Less than 30 km from the city of Siena lies one of the most mysterious and captivating places in all of Tuscany if not, all of Italy. I’m referring to San Galgano and the real story of the sword in the stone. Yes, it is in fact a real place that has inspired legends.
Who Was San Galgano?
Saint Galgano, or Galgano Guidotti, was born in Chiusdino (Siena) in the year 1148. He led a rather ruthless life as a knight until he saw a series of visions in which the Archangel Michael appeared to him. It is said that it was Galgano’s horse that led him to the hill of Montesiepi where the horse kneeled.
Galgano took it as a sign and decided to plant his sword into the ground being that he had no wood with which to construct a cross. He thrust his former weapon into the ground representing the transformation from evil to good and legend has it that it immediately became fused with the earth and was forever cemented into stone. From that point on, Galgano changed his ways and became a pious man and many converted and joined him.
He died in 1181 and just three years later was canonized by the Catholic Church. He was actually the first saint to have his canonization process be formally conducted by the Church. A church was soon built in his honor and his tomb and sword became a pilgrimage site where many miracles were said to have taken place.
The Abbey of San Galgano
The site was taken over by the Cistercian monks in the 13th century and in 1218, construction began on the massive Gothic church of San Galgano. It took some 70 years to build and it was actually the first Gothic church in Tuscany. Hundreds of years of battle scars took their toll on the church, but it was a lightning strike in the year 1786 that delivered the final blow destroying its roof. It was deconsecrated in 1789 and yet, forever preserved in history by its famous saint and by its characteristic appearance.
To say it is a magical place is an understatement. It is perfectly connected to the earth and the surrounding territory in an eery, yet comforting silence. The long row of cypress trees welcomes you into another dimension as you approach the massive remains of the church. It is stunning at every time of day in every kind of light and in every kind of weather. If I lived nearby, I think I would go every time the weather changed just to witness its effect on the church.
The Rotonda di Montesiepe
From the abbey, it is a very short hike up to the chapel, known as the Rotonda di Montesiepe where you can see the sword and Galgano’s tomb and simply reflect on the centuries of history and events that have transpired here.
Today, the chapel that once served as a hermitage where San Galgano and his followers performed miracles and lived in piety, is still strikingly bare. It is simplistic and stark but by no means cold. On the contrary, the air is peaceful and fulfilling.
His sword in the stone lies in the center of the chapel under glass. It has been tested by scientists to prove its validity and in fact, the metal is consistent with what would have been used in Galgano’s time. Some additional frescoes were added in the 14th century but overall, Montesiepi is a striking example of Sienese Romanesque.
At the time we visited, there was also a wine bar open near the chapel serving simple dishes and local cheeses, meats, and wine, of course.
Once you’ve visited here, hop in your car and head towards Galgano’s birthplace, a town called Chiusdino, just 15 minutes away. This medieval village is absolutely picturesque and you can also see Galgano’s actual birthplace as well as the Pieve di San Michele Archangelo, the oldest church in Chiusdino. San Galgano’s skull has been preserved here. The Church of San Sebastiano contains the saint’s relics which were brought from San Galgano. If you are so inclined, there is also a museum dedicated to the saint. The view of the entire Merse Valley is reason enough to visit Chiusdino!
Article by Marie Contino
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