6.6 Monte Oliveto: a nobleman in the desert

In this sixth itinerary, we are leaving the confines of the historic centre of Siena to cross the “contado” (countryside) and visit a sensational place, immersed in the beauty of nature and a symbol of the harmony achieved there by humans.

In the Crete Senesi area, about 30 km southeast from Siena, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore stands amidst clay hills and cypress trees.

The foundation of this complex dates back to the 14th century, but its current appearance is the result of renovations carried out at the very end of the unexpectedly rich and eventful 15th century. Monte Oliveto is one of the few Italian monasteries to have maintained an active community of Olivetan Benedictine monks from its establishment to the present day.

To recount the history of this fascinating place, it is necessary to go back even further than the 15th century, to 10 May 1272, the day Giovanni de’ Tolomei, son of Mino di Cristoforo and Fulvia Tancredi, was born.

A brilliant and eager boy, Giovanni embarked on his career as a law professor at the University of Siena at a very young age. He initially led a rather carefree and libertine life, until he fell prey to a profound religious crisis. To this inner turmoil was added a serious eye disease that caused him to go completely blind in a short amount of time. It was most likely a combination of all these factors that triggered the desire for change in Giovanni, pushing him to radically alter his way of life.

As a result of his proximity to the Ordine dei Domenicani (Dominican Order), he made a vow to the Virgin, promising to embrace a religious life if he regained his sight.

Giovanni was miraculously cured and, at the age of almost 40, decided to withdraw into prayer. Despite his particular closeness to the Dominicans, Tolomei did not join a real monastic community, but preferred solitary contemplation. It therefore happened that, together with two friends who were also nobles, Patrizio Patrizi and Ambrogio Piccolomini, Giovanni chose to retire to the Deserto di Accona (the Desert of Accona), a hilly area near Siena, located in the present day municipality of Asciano, where the Tolomei family, a wealthy Guelph family, owned property. There, in an area abundant with both olive trees and brambles, the three friends devoted themselves to rural life, living in natural caves and in complete poverty.

As is often the case with people who retreat into silence in search of their true selves and the voice of God, Giovanni aroused the admiration of others to such an extent that he soon became a charismatic leader and unwittingly gathered many followers, both noble and common, around him, eager to take part in this new life.

When the number of followers had become substantial, Giovanni turned to the bishop of Arezzo, the diocese to which the hill of Accona belonged, for approval of his nascent community. Because of his special love for Bernardo di Chiaravalle (Bernard of Clairvaux), who was also very devoted to the Virgin Mary, Giovanni took the religious name of the great Cistercian monk. On 26 March 1319, Guido Tarlati, Bishop of Arezzo, granted the charta fundationis for the foundation of the Monastero di Santa Maria di Monte Oliveto (Santa Maria Monastery of Monte Oliveto) under the Rule of St. Benedict. In the same year, the new community found it necessary to adopt the adjective ‘maggiore’ in order to distinguish itself from the countless others following the example of Bernardo de’ Tolomei and the Olivetan rule.

In spite of his fame during his lifetime, Bernardo remained humble and modest, and never strayed from the idea of giving of himself to others. When the Black Death broke out in Siena in 1348, Bernardo sent his disciples to Siena—and went there himself—to care for the sick and dying.

He too contracted the plague and died on 20 August of that year. According to some versions of his life, Bernardo was buried in the mass graves of Santa Maria della Scala, while according to others, he was buried in the city monastery of Monte Oliveto, a complex destroyed in 1554 during the siege of Charles V. Despite his reputation for holiness during his lifetime, Bernardo was not canonised until 26 April 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI.

Now that we have briefly retraced the story of the founder of Monte Oliveto, it is time to introduce you to the painted, architectural, and sculptural wonders that are present inside the monastery and that, for the most part, date back to the 15th century.

As already mentioned, Monte Oliveto Maggiore is still inhabited by the original community of monks, and currently fulfils a triple function: first, it is a monument of great touristic interest (and therefore can be visited); next, it is home to a fervent community of Olivetans; and last but not least, its guest quarters are still in operation. This means that it is possible to book a stay dedicated to prayer and meditation, completely surrounded by nature and immersed in silence.

When you enter the complex through the main portal, you immediately notice a fortified structure dating back to the end of the 14th century, built to defend and protect not only the monks but other valuables as well.

In the Middle Ages, it was customary for the second son of a noble family to be entrusted to a religious order (the first was usually the heir to the family fortune and the third formed the cadet branch, the military one).

The complex was equipped with this defensive structure to protect the assets that the noble families of Siena entrusted to the monks— through their young scions who entered—in order for the families to avoid paying taxes, since, even at that time, clerics were tax exempt. One can easily imagine how such a remote place, inhabited by unarmed men and rich in all kinds of material goods, could be attractive to bandits and other criminals.

The Woodland Path and the Pool

Past the drawbridge at the entrance and the restaurant immediately to the left, lies a wooded area, a space that evokes the original appearance of the place when the first community was established by Bernardo Tolomei.

Taking the path leading to the monastery, one comes across a large pool, a common feature in many monastic communities.

The purpose of this pool was certainly not to provide a recreational pastime for the monks, but rather a source of food on Friday, the day on which, according to the Catholic faith, meat is not allowed, but fish can be eaten.

The Guesthouse

In front of the actual abbey, the structure of the Foresteria (guest quarters), which also includes the Farmacia dei Monaci (Pharmacy of the Monks), can be found.

Through the archway on the left is the inner courtyard of the guest area. The monastic pharmacy, is always well stocked with remedies for seasonal ailments as well as other excellent locally produced products.

Standing in the centre of the space between the pharmacy and the church with the monastery is a monumental statue of San Bernardo (St Bernard) by the contemporary artist Massimo Lippi. To the right is the entrance to both the church and the cloister, the focal points of this tour.

The Cloister

The quadrangular cloister, completed in the 1440s, is truly remarkable, thanks to the thirty-five frescoes depicting the Vita di San Benedetto da Norcia (Life of St Benedict of Norcia) painted by two of the greatest artists of the Tuscan Renaissance: Luca Signorelli and Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, known as il Sodoma.

The former worked on the frescoes at the end of the century, between 1497 and 1498, while the latter was called in at the beginning of the 16th century to complete the work left unfinished by the painter from Cortona.

Theories abound as to why Signorelli decided to abandon the work; regardless, what is certain is that the monks, in order to resolve the problem, turned to il Sodoma, an artist who, although still a newcomer, having previously completed only one commission for the Monastero di Sant’Anna in Camprena (Sant’Anna Monastery in Camprena) in the Val d’Orcia, had already begun to exhibit a particular temperament.

It seems that the abbot who commissioned the works, Domenico Airoldi di Lecco, was not sure that the extravagant artist would be up to the task, which is why the abbot asked il Sodoma to depict, as proof of his talent, St Benedict giving the Rule to the Olivetans, an anachronistic scene given that the order of Monte Oliveto was founded in the 14th century by St Bernard while the cycle recounted the life of the founder of the Benedictines who lived in the 6th century.

Having proved himself worthy in the task assigned to him by the abbot, il Sodoma picked up painting the frescoes where Signorelli had left off. During this period there was no lack of jokes cracked and pranks pulled by the painter on the community of monks, as evidenced by some amusing details.

Fortunately, the scenes are well catalogued and have tags at the bases displaying the name of the artist and the title of the work, so there is no need for a scene by scene description here.

However, I would like to point out a few curiosities, such as the scene Come Benedetto Risalda lo Capistero che Si Era Rotto (How Benedict Mends the Cribble That Was Broken) by il Sodoma, which recounts the episode in which St Benedict, through prayer, fixes the wooden cribble (a type of sieve) dropped by his nurse, who is visibly shocked by the event.

On the left side of the image, the saint can be seen praying while a woman stands in the corner; on the right side, a group of people admires the sieve, repaired and suspended by a rope from a column in the temple in the background. The lavishly dressed personage occupying the centre of the scene is the painter himself, il Sodoma, a self-portrait narrating the scene. As the chronicles of the time also recount, il Sodoma used to be accompanied by many unusual animals, including, as depicted here, badgers.

Another noteworthy episode is Come Benedetto Tentato d’Impurità Supera la Tentazione (How Benedict is Tempted by Impurity and Overcomes Temptation), also by il Sodoma. It is particularly enlightening for the way in which it reveals two facts at once: first, that St Benedict also fell prey to basic human desires, and second, that one of the punishments monks used to inflict on themselves in such moments was to throw themselves into brambles, piercing themselves with the thorns of these climbing plants.

This is followed by the scene of Come Benedetto Riceve li Due Giovanetti Romani Mauro e Placido (How Benedict Receives the Two Boys from Rome, Maurus and Placidus) in which, according to Pope Gregory the Great in the second book of the Dialogues—a book in which the other episodes of the fresco cycle at Monte Oliveto are also described—Maurus and Placidus, brought to the Monastery of Subiaco at a young age are educated by the saint and share many enlightened moments of his life with him. So much trust was placed in the figure of their master that they themselves were part of a miracle: through Benedict’s intercession, Mauro was able to walk on swirling waters to save Placidus, who had fallen in them.

Imposing classical architecture, reminiscent of the city of Rome, can be seen in the background of this fresco, together with an escort of typified knights and figures from various nations as well as, on the right, the sublime reproduction of a white horse with a sky blue bridle.

Among the many faces portrayed in this scene, it seems that il Sodoma included Leonardo Da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and his predecessor, Luca Signorelli.

The last scene I would like to draw your attention to is Come Benedetto Dice alli Monaci Dove e Quando Avevano Mangiato Fuori dal Monastero (How Benedict Tells the Monks Where and When They Had Eaten Outside the Monastery), a fresco by Luca Signorelli. Once again, we stand before a scene that presents us with two facts: on the one hand, the human weakness of the monks who, despite their vows of obedience, cannot resist the temptation to eat a meal outside the monastery, and on the other, the benevolence of Benedict who, as can be seen in the top right corner of the scene, reprimands the two monks for their sin but, at the same time, forgives them. It also provides us with an accurate depiction of what a tavern of the time must have looked like, with women serving the meal and others busy with household chores.

The Monumental Library

After visiting the cycle of frescoes and before entering the interior of the church, the Monumentale Biblioteca (Monumental Library) can be reached by climbing the stairs in a recess behind the cloister. The entrance door at the top of the stairs, as well as the capitals surmounting the twelve pietra serena columns, were finely carved by Fra’ Giovanni da Verona, an Olivetan monk artist, one of the most skilled carvers of the Renaissance, who also created works in the abbey’s church. Other pieces by him can be found throughout Italy, such as in the church of Santa Maria in Organo in Verona. There is even a portrait of him by il Sodoma in the cloister cycle, in the scene Come Benedetto Appare a Due Monaci Lontani e Loro Disegna la Costruzione di uno Monastero (How Benedict Appears to Two Far Off Monks and Shows Them the Design for the Construction of the Monastery); here, the carver is depicted wearing his Olivetan habit and holding a work tool.

The Church

The last stop on our tour is the abbey church, a single nave Latin cross structure built in Romanesque-Gothic style between 1400 and 1417, later rebuilt in the 18th century, which houses several valuable works of art.

Among the various works to admire (insert a coin in the box to activate the lights) is the wooden choir, inlaid by the aforementioned Fra’ Giovanni da Verona.

The choir is comprised of 125 stalls, separated into two levels, whose panels are inlaid with a variety of designs, including landscapes and geometric figures, holy vessels and birds, instruments and musical scrolls, and views of hillside towns. The variety of colours and the sublime technique make this set of stalls seem more like a large painting than carved wood.

It appears that Fra’ Giovanni did not work on this admirable piece alone, but availed himself of the help of his brother Fra’ Raffaele da Brescia, who was also a carver and whose wooden lectern in this church bears the figure of a cat at its base, so realistic that visitors are tempted to touch it and stroke its seemingly soft fur.

In the chapel of the left transept is the wooden crucifix which, according to tradition, spoke to San Bernardo Tolomei.

This is the end of our visit to the Abbey of Monte Oliveto. Before leaving, I recommend making one last stop at the refectory, where the monks still meet for meals, and the winery, where you can purchase wines produced by the monks.

Text by Ambra Sargentoni (Ambra Tour Guide) Editorial coordination: Elisa Boniello and
Laura Modafferi
Photos: Archivio Comune di Siena, Leonardo Castelli, Graphics: Michela Bracciali

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