Nothing happens by chance
I came across the account of the archeologist Don Gaetano Chierici who spent ten days in the wilds of Montecristo in 1875, thirty years after the publication of the famous novel by Alexandre Dumas.
Around the same time, I discovered a video on Montecristo on youtube by Ennio Boga, an accountant in Milan with the vocation of a naturalist and documentary film maker.
And in my mind the sensation of isolation and holiness that I felt the first time I visited the island ,immediately resurfaced … and which happened also on subsequent visits.
In the late nineties, as today, it was difficult to reach the island, even for residents (Montecristo is part of the municipality of Portoferraio).
I immediately should say that I went there only as an environmental guide, accompanying a group of schoolchildren from Northern Italy.
Never having been there before I was well armed with information, but then I discovered that the ideas I had was the equivalent of trying to describe a cappuccino coffee to a Martian.
It was the difference between reading about it and living it
The island emerging from the sea with very steep and bare granite rock, gives you an idea, but seeing it from the boat, it appeared to me really surreal and even disturbing.
The docking at Cala Maestra, the only point (it is appropriate to say “point”) of landing on the island, is reassuring.
The tiny beach and the vegetation around the guardian’s house, called quite rightly “the royal villa”, was built in 1852 by the Englishman George Watson Taylor, so it’s good to know that it didn’t get lost in a space-time slot.
The friendly welcome of the forest guards and the guardians who are the only inhabitants of the island, wasn’t enough to make me fully rejoin the twentieth century.
It wasn’t a good day, it was drizzling and the excursion to the monastery was more challenging than usual because of the granite slabs which are covered in lichens and make the rocks very slippery in damp weather..
It’s all concentrated in a small space and a lot of sky
The monastery consists of the ruins of a church and an adjoining Camaldolese Benedictine convent dating from the early 1200s. For centuries and even up till today it has been more frequently inhabited by the wild goats than by any humans.
The ruin is located about 400 meters above sea level, but it was not built on the highest point of the island which is 200 meters higher, and is where the Romans built their temple.
The building is located a short distance from a cave in the granite which was the original site, and today is called the “Grotta del Santo”. In this natural shelter, equipped with a water source, the Sicilian bishop San Mamiliano took refuge,in D455 after fleeing from Africa, where he had been held in chains by the Vandals.
The adventurous life of San Mamiliano ended a few years later in 460. He led a saintly and rather prudently hermit like life because of the barbarian invasions and attacks at that time. It was an example and laid the foundation stones of a sacred tradition that would culminate in the Middle Ages with the construction of the monasteries.
It was a beacon of faith and prayer as for three centuries the Camaldolese monastery was enriched also materially, thanks to the tributes that the monks brought from the continent, from Sardinia and also from Corsica.
Maybe because of this famous opulence, it attracted the attention of one of the most feared pirates who roamed the Mediterranean, the Turkish Dragut.
From 7 August 1553, the date of the looting and the ruin of the monastery until the mid-1800s, when it was bought by G.W. Taylor, the island must have remained in a still silence, under that immense and clear sky, embraced by a very large sea, barely ruffled by some driftwood that occasionally took refuge by necessity or by desperation, on one of its many small ravaged coves .
With the mind between saints and brigands
For the whole day many years ago, I was kidnapped by these thoughts, every step, every step carved in the granite, every glance around that rough and mysterious landscape, every stone of the ascetic monastery, it seemed to have a story to tell, and maybe more than one.
I imagined the pride of the ancient people who fought in the sea in front of the chemical weapons of that time (vipers thrown on the deck of the enemy ship in earthen vessels), the Roman empire that placed their main deity on the highest hill at in spite of its inaccessibility, the fervour of the first hermits, the sanctity and weaknesses of the monks, the Saracen terror and the oblivion, the romanticism of George Taylor and the hardness of the micro penitentiary in the aftermath of the unification of Italy.
But more than anything else in my memory the interweaving of these images with solitude is vivid (even if talking about solitude to high school girls appears a contradiction) and the isolation of these places: together with the scent of the sea and the Helichrysus seems to breathe a peace and a restlessness that needs concentration, alongside a silence which makes you look inside yourself. Yes, this environment forces you look outside and inside; this is strange, since I have never seen a more fascinating panorama, and yet this island is not made for worldliness, it is the island of the cave of the Saint, the shelter in the middle of the sea, the perfect metaphor of refuge to find oneself, in fact it is more than a metaphor, is a magnetic field of inspiration and inner research. In this short video of the National Park shot by the excellent Ennio Boga, I watched and had the same feeling of pleasant vibrations that I experienced there, within the invulnerable fragility of Nature and I would like to share this with those who will never be able to go to Montecristo.