Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore

The Benedictine Abbey and Monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore in Tuscany

Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore

The Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore is located 36 km south of Sienna in the characteristic "badlands" landscape of the Crete Senesi. The Olivetan community traces its foundation to 1313 and Giovanni Tolomei - who took the religious name of Bernardo - along with two of his friends, from the noble families of Sienna, Patrizio Patrizi and Ambrogio Piccolomini.

The correct name for the monks of the Abbey of Monte Oliveto, who are part of a number of congregations that make up the Benedictine order, is in fact Monaci Benedettini di Santa Maria di Monte Oliveto. Their particular devotion to the Virgin Mary is visible also in their habit, which is white to symbolise purity.

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The Abbey is situated 273 m above sea level at Chiusura, not far from Asciano in the province of Sienna, surrounded by the thick forest that overlooks the Crete Senesi countryside below.

Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore

The approval for the building of the monastery came with the "Charta fundationis" by Guido Tarlati, bishop of Arezzo (26 March 1319), and the monastery took the name of Monte Oliveto «Maggiore» (Major) so as to distinguish it from successive foundations (Florence, San Gimignano, Naples, etc.). Construction of the monastery began in 1393 and was completed in 1526, although the buildings were further modified during the Renaissance and the Baroque periods.

Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore

An imposing square tower with a drawbridge that was part of the original defences erected to protect the entire complex stands at the entrance to the Abbey. The courtyard of the abbey opens onto a broad avenue of cypresses. To the left is the botanical garden that supplied medicinal plants for the monks. A little further on is the fish pond designed in 1553 by Pelori and used by the monks to provide fish at those times of year during which the Benedictine rule forbade the consumption of meat.

The cypress avenue leads to the impressively austere, late-gothic church of the abbey, built between 1399 and 1417 by order of the Abbot Ippolito di Giacomo da Milano. The single nave interior has a cross plan. The fine carved wooden lector is by Raffaele da Brescia and the inlaid wooden choir stalls are by Fra’ Giovanni da Verona. The transept leads to the Chapel of the Sacrament, whose altar is adorned by an early 14 C wooden Crucifix. In 1772 the church was redecorated in the late-Baroque style by Giovanni Antinori.

The abbey has three 15 C cloisters, of which the most magnificent is the rectangular Chiostro Grande, constructed between 1426 and 1443. It is made up of two passages, one above the other, supported by columns. The portico is decorated with a fresco cycle by Luca Signorelli depicting the life of St Benedict, who began work on its 36 large scenes in 1497. The cycle was finished in 1508 by Sodoma. The Chiostro Centrale is composed of a portico that rests on polygonal columns that lead to the magnificent Refectory, decorated with frescoes by Fra’ Paolo Novelli.

Chiostro Grande Monte Oliveto Refectory

The Monastic Library of Monte Oliveto

The abbey’s large Library comprises more than 40,000 volumes, pamphlets and parchments that have been carefully restored by the monks. The Library leads to the Pharmacy, which contains an important collection of 18 C spice vases. The abbey still produces honey and distilled herbal spirits made according to various ancient recipes.

The Dispensary

The dispensary of the monastery was active until 1865. Its rich collection of pharmaceutical jars is housed in the room above the monumental library and consists of 17 C and 18 C ceramics originating from the furnaces of San Quirico d'Orcia.

Gregorian Chant at Monte Oliveto

Many visitors come to the Abbey of Monte Oliveto to hear the Gregorian chant sung by the monks. At Monte Oliveto, as in many other Benedictine monasteries, they are part of the conventual mass, at Vespers, at Compline and, in part, at Lauds.

Prayer Schedule

Working days:
8.00 Lauds
18.15 Vespers and conventual Holy Mass (Gregorian chant)
21.00 Compline

Holidays:
08.15 Lauds
11.00 Solemn Holy Mass (Gregorian chant)
18.30 sung Vespers (Gregorian chant) and Benedictine Holy Sacraments
21.00 Compline

Gregorian chant, which today fascinates believers and non-believers more than ever, evokes the early the Church. Pope Gregory the Great (†604), reordered and codified the liturgical repertory and it is from his name that the appellation "Gregorian" is derived. The 8 C to the 13 C was the golden era of the Gregorian and, after a period of partial oblivion and alteration, it was restored to its original purity in the 19 C thanks to the efforts of Abbot Guéranger and his monks at Solesmes in France. The Second Vatican Council recognised it as «proprio della liturgia romana», recommending it for a principal liturgical position.

The style of the Gregorian Chant has a unique modality, and this explains its unequalled spirituality which moves believers and non-believers alike. Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote: «il n'y a qu'un problème, un seul, de par le monde. Rendre aux hommes une signification spirituelle. Des inquiétudes spirituelles. Faire pleuvoir sur eux quelque chose qui ressemble à un chant grégorien».

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