Thursday, September 22, 2016

Abbadia San Salvatore, on the slopes of Monte Amiata

 A Town Full of Surprises
Monte Amiata
It is not where most tourists stop on their way around Monte Amiata in southern Tuscany. Abbadia San Salvatore is a township of 6000 souls on the northern slopes of Tuscany's most easily identifiable mountain. Unassuming and ordinary, it is the sort of place you drive through hurriedly, on your way to somewhere interesting.

And yet we stopped: was it that lunch beckoned, or was it that we noticed a sign proclaiming Abbadia San Salvatore as the home of an ancient Bible? Somehow the quest for lunch and our curiosity combined to make us stop. We would discover that this seemingly dull, grey town held several surprises.

this corner of the main square preserves glimpses of how the monastery must have looked
Abbadia San Salvatore is ancient, grew up around a monastery of the same name founded in the 8th century (the 8th century!) by a Longobard - the Germanic people who ruled Italy from the late 6th century until Charlemagne conquered them in 774 - a king by the name of Rachis. The monastery was first home to Benedictines and later Cistercians. 
One approach to the abbey, of which only the church remains today, is under a broad arch off the high street which transports the visitor into another century, past tiny gardens, sombre greystone houses to emerge in an ample square where the church's narrow, asymmetrical, austere facade is clearly and wonderfully ancient. Inside, the church is unusual: on two levels, with a steep, broad staircase leading up to the foreshortened nave and transept. The interior is dark and the pale grey stone adds to its sombreness. The real surprise is the crypt.

Beautifully lit by floor spotlights and in a glistening, pale stone, perhaps unpolished granite, after the gloom of the church above, the crypt literally takes your breath away. Probably built after the church in the 11th century (although opinions vary), the crypt is of Greek cross design and its thirty-six columns are decorated with different motifs, most with only their capitals variously carved, others with designs over the length of the column.

We noted the heads of rams, oxen, goats, horses; designs recalling the Celtic knots of the Books of Kells but which probably originated in Northern Italy, and other abstract patterns. All sitting under beautiful vaulted stone ceilings.

The abbey's principal claim to fame however is a Bible: the Codex Amiatinus. One of three created in faraway Northumbria some time after 692 when they were commissioned by the Anglo-Saxon abbot, Ceolfrid, the Codex is the oldest extant manuscript of the Bible in the Latin Vulgate. Probably the Venerable Bede participated in its making and it is held to be an accurate copy of Saint Jerome's text. Now preserved in the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence (a facsimile is on view in the San Salvatore church), the Amiatina Bible spent 1000 years in the Abbey of San Salvatore, probably because Ceolfrid, who was personally delivering it to Pope Gregory II, died en route. The Bible contains only a few pages of illuminations and is principally noteworthy for, apart from its antiquity, its clear, round, beautiful 'uncial' script.
Once we emerge from this special place a new sign points us in the direction of the borgo medievale, the medieval heart of the old town. Here amongst tidy, narrow lanes and austere greystone buildings civic pride is manifest: pots of flowering plants hang in improbable places and plaques describe the historical importance of various locations.The Abbadia San Salvatore artisans of old were so sure of the longevity of their crafts that they had the symbols of their trade carved in stone above their workshop doors. Those were the days when a trade or craft passed from father or mother to son and daughter forever.

medieval high-rise

the tailor's doorway

the blacksmith's workshop

this plaque records the murder by Fascists of a local partisan
And as for lunch? That was a pleasant surprise too. Abbadia San Salvatore came up with the goods, in more ways than one. A modest little shopfront, brightly coloured tables and chairs outside and the witty sign, Horto Sapiens caught our eye. Horto Sapiens serves and sells only local produce: delicious cheeses, cold cuts, oil, vegetables, jams, conserves, spreads, sauces and condiments, wines, beers and sodas strictly a chilometro zero as they say here, so from Val d'Orcia and Monte Amiata. Simple, tasty fare, modestly priced in pleasant, contemporary surroundings. Recommended. Horto Sapiens, piazza XX settembre 32, Abbadia San Salvatore, open 12-22.
The young people in the café were pleased to fill us in on some local colour. We had noticed wooden structures rather like cairns placed about the town. Apparently Abbadia San Salvatore is famous for its flaming pyres on Christmas eve. Doubtless a pre-Christian, winter solstice tradition, these fiaccole, up to seven metres high, burn all over the town with singing and dancing taking place about them.
winter solstice pyre or fiaccola in Abbadia San Salvatore
Over the course of the 20th century Abbadia San Salvatore emerged from relative poverty through intense mining of cinnabar, an ore used to produce mercury. Because of its extreme toxicity cinnabar is no longer viable; although the mining brought affluence to the town until the 1970s, one wonders what were the effects on the health of its inhabitants. A mining museum today illustrates this recent history of Abbadia San Salvatore, the town of multiple surprises.
cheerful shopfront on the way to the medieval village: this lady sells local and her own homemade produce in a shop where everything is piled higgledy-piggledy in joyous abundance

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