Monte Oliveta Maggiore
So we're all in agreement that Tuscany is drop-dead gorgeous...a land that entices and entangles all who dare to set foot within her seductive boundaries. But what they forgot to tell you is that Tuscany is more like Sybil from that cheesy 70's movie than she is the coy Mona Lisa. This portion of central Italy is divided into 12 regions, which are then subdivided into unique territories, each pushing and pulling and parading with utter decadence of delights to convince you it is, indeed, the best.
Except, in my opinion, the Crete Sinese -- that land south of Siena whose name is derived from the aged, sun baked clay that sustains and supports the voluptuous rolling hills and sparse forests resting here.
Sister to the Chianti region and her famous vineyard laced hillsides flanked by countless silvery olive grooves and charming tiny villages that make her the rock starlet of central Italy, the Crete presents as the older, maybe even brooding, one; full of beauty, yet reserved and almost unwilling to give up her secrets. She is a land that is an artist's collection of seasonal hues...deep late spring green expanses of new wheat sprinkled with confetti of orange-red poppies that melds into early summer glistening gold ready for harvest; high summer and she bursts in an explosion of brilliant sunflower fields that tumble across the ancient landscape, dancing to appease the demanding sun. Hilltops are prickled with silent marching regiments of proud cypress, many leading the way to yet another aged brick farmhouse or villa that stand like oases in this ever-changing land-locked ocean. She seems to have no need to brandish her wares, but is quietly, even mysteriously, willing to allow the travelers to explore as she decides to give up...or not..her secrets to the curious.
I was lucky enough on this brilliant blue sky day literally exploding in glorious spring frenzy to find myself in a car transversing the Crete towards my destination of the Abby/Abbazia Monte Oliveto Maggiore. It's a minor miracle that I made it there and back in one piece -- one cannot look right/left/ahead/behind without having full-sense assault of indescribable beauty, never static in the changing light and winding bends, being thrown constantly in the 180 realm of vision. It was stunning to behold; almost too much for my head to wrap around. I wondered aloud if those exposed to this gloriousness daily maintained the deserved awe commanded by the Crete?
The last of the journey lead me up a corkscrew road through forested land that cast a dappled mural on the roadway. As I rounded the last bend, I saw the stately tower of the Abbazia Monte Oliveto Maggiore, a monastery founded and built in the 1200's by Bernardo Tolomei, respectfully announce itself to approaching pilgrims.
This fellow Bernardo, a rather well-to-do Sienese who was struck blind and experienced visions of the Madonna, was inspired to let go of the worldly life and established the Olivetan order of monks. Somewhat similar to St. Frances, Bernardo came with two others to the Crete and set up a simple life as a hermit. As his order grew, the Olivetan monks served the area as care givers, even going out during the Black Death and ministering to the suffering in surrounding towns. The monastery continued to grow and was eventually recognized as a powerful entity in the Catholic Church. And to this day it's an active place with the brethren busied in prayer, as well as a little commerce via honey, wine, olive oil, pharmaceutical oils, and the supposed cure-all tonic, Flora di Monte Oliveto. Okay...it's actually a liquor, and yes, I have some in my possession. I'll report on how "the cure" goes down....
The walk up to the abbey leads one through a beautiful forested trail canopied by the gentle overhung branches of pine, oak, and cypress. Age-weary brick paving provides a steady path, and one can't help but wonder what souls, both figurative and literally, have connected to this same terra.
Visitors are greeted by a beautifully adorned tower with a traditional drawbridge style gate that serves as the entrance path to the abbey, as well as the low key little restaurant and bar that offer comfortable patio seating. I treated myself to a caffe flavored gelato and savored the quiet view for a few moments.
The quiet was shattered, however, as I made my way past the sign requesting silence and respect at this holy place when I heard the utter screeching of wild animals...no, wait.... a few kids...really?.... as they came down on the return path from the abbey. Mamma Mia -- the 2 or 3 made enough noise to initially make me think it was a school group. True confession, even though I adore small children: I was relieved that they were going as I was coming!
I entered the abbey and began the tour of the richly detailed mural depicting the life of St. Benedict, who is regarded as the guy who established Christian monasticism. Covering the 4 large walls of what is now an enclosed courtyard, this renown mural tells the story of St. Benedict's life from his decision to leave school in Rome and onward.
Began by Luca Signorelli in 1497, nine panels were completed before Luca said "Basta!" upon the offer of a snazzier job working on the duomo in Orvieto. A couple of years passed and Antonio Bazzi steps in to complete the 27 scenes. Bazzi was known as "Il Sodoma", and I'll just let your clean mind fill in the blanks on how he got that name. Another interesting factoid related to Il Sodoma is his affinity for unusual pets that he brought along to Monte Oliveto. Sown throughout the murals are likenesses of some of these including a badger, raven, tortoises, chickens, and others.
All in all, the murals are a visual treat of richly scaped scenes and stories, and are well worth the time to study, contemplate, and admire.
I was also able to take in the beautifully adorned main chapel remodeled in the 18th century to Baroque standards, the somewhat stoic library -- albeit the richly frescoed hallway outside the library and the carved wooden doors leading in were most impressive -- and the refectory, or "mess hall" in colloquial terms, that glowed in a juxtaposition of ancient and modern as the low afternoon sun cast an ageless aura on rough hewn tables and chairs set with modern utensils and plates readied for an evening meal whose pleasant aroma wafted out to those stopping to view.
A quick perusal of the interesting gift shop offering a brood of all-too-typical souvenir type items interspersed with chant CD's, informative books, an impressive array of therapeutic oils and balms, honey, and other handiworks crafted by the monks, as well as the aforementioned "tonic" was my last adventure before departing Monte Oliveto Maggiore for the return through the Crete to Castellina in Chianti. ( there's a fascinating story of the connection to Monte Oliveto and our "home away from home", Casamonti ... to be continued!)
And the return was as rapturous as the journey there. The late day light draped a honey-coated warmth over the evolving wheat fields, and somehow the same vistas of undulating landscape I'd enjoyed a few hours prior had changed clothes and were now sporting an elegance that the high sun had not uncovered. Daring to divert my attention from the jealous road, I was plied with a beauty determined to yank me whole-heartedly into a dangerous gaze. More than once it required I give in and pull off the road to stare, to absorb, to try to assimilate the 360 degree theatre of God's glory that was an overwhelming realization of any and all photos, paintings, or reproductions ever produced of this classic land. And I did it willingly, thankfully, happily.