Discovering Tuscany:  The Abbey of San Galgano

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Today’s frantic lifestyle only rarely gives us free time; that is, a few hours or even an entire day without work, programs, or projects to do.  In effect, these occasions are so rare that, when we have them, we often do not know how to use them.  We like to see some nice places, but we do not want to drive too many kilometers.  And then we must keep an eye on the clock because our house pets do now like to be alone for too long.  And visiting a new region, instead of going back to places we have already seen, is an important point too.

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One fine day in this past January, none of this had value for us.  On the contrary, the day passed smoothly and the place was easily found:  the abbey of San Galgano in the town of Chiusdino, in the province of Siena.  We had heard about the majesty and sacredness of the ruins, and of the beauty of the area.  The weather was not great, but in the winter one must not expect a gentle climate and mild temperatures.

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We were not the only ones to have the idea of visiting this part of Tuscany; in fact, there were lines of cars parking along the road (where no parking was allowed), including our own, but close to the monastery there was also a parking lot for visitors.

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The first impression was quite unexpected:  a skeleton of rock, enormous, which rises from nowhere among fields and meadows and is so impressive that it commands respect and profound admiration.   To begin with, we wanted to understand what there was to know about the abbey.  The works were commissioned by the order of Cistercian monks, who had settled in the region at the end of the twelfth century.  Twenty years later construction began on the monastery, which continued for 50 years and ended with its consecration by the Bishop of Volterra in 1268.

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History tells us that one hundred years of splendor followed, and then came the slow and inevitable decline.  The lead roof was sold in 1550, probably together with works of art and precious treasures; many of the stones were either stolen or moved to different places.  There were some modest attempts to revive the convent, but finally in 1789 it was deconsecrated and left definitively in ruins.

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By now we were ready to visit the building, and so was our camera.  As soon as we entered, we realized that the monastery really was just as the previous visitors had described it:  impressive, stupendous, truly extraordinary.  It was not difficult to imagine the prodigious effect that must have caused the religious ceremonies inside the structure.  All at once, it seemed possible for us to feel, almost to touch, the mystery and the profound spirituality of these walls, the calmness of the soul and the peace inside the hearts of the monks who had chosen to live here.

The visitors had to satisfy themselves with taking photos and selfies in front of the ruins; taking photos without anybody around was a true feat.  Still, the people have been additionally fundamental to make others understand, by seeing their photos, how impressive the building is.

At a certain point, we found ourselves near a small group of foreigners who were talking quietly about the place as if it were one of the few spots in the world where it is possible to perceive cosmic forces which can bring out deep memories and ancient instincts, hidden away in humanity’s history.

It was not easy to leave such a charming place, but much enchantment and amazement (and hundreds of photos) we decided to continue on towards a small church not far from the abbey.  To tell the truth, we were not particularly convinced; but, since a passerby told us that it was a walk of only five or ten minutes, it seemed right to continue there.

The church turned out to be the Eremo (“Hermitage”) di Montesiepi, built in 1185 immediately after the death of San Salgano, above the small hut where the saint had lived the final months of his life.  Even the abbey of San Galgano was built in honor of the saint of whom, to be honest, we know little; and of the little that has been passed down to us, we do not know what is history and what is instead pure fantasy.

Inside the chapel there is a huge stone into which the knight Galgano Guidotti stuck a sword, as a sign that from then on his worldly life was to be transformed into that of a hermit.  A similarity to the story of Arthur and the sword in the stone?  Non quite:  one sword was pulled from the stone, while one has remained in the stone.

The time had come to return home; the dog and cat were surely waiting.  The day had turned out to be truly curious and interesting.  Seeing that Tuscany is also a land of abbeys, convents, and monasteries that are important enough to be discovered, it is very probable that our next (albeit hypothetical) days off will turn out to be fully occupied.

Anneliese Rabl (translation John McAuliffe) x

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