It is located a few kilometers from the center of Milan, yet it is a small oasis of peace and silence. Here I tell you about my visit to the Abbey of Chiaravalle, its curiosities and reasons to go there!
Take a Saturday afternoon, a few hours of time and the desire to get out of Milan but not by much. That to visit the Abbey of Clairvaux is an idea that we came up a bit ‘at the last moment, but that gave us a couple of hours of total immersion in history, art and beauty .
In this post I would like to tell you about the abbey and the things you see during the visit!
Chiaravalle Abbey: where we are
The Chiaravalle Abbey (or Monastery of Santa Maria di Chiaravalle) is located in the South Milan Agricultural Park , halfway between the Vigentino and Rogoredo districts. We are south-east of Milan , just 7 kilometers from the Duomo and a few minutes drive from the S. Donato exit of the A1 motorway.
Chiaravalle Abbey: how it was, how it is
Also known as Santa Maria di Roveniano, the Chiaravalle Abbey was founded in the 12th century – more precisely in 1135 – by San Bernardo di Chiaravalle .
In that year, the saint managed to put an end to the dispute between Pope Innocent II and the antipope Anacleto II , convincing the Milanese to support the legitimate pope; out of gratitude, the latter gave him a piece of land and gave way to the construction of a monastery for Bernard and his monks. After the temporary constructions, the current church was built around 1150-1160, but it was remodeled countless times over the centuries (alterations that are easily noticed on the facade).
The church was consecrated to Santa Maria in 1221 ; in 1465, the abbey passed under the guidance of Ascanio Maria Sforza Visconti, brother of Ludovico il Moro who, at that time, ruled Milan. The artistic works of Bramante and Giovanni Antonio Amadeo are due to this period, while the masterpieces of Bernardino Luini and the Fiammenghini date back to the following periods.
In 1798, the Cisalpine Republic and Napoleon expelled the monks, and a large part of the complex was demolished ; what remained fell into private hands, and it was only in 1893 that the Office for the Conservation of Monuments repurchased the complex and began its restoration.
Over the centuries, the abbey and its monastery became the center of a real agricultural village , with a vegetable garden, a mill and local production; this separate village was finally annexed to the Milanese territory in 1923. Only in 1952, thanks to Cardinal Schuster, the Cistercian monks were allowed to take possession of their monastery again .
Today the Chiaravalle Abbey represents one of the first and most illustrious examples of Gothic architecture in Italy, and is among the favorite destinations of the Milanese and not to enjoy a couple of hours halfway between silence, peace and spirituality. This is where the city gives way to the countryside and where industry has brought traditions to life. Some parts of the complex are still inhabited by Cistercian monks (currently about fifteen); but other parts are open to the public, and it is precisely the visit to the church, cloister and mill that I would like to tell you about.
Visit the Abbey of Chiaravalle
After having crossed the entrance in the shape of a sixteenth-century tower, the visit to the Abbey of Chiaravalle consists of three main rooms: the cloister, the church itself and then the part of the mill . I believe that, in this case, the guided tour is the best choice; the guide, in fact, tells a lot of curiosities about the history of the abbey, the territory, the daily life of the monks … it is a visit that I highly recommend but, in the meantime, here is some information for you.
First you enter the cloister. The part near the church is the original one, which dates back to the 13th century; here is also the beautiful fresco Virgin with Child honored by the Cistercians . The rest of the cloister was faithfully rebuilt quite recently: following the unification of Italy, in 1861 work began on the Milan-Pavia-Genoa railway line, and part of the cloister was demolished to recover space.
A peculiarity of the cloister is the presence of “knotted” columns , as well as fragments of knots scattered throughout the wall. These knots are a very important symbol for monks: they represent the indissoluble link between heaven and earth, as well as between members of the Cistercian order.
From the cloister it is possible to peek into the large dining room of the monks, and also into the Chapter Hall , on whose walls you can see “graffiti” – attributed to Bramante – depicting the Milan of the time, with all the necessary changes (the Duomo here it is still without spiers!).
Finally, the cloister is the place from which to admire a unique view of the wonderful Ciribiciaccola .
The nolare tower of the Chiaravalle Abbey is one of the most beautiful things you will see during the visit. First octagonal and then conical in plan, it reaches a height of over 56 meters , dates back to the 1930s and is decorated with small arches, cornices and columns; it is all a beautiful brick red like the rest of the abbey, but the mullioned windows, three and four lights are in very white Candoglia marble, the same that was used for the Milan Cathedral.
Perhaps the work of Francesco Pecorari, the tower houses the oldest Ambrosian system bell still in operation, dating back to 1453; affectionately called Bernarda , it is driven every day by a rope, which the monks pull to mark the hours dedicated to liturgies and masses.
But why does the bell tower have this strange, funny name? There is an ancient Milanese tongue-twister story about Ciribiciaccola and “ciribiciaccolini” ; they could be the monks, or the young of the stork that once nested in the tower (its colors, black and white, are the same as the clothes of the Cistercian monks); perhaps this name comes from the verse of the cicognini, “ciri ciri”.
The gabled façade, simple and past with a thousand scars of time, frames one of the first things you will see as soon as you arrive at the Abbey of Chiaravalle: the entrance door , dating back to the early 16th century and sculpted with the figures of the Four important Saints for the Cistercian order: St. Robert, St. Alberico, St. Stephen and St. Bernard. Behind, there is a large church full of details that you will want to linger on for whole minutes.
The interesting thing is that the churches of the Cistercian orders are usually very bare and sober; here, on the other hand, there are many wonderful frescoes by various Italian artists which, however, date back to a later time (16th and 17th centuries) in accordance with the directives of the Council of Trent. Most of the frescoes in the transept, presbytery, vault and counter-façade are the work of the Fiammenghini , the brothers Giovan Battista and Giovan mauro Della Rovere.
In addition to the frescoes, take a close look at the Baroque choir , carved by Carlo Garavaglia in the mid-17th century. Made of walnut, the choir is made up of two rows and decorated with scenes from the life of St. Bernard, sculpted in a truly masterful way. Since Cistercian monks are required to stand, there are no seats, but only small “saddles” that can be lowered to lean on.
Finally, take a look at the staircase that, from the south transept, leads to the dormitory. At the top, you will see the Goodnight Madonna , painted by Bernardino Luini in 1512. It is so called because the monks used to greet the Madonna with a last prayer before going to sleep.
Next to the buildings of the monastery stands the farmhouse which once represented the fulcrum of the abbey’s agricultural activity . The ground floor was once used as a warehouse for wheat and other raw materials; today, it has a small exhibition of original tools. On the first floor, instead, the flour was prepared, with a mill now rebuilt and connected to the original wheel, made of oak wood and fed by the Vettabbia canal . On the first floor you will also find a small exhibition dedicated to Grana Padano; outside in the garden, finally, you can stroll among the scents of the simple garden , where many different medicinal and aromatic plants grow.
In addition to the exhibition part that is discovered during the guided tour, the mill is also a multifunctional center for education in sustainability , with many events for adults and children (bakery courses, Easter and Christmas workshops, summer centers, aperitifs, conferences …) organized by the Koiné social non-profit cooperative.
The caseus Vetus , the ancestor of Grana Padano
In the medieval period, the presence of the monks led to the reclamation of large areas of the Po Valley for the construction of new religious buildings. This new land was also suitable for grazing, and many monasteries found themselves with so many cows and so much milk that they did not know how to keep it. It is said that it was the Cistercian monks of the Chiaravalle Abbey who found a solution : boil the milk, add rennet, salt and season. Thus was born a cheese characterized more for its “anti-waste” function than anything else: the monks called it caseus vetus (old cheese), but the farmers in the area commonly called it “grana”because of its grainy texture. Over the centuries, this recovered cheese was increasingly appreciated even by the wealthiest castes: this is how the ancestor of Grana Padano was born .
– Where : via S. Arialdo 102, Chiaravalle – Milan.
– How to get there (from Milan) : the Abbey of Chiaravalle can be easily reached by taking the Tangenziale Est (Rogoredo or S. Giuliano Milanese exits) or the Tangenziale Ovest (Milano Vigentina). If you arrive from Porta Romana, just continue along Corso Lodi to Piazzale Corvetto and, from here, follow the signs for Chiaravalle (there is also a path to be covered entirely on foot). By train, get off at Milano Rogoredo and then take bus 140. By public transport, you will arrive at the Brenta stop of the M3 (yellow) and then take bus 77.
– Where to park : a large, free and unattended car park is available a few meters before the entrance to the abbey complex.
– How to visit the Abbey of Chiaravalle : different itineraries are available, all carried out with a guided tour. The main ones are two: in the first case, you can visit the interior of the church and the cloister with the rooms that overlook it; the visit lasts about an hour. In the second case, in addition to the church and cloister, visitors can also visit the structure of the mill, the exhibition inside and the small botanical garden; the visit lasts a total of 2 hours (one hour in the church / cloister and one hour in the mill).
– Prices : the first route (cloister + church) costs € 8 per person (€ 6 for disabled people). The second route (cloister + church + mill) costs € 14 per person (€ 10 for disabled people).
– Eating : to the left of the entrance to the complex is the Ristoro dell’Abbazia, a small refreshment point that also has outdoor tables; here it is possible to taste much of the local monastic production, but also products from different monasteries around the world.
– Where to shop : along the avenue to reach the abbey there is the Bottega dei Monaci, where you can buy many local products, both gastronomic (sweets, sauces, honey, jams, aromatic herbs) and cosmetics (creams); but also non-local products such as spirits, wines, monastic beers, herbal teas, books, religious objects and herbal products.