The Catholic Church's central role in Italy's history and culture means that the entire country is brimming with extraordinary churches and other religious institutions, most of them centuries old.
Many Italian basilicas and cathedrals are world renowned, and justifiably so, for religious, cultural and artistic reasons. In fact, for most of Italy's history, these areas of life were closely intertwined. Artists were commissioned by the church, and the church was ground zero of cultural and family life. To some extent this remains true.
Here we present noted abbeys and monasteries that—even if you are not Catholic—you simply must experience, to be awed by their artistic and architectural treasures. We discuss in order of north to south.
Certosa Di Pavia
A UNESCO Heritage site, this northern monastery has 615 years of glorious history and is visited by roughly 300,000 people annually. It's considered a masterpiece of the Lombard era and gleams with Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Bernardo da Venezia, who also designed the Cathedral of Milan, was one of its leading designers. The Certosa has artworks by Bergognone, including the famous panels of St. Ambrose and San Siro and the Crucifixion. Lombardy in northern Italy is additionally a charming agricultural region to explore by bike or on foot.
Certosa di Firenze
This Tuscan masterpiece was built in 1341 by Niccolò Acciaiuoli, a powerful citizen of 14th century Florence. Mannerist in architectural style, it has numerous frescoes, a marble altar added in the 16th century and a burial crypt. The monks' cells open to reveal a beautiful Renaissance cloister.
The monks have two rooms each, for sleeping and praying, and a tiny enclosed garden for each to tend. Some cells are open to the public. You can also visit the Chiostro dei Conversi where you can view the refectory where lessons were read during meals. The Cistercian friars maintain their age-old traditions such as distilling liqueur and the making small religious articles for sale.
Abbazia di Vallombrosa
Vallombrosa in Reggello, Tuscany, hosts one of the most famous and richest arboretums in Italy, with more than 5,000 species of trees. A verdant nature path leads to the top of the historic site and to the Abbazia, or abbey, built in the 11th century. This community of Benedectine monks has a rich and embattled history that goes back nearly 1000 years. It was founded by Giovanni Gualberto, a Florentine noble, in 1038, but it was forced to capitulate to Spanish invaders and then Napoleonic opposition before becoming the quiet natural gem it is today.
Abbazia di Farfa
The Abbazia di Farfa is considered one of the most important artistic and historical monuments in Rieti Province. Rieti is in central Italy, in the Sabini and Reatini Mountains. An important commercial center since ancient times, in Rieti there is found abundant evidence of both Roman and Medieval cultures. The city became a Libero Comune (free city-state), and later the residence of the popes. Enveloped by the Reatini Mountains and overlooked by Monte Terminillo, Rieti is rich in protected natural oases, castles, fortresses and Franciscan sanctuaries.
La Trinita’ della Cava
This Benedictine abbey, located near Cava de' Tirreni in Salerno, is another treasure. It sits in a valley of the Finestre Hills. Founded in 1011 by Alferius of Pappacarbona, a noble of Salerno, this monastery was later bestowed by Pope Urban II with many papal privileges, making it immediately subject to the Holy See. The church and the greater part of the surrounding buildings were entirely modernized in 1796. The old Gothic cloisters are preserved.
The church contains a majestic organ and several ancient sarcophagi, including the tombs of Queen Sibylla of Burgundy and other notable ecclesiastics.
Chiesa di Padre Pio
Its newer conch shell-shaped sanctuary by Renzo Piano, at 65,000 sq. ft., is the second largest church in Italy after Milan's Duomo. It took 10 years and was financed by pilgrims. San Giovanni Rotondo is the native city of St. Pio, or Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, where the monk worked his miracles. But the sanctuaries of Padre Pio have great historic and architectural significance too. Pio requested that the church be used to welcome the devoted pilgrims. Its walls are composed of stone from Apricena; a stained-glass window has scenes suggesting a vision of the Apocalypse. It also has a green roof of oxidizing copper and a subterranean level lower church with the physical remains of the saint.