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Where Faith is Married to Great Art.

Where Faith is Married to Great Art.
09 May 2018 0 Comment

Centuries ago, the unforgiving badlands of the Crete Siense, south of Siena were considered by the locals to be inhabited by demons and every sort of evil imaginable. Only a fool would try to farm here and only a bigger fool would drive his flocks across them and sleep at night in one of the many valleys that make up this mysterious landscape! If you were looking for a place to be alone and not to be followed by annoyance of a demanding world, this place could be a perfect refuge?

So thought Giovanni Tolomei of noble birth who around 1313 left the comfort of Siena and in pursuit of a more austere and penitent life, settled amongst the clay rocks and bare valley’s to keep company with whatever evil that might pass his way. Here on remote land in part owned by his family he lived as a hermit for several years. The locals called the property “Accona” and when followers of Giovanni (who after a time changed his name to Bernard in honour of the saint abbot from Clairvaux) sort him out, the word spread that there was another mission heading off to “Accona’s desert.” A blinding vision whilst Bernard prayed revealed a silver stairway to Heaven, where atop waited Christ and his mother. A group of monks, all dressed in white were climbing the stairs helped by angels. This convinced Bernard that his mission was to establish in that difficult land a monastery and on March 26, 1319 Bishop Guido Pietramala of Arezzo accepted Bernard’s request of the Benedictine Rule and bestowed upon the small community the habit of Benedict together with the Charta Fundationis; the monastery of the Holy Virgin of Mount Oliveto was born.

Today when one approaches this magnificent location one is amazed at the beauty of the monastery, jutting out above a small ravine, as though floating upon the clouds. Over the centuries the monks and lay people have created a Garden of Eden, cascading parklands of oak and cypress trees that tumble down the now verdant valleys. The surrounding hills are covered in olive trees with a small number of vineyards dotted about producing a very acceptable red wine (and an excellent white wine!) whilst the open lands produce wonderful grains like barley and chickpea. This is a thriving monastic community with timeless religious traditions as befitting a Benedictine monastery, rich in its history and astounding in the works that decorate the walls of the great cloister?

In 1495 Abbot Domenico Airoldi summoned the well-known and highly regarded artist Luca Signorelli to the monastery to begin a cycle of frescoes portraying the life and work of the great St. Benedict on the walls of the great cloister. And start he did but stay he did not? I’m of the opinion that Signorelli was more attracted to the commission that tempted him down to the duomo in Orvieto, being the summer residence of popes for centuries and giving him, what he must of thought more productive ‘exposure’ to those in power in Rome.

In short he left the monastery without an artist and with a desperate need to be filled, Abbot Airoldi called to his house in 1502, Antonio Bazzi? A lesser light than Signorelli to be sure and not without a lot of baggage; heavy drinking, moody with bouts of aggression and with the stigma of being called by Rome a name that came to infer a certain sexual preference perhaps; Sodoma! But what an artist and it would seem that the Monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore suited the character of this difficult individual because there in the great cloister Sodoma produced one of the greatest cycles of Renaissance fresco painting in all of Europe.

Sodoma completed the cycle begun by Signorelli, producing seventeen masterpieces. Each work portrays the life of Benedict with such detail of the world around him that we are invited back in time to enjoy the day to day routines of a city like Rome or a small country town like Norcia, the birthplace of Benedict. With the eye of a surgeon Sodoma painted animals, portraits of local people, soldiers and the rich and the poor to fill his backgrounds. His use of colour is brilliant and exciting and the narrative he creates flows from one scene to another with the ease of a film strip! A visit to a local tavern by two monks from the monastery is beautifully depicted with such natural realism and detail, allowing us to easily imagine a scene that was very common to Sodoma and very close to his heart. His love of wine preceded him and the Abbot was clever enough to include all that he could drink on any given day in the contract struck with the artist. And in return his monastery received divine artist recognition.

When you visit the Abbey today you become immersed in another time when great art was married to a faith that lived in every man and woman.

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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