Tuscany’s grandest monastery – the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore, renowned for its absorbing Renaissance frescoes – stands 26km southeast of Siena, or roughly 50km east of San Galgano, in a secluded but exceptionally beautiful tract of countryside.
When Pius II visited in 1463, it was the overall scene that impressed him: the architecture, in honey-coloured Sienese brick, merging into the woods and gardens that the Olivetan or White Benedictine monks had created from the eroded hills of the crete. The pope recognized the order within six years, and over the following two centuries this, their principal house, was transformed into one of the most powerful monasteries in the land. Only in 1810, when the monastery was suppressed by Napoleon, did it fall from influence. Today it’s maintained by a small group of Olivetan monks, who supplement their state income with a high-tech centre for the restoration of ancient books.
The abbey complex
From the gatehouse, an avenue of cypresses leads to the abbey. Signs at the bottom of the slope direct you along a walk to Blessed Bernardo’s grotto – a chapel built on the site where the founder lived as a hermit.
The abbey is a huge complex, though much of it remains off-limits to visitors. The entrance leads to the Chiostro Grande, where the cloister walls are covered by frescoes that depict the Life of St Benedict, the founder of Christian monasticism. The fresco cycle, which begins on the east wall, immediately to the left of worshippers emerging from the church itself, was started in 1497 by Luca Signorelli, who painted nine panels in the middle of the series that start with the depiction of a collapsing house. The colourful Antonio Bazzi, known as Il Sodoma, painted the remaining 27 scenes between 1505 and 1508. He was by all accounts a lively presence, bringing with him part of his menagerie of pets, which included badgers, depicted at his feet in a self-portrait in the third panel. There’s a sensuality in many of the secular figures, especially the young men – as befits the artist’s nickname – but also the “evil women” (originally nudes, until the abbot protested).
The church was given a Baroque remodelling in the eighteenth century and some superb stained-glass in the twentieth. Its main treasure is the choir stalls, inlaid by Giovanni di Verona and others with architectural, landscape and domestic scenes (including a nod to Sodoma’s pets with a cat in a window). Stairs lead from the cloister up to the library, again with carving by Giovanni; sadly, it has had to be viewed from the door since the theft of sixteen of its twenty codices in 1975.