Val d'Orcia, in the heart of Tuscany, is a generous land that not only offers breathtaking landscapes but also significant evidence of Italy's rich historical and cultural heritage. Such is the case with the Abbey of Sant'Antimo, a sacred building with over a thousand years of history, located just a few kilometers from Montalcino, in the valley of the Starcia stream and near the village of Castelnuovo dell'Abate.
If you're planning a trip or vacation to Siena or its surroundings, you mustn't miss visiting this imposing monastic complex that harmoniously blends into a picturesque landscape. But what should you know before you go?
Stories and Legends of the Abbey of Sant'Antimo
To discover the origins of this Abbey, we must go back in time. Legend has it that it was founded in the 9th century AD, during the time of the Holy Roman Empire, led by Emperor Charlemagne. He is considered the founder of a chapel, known as the Carolingian Chapel, corresponding to the current sacristy. It is said that the Emperor, returning from Rome along the Via Francigena, stayed in this valley due to a plague epidemic. After making a vow against the plague, he decided to establish this Abbey as an expression of gratitude.
Beyond the legend, what is certain is that it already existed in the year 814: Emperor Louis the Pious, Charlemagne's successor, issued a diploma that enriched it with goods and privileges. However, its period of greatest splendor began in 1118 when construction of the current church began, thanks to a substantial donation from Count Bernardo degli Ardengheschi. This period lasted until the loss of Montalcino, occupied by the Sienese, who forced the Abbey to sign an agreement ceding even a quarter of Montalcino's territory to Siena. It was June 12, 1212, and the Abbey began its slow decline.
By the end of the 13th century, the assets of Sant'Antimo were greatly diminished, and the monastery was in a state of decay. To address this situation, Pope Nicholas IV entrusted the abbey to the Guglielmites, a reformed Benedictine order. Despite this, the Abbey of Sant'Antimo did not regain its former glory, and in 1461, Pope Pius II suppressed the abbey, incorporating it into the new Diocese of Montalcino and Pienza. In the 15th century, it fell into a state of complete abandonment: many buildings in the cloister collapsed, and the stones were reused in the construction of the village of Castelnuovo dell'Abate.
Only in 1870, under the guidance of architect Giuseppe Partini (the same one who worked on the Madonna di Vitaleta Chapel), did a lengthy restoration campaign begin, restoring the church to its current appearance.
What to See at the Abbey of Sant'Antimo: Church, Cloister, and Gardens
Surrounded by the silence of fields and centuries-old olive trees, the uniqueness of the Abbey of Sant'Antimo lies in its construction using travertine rocks, quarried near the area of Castelnuovo dell'Abate, now abandoned. The exterior, made of this light stone with alabaster veins – which gives it a shimmering effect – blends perfectly with the surrounding landscape.
At 44 meters long, the church is accompanied by a Lombard-style bell tower. After passing the solemn facade, you will feel transported back in time to the Middle Ages and the austere monastic world. The interior of the church is in pure Romanesque style, simple and linear, with three naves. The central nave is covered by a wooden beam ceiling and is separated from the two side naves by two series of four arches supported by columns with finely crafted capitals. Worth noting is the portal of the Baptists, to the left of the apse, dating back to the 9th century, decorated with depictions of animals, plants, and geometric symbols. Behind the main altar, located in the center of the presbytery, is the semicircular ambulatory with two ancient frescoes representing St. Gregory the Great and St. Sebastian.
Exiting the church, you shouldn't miss a visit to the cloister and the Monastic Pharmacy, open to the public and located in the former treasury room. Here, you can purchase food products made according to the centuries-old monastic herbal tradition: honey, fruit jams, candies, and herbal teas.
Finally, just a few meters from the Abbey, you'll find a place suspended in time, a garden named after Saint Hildegard of Bingen. She was a Benedictine abbess who lived between 1098 and 1179 and is one of the most important female figures of the Middle Ages. She conducted in-depth studies of nature and its uses in medicine, classifying human diseases into three categories. Each group of diseases corresponds to healing herbs that you'll find during your visit to Saint Hildegard's garden.
Visiting the Abbey of Sant'Antimo
As you've probably realized, the Abbey of Sant'Antimo is a truly captivating place, full of mysticism. Visiting it means embarking on a journey to a distant era, characterized by monastic chants and herbal remedies. It's indeed considered one of the most important examples of 13th-century monastic architecture.
A place that was at risk of being lost forever but was instead rediscovered and cherished. Moreover, in recent years, it has experienced a "rebirth" because the Abbey of Sant'Antimo is more alive than ever. It serves as a spiritual workshop around which a series of events, cultural activities, sacred and classical music concerts, even courses in miniature painting and Gregorian chant revolve – the heart of the liturgical tradition of the Benedictine monks, which is still passed down today.
How can you visit it? The Abbey is located in Sant'Antimo, just below Castelnuovo dell'Abate, about 10 km from Montalcino and about 25 km from San Quirico d'Orcia. It's open every day, but I recommend checking the website for further information.
Once you've visited the Abbey, it would be a shame to miss the opportunity to explore the surroundings. So why not continue your journey by visiting the splendid Montalcino and its wineries? This is where the renowned Brunello wine, one of Italy's most well-known and appreciated labels worldwide, is born. It's also here, facing the Abbey of Sant'Antimo, within the Natural Park of Val d'Orcia, that La Poderina is located. You can stay here for your Val d'Orcia discovery tour, or simply stop by for a guided visit of the beautiful vineyards or a wine tasting of the wines produced by the estate.