When you think about the artistic treasures in Italy, one of the first things that come to mind are the churches and the infinite, inestimable wonders they protect. In this article I’ll show you an abbey, but a unique one, that has some special peculiarities: the abbey of San Galgano.
In the heart of Tuscany, at a certain distance from the most touristic and photographed places, there is a valley between the towns of Chiusdino and Monticiano where a majestic construction stands from many centuries.
Approaching to it makes you realize that, instead of a common christian place of worship, what reveals itself to your eyes is an imposing ruin.
The foundations of the abbey of San Galgano have been laid during the Middle Age, in 1218, in the name of Galgano Guidotti, a noble knight who refused the violence and the depravation of that time, to embrace the hermitage and to pursue the peace. Thanks to his figure and to the bond with the Archangel Michael (guardian of the Catholic Church and protector of its warriors), the abbey gained great importance: it has been protected and profusely funded by the Holy Roman Emperors Henry VI, Otto IV and Frederick II and the pope Innocence III himself granted the abbey a special favor in the form of the exemption to pay the tithe to the Vatican. In this way, the Cistercians monks of the abbey of San Galgano became more and more influent, to the point of representing a special economic and logistic ally of the Republic of Siena. This growth brought many benefits to the region, such as the restoration of a near wetland, the building of mills and of an important aqueduct.
Unfortunately, to a magnificent rise followed an inevitable fall. From the 14th century, a series of tragic events led the abbey to ruin: a severe famine has been followed by the Black Death of the 1348, that exterminated almost all the Cistercians monks (as well as about 100 millions of people all around Europe). To make matters worse, in the following years the abbey has been plundered more than once by mercenaries and soldiers of fortune. So, a long period of decadence begun: for some centuries the abbey remained almost abandoned and, when the roof has been even dismantled to be sold as building material, the downfall reduced the structure as we can see today.
Entering in the abbey of San Galgano made me imagine of exploring the skeleton of a colossus: walking along the central nave I’ve been able to count the ribs that form the two side naves, made up of columns stained by dried lichens. Some steps ahead and I was in the presence of a giant skull whose orbit, that was nothing but the empty central rose of the apse, made me see the sky.
The imposing structure of the abbey brings the signs of its afflicted existence: where a time there was a shiny floor of marble, now there’s just soil, spotted here and there with some tuft of short grass. There’s no more echo of steps or whispers and the bricks of the highest walls are wearing out, due to the incessant pound of rains and winds. But even in this unhappy circumstance there’s a beauty to admire: instead of looking at a representation of Heaven in the sky on the vault of the abbey, now there’s a real sky that changes from the pale pink of sunrise, to deep blue and crimson red of sunset, with its passing clouds. And by night the mosaics are replaced by the stars. Likewise, instead of the multicolored historiated windows, now you can see verdant trees and far hills.
The abbey of San Galgano has thrilled me in many ways, historically, visually and emotionally; I’ve been fascinated to see what happens when nature reclaims possession of human artefacts and how well they combine together. At the same time I’ve imagined how many stories have had this abbey as their cornerstone, how many lives have been changed thanks to the figure of Galgano Guidotti.
This is the perfect example of how you can discover amazing places just by going slightly off the most beaten path. So, if you want to experience the beauty of Italy in an alternative way, I highly suggest you not to miss the abbey of San Galgano.