This remote corner of Tuscany is the seat of a medieval feud between two adjoining mountain communes. Villa Simonicchi lies between the two on the road that leads from Caprese Michelangelo to Chiusi della Verna and the mountain-top Sanctuary of La Verna.
At the centre of the quarrel are two of the most famous names in the history of European Religion and Art;
St. Francis of Assisi, (1181-1226), first to receive the stigmata and first in the hierarchy of saints, and
Michelangelo Buonarroti, (1475-1564), archetypal sculptor and painter.
The feud arose after Michelangelo’s death when Chiusi della Verna, already basking in the reflected glory of St. Francis, claimed that Michelangelo was born in its commune. This quarrel passed down through the ages until a letter written by the sculptor’s father was discovered confirming his birth at Caprese Castle. Caprese lost no time adding Michelangelo to its name, and the matter was put to rest.
The Sanctuary of La Verna is on Mt. Penna in an area of strange rock formations and ancient forest on the edge of the Casentino National Park.. It was given to Saint Francis by Count Orlando of Chuisi who was deeply moved by his preaching. Here Francis and his companions found refuge in the caves and made rough shelters from brushwood and branches. From this base they travelled from village to village preaching and begging for alms along the still-used network of footpaths. St. Francis found inspiration in this wilderness. He was filled with love and compassion for all existence and it was here in 1224 that he received the stigmata. Now it is the site of the Chapel of the Stigmata, in a monastery built on the precipice in his memory. It houses many relics of his life, and despite Francis’ vows of poverty, has many beautiful works of art and an unrivalled collection of Della Robbia’s ceramic reliefs.
After the stigmata, unable to walk, he returned on mule-back to Assisi along the summit ridge of Mt. Sovaggio, with a single friend in attendance, passing from one medieval commune to another There they made their first night camp. A stone refuge, ‘La Casella’ has been built on that spot. Nearly hidden by trees it is just visible from the villa. Travellers and pilgrims shelter there, rest on stone beds and grill their supper over an open wood fire – much as it must have been nearly 900 years ago. A bottle or two of wine is usually in their pack.
Several times a year on religious feast days, huge crowds from the villages gather on the summit to hold open air Mass in memory of St. Francis, followed by a sprawling communal picnic.
Caprese Castle was already very old when Michelangelo Buonarroti was born there two hundred and forty-nine years after the death of St. Francis. His father was the podesta, a governor from Florence who toured the outlying communities settling disputes, extracting taxes and generally controlling their correct running. When he travelled the family travelled with him. His wife was pregnant with Michelangelo when she rode her horse up the castle mound. The horse reared, throwing her out of the saddle endangering the unborn child. It is said the angel Gabriel, knowing of the genius she was carrying inside, flew down to catch her and saved their lives.
Michelangelo immortalised Mt. Penna by depicting its powerful image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. He must have passed beneath on the road to Florence from Caprese many times. The fact that he and St. Francis understood the area intimately, passed along the tracks from village to village, knew the landmarks and clearly thought of it with passion, is humbling and moving.
Foremost in the history of Western Art, Michelangelo has focused the interest of art-lovers everywhere on the obscure village of his birth. The castle, which until a few years ago remained the centre of local administration, has a Michelangelo Museum with videos, music, and casts of his work, a sculpture garden and a permanent sculpture exhibition. There is an art gallery where artists may apply to exhibit free of charge. The director is a descendent of the patrons of Piero della Francesca born in nearby Sansepolcro. Here you have uninterrupted history.