next 450 years. Dedicated to San Lorenzo, the style is mostly Baroque and it is the largest monastery in Italia. Chiostro Grande is the largest cloister in the world, surrounded by 84 columns. The place is huge with a total of 320 rooms! In 1998, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Parco Nazionale del Cilento e Vallo di Diano and the archeological sites of Paestum and Velia. I have now been to all of them except Velia.
While I was there, due to restoration work the upper floor was not accessible. This meant I was not able to see the monks’ cells or take the white marble scala elittico to the large biblioteca (library) which has a Maiolica tile floor from Vietri sul Mare and 2000 remaining manuscripts. I was also not able to see the last construction added to the site in 1799, the famous Scalone Elicoidale –an ornate double ramped, double helix shaped staircase in an octagonal tower with 8 large open windows overlooking a garden. The Scalone spirals incorporating the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Section, which I find fascinating. It connects the upper floor to the Chiostro Grande and was used by the cloistered monaci for their passeggiata settimanale –weekly walk. Being a lover of staircases, books and libraries, the closure was disappointing, but luckily there was still a lot left to see. Most of the chapels are Baroque and very ornate, with the largest collection of Scagliola work found anywhere. Scagliola (sca·LYOH·lah) is a technique for painting stucco columns, sculptures, and other architectural features to look like inlays in marble and semi-precious stones, such as madre di perla. Those monaci were frugal and talented! Now I know what to call the areas of my house that I have painted to look like Carrara marble!
The Monastery kitchen, renovated in 1742, could have been the perfect setting for ‘Masterchef: Medieval edition’. It is brightened by yellow and green Maiolica tiles which look completely out of place. The colours were chosen to keep the flies away- at least that is what the guard told me! The most striking feature in the cucina is an enormous cappa or hood, on a furnace with an antique boiler and a base covered in maiolica tiles. The inside of the cappa is blackened from hundreds of years of use. Stone work tables are in place and on the back wall is a large fresco, painted in 1650, obscured by time and smoke. This part of the cucina with its barrel vaulted ceiling used to be a rectory before the 1742 reno. The cucina has its own cloister and small garden, with the cantina and laundries next to it.
The monaci ate frugal, meatless meals in solitude in their cells, except during special occasions. The refettorio (rectory) hall with 61 stalls carved of walnut wood is where they sat at meal times on feast days and during Lent. The 1749 fresco is of Le Nozze di Cana. Occasionally the cucina was used to prepare rich meals for visits by important guests, most famously the one organized for Emperor Carlo V on his return from Tunisia in 1535. The monaci prepared him a frittata with 1,000 eggs. My first night in Padula, August 10th, was the annual Festa della Frittata di Mille Uova, recreating this event. The modern contraption used to make the frittata was made in 1996 and looks like a colossal pizzelle iron that flips over and rolls across a massive fire pit! Unfortunately we don’t know what the monaci used to make their frittata.
In 1802, the monaci had to abandon La Certosa, and Napoleonic troops took away any treasures that were cartable. They returned a few years later, but abandoned La Certosa for the last time in 1866. 20 years later, it was declared a national monument. During the 2 World Wars the complex was mostly abandoned, being used briefly as a prison camp, and as a children’s holiday camp. Padula received funds for restoration in 1982.
Padula is a very nice town of 5,000. Getting there without your own car is extremely difficult. Padula is on the A3 Salerno-Reggio Calabria road, exit Buonabitacolo. The closest train station is Sapri on the Cilento coast. There are a couple of buses a day from Napoli, which make stops in every town along the way. Although very out of the way, Padula is worth the detour! The drive there from Paestum was stunning. Admission to La Certosa di Padula is €4 for adults. Make sure you have at least 4 hours to visit. There are 2 very nice, affordable hotels in Padula, Grand Hotel Certosa and Villa Cosilinum.