Friday, July 11, 2014

Monte Oliveto Maggiore and Sant'Antimo

The Two Abbeys

If you are travelling south of Siena, to the area known as the Crete Senesi (literally the Sienese Clays), and if you are interested in medieval and renaissance history, art and architecture, you will have to make a stop at the abbeys of Monte Oliveto Maggiore and Sant'Antimo, both founded by the Benedictines.  The abbeys are interesting in themselves for several reasons, but the contrast between the two is also fascinating.
Monte Oliveto sprawls above a clay cliff on a hill south of Asciano. It is a considerable complex of brick buildings; bricks are the material of choice in this area: the clay they are made from is ubiquitous.

Sant'Antimo on the other hand sits cradled in a valley of the river Starcia, surrounded by olives and fields of wheat. It is south of Montalcino, not far from Monte Amiata. Sant'Antimo is partly in ruins and on a much smaller scale than its neighbour. It is built of local travertine and alabaster-onyx.

First to the larger abbey, the working monastery which produces wine, oil, liqueurs, pulses and spelt in its still extensive territory while the monks restore ancient manuscripts. 

Monte Oliveto Maggiore
One of the two cypress-lined roads which slope down to the Monte Oliveto abbey complex from its fortified drawbridge entrance. This brick road channels rainwater into an enormous open-air cistern, seen below.

Apart from an extraordinarily ugly modern sculpture, in Carrara marble, of Saint Bernard Tolomei, founder of the monastery, (1272-1348) which stands in the square beside the abbey's church and which I did not deign to photograph, (one can only hope that time will soften the blazing white of the marble and the harsh lines sculpted by one Massimo Lippi, although little can be done about the proportions), this first space the abbey presents to the newcomer somehow recalls the painting, possibly attributable to Leon Battista Alberti, the 'Ideal City', in its size, proportions and architectural style.

the clock and bell tower, endearingly, has caper plants growing on its roof
the Great Cloister, completed between 1426 and '43; here is where the frescoes reside

the Middle Cloister, built in the 15th century, from which one accesses the Refectory on the ground floor and the Library, Pharmacy and Museum on the first floor
These brick bastions on the west side of the church must be at least 10 metres tall; below is the entrance to the monastery's cellar. The Benedictines treated themselves well - and still do, judging by the wine we glimpsed being poured for the monks' midday meal.*
What a dining room: reminiscent of Oxford or Cambridge colleges. Lunch had been set for 24: simple workaday crockery, bottles of water, but around the corner was the buttery and someone was decanting the red wine...

Exquisitely carved doors to the Library, crafted by one Fra Giovanni da Verona in 1500. He was also the architect who designed the Library. Fra Giovanni's hand is found in many artifacts including a magnificent wooden candelabrum and the extraordinary inlaid wood or intarsia of the choir stalls, see below. And in a side chapel of the church a handsome intarsia tabby cat sits at the base of a lectern by Fra Giovanni.
The Library, sadly bereft of its desks and benches and, indeed, of many of its books: it originally boasted 40,000 volumes but since Napoleon swept through, there are only 2,500 nowadays, which monks and outsiders can and do consult. We noticed many scientific treatises amongst the volumes.
Capitular Hall (1498), now a Museum of religious art from the abbey

the elegant former Pharmacy with precious 17th century ceramic vases containing medicinal herbs

Fra Giovanni da Verona's inlaid wood or intarsia from the church's choir stalls. I cannot find a reference but would not be surprised if Giovanni da Verona had been the craftsman behind the intarsia of the studiolo in the Palazzo Ducale of Urbino.

But here is the real treat; until now we have just been wandering idly through the abbey. The principal attraction of Monte Oliveto Maggiore is the cycle of frescoes which wind around the walls of the Great Cloister, the work of Luca Signorelli and Il Sodoma whose real name was Antonio Bazzi. Eight frescoes are by Signorelli (painted in 1497-98) who abandoned the monastery when called to work on the cathedral at Orvieto, while il Sodoma completed the cycle after 1505, painting 26 other lunettes (one of which was repainted by Riccio while another was painted by Bartolomeo Neroni). When you emerge into the Great Cloister from the dark church or the dim atrium with its ugly mosaic of Christ (the modern art at the monastery is not a patch on its renaissance ancestor), you will rejoice at the light and colour of the frescoes and their charming details, particularly from the animal world. 
the predominant colours are yellow, green and terracotta contrasted with lapis lazuli
 The cloister is glassed in, so the paintings are well protected these days although they have clearly been damaged in the past. The scenes describe the life of Saint Benedict based on the account by  Gregory the Great (593-4).

this fresco by Signorelli,which depicts the saint removing a devil from on top of a rock, captivates with its solid, glowing, life-filled forms

this, a detail from Il Sodoma's lunette depicting Benedict pardoning a monk for trying to flee the monastery; surely at least three of these faces are portraits 
We are treated to charming titles such as 'How Benedict defeats the Enemy [the devil] on the Stone', 'Benedict Repairs a Broken Tray through Prayer', 'Benedict sends away the Harlots' or 'How Benedict changes a Glass of Wine hidden from him by a Boy, into a Serpent'.
I couldn't resist recording this testament to the builder's trade: 'How Benedict appears to two Monks and directs them to construct a Monastery'
more striking portraits here in the lunette by Il Sodoma, 'How Benedict excommunicates two Nuns and absolves them when dead'
I photographed this because of the delightful badgers (which appear to be pets), not realizing at the time that the young man with the badgers is in fact a self-portrait by Il Sodoma, Antonio Bazzi.
Here is a better reproduction of the self-portrait. Note the direct (sardonic?) gaze, the fine hair.

Il Sodoma excels himself in this complex tableau which apparently contains portraits of Leonardo, Botticelli, Signorelli and other contemporaries and artists. The horses are magnificent, recalling Paolo Uccello, and the knave in the centre foreground with the stripey hose is priceless.

greater detail from the same lunette, unfortunately somewhat distorted by the angle
charming background detail of bathers: who said the ancients couldn't swim! From Il Sodoma's 'How Benedict reattaches to a Cleaver the Handle which had fallen in the Lake'
exquisite cameo of a serving-woman from Signorelli's 'How Benedict says to the Monks when and where they ate, outside the Monastery.' A foretaste of Vermeer perhaps...
the other serving woman, who has something of a Botticelli in her stance
Monte Oliveto Maggiore, although no longer in the prime of its power (the final blow was dealt under Napoleon in 1810), still evinces the grandeur of vision of its founder and sponsors in its size, the magnificence of its architecture and embellishments and its artistic endowment. Interestingly, I noted that a previous signer of the visitors' book had written: Monastère ou palais princier?
 Even if there are only two dozen monks living at Monte Oliveto today, the abbey speaks volumes about the sheer power wielded by the Order and the Church which it represents.

Sant'Antimo says other things.

A centuries' old olive outside the abbey of Sant'Antimo; the abbey was possibly founded in the 8th century, although the buildings standing today were built in the early 12th century. Could this olive be about as old as the monastery?
timeless simplicity; the square tower is Lombard in design
Sant'Antimo's history is shrouded in supposition. It may have been founded by Charlemagne as a Benedictine monastery or the great man may have simply given it his seal of approval. Not far from a branch of the Via Francigena, the pilgrim route to Rome, it would have been an important stop for pilgrims, travelling merchants and other wayfarers.

Interestingly, the church seems modelled on medieval French and Lombard churches. The bell tower, the ambulatory, a semi-circular open passage which curves behind the altar, and the small chapel to the right of the nave, called the Carolingian Chapel, testify to this.

In the years after its reconstruction by 1118, the abbey controlled 38 churches from Pisa to Grosseto and 1000 farms, while the abbot resided at Montalcino. But by the middle of the 12th century  Florence and Siena's power struggle altered the balance and in 1212 the abbey had to cede 25% of its territories, including Montalcino, to Siena.
Gradually over the following centuries the hold of the abbey weakened until in 1462 Pope Pius II (Piccolomini) suppressed the abbey; consequently the church and its annexations deteriorated. By the 19th century a farmer was living in the former bishop's apartments, using the church as a barn, and the cloisters as stables. In the 1870s it was restored by the Italian state and in 1992 was given new life by the Canons Regular of the Order of Prémontré, the Premonstratensians or White Canons who seem to make a living with their foresteria or guest rooms for retreats, as well as hosting summer camps in other structures nearby.

An animal theme is evident in Sant'Antimo. As the Great Cloister of Monte Oliveto was enlivened by depictions of animal life including some curious tame badgers and so forth, Sant'Antimo displays sculptures of sheep, wolves or foxes, lions and other beasts. The most striking are the travertine lions guarding the entrance and the capital depicting Daniel in the lions' den, thought to be the work of one Master of Cabestany from south-eastern France who also sculpted the bas-relief on the bell tower reproduced and displayed on the pulpit: the Madonna and Child with the Evangelists.

  The painted wooden medieval crucifix hanging behind the altar is one of the church's most beautiful and precious works of art. Having been stored in the upstairs galleries for centuries, it was finally reinstated in 1972. The figure unusually unites the arts of sculpture and painting. Christ's eyes are closed, his body evokes quiet resignation, yet the cloth he wears about his waist is richly blue and gold.

A small crypt below the main altar once housed the remains of Sant'Antimo (martyred in the year 303). There is an early 15th century fresco above the altar/tomb.

The eye is drawn upwards in this church, by the engaging decorations on many capitals, by the interesting proportions (the central nave narrows and rises towards the apse and is particularly tall, in the style of French churches of the period), and by the light streaming through the double lancet window high in the apse. The ambulatory, or passageway around the choir and altar, is filled with light. The alabaster-onyx stone is translucent and certainly enhances the particular atmosphere of the place. 
Deliberate or not, the effect is emotionally/spiritually laden.

the stone at the base of this column has been smoothed by many hands over the centuries: the translucence of the alabaster-onyx seems to permeate the church

In the blind arches of the ambulatory only two frescoes, by Spinello Aretino, survive, but they are marvellously fresh in colour and primitive in execution, seemingly more ancient than their dating to the early 15th century.

The so-called groin vaults of the side naves; in Tuscany such a technique is otherwise found only in Pisa, while the central nave has a typical Tuscan wooden beamed ceiling.
some of the gorgeous capitals with sheeps' heads and stylized plants: how modern they seem in their linear simplicity
here, rams' heads
The Carolingian Chapel is today used as a sacristy by the canons and the door is sadly kept locked. However, an inquiry following upon a small offering in the offering box induced the sacristan, who was overseeing the abbey's modest merchandise counter, to let us in for a few minutes. He gave a rapid-fire description in Italian and ushered us out, but not before we had grasped the utter simplicity and beauty of the former chapel.
monochrome frescoes of scenes from the life of Saint Benedict of Norcia - how they contrast with those of Monte Oliveto, but how splendid they are in their naivety
This being the oldest part of the abbey, it seems important to view it. Sadly the crypt below it, the galleries above the nave which housed the bishop's apartments, what remains of the cloisters and the capitular hall, are all off bounds to the public. Yet it appears one can request a guided tour, see below: it certainly warrants further exploration.
the robes of the White Canons hanging in the Carolingian Chapel
a scene from the past?

a glimpse of what is left of the cloisters and other structures
orange=church; green=sacristy; pale blue=area for monks; mauve=area for guests; yellow=service areas. Today, apart from church, only 4 capitular hall; 6 library; 10 former refectory, now monks' residence are extant

The abbey's decline in importance, its gradual physical decay and current air of melancholy, augmented by the visibly exiguous and even ailing community of canons (there were only three present at Nones where they sang, with varying effectiveness and ability, their Gregorian chant), perhaps add to, rather than detract from, the atmosphere of stillness, contemplation and sobriety which seem proper to a monastery. There are no frills at Sant'Antimo today and the embellishments that exist, created long ago, are now part of the landscape.  
 There is something about stone, light, silence and simplicity (a word oft-repeated in relation to Sant'Antimo), which communicate a sense of peace even the profane can appreciate.

Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore 
53041 - ASCIANO (SI)

Tel. (+39) 0577.707611
Fax. (+39) 0577.707670

Summer time:
Morning 09.15 - 12.00
Afternoon 15.15 - 17.00
Winter time:
Morning 09.00 - 12.00
Afternoon 15.00 - 18.00
On Sunday morning closing time is 12.30 Entrance to the Abbey is free.
Groups with their own guide are welcome to visit freely.
To contact the Tour Guide of the Abbey:
Mr. Dino Benincasa (+39) 0577.718567
(meal times)For any other information
call the Abbey directly tel: (+39) 0577 707611

- Weekdays - 07.00 hours
18.15 hours Vespers and conventual Holy Mass (Gregorian chant)
- Sundays and Feasts - 11.00 hours conventual Holy Mass (Gregorian chant)
17.30 hours

- Saturday -
17.30 hours Vigil Mass

*Re the Benedictines treating themselves well: I have it from a reliable source that these days the fare in the monastery is modest and frugal and in no way resembles the more indulgent repasts for which the Benedictines were renowned.

Abbey of Sant'Antimo
Località Sant'Antimo

+39 0577 835659
Entry to the Church is free but the cloister, the capitular chamber, the community's residence, the library, the Carolingian chapel and crypt and galleries are not visitable.
However, for a guided visit ask the sacristan, Guido Burlando or reserve a visit calling 349 4796374 (evenings). Probably a tip is appreciated.

Visiting times for Church
Church opens - Matins 5.45
Lauds - 7.00
Terce - 9.00
Mass - 10.15-12.30
Sext - 12.45
Nones - 14.45
Visit of the Church - 15.00 - 18.30
Vespers - 19.00
Compline - 20.30 (21.00 Jul.+Aug.)
Church closes 21.00 (21.30 Jul.+Aug.)

Sundays and holidays*
Lauds - 7.30
Terce - 9.00
visit of the church - 9.15 - 10.45
Mass - 11.00
Sext - 12.45
Nones - 14.45
Vespers - 18.30
Compline - 20.30 (21.00 Jul.+Aug.)

1 comment:

  1. Such a beautifully appreciated and illustrated comparison of two out-of-the-way buildings, with stories and aspects that fascinate by the skill of the telling! A tour de force.


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