Not far from Colico, further south, the Olgiasca headland leans out forward Lake Como and takes up a part of it. On the northernmost tip of this peninsula stands the Piona Abbey. We are at the foot of Legnone, a great mountain which stands over 8500 feet high casting a shadow on the area.
A place inaccessible and surrounded of waters has always inspired meditation and prayer. Maybe for this reason, to help the hermits yet settled here, S. Agrippino, one of the first bishops of Como, decided to build in 617 a little church dedicated to S. Giustina.
This church, dedicated to St Nicholas from Bari, is depicted in the Cenacolo (Leonardo has known the beneficiary) with the belfry on the opposite side.
It seems the new placement has been chosen after a collapse.
Towards the end of the 11th century the old little church, meanwhile rebuilt and expanded, became a Cluniac abbey.
So, the Piona Priory is a part of the great monastic network which enlightens the whole Christianity starting from France. Indeed, for almost two centuries Cluny has become the cultural guiding light for Europe. There is a high number of holy places affiliated with this parent company. Each one of them is painstakingly controlled by special envoys whose collect taxes and evaluate carefully the religious conformity.
For more than two hundred years everything goes on regularly, then Piona becomes a “commenda”. An ancient but inauspicious institute which leads the beneficiary abbot, both secular and religious, to collect the income without worrying about the property which, faster or slower, degrades.
Feliciano Niguarda, the bishop of Como, in the acts of his pastoral visit in 1593 defined the St Nicholas Church and the other properties as into decay.
Two more centuries of agony before the fatal blow made by the French conquerors, sons of an anticlerical revolution: the Piona Abbey is sold in auction.
The same miserable fate has befallen Cluny and a lot of other monasteries. Since 1789 France has always been at war, for more than 25 years, and this is one of the systems it uses to finance itself.
The cloister of the Abbey.
Now let’s go on Africa. On 13th February 1936, on the edge of the Amba Aradam battle, a hundred of Ethiopians attacks the employees of the Gondrand building site, in Utok Emni near Mai Lahla, in their sleep. In this little-known episode of the Ethiopian war more than 70 Italian civilians die and among them the engineer Cesare Rocca and his wife Lidia.
The Rocca family, to honour the fallen, tidies up his estate on the top of the Olgiasca and offer it to the Cistercian congregation of Casamari.
In 1938 the renovated Piona Abbey is consigned to the Cistercians.
These monks are getting ready to a transfer to Ethiopia but powerful mediations divert them here.
The Cistercian order, a derivation of the Cluniac one, proves to be considerably dynamic. Soon the abbey becomes known for its distillery, whose most famous product, “Imperial Drops of Piona”, is an unbearable spirit at 95% alcohol and perfumed with herbs. Obviously, it has to be dosed drips for not get a buzz on quickly.
The current condition
Today the St Nicholas Church and the monastery near it are in good condition. Sightseeings are numerous and the monastic community seems like to maintain itself excellently even if it continues to carry out a role in the meditation and prayer.
The holy place has a jetty of the Navigazione Lariana, so the boat is the more suitable means of transport to reach it. However, an alternative could be going down the road SP.72 with a car.