The Abbey of Sant’Antimo is located in the quiet Val d’Starcia, a few kilometers north of the historic Orcia River and a few south of Montalcino, the popular Tuscan hilltown at the epicenter of Brunello viticulture. The Abbey’s pastoral setting is overlooked by another small hilltop town, Castelnuovo dell’Abate (“New Castle of the Abbey”) which has long outlasted a smaller castle town now lying in ruin on the opposite hill.
The first chapel on this site was dedicated in 715 at the location of the martyrdom of Antimo of Arezzo in the early 4th-Century. The first monastery was founded by members of the Benedictine order in 770, as part of the vital and ever-expanding network of monasteries across Italy. This place was a sojourn point for Emperor Charlemagne during his return north from “visiting” Rome in 781. Charlemagne’s successor to the southern reach of his empire, son Louis the Pious, granted the monastery a Charter as an Imperial Abbey in 814. At its peak, this Abbey supervised scores of institutions and programs across a broad swath of Central Italy.
Over 500 years later, the centuries of monastic life, interspersed with wars, dispersals, plagues and other tragedies, ended with closing, abandonment and decay – again for more than 500 years.
A hundred years of independent and dedicated restoration beginning in the 19th Century led to the place and the institution that exist today – including its first roof in 500+ years -the home since 1992 of the Community di’Sant’Antimo, founded by the “Scouts of Caen” (Normandy). Their website, www.antimo.it , offers a well-presented and detailed look into the history, art, life and work of the Abbey and of their order.
The Abbey is usually visited either by driving about 12 kilometers (7.2+ miles) south from the round-about at the Montalcino Fortress (pick the correct spoke and then the correct turn, or even greater adventure awaits!) or by driving north about six kilometers (3.6+ miles) from the Val d’Orcia town of Monte Amiata. Seldom cowed by the caution of “greater adventure”, we arrived via a “white road” trip eastward from San Angelo in Colle, perhaps 10 kilometers of rough dirt road (that only felt like 100 miles).
We were not lost, only taking the short-cut after “visiting” the awesome Mate Winery (and the awesome Mate’s) and famed Banfi Winery, located two valleys to the west.
The final approach to Sant’Antimo leads down a small unpaved lane branching off from the paved road below the north side of Castelnuovo dell’Abate and into the agricultural fields that embrace the Abbey. Weather and mobility permitting, we recommend parking as close to the main road as legal and safe parking permits and walking the short and gentle downhill approach. There is no “parking lot” per se at the end of the little road.
The reward, except for the occasional but normal tour bus and awe-struck mouth-breathing tourist driver menaces, is an inspiring and ever-changing perspective of the world-rated historical Abbey.
However earned, the first view of the Abbey is striking in its simultaneous grandeur and pastoral simplicity.
That view will be primarily of the apse of the large church at the traditional location on the east end of the structure, so a walk around the north and west flanks is necessarily enjoyed to reach the main entrance to the nave.
As with any place that you visit anywhere, always respect the property rights, privacy and rules of those who own, live and work in it. The Abbey is not a museum or an amusement park. In this extraordinary place, an actively working and worshipping monastic community carries on its daily life, and you are truly a guest. When in doubt, don’t do it!
The symmetry of the apse is offset by an additional small and rough-hewn apse on its south side. That area identifies the small Carolingian monastery chapel that predates by centuries the large church constructed circa 1100. The small ocular window at its base illuminates the ancient crypt.
Strewn about the landscape are stone remnants of now-demolished structures, including those from an ancient Roman villa at the site. Some Roman era stones have been incorporated into the exterior facades of the buildings where you may ponder their meaning in Roman times, Carolingian times, and in the context of today’s world.
Gregorian chants often emanate from the church and resound within it, a major draw for tourists, tour operators and those who appreciate traditional sacred music as a vehicle for proclaiming The Word.
Pass through the surprisingly small door and you will often find members of the Community in worship, prayer or silent devotion. Again, please remember that you are a guest here with their permission, so do your utmost to respect their simple rules, their activities, and the sanctity of this space that exists and is honored even when a religious service is not in progress.
The interior retains enough of its original design and craftsmanship to be an outstanding example of AD 1100 Early Romanesque architectural style (one of my favorite styles!!!), with centuries of additions, remodels and restorations primarily evident only to experts – except for a few evident electricity-era adaptations!
The quality of the daylight streaming into the tall nave – the only light during our visit – and the contrasts it brings to the stonework and the side aisles was very skillfully achieved. The stonework is both monumental and very detailed.
One of the right side aisle column capitals exhibits the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and other relatively small details are equally as wonderfully wrought. The ambulatory, when accessible between services and ritual observances, is also an exceptional work.
The extant artworks, except for stonework, are all 19th-Century or later additions – even if older work brought from elsewhere. Instead of overwhelming the space, it gains in appreciation because its scarcity allows a more careful consideration of the story it shares with the observer than is often found in the overwhelming presentation within a church totally covered with it!
Empty words, I know, for I am confident that the long-lost frescoe on plaster Biblical stories that apparently once covered much of the interior wall surfaces were very inspirational.
Over more than a millenium prior to the invention of the printing press, the walls of churches were the illustrated books of Bible stories, usually carefully reviewed by ecclesial authorities to assure as great an accuracy to the manuscript records as they could muster.
The greatest works of art to be experienced within the Abbey, including the architecture that houses the art, are the Gregorian chants, bringing silent stones to life to resonate with the timeless messages that they carry forward and outward through the pastoral fields of Sant’Antimo.
Sant’Antimo is welcoming, unselfish, and compels a small investment of time, attention and comprehension for a reward that remains with the traveler even when home is regained. Find it, and visit for a few hours between exploring every corner of delightful Montalcino and…
Tasting wine in the heart of “Brunello Country”.