"Eremo delle Celle" is a hermitage in the territory of Cortona founded by Saint Francesco in 1211. It is easy to find and very recommended to visit; like all Franciscan hermitages, it is immersed in nature and invites the visitors to meditation and self-reflection. The name "Le Celle" was given prior to the arrival of St. Francis. It was perhaps due to the presence of small constructions among the rocks, (used as huts by peasants and shepherds), and mills, that were until recently located along the course of the stream to exploit the flow of the waters. The place had to appear remote and wild to the Saint, as it indeed does today, both upstream and downstream of the convent structure. Since it was isolated in the middle of the woods and near a stream with beautiful nature around it, it favored the desire of the Saint for silence and spirituality.
The Hermitage "Le Celle" is the first convent built by St. Francis of Assisi (1211) and was inhabited by him even after receiving the stigmata. It is probably here that he dictated his "Testament," one of his most precious writings, where he summarized all his spiritual experience in 1226. Crucial for the development of the structure was friar Elia, who broke the stones of the caves and built a small oratory and an ancient dormitory for the friars. He left intact the little cell inhabited by Saint Francis, and then he pulled up rough but solid walls. At the top, he built eight small rooms, where he placed a bed, a wallboard for a table and a chair. This was the ideal hermitage as described and desired by San Franceso himself; it was a contemplative expression of his order.
The complex, built at the turn of a narrow valley, is very suggestive and scenic, mostly for its calmness and spirituality. Friar Elia, who took on the burden of structurally adapting the convent, took as a point of reference the primitive shelter cell of San Francesco and distributed the other buildings in a fan shape. Even though they over the centuries expanded it with subsequent modifications, the original core is represented by the cell. The rectangular room in front is now used as an oratory, while it was initially a community space, perhaps a dormitory for his companions.
As visitors walk down towards the entrance, what stands out are the two stone bridges built over the river. In 1728, the bridge of the Grand Duke was constructed within only two weeks, in place of an old bridge (perhaps unusable or collapsed). The bridge has kept its name until today since it was built upon the approval of the Grand Duke of Tuscany with funding from the Municipality of Cortona. The town of Cortona recently restored it in 1995. The second bridge dates back to 1594, and it was constructed at the time of the novitiate of Antonio Barberini, brother of Pope Urban VII. Then the middle bridge was built, and it is still called "Ponte Barberini."
The Hermitage "Le Celle," as all the others Franciscan hermitages, has the characteristic of absolute essentiality and contact with wild nature. Therefore it is very suitable for meditation. Today the structure is used by young people both in search of their vocation, and spiritual retreat. Guests are only required to participate and respect the life of the Franciscan community.
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