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Medieval

San Galgano Abbey

A mystical place between legend and history.
Ptolemy
21 August, 2022

In a wild valley in the heart of Tuscany lies the Gothic abbey of San Galgano, built between 1220 and 1268 CE by the Cistercian monks’ Order. To explain its origin and location, we must take a few steps back by rediscovering a name: Galgano Guidotti, the 'knight of God'.

The Legend

Born in the small village of Chiusdino in the Sienese countryside, Galgano was the son of a feudal lord who became a knight at a very young age. It is said he lived a warrior's life, ruthless, characterised by sin and violence. These were the very reasons why, after the apparition of the Archangel Michael in one of his dreams, he was led by his horse for days in the countryside seeking conversion. He finally ended his journey on top of a hill in Montesiepi, where he abandoned and thrust his sword inside a rock, turning it into a cross, a poetic metaphor, with which from an instrument of death and blood, the iron became a symbol of resilience, peace and redemption.
The sword of St. Galgano (Travel dreamer, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
The sword of St. Galgano (Travel dreamer, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
He then became a hermit and lived in a hut until his death in 1181 CE, dedicating himself to peace with the same intensity he had previously practised all kinds of evil. The legend says he was found kneeling in front of his sword in a last act of prayer.

The religious symbol and the abbey

This was the beginning of a symbol, a destination with a symbolic and religious value that led to the construction of a chapel to protect and venerate the sword. In a few years after Galano’s death a worship building, better known as the "Rotonda" or "Eremo of San Galgano", was built on his hermitage. Today the complex is still visitable on the mountain of Montesiepi, just next to the gigantic abbey which lies down the hill. The Rotunda is a circular building that still encloses and guards the sword that Galgano drove into the rock.

External view of the Eremo of Montesiepi (Superchilum, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Inside view of the "Rotonda" or Eremo of San Galgano on the hlltop of Montesiepi (Superchilum, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Frescos depicting saints tributing the Madonna and Saint Galgano(Sailko, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Later on, brought by the spirituality of Galgano's figure, more monks came to watch over his remains and later sustained an oratory over his tomb. The monastery and the Abbey of San Galgano were thus created.

However, the abbey suffered a turbulent history, starting with a slow decline in 1348 CE, when the Black Death decimated the active Cistercian monks.

From here, the complex was characterised by continuous deterioration. For years the abbey was plundered of everything, including fixtures and fittings, giving today’s unique appearance, making the place an incredible and fabulous open-air place of past memories.

Today, this place envelops the air with a legendary atmosphere. There are many rumours and attempts to trace this place to stories such as King Arthur or peculiar connections to the Templars. What is certain, however, is this place's visual and emotional power that allows its visitors to travel through time, imagining the "dark" times of the Middle Ages, characterised by blood and faith.