I’ve Seen This Place Before

In the heart of the Senese countryside stands one of Italy’s greatest ruins: the abbey of San Galgano. Founded by the Cistercians in 1218, it had its moment of highest glory in the fifteenth century and, thereafter, began a slow decline until finally abandoned in the seventeenth.

I’d first visited the abbey in 1997 and was keen to return to see if the initial impact of this extraordinary building would still affect me.

It certainly was. Now roofless, the abbey’s vaults are the bluest of skies and its once stained glass windows reveal beautiful views of the surrounding forests and hills. Like Tintern, its parallel in the Wye Valley of the Welsh border, it is sublimely impressive in its present despoiled state, amply evoking that wonderful line in Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet: “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” Presumably the “sweet birds” referred to the singers in the apse, for surely sweet birds still sing in those empty spaces today. I wonder if, like Wordsworth with Tintern, some Italian poet has written lines on this abbey.

Unlike Tintern, however, which fell a victim to Henry VIII’s monastic dissolutions, San Galgano was merely abandoned and its ruinous state is due to its being used as a quarry for building materials. Most of the cloisters and many of the monastic buildings have disappeared because of this but the main abbey Church still rises majestically.

Who was San Galgano around whose cult such a magnificent building was raised? He was a twelfth century nobleman whose life as a knight had already been planned by his family. Galgano then had a vision in which he met the twelve apostles, on a hill near the present abbey, as a result of which he threw away his sword into a rock which opened out embracing it up to the hilt which remained exposed in the form of a cross. Galgano’s rich cloak was also transformed into a threadbare hermit’s habit.

After the visit to the abbey we took a steep path up to the top of the hill where san Galgano had his vision. This is now crowned by an evocative round building known as the Eremo di Montesiepi.

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The interior is austere, evoking both Etruscan and Celtic motifs, and its ceiling a wonderful alternation of concentric bands.

Right in the centre is the sword San Galgano threw away and which entered the rock.  A King Arthur Excalibur story in reverse!

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As a result of an unfortunate incident, in which someone tried to steal the magic sword but was then attacked by a wolf who pulled off his arms, the sword has been protected by a plexi-glass cover. In case you didn’t believe in the wolf story here is the skeleton of the arms:

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Our day was by no means finished for we wanted to make a brief stop in Siena to visit the cathedral and see the magnificent floor which, for a very short time in the year, is exposed to the public. (It’s normally protected by wooden boards).

The floor is made of intarsioed marble and illustrates biblical and historical subjects. Around it are placed the sibyls – one of several classical elements incorporated by the church into its own theology.

It’s incredibly difficult to photograph the floor (the best way would be to climb up on the ceiling – clearly not possible) but easy to appreciate at close quarters. We were so lucky to be able to see this wonder of the world on one of the few occasions it’s visible to the public.

More wonders were to follow in Siena cathedral, not the least of which was the Piccolomini library decorated by the animated and colourful frescoes of Pinturricchio, one of my favourite painters and one which, together with Ghirlandaio, gives a valuable insight into the manners and fashions of the Tuscan renaissance.

A pit stop at the impressive fortified village of Monteriggioni with its battlements and towers (mentioned by Dante in his inferno: “in su la cerchia tonda Monteriggion di torri si corona”) was followed by our entry into the city of the lily – Florence.

PS If you liked the films “Nostalgia” and “The English Patient” then you’ve seen the abbey of San Galgano before too!


5 thoughts on “I’ve Seen This Place Before

  1. I was very keen to see this amazing sword in the stone and it certainly did meet up to expectation! It was an admixture of myth and fable it seems that with this story too there was the search of the Holy Grail as well as are,index of the King Arthur tale however As the name suggests this Knight was actually made a Saint. The Parsifal too is based on this legend. It seems that the Cistercian Monks that once lived there now live in Siena. The next stop was in fact Siena where we joined hundreds of other tourists eager to view these amazing vignettes of life the one that amused me most was the lion and the fox that met I wonder what their I intention was. The Piccolomini Library was just simply amazing very fresh and colourful frescoes of Pinturicchio. Our stop at Monteriggione was fun as you could visit a museum with the tales of knights as well as see authentic armour. There were plenty of arts and crafts shops too.

  2. Hi Francis,
    When we were last in Italy we spent a night in Siena. We found it very difficult to find parking. We’ll be there again in September (coming up very soon and I’m sooooo excited!) and are wondering if you can give us any suggestions on parking in Siena.
    By the way, regarding Monteriggione, we also made a pit stop there. Our son saw the sign as we were driving along, and told us “we have to stop here!”. He was very excited and insistent because Monteriggione is one of the villages in a video game he plays, called “Assassin’s Creed”. It was an interesting little place where we enjoyed some sightseeing, and we found the best gelato at a little place there. Can’t remember the name of the place but it was delish!

  3. Hi Erin,
    Thanks for your comment. We parked at Parcheggio Duomo which is near Porta San Marco and very close to Siena’s main sights. It’s an underground car park and you keep your issue ticket and pay when you exit. It’s 1.50 euros per hour which isn’t bad. We only stayed a couple of hours in Siena and needed to be close to things there.. If you stay longer then the station car park is best value at 2 euros for the whole day but you need a bus to get you into the town as the station isn’t too close. There are two ice cream places in Monteriggione. We used the first one inside the gate on the left and found the ice-cream delicious.

  4. Delighted to see your post on San Galagno. We visited the ruins some years ago on the way to Monte Oliveto Maggiore. Being based in BDL we tend to neglect southern Tuscany.
    The countryside around, and south of Siena is truly beautiful.

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