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!