A long time ago, in the Tuscan countryside near Siena, a valiant knight called Galgano stuck his heavy sword in a stone. Today the sword is still at its place, well preserved in the retreat of San Galgano Abbey in Chiusdino. This story, together with the magic atmosphere of the complex, is a good reason for a visit during your holiday across Tuscany.
The story of the sword in the stone in Tuscany
A knight called Galgano
The story of Galgano is quite weird, very like the one of the more famous Saint Francis of Assisi. And he became Saint only after his death.
All life of Galgano Guidotti is shrouded in mystery. Even his date of birth is not sure. He was probably born in 1148 ad, in Chiusdino nearby Siena.
Galgano was a knight. According to a legend, he lived a life of lust till he turned 20. Then, after Archangel Michael appeared twice in his dreams, he decided to redeem Christianizing himself.
Galgano’s decision threw the family into a state of deep depression. The desperation of his mother, the tears of his girlfriend Polissena, and the sneering laughs of the other knights, made Galgano so angry that he stuck with all his energy his big sword into a stone. And he succeeded. It was a miracle!
That gesture, for medieval knights, had a high spiritual meaning. The upside-down sword with its blade stuck in the stone and the hilt at the top looked like the Holy Cross.
Give up with war. May the sword be an instrument of reconciliation between God and mankind. This was the meaning of the act of Galgano.
The new life of Galgano
The new Galgano started to preach the Word of God in Siena and surroundings. Until the day he decided to retire up in a thatched hut on the Siepi Mountain.
During his wander, in 1181, he also met Pope Alexander III. He blessed Galgano, encouraging him to build a new abbey close to his hut and to found a new monastic community in Chiusdino.
Galgano hermitage lasted less than a year. He died in his hut in 1181, the birth year of Saint Francis of Assisi. What a coincidence. Legend says that also the Bishops of the land of Volterra, Massa Marittima, and Siena took part in his funeral rites. He was buried close to the sword in the stone. From the day of his death, Monte Siepi became a place of pilgrimage.
A few years later, in 1185, a commission of prelates verified the existence of the miracle of the sword in the stone, declaring the Holiness of Galgano. Today Galgano is a Saint of the Catholic religion.
The Origin of San Galgano Abbey in Tuscany
The retreat, also called Rotonda for its round shape, was completed in 1185. And in 1190 Cistercian monks moved there to live. In 1200, the number of monks increased so much that they decided to build a bigger abbey in the valley nearby. The first Cistercian abbey in Tuscany was completed and consecrated in 1268. The community lived a period of wellness and prosperity. The Emperors defended San Galgano Abbey from the enemies while monks got privileges and the authorization to mint coins.
This period of well-being lasted for less than 100 years. In 1364, a dispute between the Republic of Siena and the papacy marks the beginning of the slow decline of the Abbey. All treasure and riches went sold. Even the lead used to build the roof.
In 1786 a lighting hit the bell tower. It caused the collapse on the remains of the roof, giving the abbey the current open-work aspect. Three years later, in 1789, the abbey was deconsecrated.
Only the chosen one can pull the sword out from the stone, legend says. Contrary to the myth, anyone could pull the sword out. So in 1924, the local priest ordered to fix the sword in the stone pouring liquefied lead in the hole. Later, to avoid any acts of vandalism, they placed plastic protections to secure the relic of Saint Galgano.
Experts of medieval swords confirm that this sword in the stone dates back to the 12th century. Other analyses confirm that the stone was really hard to break. Therefore the fact that the sword easily stuck into it, confirms to be in front of a divine miracle!
Where is San Galgano Abbey
You find the Abbey of San Galgano close to the town of Chiusdino in the middle of the lovely Val di Merse. Siena is only 40 km (25 miles) away. A visit to the complex of San Galgano represents a perfect daily trip to take from the town of the Palio.
Unfortunately, the car is the only way to get there. There are no trains or buses that go to San Galgano. Here are distances from the closest tourist places of Tuscany:
- Siena, 40 km – 25 miles (45 minutes)
- Florence, 90 km – 56 miles (1h 30 minutes)
- Volterra and San Gimignano, 56 km – 35 miles (1 hour)
- Massa Marittima, 31 km – 19 miles (37 minutes)
- Follonica, by the sea of Maremma, 50 km – 31 miles (55 minutes)
On-site, free parking is available for your car, motorbike, and also camper van. There is also a bar/restaurant to take a rest, get a coffee or a nice meal. When we went, we ordered delicious tagliatelle with wild boar ragout.
What to do in San Galgano
The complex includes two attractions: the scenic roofless Great Abbey and the close retreat of Monte Siepi where the sword in the stone is preserved. It is open every day of the year. No need for reservations for the entrance.
The Roofless Great Abbey
Usually, the visit starts with the Abbey. You reach the entrance taking a short walk on the white dirt road surrounded by two lines of the icons of Tuscany, green cypresses.
There is a small fee entry to pay. It is not a real ticket but more like an offer for the church that helps the maintenance of the place. Prices may change all of a sudden. But they are € 4,00 or € 5,00 for adults. Kids from 7 to 18 pay a reduced price ticket of € 3,00. For children, up to 6 yo, the entry is free of charge. I think it is a fair price considering the beauty and the uniqueness of the site. Despite the few pictures you see online, the area is a no-fly zone for drones.
The place may be crowded during summertime and on the weekend. My tip is to avoid this time, or go early morning or late afternoon, even if it won’t be as crowded as the center of Rome. Instead, during the summer it is a good idea to skip the mass tourism of Florence and of the main touristic sites.
The church is empty and roofless. There is nothing but walls. It is not easy to describe the feeling you experience from the first moment you step into the Abbey. There is something mystic inside. Its emptiness forces you to travel with your imagination: huge red thrones and sparkling crowns, valiant knights and coronations, candle lights, and shining stained-glass windows. Over your head, just the sky!
The Eremo of Monte Siepi
After the visit to the Great Abbey, take the path to the close Eremo di Monte Siepi.
The retreat stood at the top of a little hill. It was abandoned at the beginning of 1200 when it became too small for a large number of monks. After the death of Galgano, monks built a church of round shape to protects the ashes of San Galgano and the miraculous sword in the stone.
Inside, you will also find another small chapel, built during the 14th century, that the Sienese artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti frescoed.
For more info about opening time, visit the official website.
Can I get married in the Abbey of San Galgano?
Celebrate a wedding inside the Abbey is possible. The scenery is amazing, a kind of wonderful dream. The old church is not consecrated anymore, so you can only celebrate a legal marriage (not a religious celebration). For more info, you have to contact the offices of Chiusdino municipality.
Instead, a religious marriage is possible in the closeby church of Monte Siepi. Being a very small chapel, pay attention to select only the best guests. For more info can contact the minister of the Eremo of Monte Siepi.
Analogies with other stories
Before to go, I leave you with a few analogies between the life of San Galgano and other knight stories. Enjoy!
There is an analogy between the story of St Galgano and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Prince Arthur was the only one to pull Excalibur out of the stone becoming King of Camelot.
There is also a similarity with Hercules of Virgil’s Aeneid. He stuck an iron bar into the ground as a symbol of his valor, and no one was able to pull it out.
Finally, we can compare Galgano with the Knights Templar whose presence in Tuscany is verified in the close county of Frosinone.
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(Updated on 27.11.2020)