Since I wrote recently about the Sant’Antimo Abbey in Tuscany, I was impelled to give “equal time” to its phenomonal younger “neighbor” (37km away), the great Benedictine Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore.
Breaching the Wall of Remoteness Around an Abbey
Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore is located on Route S451 almost half-way between Asciano and Buonconvento (small towns of great historical significance), a slow 35km southeast of Siena or 24km northeast of Montalcino (20+ miles and 14+ miles) on the edge of the dramatic badlands of the Le Crete region of Siena Province within Regione Toscana.
The route from Siena, after entering Le Crete, is breath-taking – not just literally – as it aerily winds like the solution to a labrynith along narrow sinuous ridges above the cliffs, clay grain fields and occasional sunflower fields dotted with classic Tuscan villas.
From walled Buonconvento at the major S2 Highway – the Roman Via Cassia – the route on S451 is less precipitous and quicker, but travels through several small villages in typical Tuscan fashion: narrow, very narrow! Plan a drive of an hour from either Siena or Montalcino, plus time at viewpoints in Le Crete, in Asciano or Buonconvento, bring along a good co-pilot, and enjoy the experience. We have found the most difficult part of the journey to be simply and consistently finding our way out of and back into Siena!
The Abbazia entrance is easy to find, except for the “suddenly, on a curve” entrance (“In” is on the right side of a huge cypress tree, “Out” on the other side – you know the drill!). We have visited several times, and the approach is still “sudden”, a sudden entrance into dense woods, a curve, and…perhaps the problem is mine alone. For a change of pace, on the last visit I did go in via the exit (south side of the tree, no moss), but only because the entrance was blocked by a bus that did not successfully navigate the turn between the trees! The bus had come from the Buonconvento direction, as I hope all responsible bus drivers would do to avoid the “Dramamine Drive” across Le Crete!
Arrival and Dramatic Protection
A short drive down yet another ridge brings you to a small parking lot in front of a small but formidable, square towered castle with a drawbridge entrance across a moat. The tower entrance anchored a defensive wall across the high ridgetop, protecting the only sane access to the Abbazia. The ridge on which everything is located drops precipitiously over towering, unstable cliffs on all sides! The entire complex is set within a dense cypress woods of over 200 acres planted to fill the mountainous ridge from edge to edge and to protectively cloak the Abbazia within it amidst the revealing badlands that stretch virtually to the horizon.
The castle houses a restaurant and adjacent restrooms, so if you survive the attack across the ridges, down the hill and on the ramparts you can find comfort there (during business hours, of course).
Connection and Transition to the Abbey Life
From that point, a stiff downhill walk on a beautiful, straight brick-paved avenue through the woods leads to the Abbazia itself.
Be forewarned that the hike back uphill will be in your future, a healthy outing even when the bricks are dry, and quite a few “root heave” hazards disrupting the pavement alignment!
A perfectly placed rest spot on the pathway occurs by a tiny pink chapel in the woods -Capello di Bosco. The building hovers over an old water reservoir that was a fabulous reflecting pool when it was still used for water storage for the Abbazia below.
There is a parallel paved and utilized service road nicely designed to be out of sight from the main avenue. Perhaps handicapped access by car may be negotiated in advance.
The pathway ends at an informal “arrival court” where the grand structure of the Abbey church and the large cloisters beyond are fully revealed. At the court, a small store sells products produced at the Abbazia – an amazing range of herbal remedies and natural supplements made from almost anything that grows on Abbazia lands and supplements in addition to books and souveniers. This is the “maintainance and operations” side of the Abbazia – the “land side”, if you will, of this majestic monastic ship.
This Abbey was not and is not a small enterprise!
A Brief, Yet Critical, Lesson in Architectural Design
A 20th-Century addition, one of several, projects from the east side of the main Abbey structure, bridging a perimeter drive to provide service and elevator access into the complex with the least impact on the historic fabric. The design of these late additions is important because it correctly respects the materials and lines of the historical structure to which it is attached while showing a clear line of connection and does not imitate the old design which would obscure the historic configuration.
A proper addition to a historic structure, when it must happen, must visibly show that it is an addition and that it appears to be readily “unzipped” without radical impact upon its host.
The front of the Abbazia is to the south, looking down the ridge to the lowlands and virtually unaffected by the “working side” of the arrival forecourt, addition, shop and the like. The orientation is also critical because it places the apse at the east end of the church, the traditional liturgically correct direction, including for morning sun through the (usually) stained glass windows behind the high altar and an “east-west” long axis for the immense structure, the best environmental orientation.
The imposing west-facing facade of the late-Gothic style church, completed in 1417, is virtually not “photographable”, hidden in the dense stand of cultivated conifers that has thrived in front of it. Photographs in available media are either aerial shots or taken from higher ridges in the vicinity.
The monastery cloisters – the areas for study and living – were built in the 13th to 15th Centuries, and are located on the south “sunny” side of the massive church, again in accordance with a tradition that produced a functionally correct arrangement with the best environmental orientation. Take a moment to consider the orientation of other churches and cloisters that you have seen in this regard!
Origination, Purpose and History
The proper name for this Benedictine order monastery is
L’Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore, Casa Madre della
Congregazione Benedettina di S. Maria di Monte Oliveto
The Abbazia was founded in 1313 by three friends, sons of Sienese noble families, Giovanni Tolomei, Patrizio Patrizi and Ambrogio Piccolomini. Giovanni led the group, and adopted the name Bernardo. This congregation of the Benedictine order was founded with a particular devotion to St. Mary, the mother of Christ, as is evident in the artistic works within the church. Construction of the buildings seen today lasted from 1393 to 1586, of course with later remodels and additions like those noted earlier.
The Abbazia’s own website, accessed at http://www.monteolivetomaggiore.it/ , is quite brief. Monastic life is still be entering the internet age!
Into the Abbey
The visitor entrance into the Abbazia complex is a relatively small door tucked into a corner the recess between the connected church and chapter house. Inside, a small reception area allows hospitality to begin, with orientation and discrete entrance into the chapter house, the cloisters and the church itself. Close by, views into several living and working rooms are available, including the Refractory, linking cloisters to the side of the church nave in a good “zoning” of different levels and types of activities.
In the other direction, visitors immediately enter the oldest cloister, where the entirety of the side walls is covered with a fresco of 36 scenes in the life of St. Benedict, begun in 1497 by Luca Signorelli and completed in 1508 by Sodoma.
Restoration of this monumental work has been underway for several years, so you may see an artisan at work on this delicate task. As with the art within church sanctuaries illustrating Biblical stories, this series educates those living at the monastery and its visitors in the life of St. Benedict.
From the cloister, the main church is entered, a grand, elaborate and richly decorated 14th-Century, late-Gothic style edifice, a style known for grand, elaborate and richly decorated expression!
Visiting this grand Abbey is an extraodinary experience, well worth the effort to reach it! When you find yourself in the area south of Siena, whether visiting nearby Montalcino, Pienza, San Quirico or Montepulciano, or simply traveling between Florence and Rome, get off the Autostrada onto the Via Cassia and take the brief sidetrip from Buonconvento.
Along the way, unexpected encounters may greatly reward your trouble! During our first visit, a monk was practicing on the organ in the choir loft above the rear of the Nave – in full concert form – a glorious accompaniment for wandering the church and observing its art. During our last visit, a large group of visiting nuns from The Philippines began singing great hymns as they entered the sanctuary, a full women’s choir in 1st and 2nd soprano and 1st and 2nd alto voices. They continued long after we left, their voices carrying out into the woods through the stained glass windows! Someone once said that…
“Chance favors the prepared mind”!