Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore: Gregorian Chants

Tuscany’s grandest monastery, the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore is a spectacular Benedictine abbey perched atop a cliff set amid an old forest of olive, pine and cypress trees outside the town of Buonconvento. Founded in 1313 by Saint Bernard Tolomei, who took the religious name Bernardo, construction of the monastery began in 1393 and was completed in 1526, although the buildings were further modified during the Renaissance and the Baroque periods. The resident monks of the abbey support themselves by restoring old books, largely for the Vatican library, as well as preserving important frescoes, producing herbal remedies, delicious honey and liqueurs, but what they are most famous for are the glorious masses which the monks sing in Gregorian chant, a unique form of medieval sacred song set to Latin text without musical accompaniment. 

Well known for its spectacular setting, glorious architecture and soulful choir, another highlight of the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore is the magnificent Chiostro Grande, surrounded by 36 frescoes that depict 'The Life of St Benedict', the founder of Christian monasticism. The fresco cycle was started in 1497 by Luca Signorelli, who painted nine of the scenes but was diverted half way through to work on what is now the Signorelli Chapel in the duomo at Orvieto, but was finished in 1508 by the talented Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, known as il Sodoma, who painted the remaining 28 scenes in high Renaissance style. Having visited the cloisters, church, chapter house, refectory and large library, we timed our arrival for the early evening to hear the hauntingly beautiful Gregorian chants, a unique experience that moves even devout non-believers.

The drawbridge entry to the Abbey

Della Robbia detail above the entry gate

The striking Benedictine Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore

The Great Cloister with the magnificent fresco cycle depicting 36 Scenes from the Life of St Benedict

The fresco cycle continues on each of the four sides of the cloister

Closeup of one of Bazzi's frescoes

Life of St Benedict - Scene 15: Benedict Fishes the Pieces of a Broken Ax

Life of St Benedict, Scene 30: Benedict Foretells the Destruction of Montecassino

Fresco detail of Bazzi (Il Sodomo), who painted himself in to one of the scenes 

Frescoed ceiling on the way to the library 

Some of the ancient books in the Monastery Library

The beautiful old pharmacy used by the monks

The library itself has about 5000 books from the 1700s and 1800s. All of the older illuminated manuscripts from the Renaissance were removed to hide them from Napolean’s troups. The librarian said that many of these ancient manuscripts were hidden in homes in the outlying countryside, but many more were buried and never again found.

Service at the Abbey

The Monastery wine cellar and gift shop which sells their own wine, liquors and olive oil

The monks produce a liqueur prepared according to a recipe of the old Abbey pharmacy: Flora di Monteoliveto, an infusion of 23 herbs aged for over 6 months

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