The Monte Oliveto maggiore Abbey, one of the loveliest rural monasteries in Tuscany, is set in a landscape of steep-sided clay hills, and hosts some important Renaissance frescoes. It’s an hour drive south of Siena, in an area of outstanding natural beauty, the Crete Senesi.
Monte Oliveto Maggiore is a severe-looking place seen from the outside, with its red bricks and bulky structure. And you can imagine why Giovanni (later Bernardo) Tolomei chose this spot to withdraw from his mundane life and create a religious community. It’s a landscape that inspires awe and spiritual reflection.
The creation of the monastery
In 1313 together with a few friends Bernardo Tolomei left his wealthy family to follow the rule of Saint Benedict, the “ora et labora” order. They were trying to restore some of the original simplicity and charity of the Benedictine rule, and the monastery acted as a hospital, caring for pilgrims of the nearby Via Francigena, and for the victims of the 1340s Black Death.
What to see in the Monte Oliveto Maggiore Abbey
From 1387 to 1526 the great monastery was built and beautifully decorated by, amongst others, two famous artists of the time: Luca Signorelli (1495-8) and Sodoma (1504-1508). You can admire their cycle of frescoes dedicated to the life of Saint Benedict in the Great Cloister. This is also the place that symbolically indicates that monastic life is a communion with God (being roofless, to experience the sky) and with the other brothers. It is from the cloister that one can access all areas of the monastery.
The monastery is still in use today so the visitors can see the room where the monks have their meals: the refectory, a vaulted huge space with 17th century frescoes. Meals are still eaten in silence and they assume a deep spiritual value, whose origin is found in the “breaking of the bread”. The library is the other important space in the monastery, where precious manuscripts were created throughout the centuries.
There is a marvellous wooden choir inlayed by fra’ Giovanni da Verona between 1503 and 1505. It is composed of 125 stalls, many of which are inlaid variously with scenes of landscapes and geometrical instruments, sacred vases, birds, musical instruments, mountain fortresses, musical scrolls. All of it is rendered with great detail.
The XIV century Crucifix located in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, brought here by Bernard Tolomei in 1313, is said to have spoken many times to the saint.
How to get there
The complex of Monte Oliveto Maggiore Abbey is situated 10 km. south of Asciano, and 40 km. from Siena. The area is that of the Crete Senesi (Sienese clay), a lunar landscape characterised by the grey colour of the soil. In the area other places of interests are the small Medieval towns of Buonconvento and San Giovanni d’Asso, famous for their white truffles.
After having parked the car, walk under the gate tower with its small cafe and through the woods for about 5 minutes to get the complex. The entrance to the monastery is to the right: a signed doorway leads into the Great Cloister. It’s all free except the parking.