Farfa Abbey enjoyed the patronage of Charlemagne and, at its peak, possessed an extensive area in Central Italy. Though the abbey’s origin is uncertain, recent archaeological excavations beneath the current Badia confirmed a significant Roman presence.
“Iste est quem tibi promiseram locus”
“This is the place I had promised you.” With these words, the Madonna addressed St. Thomas of Moriana, Farfa’s restorer, guiding him to the ruins of the destroyed Abbey. The saint reconstructed it, forming the current monastery site.
Farfa was an Imperial Abbey, free from papal control but closely tied to the Holy See. In a few decades, it became one of medieval Europe’s most renowned and prestigious centers. Charlemagne himself visited the Abbey weeks before his coronation on the Capitol. To grasp Farfa’s economic significance, consider that in the third decade of the 9th century, it owned a commercial ship exempt from Carolingian empire port duties. This period also marked the maximum expansion of the monastery.
The decline of the Carolingian Empire and the Saracen incursions proved fatal for Farfa Abbey. Resisting for seven years with its militias, eventually, monks and treasure, divided into three parts, abandoned Farfa. It was the abbey’s demise, captured and set ablaze. Farfa experienced a revival during the simultaneous resurgence of the imperial dynasty of the Ottonians. In 999, the Cluniac reform was introduced, and Farfa once again took on the characteristics of an imperial abbey. In the Investiture Controversy, it aligned against the popes and in favor of Henry. The Farfa possessions during this period were vast.
A definitive decline began shortly after the Concordat of Worms (1122), marking the monastery’s transition to papal authority. The complete subjugation was officially sealed. A pro-imperial surge occurred in 1155 during Frederick Barbarossa’s passage, but economic decline and monastic crisis irreparably worsened the abbey’s life. By the mid-14th century, the situation reached a point of interdiction and excommunication for the Abbot due to failure in paying tithes to the Apostolic Chamber.
In the early 15th century, Carbone Tomacelli, cardinal nephew of Boniface IX, became the first commendatory abbot, ushering in a new era. In the mid-15th century, the Orsini family built the current church, consecrated in 1496. The Barberini family reorganized and expanded the village, mainly used for the two major fairs on March 25th and September 8th, commemorating the Annunciation and the Virgin to whom the Abbey is dedicated. In 1798, Farfa suffered plunder by the French, and in 1861, it faced confiscation by the Italian state. Since 1921, the Abbey has belonged to the Benedictine community of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
As we enter, we observe fragments of early Christian sarcophagi within the church walls. The basilica’s interior comprises three naves separated by two rows of elegant Ionic columns. Frescoes from the 16th and 17th centuries depict scenes of the Virgin, saints, and biblical stories adorning the apse and side aisles. Near the Basilica’s entrance, in the transept and apse, intriguing remains have resurfaced: a Carolingian-era altar and a section of frescoed wall featuring an image of an abbess (the so-called Altperto Arcosolium).
In the transept, the partially visible original floor from the first half of the 9th century captivates. Worth exploring are the semicircular-shaped crypt from the 7th to 8th centuries, featuring a beautiful Roman sarcophagus (late 2nd century AD) in the atrium, depicting a battle scene between Romans and Barbarians. Also, the bell tower (9th-13th centuries) is a notable site to visit.
Not to be missed is the Lombard Cloister (with a Romanesque bifora from the 13th century) and the Grand Cloister dating back to the second half of the 17th century, housing Roman sculptures and inscriptions. We cannot depart from this Benedictine haven without recalling the ancient library and its prestigious Scriptorium.
Exiting Farfa Abbey, a visit to the small village with uniformly tall row houses is a must. In the past, during the major fairs in April and September, the monks rented these houses to wealthier merchants who gathered there. With such a prestigious history, at the center of historical events in the conflict between empire and papacy,
Farfa gained the privilege of autonomy from any civil or religious authority. This autonomy is the source of its splendor and wealth, which have reached us in a radiant display of charm and beauty.