Monte Oliveto Maggiore
The abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore is a beautiful monastic complex located in the middle of the Crete Senesi, along the road that leads from Asciano to Buonconvento. Monte Oliveto Maggiore is certainly one of the main points of interest in this area and, in my opinion, it is also one of the most beautiful places to visit in the entire province of Siena. The abbey is very large, rich in history and artistic treasures, and enjoys a truly enviable position, immersed in a forest of oaks, pines and cypresses, from which it enjoys a remarkable view.
The history of the abbey
The history of this monastic complex begins in 1313 when Bernardo Tolomei, member of one of the most important families of Siena, decided to retire to this place. In 1319, Bernardo gave life to the Congregazione benedettina di Santa Maria di Monte Oliveto and in 1320 the construction works of the abbey were started. Official confirmation to the Olivetan congregation came from Pope Clement IV in 1344. In the following centuries other monasteries were founded by the Olivetans and in the mid-seventeenth century there were 6 in all of Tuscany. In 1765, Monte Oliveto Maggiore was declared “abbatia nullius”, or territorial abbey, equating it to a diocese.
The visit to the abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore
The visit to the abbey begins with a short walk that leads from the parking lot to a fortified structure complete with a tower and a drawbridge. Here you immediately come into contact with the dominant element of the whole Monte Oliveto complex: the brick. Every single structure here is made with the typical red bricks that are found almost everywhere even in Buonconvento or Siena. Above the entrance portal, there is a delightful glazed terracotta, Madonna and Child surrounded by two angels, attributed to the Della Robbia. Inside this structure there is a restaurant that serves typical Tuscan cuisine; I haven’t tried it but the reviews look good…
From the tower begins a short path immersed in the woods which leads to the actual abbey. Already by following this gentle path you can begin to appreciate the peace that characterizes this place and all its beauty.
At the end of this short walk you reach an open space overlooked by various structures including the guesthouse, a shop where you can buy the products of the abbey and the church of which you can immediately admire the apsidal area and the bell tower. The complex of Monte Oliveto Maggiore is very large and consists of numerous rooms located around three cloisters that follow one another longitudinally. Not all of these rooms can be visited since the monks of the Benedictine congregation still live inside them, but I assure you that the visit is more than satisfactory.
The large cloister and the frescoes
The chiostro grande (large cloister), built between 1426 and 1443, is the most interesting element of the whole complex. The lower part of the cloister is made up of a portico entirely decorated with frescoes representing episodes from the life of San Benedetto. This magnificent cycle of frescoes consists of 36 scenes painted by Luca Signorelli, author of 9 scenes painted between 1497 and 1498, and by Antonio Bazzi known as Sodoma, who created the remaining scenes starting from 1505. These works have a very high quality level and alone are enough and advance to justify the visit from the abbey.
The large cloister leads to the church and the middle cloister which leads to the other areas of the monastery that can be visited such as the refectory (which can only be seen from the outside), the library, the cellars.
The cattedrale della Natività di Maria di Monte Oliveto Maggiore (Cathedral of the Nativity of Mary) was built in the early 15th century. It is a large red brick building with a Latin cross plan. The exterior is in Gothic style while the interior was modified in Baroque style in 1772. Inside you can admire a valuable wooden choir with extraordinary inlays, made between 1503 and 1505 by Fra’ Giovanni da Verona and some paintings of the 16th and 17th century, while in the sacristy there is a beautiful wooden lectern, the work of Fra’ Raffaele da Brescia (1520).
During the conventual Mass, at Vespers, at Compline and partly at Lauds you can hear the monks singing the traditional Gregorian chants, the evocative liturgical chants that date back to the first centuries of Christianity and take their name from Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604 ).
The library of the Abbey
Leaving the church, you return to the large cloister and then go to the middle cloister. This cloister is not completely open to visitors because from here on the spaces are completely dedicated to monastic life, but from here you can look into the refectory, go down to the cellars and go up to the upper floor where the library, the ancient pharmacy and the museum are.
Before entering the library, you pass through a completely frescoed room with a double staircase and large windows, a real jewel. The library of the Abbey of Monte Oliveto is very rich in ancient volumes, here are preserved 40,000 pieces including codices, pamphlets and incunabula. The library room is characterized by an ingenious colonnade with columns that are inclined so as to unload the weight on the load-bearing walls, an expedient that was necessary because these columns do not rest on anything considering that below there is the large hall of the refectory that does not have architectural elements supporting these columns.
At the end of the room, two stairs lead to the old pharmacy where the typical ceramic apothecary jars and various tools are kept. Also from the library, you can reach the small museum of sacred art which consists of two rooms and where there are some interesting paintings such as the Madonna and Child by Segna di Bonaventura and the Majesty by the Maestro di Monteoliveto.
Typical products of the abbey
Within the Abbey there is a shop where you can buy souvenirs and typical products of the monks. They range from herbal extracts, ointments and creams, till the farm products of Monte Oliveto as oil, honey, liqueurs and wine.
Timetables of the abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore
Standard time: 09.15-12.00 and 15.15-17.00
Daylight saving time: 09.15-12.00 and 15.00-18.00
Admission is free.
Schedule of masses:
Weekdays: 06.45 (except Saturday) and 07.30 Conventual mass (gregorian chant)
Holidays: 11.00 Conventual mass (gregorian chant) and 17.00 (saturday and sunday)
In any case, for information on timetables, I recommend that you visit the official website of the abbey.
How to get to the abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore
The abbey is located not far from the small village of Chiusure (Municipality of Asciano) in the heart of the Crete Senesi, if you want a remarkable panoramic view of the abbey and the surrounding countryside I recommend you visit this village and climb to the top where there is a nice panoramic terrace.
Coming from Siena, the fastest way to get to Monte Oliveto is via Cassia (SR2) to go up to Buonconvento and then turn off onto the provincial road 451. The distance between Siena and Monte Oliveto is about 37 kilometers. Once you arrive, you will find some small car parks (two of which are paid).