Those who, after having completed the long ascent from Greve and from the Medieval village of Montefioralle, stop for a moment to catch their breath and admire the breathtaking view of the Valdesa, will see, in the distance of this spectacular view of endless green hills covered in lush vegetation, a rather extraordinary sight. The marvellous scene before you is in fact an isolated oasis of countless luscious green cypresses all thrusted upon one another at the centre of which an ample bell tower stands tall, almost like the mast of ship, peeping out of the forest of cypresses located in the midst of a great expanse of fields and vineyards, surrounded by a stone wall.

The Passignano Abbey was actually a place of worship isolated in the midst of a territory that was largely and violently sought after by both Florence and Siena and as a result of this competition for the land, the abbey itself was actually the scene of bloody battles. So much so that, if you take a look at the many structures dotted around this area, including towers and battlements which overtop a strong defensive wall, you will notice that all of them feature defensive elements. Even the abbey itself ressembles a defensive structure rather than a religious building, amazingly featuring battlements along the top of the building atop which you would expect to see archers rather than the monks which have always lived there. The aforementioned bell tower, which joins the splendid yet modest Romanesque church, features several great clocks, the time ticking away even though this deserted places seem as though it is stuck in the Medieval era and thus time being almost irrelevant.

Yet Passignano was an important place of worship, a major crossroads in the history of the Church, at a time (in the 11th century) when the Papacy and the empire were engaged in a bitter battle to win dominance over the Christian world. Those who know the story of those years, will not be at all surprised at this combination of religion with politics and the military. These were times when, people would rather enter into an all out war rather than compromise on their own ideals. In fact, it was often the case that blessed monks, as well as the Church leaders, would actually leave their hermit retreats up in the mountains and descend into the big cities in bid to fight back against such powers, trying desperately to turn the citizens against the bishops and their wives, openly accusing them of simony and being unworthy of their powerful position. It is important that you take into consideration the fact that such senior clergymen were often, during this era, the most powerful men of cities such as Florence and Milan, possessing their own armies and supporting the emperor in his fight against the papacy. In Florence, the monks even arrived to ask for God’s judgement against the bishop Pietro Mezzabarba, accusing him in front of the local community of having bought his election with a large sum of money. It was in this way that on the morning of the 13th February 1068, a monk, crucifix in hand and in between prayers, walked through a fire completely unharmed in a bid to prove the guilt of the bishop.

The founder of this movement was Giovanni Gualberto, a Florentine nobleman who, after having dressed himself in the trademark San Benedetto robes, sought refuge in the bitter solitude of the Vallombrosa woods up in the mountains between Florence and Arezzo, where he led the life of a hermit. It was here that, around 1037, he built a monastary which would become a fundamental part of the history of the Church during this period.

It was also at the centre of a movement of the monastic reform, which took place in Vallombrosa and affected many other monasteries. Amongst the most important of which would be that of Passignano that was to become one of Giovanni Gualberto’s preferred residences, thus a major part of his holy war. Although the monastery was one of the oldest, probably dating back to the 8th century, its strategic position was the main reason behind its importance: Here Giovanni Gualberto actually met Pope Leone IX here in 1058. The saint died in the monastery, which was his preferred place to be buried, in 1073 not long after Pope Gregorio VII was appointed as the new pope.Gregorio VII had become a great admirer of Giovanni Gualberto and his work and consequently continued his fight against the emperor for a Church reform, which was named The fight for the ordination.

Despite the many important events which took place here, by now all that remains of the monastery is its, now bare, stone walls, whose only company now is the wind which gently blows down from the surrounding hilltops, bringing with it the beautiful aroma of this magical land.

Yet the monastery had a tormented history, including much destruction and reconstruction, up until when, due to the oppression of Napoleonic times, the monks were sent away and the buildings were sold and privatised. This in particular in 1870, when the castle was converted into a villa, with its garden and was refurbished in 19th century style. From 1986, the monks of Vallombrosa returned to live and to watch over the beloved founder of the Order who rests in the chapel of the church, called San Michele Archangelo. The church is also home to a range of genuine treasures, including several wooden chairs of the chorus, which are decorated with verses of psalms 134 and 150 in greek and hebrew, the frescoes of Passignano, the work of Allori and various other artists and a 3rd century statue of Saint Michele Archangelo slaying a dragon. The 5th century appearance of monastery, attached to the church, despite its history of suffering, remains pretty much unchanged, with its ancient mass hall decorated by Ghirlandaio’s splendid Last Supper and frescoes painted by Bernando di Stefano Rosselli; its courtyard which features a splendid gallery and the room of the capituler, richly frescoed; the kitchen which has conserved its original Medieval layout, and finally, its fine 5th century entrance.

Everything in the monastary tells of its great past. However, the frescoes, Renaissance arches, paintings all belong to the period following the era of Giovanni Gualberto and his followers: a time during which this place of worship was surrounded by a corrupt and hostile world of unworthy bishops and arrogant noblemen. A place which revolves around worship and prayer, whispered words which can still be heard today, carried by the wind which gently descends from the hills.

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