English Spirit Outside Rome
“Don't believe the hype” — or so the saying goes.
With that advice in mind, I kept my expectations in check as the car in which I was a passenger made its way along winding roads through an area of thickly wooded hills outside Rome.
I'd heard glowing reports about our destination from my driver, a colleague who'd invited me to explore this place while both of us were at a press conference in the Eternal City.
As we trundled down an uneven, narrow pathway, the trees gave way to a view that Henry James once described as the most astounding in the whole of Italy.
I was on a visit to Palazzola, a little-known English retreat house in the Castelli Romani region. Situated in a commanding location close to the rim of the extinct volcanic crater that is now Lake Albano, this “little palace” just outside the Italian capital has been a refuge for students of the Venerable English College since 1920.
But as well as being a place for seminarians to escape the bustling city to study and reflect, for the past 30 years, Palazzola, which used to be a monastery dating back to the 10th century, has also been open to groups and individuals looking for a spiritual retreat. Countless pilgrims from all over the English-speaking world have visited here, using it as a base to visit to Rome, or for a few quiet moments before moving on to St. Peter's and the Colosseum.
And it doesn't take a pilgrimage guru to understand why. Palazzola's jewel in the crown is its viewing garden. A peaceful stone terrace and lawn, sheltered by acacia, bay and cypress, this gives way to a breathtaking panorama of the lake. Immediately adjacent is the town of Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of popes, with its twin telescopic domes belonging to the Vatican's astronomers.
“It's a unique experience here,” says Palazzola's director, Michael Severance. “If you've never been here before, you will be amazed.”
Severance, a genial marketing expert from Phoenix, Ariz., has been brought in by the English College to attract more visitors to the villa. He is also Palazzola's first lay director since its previous managers, the Sisters of Mercy, left last year. Yet as a devout Catholic, he is very keen on making sure the villa retains its long history as a base for spiritual replenishment.
Built on the site of the Via Sacra and immediately next to the tomb of the famous pre-Christian Roman general Scipio, this place has attracted monks and friars from the Cistercian, Carthusian and Franciscan orders; all have lived and worshipped here. Hermits, too, have sought the serenity of the grounds, inhabiting the large caves nearby.
Yet Palazzola is open to all people, regardless of denomination or faith, looking for a time of quiet spiritual reflection. During my visit, I met a non-baptized BBC producer on her second visit after she had fallen in love with the beauty of the place while in Rome to cover the conclave.
Also enjoying a retreat were an Anglican couple who were clearly delighted with their find. “We love the warm welcome we've gotten and the Eucharistic fellowship,” said the husband, a vicar from Devon in England. “We've been here two weeks and we're staying for three,” added his wife, her eyes twinkling.
In fact, the villa has for some years been closely associated with ecumenism. A large Anglican-Catholic conference was held here in 1986; John Paul II attended.
Most visitors, however, are Catholics and, while I stayed, a group of Benedictine monks from Pennsylvania and New England, and Sisters of Mercy nuns from England enjoyed the villa as a base from which they branched out in various directions. They were later joined by the directors of Vatican Radio attending a morning conference and lunch (always cooked in true Roman style by an Italian family — the pork is particularly good and reputed to be the best in Italy).
Now the plan is to also attract families. Severance, who is married to an Italian and has two young children, sees the villa's large swimming pool, tennis courts and acres of ground for children to explore as ideal for families, and aims to host a seminar on family management.
“The home is nowadays sometimes perceived as a workplace,” he points out. “Even kids are sometimes perceived as work, but you cannot relax enough to enjoy them. Here there is a spiritual dimension which will also give families the chance to have some real free time to be together.”
Yet the villa's potential need not end there. Severance would like to host trade shows for pilgrim operators, clerical vestment companies and religious artists. But he is wary, too, of turning Palazzola into a “Holiday Inn on the Lake.”
“The real concern is not to over-commercialize, in the sense of making T-shirts or bottling the scent of old libraries,” he explains. Rather, he says, the intention is simply to capitalize on the “huge market” for retreats, pilgrim groups and inter-religious conferences.
To do so, he argues, is an urgent necessity. “The Church has reached a point where it cannot depend on itself anymore and needs operations like this to exist,” he says. “We can't be a drain on the Church, either, or we'd just have to close it up and turn it into a hotel.”
For some retreatants, Palazzola's downsides will be that it is no longer an active monastery or convent, and therefore without the spiritual life that a living cloister would provide. The villa is also not easily reachable without a car. However, retreatants are not expected to live like monks: The villa is more a place more to unwind, reflect and pray than a center for intense religiosity and penance. And, although buses are few, Palazzola is close to Rome's Ciampino airport, from where cars can be rented.
Needless to say, like so many before me, I was saddened to leave the villa and return to the din of the city. But at the same time, I could not help but be grateful for the time I had in this place where ancient, hallowed ground and nature's outstanding beauty work beautifully to transform the human spirit.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.
Planning Your Visit
Summer is a fine time to visit Villa Palazzola, as temperatures average in the mid- to upper-70s Fahrenheit with cooling breezes blowing off the lake.
Villa Palazzola is located on the eastern slope of Lake Albano, 18 miles south of the center of Rome. For detailed road and rail directions, go to palazzola.it on the Internet.
- July 3-9, 2005