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Abbazia di Sant'Antimo in South Tuscany (1120)

The Master of Cabestany


May 11 is the Feast Day for Sant'Antimo

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To reach Sant'Antimo from the Firenze-Siena 4-Coursie (travelling South), take the Siena Sud exit (which happens very very shortly after Siena Ouest) and follow the signs on the SS2 (via Cassia) to and past Buonconvento.  Further on turn right and go up the long hill through the Brunello vineyards to the edge of Montalcino at the top of the hill, then go almost all the way round the roundabout to achieve a very sharp left turn (signposted Sant'Antimo).



The Abbazia di Sant'Antimo on the morning of All Saints Day - November 1 2002.



October 2000



The original Benedictine abbey (contrary to what some guide books tell you, Tuscany's most beautiful abbey was never Cistercian), built on a site south of Siena / Montalcino where the Emperor Charlemagne was restored to health after falling sick on the way back from Rome in 781.  The apse of the original (800s) abbey still stands alongside, and is dwarfed by, the later 1100s apse.  The abbey became the most powerful monastic landowner and foundation in Tuscany, via its imperial connections and gifts from those travelling the nearby via Francigena, the pilgrims "road" to and from Rome.  So powerful was it that the Abbot had the title of "Conte Palatino" * and at its height it owned a large slab of Western Tuscany from Lucca in the North to Orbitello in the South.  The medieval title "Palatine XXX" meant that its holder had local authority which normally would only belong to a sovereign.


Then a big gift from Count Bernardo degli Ardengheschi in 1117 enabled them to build a new abbey, which is still there and in perfect nick - the most beautiful abbey in the most beautiful pastoral setting.   The church was probably modelled on the beautiful French pilgrimage church of Vignory on the via Francigena in Haute Marne (Champagne) - and it is one of only a handful of churches in Italy with an ambulatory.


The plays of light (particularly in the morning through the large apse window) on the translucent onyx, alabaster and local travertine stones used in the interior of the abbey produce a light quality in the nave which is a "must experience" - especially when there is a bit of incense smoke around the place.  The impact is accentuated by the nave floor which slopes slightly upwards towards the focus of the dramatic primitive thirteenth century wooden carving (life sized) of Christ crucified standing behind the altar.   Note also some of the intricate capitals and some very primitive stuff dotted around the outside walls.


* A Conte Palatino (Earl Palatine sometimes in English), about as elevated power-wise as you could go without becoming King or Emperor, had pretty much absolute power over both church and state matters in his region.  Usually to be found in frontier areas (like a Margrave / Marchese / Marquis but more universally powerful).  In England the best known were the Prince Bishops of Durham who ran the entire Northern Border region,  including its army.  It was not until 1836 that this particular  title was abolished.



Sant'Antimo graces the cover of this Oxford Architecture History book


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October 2000



Late November 2001, and it's amazing (see photos below) how a long lunch clears the mist






Back in the mid 1100s, the expense of the new building proved too heavy a burden.  Building work stopped and the unfacaded abbey and its monastery went into decline - which paradoxically is the reason that it retained its original unity and beauty - there was no money to "improve" it.  It was entrusted into the hands of Guglielmite Friars in 1291 and then suppressed in 1462 by Sienese Pope Pius II (Piccolomini) and placed under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Montalcino, who had the good sense to convert the ladies gallery into a personal apartment  for time out frolics!  By the eighteen hundreds a tenant farmer was living in the apartment and his animals enjoyed the space downstairs.  In 1870 the site was taken over by the state (in the nick of time), and over the next twenty years the abbey was restored to its former glory with the help of funds from the new Kingdom of Italy.


Today Sant'Antimo is the home of a small community of Canons, whose services all day and every day are based on Gregorian chant settings.  Get there around midday in order to have time to wander around and then just sit and experience the space and light and the short Gregorian Sesta service at 12.45.  Afterwards a good lunch spot is the Antica Osteria del Bassomondo accompanied by a few glasses of their Rosso di Montalcino.  One more thing - they do not do weddings!



Sant'Antimo Web Site


When we first started visiting Sant'Antimo in 2000, there was little printed or web information available about the Abbey.  Now there is a very comprehensive website (in Italian) with an English translation of the historical narrative and several outstanding photographs - well worth a visit !





Another late autumn panorama - October 2006




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Left:  The Abbey in spring surrounded by wild broom and poppies - June 2000. 


Below left: On the left, the apse of the small Abbey built when the Emperor Charlemagne was restored to health here after falling sick on the way back from Rome in 781.  With the age of great church building underway in the European boomtimes 300 years later, the little old Abbey was dwarfed by the south wall of the apse of the present Abbazia di Sant'Antimo, built in 1120.


Below: A tree is all it takes to hide the old structure!


The remains of the chapter house windows and the well, next to the old abbey where the cloisters would also have been (and with some experimental Adobe Photoshop colour effects).


Cypress and olive trees and Brunello vines - looking out from the Abbazia di Sant'Antimo towards the Antica Osteria del Bassomondo (top far right, just out of the picture) where lunch awaits.  (Again with some experimental Adobe Photoshop colour effects)


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Sant'Antimo Web Site







The Master of Cabestany


Sant'Antimo is not known for its column capitals, with one significant exception - an "in the round" relief of "Daniel in the Lions' Den" which has been attributed to the Master of Cabestany. 


Cabestany is a small town near Perpignan - last French stop before the border with Catelonia (Spain) and the city of Barcelona.  In the 1930s several pieces of a high quality 1100s tympanum were found in the town, along with some other similarly sculptured stuff.  The unknown sculptor of these outstanding works was dubbed "the Master of Cabestany".  


Since then over 100 other works by the same hand / workshop have been identified from abbey churches in Navarre (but in the Met in NY), Catelonia, SW France and Tuscany.  The town of Cabestany has established a museum with a well illustrated website (commentary in French) and there is also an informative explanatory page on Wikipedia.


Lunch at the Antica Osteria Bassomondo






Afterwards a good "cucina casalinga" (country food - literally "cooking of the housewife") lunch spot (crostini, Tuscan cold meats, house pasta, rabbit or other casserole etc) is the Antica Osteria del Bassomondo which is just a minute's drive away behind the first T junction turn off the main road.  Try their own Vino di Casa or Rosso di Montalcino, or go for the Brunello if you are feeling more fiscally expansive.  The grappa is also excellent.


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