San Galgano, or:
The Sword in the Stone
SAN GALGANO WAS BORN GALGANO GUIDOTTI IN 1148, son of Gaetano, the illiterate feudal lord of Chiusdino (a town
south of Siena), and his lady, Dionisia. He grew up wild, and even the official accounts
of his life say he was overbearing in his youth. This probably means he was a hot-headed
arrogant lad, quick to blows and quite willing to remind his peasants and burghers that he
was boss, be it with their wives or daughters, or with their property. He was also quite
personable with his peers, because he had many friends and a beautiful fiancée. In any
case, one day Archangel Michael appeared to him, showed him the way to salvation, and even
told him where he should go. Michael must have been very convincing, because the next
morning Galgano announced he was becoming a hermit and took up residence in a cave.
The family was not pleased by this sudden turn of
events. Friends and relatives shuttled back and forth before the mouth of the cave,
ridiculing him, while Dionisia used every wile she could think of to convince him to
renounce his vows and marry his beloved. She finally got him to don his noble robes and at
least pay a last visit to her. Somewhere along the way, IT HAPPENED:
His horse reared and threw him. Stunned, he felt himself lifted to his feet while a
seraphic voice and a will he was unable to resist led him to Monte Siepi, a rugged hill
under Chiusdino. The voice bade him stand still and look up; at the top of the hill there
was a round temple with Jesus and Mary surrounded by the Apostles. The voice told him to
climb the hill, and as he did the vision faded. When he reached the top the voice spoke
again, inviting him to renounce worldly pleasures. Galgano objected that though giving up
worldly pleasures sounded good, doing so would be as easy as using his sword to split
rocks. To prove his point, he drew his weapon and thrust at a stone, fully expecting the
blade to snap. It penetrated to the hilt, and Galgano never left the hill again.
Contemporary accounts say that though he lived in poverty, he didn't renounce the
world: Wild animals were frequent companions, as were the local farmers, who came to talk
and ask his blessing. The good Galgano was doing in this little corner of the world soon
irked the Devil, who sent an evil man disguised as a monk; the wolves who lived with
Galgano killed the would-be assassin and gnawed at his bones.
Just a year later, Galgano was gone, summoned home to the Heavenly Host. The funeral
was a major happening, attended by bishops and three Cistercian abbots, including one who
had gotten lost while trying to go to Rome. Or had he been led? The next year the Bishop
of Volterra gave Monte Siepi to the Cistercians, with the understanding
that they would build a shrine to Galgano's memory. They began building in 1185 (the year
Galgano was canonized), erecting an oddly beautiful round temple, somehow reminiscent of
the tomb of Cecilia Matella on the Appian Way outside Rome, with an unforgettable spiral
patterned ceiling, and an opening in the floor for the stone Galgano had thrust his sword
into. His head, which continued to grow blond curls long after his death, was placed in
one side chapel, and the chewed bones of the arms of the evil man in another.
Chiusdino was a strategically important area, and Galgano proved a popular saint. The
crush of visitors was such that the Cistercians were authorized to build another monastery
named after the Saint a short distance away, in the valley below. Setting aside the
Romanesque architecture of the round temple they built one of the most beautiful Gothic
buildings in all of Italy, a masterpiece of Cistercian sobriety and functionality. The monastery rapidly became
powerful, and, what's more important, respected: Monks from San Galgano were appointed to
high offices throughout Tuscany, and one even became treasurer of Siena. Then the
unthinkable happened. San Galgano was assigned to a succession of commendatarii,
absentee abbots of noble lineage who viewed the property as something to be exploited.
Exploit it they did, some more and some less, until Giovanni Andrea Vitelli removed and
sold the leading from the roofs of both the round temple and the abbey in 1548. The temple
survived, but the roof of the abbey collapsed. When a local noble stopped to visit a
century later, he found grass in the nave, and just one monk, huddling in an outbuilding
and dressed in rags so pitiful the noble was outraged. The Pope suppressed the abbey in
the early 1700s and declared the round temple a parish church.
This would be
just a curious legend, except for the fact that the Cistercians built to last. The round
temple is still standing, and still has both the sword in the stone and the gnawed
forearms (Galgano's head is now in Chiusdino). The walls of the abbey are also still
standing, and it is hauntingly beautiful, a field of green with the walls reaching up to
the sky, especially as dusk falls and a hint of mist rises from the valley floor.
San Galgano is in the Val di Merse, about 30 km southwest of Siena. To reach it, take
State Highways 73 and 441, towards Massa Marittima (San Galgano is about half way between
Siena and Massa Marittima). It's a very pretty drive, and the grass makes the abbey a
perfect spot for picnicking. The round temple is, like most Italian churches, open in the
morning. The abbey is open all the time.
Have a great trip!
Text & Photos © Kyle Phillips