S. Giorgio della Spelonca (“St George of the Cave”) was founded in 1187 when Paganello Porcari, a person of influence in Lucca, gave to Friar Johannes Honestus (“John the Honest”) the ground for the building of the hermitage and of a small church attached to it.
Spelonca is the Italian word for a cave or cavern. This hermitage possibly gained additional historical significance in medieval times for, like Lecceto, it gained a reputation (incorretly, also like Lecceto) from the myth/legend written from about 1320 onwards that St Augustine had visited there, if not actually lived there for a period of months.
There is no difficulty concerning the exact location of this hermitage. Only a short distance from Lucca, along the road which leads to Pisa, is the village of S Maria del Giudice, picturesquely situated at the foot of a chain of hills, and on top of one of the hills overlooking the village there can still be seen the remains of the hermitage. Because of the number of hermitage that existed in the area of Mount Pisano (Monti Pisani), it was referred to as “the hermits’ mountain” (in Latin, Mons Heremita). Even one of the best-known humanist writers of the day, Francesco Petrarch (1304 - 1374), wrote of St Augustine's visiting Mount Pisano.
Friar John is also mentioned in an Augustinian historical tract written in the year 1330 at the latest by the Augustinian friar known only as the “Anonymous Florentine.” This tract was entitled Initium sine processes ordinis heremitarum sancti Augustini (“The Beginning and Development of the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine”). It describes John as “a Prior of the hermits of St Augustine” and “founder of a community at Spelunca,” also adding that he founded a great number of other hermitages. John of Spelonca was also mentioned again four years later in his Treatise on the Origin and Development of the Hermit Friars and its True and Real Title, published in 1334 by Henry of Friemar O.S.A.. The earliest extant document concerning the hermitage comes from the year 1198. In it Bishop Guido of Lucca commits the administration of the place to John, and to his fellow hermit.
At an early time (the earliest extant document is of 22 March 1223), S. Giorgio della Spelonca participated in the fast growing union movement among the Tuscan Hermits, which, in the Little Union of 1244, finally led to the formation of the congregation known under the name Fratres heremitae ordinis S. Augustini de Tuscia (“The Brothers Hermits of Saint Augustine in Tuscany”).
With the establishment of the Order of the Augustinian Hermits in its modern form by the action of the Grand Union in 1256, a new apostolate was assigned to the Order: the friars were to move to the cities, to preach and to hear sacramental confessions. As a result, S. Giorgio della Spelonca shared the fate of many of these hermitages which, being in out-of-the-way places, were in the course of time either completely given up by the Augustinian Order or else simply became granges (“outposts”) of the large monastery – in this case the convent of S. Agostino in Lucca. According to the historian Thomas Herrera O.S.A., who published his Alphabetum Augustinianum (“Augustinian Alphabet”) at Madrid in 1644, the date of 25th February 1444 is the last occasion on which Spelonca is mentioned in the Registers of the Prior Generals of the Order (today this volume of the Registers is no longer extant). Even so, it still existed as a grange of the Augustinians at S. Agostino in the nearby provincial town of Lucca in 1693.
What would the hermits have constructed at S. Giorgio della Spelonca on the top of Mount Pisano? The area would have attracted them not only because of its solitude on the top of a mountain but also because of its sizeable caves, parts of which were spacious and would easily have been made habitable, or at least served admirably as storehouses. At the site of the hermitage, there still exists a staircase carved out of rock, a circular indentation in rock that could serve as a washing place, the quadrangular mouth of a reservoir, and places carved in the rock where posts probably were placed. There is also evidence of the bases of other buildings that were located on the right side of the cave. The chapel, no larger than a classroom, is free-standing in the open. It is of medieval origin, but the renovation of its façade (and possibly more of the building) goes back only to 1800 and, as stated hereunder, it was repaired early in the twentieth century. There is no archaeological evidence which indicates that the hermitage of S Giorgio della Spelonca ever had a community of more than a few members simultaneously; by comparison, the better-known Augustinian hermitage at Rosia would at times have been two or three times more populous, and Lecceto even larger again.
Larger communities probably required a higher per capita net income and, whereas Rosia had potential income streams from some sustainability from agriculture and from providing hospitality to travellers on the pilgrim route beside their property, S. Giorgio della Spelonca was isolated atop of a mountain, in unyielding soil, and too far off the track for the presence of many passers-by. In that not even the hermitage at Rosia could survive and the much larger hermitage at Lecceto had some trouble doing so (but finally closed by Napoleonic armies), S. Giorgio della Spelonca had even less chance of doing so. Certainly, the pre-Augustinian and later the Augustinian dwellers at S. Giorgio della Spelonca would have lived poverty in intention and in fact, and had to beg from the few farmhouses on the mountain, archaeological evidence of which buildings still exists.
The slow physical decay of this hermitage on Mount Pisano seems to have set in during the course of the following (i.e., eighteenth) century and continued until about the middle of the nineteenth century, when it was in a state of complete dilapidation. An author, E. Ridolfi in 1868 portrayed a vivid picture of its deplorable sight. He wrote, “I shall dwell but shortly on the hermitages which once were built on the mountains around the ancient parish of Massa Pisana. Since centuries fallen to pieces, they are not but heaps of debris ... There remain only ruins of the hermitage of Spelonca, situated on top of a mountain whose very name is derived from a huge cave which, beneath a towering mass of rocks, deeply extends into the mountain side. The oratory has lost its roof, but its walls, formed by rather still well-jointed stones, are still standing. There also still exist the staircase which had been cut into the rock and once led to the row of cells, and the cisterns which served to quench the thirst of the hermits.”
These were picturesque ruins, indeed, to which the inhabitants of S. Maria del Giudice climbed in solemn procession on the Rogation Days (special days of pennance) in the Church's year. The former hermitage’s small chapel had been restored at the beginning of this century by a member of the Barsotti family of S. Maria del Giudice, but after his death it had once more fallen into neglect. The people of S. Maria del Giudice call the hermitage “Sant’Agostino,” in acceptance of the tradition that it was once inhabited by Augustinian hermits.
As already intimated above, in early Augustinian historiography, the hermitage of S. Giorgio della Spelonca is mentioned in about the year 1330 in the Initium written by the Anonymous Florentine (at one time to have been the Augustinian Prior of Santo Spirito in Florence), which is the earliest extant Augustinian historical writing that occurred only seventy-four years after the Augustinian Grand Union of 1256. The Initium went far beyond fact when it reconstructed that Augustine's first monastic life took place it in Tuscany – in fact, as having taken place possibly in Milan or on Mount Pisano.
Rather than cite sources for these assertions, to the contrary the Anonymous Florentine noted that definitive details could not be provided due to the length of centuries in the interim, and the scarcity of sources. The suggestion of Augustine’s possible fifth-century presence at Mount Pisano was then repeated again in the writing of Nicholas of Alessandria O.S.A. in his Sermo de beato Augustino (“Sermon about blessed Augustine”) of 1332; he was the second of the four significant Augustinian writers on Augustinian history and identity. (The third of them, Henry of Friemar O.S.A., has already been mentioned above.)
The strongest proof of the speciousness of this proposal is the time frame that Augustine himself presented in his Confessions, which allows no period of time for Augustine to have spent years as a hermit in Italy. (This whole issue of the Augustinian myth-making is bound up with the need of the Augustinian Order to develop its identity in the fourteenth century.)
The myth of Augustine’s presence at Mount Pisano continued to be propagated into the following century. Illustrative of this situation was Andrea Biglia O.S.A. (c. 1395 - 1435), a fifteenth-century Augustinian doctor, author and humanist with connections to Milan, Florence, Perugia and Siena. It is open to conjecture as to precisely how well Biglia was aware of the fact that, in attempting to establish a direct link between St Augustine and the Augustinian hermits of the thirteenth century, he was moving from historical reality (as we would define it today) to myth in order to support loyally the desire of the Augustinian friars to believe that this link had existed.
Thirty years after Biglia’s death, the artist Benozzo Gozzoli was commissioned to paint his famous fresco cycle of 1464 – 1465 on the life of St Augustine in the Augustinian Church at San Gimignano, where is still remains as a venue for pilgrims and a tourist attraction. One of his sections of the fresco has Augustine in a hermitage that is presumably located in the Pisan mountains; it certainly is not a North African landscape. The myth of Augustine’s possible sojourn at a Tuscan hermitage such as S Giorgio della Spelona was still alive and being actively promoted.
Link La Spelonca. A page on a local Montipisani website. Has good images of the Spelonca chapel. http://www.montipisani.com/index.php/la-storia-dei-monti-pisani/spelonca