(Find more about this topic in a later blog post called, “The Real King Arthur“)
Last year I saw a picture on Tumblr of beautiful ruins of a church, now open to the sky. The columns of the nave were huge stone pillars, majestic and mystical. I was instantly enchanted (and immediately began planning my non-even-close-to-being-real wedding there), and was excited to find out that when I’m in Tuscany this winter, I’ll be able to visit it! Even more interesting, though, is the monastery’s possible connection to the legends of King Arthur and the Holy Grail.
The Abbey of San Galgano, whose illustrious Tuscan ruins I fell in love with, was built in the 13th century in the valley of the Merse river between two medieval villages, Chiusdino and Monticiano. Just up a rise is the Montesiepi Hermitage. Neither structure was built during Saint Galgano’s life.
Galgano Guidotti was a knight, a warrior, was born in 1148 in nearby Chiusdino. When he was 32 years old the Angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him to follow him, forsake violence, build a round chapel at Montesiepi and retire there to live. Against the advice of his family, Galgano gets on his horse that – miraculously – takes him straight to Montesiepi without even being guided. When he arrives there, Galgano jumps from his mount and, as a symbol of his rejection of war, unsheathes his sword and with great force shoves it into a rock (which is said to have “parted like butter”). After hearing of this miracle, pilgrims began to come see Galgano at Montesiepi, and before his death in 1181AD (only a short year later) 19 such miracles were performed. Galgano never got the chance to build his chapel, but in the last year of his life he became a Cistercian monk and after his death and canonization (just four years after his death) his monastic brothers completed his task for him.
The resulting Hermitage of Montesiepi was a rare structure at that time because of his round shape, built to surround his burial site and the sword Saint Galgano had thrust into the stone. In 1218, the monks and number of pilgrims outgrew the hermitage so the monks decided to built the Abbey of San Galgano. Within the next few centuries, however, the Abbey was destroyed by a passing army and by 1789 it was completely abandoned.
Now for the fun stuff.
Some scholars – and I’m in no way vouching for their credibility – think that the story of Saint Galgano shoving his sword into the stone may have inspired the tale of Excalibur and that Galgano himself may be the true inspiration for King Arthur. For many years, it was a fairly commonly held belief that the sword was a fake, created more recently to fabricate some sort of connection between the two figures. However a few years ago the University of Pavia certified that the sword is actually from the 12th century, at least giving more credence to the truth behind the story of Saint Galgano, if not proving the connection with King Arthur. Is it possible the “true” sword in the stone is in Italy??
Taking it one step further, some people believe that the round chapel at Montesiepi might just be the hiding place of the fabled Holy Grail. The must-sought-after Grail is the chalice that Jesus and his apostles drank out of at the Last Supper, supposedly bestowed with numerous supernatural qualities. Believers say that the shape of the chapel is reminiscent of that of the Grail, making it an apt hiding place. There have been rumors for centuries of a secret underground space that can only be accessed by moving a specific stone in the floor of the anteroom. Shockingly, no one has found this stone (yet), but perhaps I’ll try when I go.
You can reach the Abbey of San Galgano and the Hermitage of Montesiepi from Forence by taking the FI-SI to the exit called “San Lorenzo a Merse” and then following the signs for Monticiano. Or exit at Siena and take the SS73 to arrive directly at the ruins of Saint Galgano.