Traveling through Italy, it is impossible to ignore the religious symbols that fill the towns and countryside. The hills of Tuscany are dotted with a variety of basilicas, monasteries and churches that celebrate the Roman Catholic faith and tourists are encouraged to step in to experience the divine images and architecture. However, some of the most beautiful places to see if you’re in the area are the abbeys.
An abbey is a Catholic building that can serve as either a monastery or convent for a community of at least twelve monks or nuns. An Abbot or Abbess will often serve as the spiritual father or mother of the community. Even as abbeys fall out of function or practice, they often retain the name for centuries to follow – such as the ones on our list today! These five abbeys come highly recommended as visitation spots for tourists interested in the history of Italy.
Abbey of Sant’Antimo
Located near Montalcino, legend says that the abbey was ordered built by Charlemagne. While camping near the grounds, many in Charlemagne’s army were struck down by the plague. In the night, an angel came to him in a dream. The angel told him to pluck a piece of grass and infuse it with wine. The soldiers who drank the mixture were said to be cured and Charlemagne vowed to fund the construction of the abbey.
Historians believe the foundation of the abbey go farther back than Charlemagne’s time, yet the story has stuck till this day. If you happen to be in the area, the church is open all day, yet some portions are not accessible at all times. Try to coordinate your trip with the prayer schedule of the monks who reside there to hear their Gregorian Chant and be sure to see the detailed carvings, such as Daniel in the lion’s den, on the pillars.
Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore
The Gregorian Chant is performed at this abbey in Chiusura, in the province of Sienna. The chant was named for Pope Gregory the Great who ordered the simplification and cataloging of music in the church. Today this uniquely spiritual ritual mesmerizes the faithful, and the non-believers alike, at the abbey. The monks who chant are particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary, shown in their white habits to symbolize purity.
These monks also help to restore the more than 40,000 volumes, pamphlets and parchments comprised in their library and the breath-taking artistry that lines the walls. The cool drawbridge, which still stands at the entrance, and a pharmacy full of ancient spice jars makes this one abbey well worth taking the time to visit.
Abbey of Farneta
Located in the picturesque Valdichiana Valley, this ancient abbey was founded by the Benedetti Neri monks on the site of a Roman temple. Modern day visitors can stop by the abbey for a glimpse at unusual architectural features that have been maintained and restored by the various monks who lived there over the years.
There is also a museum which holds an archaeological collection showcasing Roman tombs, Etruscan urns and several Roman sculptures. Statues of St. Peter and St. Paul. Quiet and peaceful, it is an ideal place to pull over the car and embrace a bit of history.
Abbey of San Galgano
A summer in Tuscany would not be complete without touring this abbey. Located 25 miles outside of Sienna, this site houses the ruins of the first Tuscan Cistercian Gothic abbey. Visitors are welcomed in throughout the day and early evening, though most recommend you stop in before or after the tour buses for a more private look at this spectacular place.
Surrounded by fields of green, it provides the perfect backdrop to a picnic lunch and, while you’re in the area, it is only a ten minute walk from the Hermitage of Montesiepi. The Hermitage keeps one of the most fascinating relics of the region of Tuscany: the sword in the stone. Similar to the tale of King Arthur, this one revolves around Saint Galgano who gave up his past as a knight and drove his sword into the stone after receiving a vision from the Archangel Michael.
Abbey of Santa Mustiola
The small village of Torri is less than 15 miles from Sienna and is famous for the Abbey of Santa Mustiola. This abbey is best known for its Romanesque cloister – a rectangular open space surrounded by covered walks or open galleries. Now owned by the Biocchi family, the cloister may be visited on limited days of the week.
The cloister has three levels, the lowest being decorated with stunning black and white marble, the middle with bricks and the last showcasing wooden columns. It is a beautiful abbey set in a quaint village and makes the perfect day trip for anyone staying in the area.
These abbeys are only a small sampling of what Tuscany (and all of Italy) have to offer! Go explore and find your own favorites, let us know what’s out there.
Tell us about one of your favorite abbeys, in Tucany or other parts of Italy.