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L'Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore

South Tuscany

"The Abbey Born in a Dream"

(2005 Photos)

Link to earlier page on Monte Oliveto and its history

Link to L'Abbazia Sant'Antimo - Italy's most beautiful and light filled Abbey

Back to overview of Siena Photo Pages





The Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore "The Abbey Born in a Dream" is the mother house of the Olivetians, a congregation of white robed Benedictine Monks founded in 1313 by Beato Bernardo Tolomei di Siena on a godforsaken eroded Balze Cliff area to the south of Siena.  


Well, Bernardo persuaded God back, and the whole place is now awash with cypress trees and other greenery.  The famous frescoes in the Great Cloister (36 of them - a massive endeavour) recount the life of Saint Benedict, and are by Luca Signorelli (c1450 - 1523) and latterly il Sodoma (1477 - 1549) (for a hint of where the latter was coming from,  note the attractive young lads with tunic skirts slashed to the upper thigh!). 





However, the very special interest at Monte Oliveto is the panels behind the choir stalls.   These are known as intarsia - wooden mosaics or, incorrectly, marquetry (which uses veneers rather than blocks of wood).  Intarsia works in northern Italy reached a peak in the first half of the 1500s, and these works in Monte Oliveto by Fra Giovanni da Verona come from that period.


Above - the Siena Campo


Above right - Still life ("dead nature" in Italian) and an elevated "icosidodecahedron".


Right - A high quality art book with each panel given whole page treatment and described in 4 languages.


Below left - A 72 sided sphere, geometers' instruments and a mazzocchio (medieval headband).


Below right - Navigation and astrological theme including a globe and an astrolabe.


Fans of the earlier and underappreciated Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello (1397 - 1475 (78)) will recognize the top right image.


There are also a lot more buildingscapes and several panels with musical instruments amongst the 40 or so panels, but no people!  Fra Gregory (the Observant)  points out that facing panels have similar content - eg if panel 1 is (say) a musical instrument, then panel 1 on the other side will also be a musical instrument etc.


The only intarsia works of similar skill we have seen are in Urbino and Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo.  The panels in the latter depict scenes from the Old Testament and were also made in the 1520s.  The panels were designed by Lorenzo Lotto, with intarsia work by Capoferri.  They are totally different to Fra Giovanni's stuff - fewer perspectived geometric shapes, but rather a beautiful set of narrative pictures with people and much less reliance on straight lines.  Sadly they are even less visible than the Monte Oliveto collection - being normally covered by locked wooden flaps as a preservation tool.  We did manage to get a special viewing of one of the most beautiful ones.




Some of the photos on this page come from this high quality coffee table book, with great photos of most of the intarsia ("marquetry")  work at the abbey.  The book  can be bought from their bookshop


Link to Monte Oliveto Maggiore Website









The east side of the Great Cloister and, below, a self portrait of Sienese painter il Sodoma with animals.  Il Sodoma (real name Giovanni Antonio Bazzi - no prizes for guessing how he got his nickname) used to maintain a small zoo which included badgers, squirrels, monkeys, bantam hens and a raven that he had taught to speak.  He insisted on taking his zoo with him to lodgings at all the places he worked in (maybe that's why he did not last long in Rome on the Sistine Chapel job).  The monks of Monte Oliveto called him Il Mattaccio (the maniac) - amongst other things.  The information on il Sodoma comes from the book "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling" by Ross King.






Fra Giovanni again, this time the top half of a cupboard door in the library.



The recently restored library and, below, the dispensary.







And last but not least - the refectory (with tables set for lunch).


Link to nearby L'Abbazia Sant'Antimo - Italy's most beautiful and light filled Abbey


For other Paradoxplace links visit the home page


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