The Abbazia di San Galgano, surrounded by majestic fields of sunflowers in a peaceful rural setting 26km northeast of Massa Marittima, is perhaps the most evocative Gothic building in all Italy – roofless, with grass for a floor in the nave, nebulous patches of fresco amid the vegetation, and panoramas of the sky, clouds and hills through a rose window.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, local Cistercian monks were the leading power in Tuscany. The abbots exercised powers of arbitration in city disputes, while the monks in Siena served as the city’s accountants. Through them, the ideas of Gothic building were imported to Italy. The order began a hilltop church and monastic buildings here in 1218, but their project to build a grand abbey on the fertile land below was doomed to failure. Building work took seventy years up to 1288, but then famine struck in 1329, the Black Death in 1348, and mercenaries ran amok in subsequent decades. By 1500, all the monks had moved to the security of Siena. The buildings mouldered until 1786, when the belltower was struck by lightning and collapsed. Three years later, the church was deconsecrated, and the complex was abandoned for good.
These days, the main appeal of the abbey is its general state of ruin, although the basic structure has been stabilized. In summer, it makes a wonderful open-air venue for opera performances, staged on various evenings between late June and the end of July; see w sangalgano.org for schedules.