The Abbey of San Galgano is one of the most famous monasteries in the region of Tuscany. It was built between the years 1218 and 1288 by a community of Cistercian monks arriving from the region of Casamari. The Abbey is distinctly Gothic in design, and it derives its name from that of the medieval knight Galgano Guidotti.
According to legend, this knight converted to Christianity sometime in the late 12th Century. Upon his conversion, he established a small hermitage atop the hill of Montesiepi, just a few meters away from where the Abbey would later be built in his honor. It is said that when he arrived at Montesiepi, he plunged his sword into a nearby stone, symbolizing the end of his former occupation. Today, the sword is visible through a hole in the chapel floor, and it reminds me in some ways of Excalibur and the legend of King Aurther.
Adjacent to the main chapel are the remnants of yet another legend, which says that a group of three men broke into the hermitage while Saint Galgano was absent. One of the men attempted to extract the sword from the stone, which caused the stone to crack, and caught the attention of Galgano’s pet wolf. The wolf used its massive jaws to rip the man’s arms off, and scare the others away. The skeletal remains of the man’s arms are now on display in the chapel, posted as if to warn others not to make the same mistake.
Whether true or not, the story certainly feels like one ripped from the pages of a medieval manuscript.
The story of the Abbey itself is a bit more grounded, albeit far more turbulent. Records indicate that is was only in active use for about 50 years before much of the community was decimated by the Black Plague in 1348. Afterward, the Abbey was ravaged by a group of mercenaries in the late 1400’s, thus forcing the monks to abandon the abbey and relocate to Siena.
Abandoned for nearly two centuries, it was inevitable that the roof of the abbey would eventually collapse on itself, which it finally did after a severe lightning storm in 1786. The abbey was officially deconsecrated in 1789, and thus will never be occupied again.
In modern times, the abbey enjoys a kind of museum status, with the Italian government intervening around 1924 to remove the debris, and preserve what remains of the abbey today, as a monument to Christian history.
A monument which reminds me in some ways of the Abbey of Santa Maria di Mirteto. Like the latter, this abbey was also abandoned long ago by a group of Cistercians. But while I found Santa Maria in a state of true decay surrounded by the overgrowth of a forgotten village, the abbey of San Galgano stands remarkably preserved atop a quaint Italian hillside, and is frequented by many visitors.
I am fortunate I think, to have counted myself among them. As I’ve often pointed out, it is our history which informs our future, and monuments like these often speak the loudest.