A corner of Tibet in Romagna



How a small stop in a mountain village becomes an unexpected opportunity to discover stories, people and cultures.

Tibet is a very demanding and difficult destination, even for today's traveller, and it seems incredible to think that in the 18th century, groups of friars and religious people set off from the Marche region and, with the means of the time, faced dangerous and exhausting journeys across oceans, forests and mountain ranges, without maps, without any knowledge of local languages, journeys that lasted months to reach those remote valleys so full of spirituality and ancient traditions, with the aim of converting the souls of those wild lands to Christianity. An operation which fortunately was not successful.

A little friar named Orazio also left this small village in Val Marecchia, Pennabilli, and having reached Tibet he settled, together with other Capuchins from the Marche region, from 1703 to 1745, managing to endear himself to the local populations. Fra Orazio da Pennabilli was welcomed into the monastery of Sera (Tiber), where he was able to learn the local language and traditions, he also managed to enter into friendship with Kelsang Gyatso, the seventh Dalai Lama, so much so that he managed to obtain permission to purchase a land where to build a Catholic mission and where this alien religion can be freely practiced. Father Orazio studied the culture of this country in depth, and he was responsible for the first Tibetan dictionary in the Western language consisting of 33,000 words. But the proselytizing work of the friar, who in the meantime had also procured Tibetan characters to print Bibles, began to make the Tibetans suspicious, always fearful of their independence and their traditions. Over time the friars realized that the mission could not be successful, so they decided to return to their homeland. A few years later they learned that their mission had been completely dismantled, and all their life's work was in vain, a hard blow to the morale of the little friar from Pennabilli.

Of all this history, only one bell remains today, the original bell of the small church that was located in the Catholic mission in the early 18th century, preserved in a warehouse in Jolhang, one of the main Buddhist temples in Lhasa. And still after almost three centuries, the memory of that adventure and of that friendship between distant peoples remains, which has recently been recalled and strengthened with the construction, in this small village which was the birthplace of Fra Orazio, of a small monument that unites two iconic symbols of these two religions so distant from each other: a bell which is the reproduction of the original one preserved in Lhasa flanked by three Tibetan prayer mills (manokorlo) with the Buddhist mantra Om mani padme hum engraved on it, or 'Hail O Jewel in the lotus flower'. According to Tibetan tradition, the gesture of turning the prayer wheel takes on the meaning of an invocation directed towards the sky to attract the attention of the higher spheres, similar to our ringing of the bell.

Today we also know the face of Father Orazio Olivieri della Penna thanks to the rediscovery of a portrait of him found by some nuns in 2022 in the Augustinian monastery of Pennabilli, where it had remained forgotten for over a century in the darkness of a drawer.

Just below the rocky spur on which the monument is located, a small garden was built with a Chorten in the centre, or a Stupa, which in our country could be the small votive chapels containing the Madonnas. Usually these small buildings are placed in places considered inauspicious, such as mountain passes, crossroads or stream fords, in order to avoid the danger. They often contain relics and are intended to welcome offerings and prayers. Their shape schematically represents the forces of the universe, its elements, and the spirit's path towards enlightenment. In the East there are some magnificent ones. All around there is a lot of waving of colorful prayer flags, now faded and worn by the wind and sun, who knows if any of these have managed to fulfill their intent.

Recently the Dalai Lama was in this place on two occasions to strengthen the friendship between Italy and Tibet, thanks to projects carried out by groups such as the Italy Tibet Association and the Orazio della Penna Association.

This place immediately gave me a beautiful feeling of peace and tranquility, and filled me with curiosity, I never expected to find a corner of the Himalayas in Romagna. The whole country is well looked after and full of ideas for reflection and meditation. The poet Tonino Guerra also lived here in the 1980s, leaving many traces of his art. There is a small garden guarded and protected by some very ancient walls, with seven strange stone sculptures: "The sanctuary of thoughts. Seven mysterious stones, seven opaque mirrors for the mind, seven silent confessors waiting to listen to your beautiful words or your ugly words" (Tonino Guerra).

Then there are a whole series of small museums, such as the "most bare and poetic museum in the world" which houses only one work", The Angel with a Mustache by the painter Luigi Poiaghi: the work represents an angel capable of doing nothing that instead of flying to heaven, he went down to the Marecchia and wasted time feeding stuffed birds in a hunter's house, but one fine day they came to life and took flight. Then there is the curious museum of calculus, the museum of the world by Tonino Guerra and the museums of Montefeltro and the Sasso Simone and Simoncello Natural Park. The winding streets of the town, well maintained, are embellished with historical sundials and artistic ceramics, as well as poetic phrases and some very evocative photographs that recall the exceptional snowfall of 2012, in short, a sort of widespread museum, a beautiful place to refresh the soul, spirit and curiosity.

Two worlds so distant from each other, both physically and culturally, the mountains of the Romagna Apennines and the Himalayan chain, united by a humble friar who ended up forgotten for centuries, and a poet who chooses this small village as his home, filling it with magic, in short It's a beautiful story that deserves to be told.

"vincerĂ  la bellezza"

 -Tonino Guerra-