Situated about 26 miles from Rome, not far from the Farfa Sabina Railway station. A legend in the "Chronicon Farfense" relates the foundation of a monastery at Farfa in the time of the Emperors Julian, or Gratian, by the Syrian St. Laurentius, who had come to Rome with his sister, Susannah, and had been made Bishop of Spoleto. The legend goes on to say that he afterwards became enamoured of the monastic life, and chose a wooded hill near the Farfa stream, a tributary of the Tiber, on which he built a church to Our Lady, and a monastery. Archeological discoveries in 1888 seem to prove that the first monastic establishment was built on the ruins of a pagan temple. This first monastery was devastated by the Vandals in the fifth century, doubtless about the year 457.
In the seventh century, a wave of monasticism from the North spread over Italy. The foundation of Bobbio by St. Columbanus, and the foundation of Farfa by monks from Gaul, about 681, heralded a revival of the great Benedictine tradition in Italy. The "Constructio Monaserii Farfensis", a writing which dates probably from 857, relates at length the story of its principal founder Thomas de Maurienne; he had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and spent three years there. While in prayer before the Holy Sepulchre , Our Lady in a vision warned him to return to Italy, and restore Farfa; and the Duke of Spoleto, Faroald, who had also had a vision, was commanded to aid in this work. At a very early date we find traces of this legend in connexion with the foundation by three nobles from Beneventum of the monastery of St. Vincent on the Volturno, over which Farfa claimed jurisdiction. Thomas died in 720; and for more than a century Frankish abbots ruled at Farfa.
The Lombard chiefs, and later the Carlovingians, succeeded in withdrawing Farfa from obedience to the Bishops of Rieti, and in securing many immunities and privileges for the monastery. If we may credit the "Chronicon Farfense", Farfa was at this period the most important monastery in Italy both from the point of view of worldly possession and ecclesiastical dignity, with the exception of Nonantula. It had one large basilican church and five smaller ones, rich in masterpieces of religious orfèverie. The greed of the Saracens was excited: and about 890, during the government of Abbot Peter, they swooped down on the place. Peter held out against them for seven years, and then resolved to abandon the monastery. He divided his monks into three sections and shared the abbey's wealth among them — one section he sent towards Rome, one towards Rieti, and one towards the county of Fermo. The Saracens preserved Farfa as a stronghold, but some Christian robbers set fire to it by mistake.
Between 930 and 936, it was rebuilt by Abbot Ratfredus, who was afterwards poisoned by two wicked monks, Campo and Hildebrand, who divided the wealth of the abbey between them, and ruled over it until Alberic, Prince of the Romans, called in Odo of Cluny to reform Farfa and other monasteries. Campo was driven out; and a holy monk named Dagibert took his place. At the end of five years, he also died by poison — and the moral condition of Farfa was once more deplorable. The monks robbed the altars of their ornaments, and led lives of unbridled vice.
Abbot John III, consecrated, about 967, by the pope, succeeded, owing to the protection of the Emperor Otho, in re-establishing a semblance of order. But the great reformer of Farfa was Hugues (998-1010). His nomination as abbot was not secured without simony — but the success of his government palliates the vice of his election. At his instance, Odilo, Abbot of Cluny, and William, Abbot of Dijon, visited Farfa, and re-established there the love of piety and of study.
The "Consuetudines Farfenses" drawn up about 1010 under the supervision of Guido, successor to Hugues, and recently published by Albers, bear witness to the care with which Hugues organized the monastic life at Farfa. Under the title "Destructio Monasterii", Hugues himself wrote a history of the sad period previous to his rule; and again under the title "Diminutio Monasterii", and "Querimonium", he relates the temporal difficulties that encompassed Farfa owing to the ambition of petty Roman lords. These works are very important for the historian of the period.
One of Hugue's successors, Berard, Abbot from 1049 to 1089, made the abbey a great seat of intellectual activity. The monk, Gregory of Catino (b. 1060) arranged the archives. To substantiate Farfa's claims, and the rights of its monks, he edited the "Regesto di Farfa", or "Liber Gemniagraphus sive Cleronomialis ecclesiæ Farfensis" composed of 1324 documents, all very important for the history of Italian society in the eleventh century. Ugo Balzani praised the accuracy and exactness of this work "planned", he says, "along lines quite in harmony with the best critical efforts of our own times".
In 1103, Gregory wrote the "Largitorium", or "Liber Notarius sive emphiteuticus", a lengthy list of all the concessions, or grants, made by the monastery to its tenants. Having collected all this detailed information, he set to work on a history of the monastery, the "Chronicon Farfense"; and when he was 70 years old, in order to facilitate reference to his earlier works, he compiled a sort of index which he styled "Liber Floriger Chartarum cenobii Farfensis". Gregory was a man of real learning, remarkable in that, as early as the eleventh century, he wrote history with accuracy of view-point, and a great wealth of information.
The monks of Farfa owned 683 churches or convents ; two towns, Centumcellæ (Civitavecchia) and Alatri ; 132 castles; 16 strongholds; 7 sea-ports; 8 salt-mines; 14 villages; 82 mills; 315 hamlets. All this wealth was a hindrance to the religious life once more between 1119 and 1125. And Farfa was troubled by the rivalries between Abbot Guido, and the monk Berard who aimed at being abbot. During the Investiture conflict, Farfa was, more or less, on the side of the Ghibellines. The "Orthodoxa defensio imperialis", written in support of the Ghibelline party, is, according to Bethmann, the work of Gregory, and of one of his disciples, according to Balzani. The collection of canonical texts contained in the "Regesto", which has been studied by Paul Fournier, seems to omit purposely any mention of the canonical texts of the reforming popes of the eleventh century. But when, in 1262, the victory of the popes over the last of the Hohenstaufen put an end to Germanic sway in Italy, Farfa sought the protection of Urban IV , as we learn from a privilege granted on 23 Feb., 1262, and published by Jean Guiraud. At the end of the fourteenth century the Abbey of Farfa became a cardinalatial in commendam , and since 1842 the Cardinal Bishop of Sabina, a suburbicarian bishop, bears also the title of Abbot of Farfa.
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