Venetian Red in Tuscany: The Abbey at Sant’Antimo
Editor’s Note: During the month of June, Venetian Red posts from Italy, as well as from San Francisco.
By LIZ HAGER
The road to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo descends in a steep spiral through vineyards, fields of grass, and groves of olive and cypress trees. On the way down, the abbey—which includes a grand but typically unfussy Romanesque church, its slightly leaning bell tower, and companion cypress—is always in view. The stunning approach heralds Sant’Antimo as the most special of places, center of its own still beautiful corner of the universe.
If the view from on high weren’t enough, on the valley floor a pilgrim (whether spiritually or artistically inspired) is met with another breath-taking vista. The sandy-colored church harmoniously blends with newly-baled hay, as well as the light and dark greens of the grass and trees. The colors of the site speak powerfully to its ancient agrarian roots.
Sant’ Antimo must surely be the most picturesque site in the Val d’Orcia. It’s all the more amazing for having remained virtually unchanged for the last 1,000 years.
Legend suggests that Charlemagne consecrated Sant’ Antimo. Possibly he passed through the Val d’Orcia on his way to and from Rome for coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 A.D. Documents reliably confirm Sant’Antimo in this spot around 814, though in much less a noble form than the structure which greets visitors today.
The 11th century brought an explosion of the monastic orders, as well as growing crowds of pilgrims eager to travel great distances in order to see relics from the Holy Land. As a result, extensive ecclesiastic building ensued. All over Europe, but particularly in France, Germany and Italy, Romesque style churches proliferated.
Sant’ Antimo is a fine example of the classic Romanesque style—it consists of a nave, lateral aisles, a transept in emulation of the cross, a main apse, and radiating chapels. Curiously, it owes more to the French than the Italian Romesque tradition.
The abbey lies not far from the Via Francigena (also known as the Via Roma), one of the primary routes on which pilgrims and merchants alike made their way back and forth from Canterbury to Rome. Proximity to the Via (which passes between Siena and Viterbo, both nearby) would have invested Sant’ Antimo with a certain prestige as a popular stop on near the pilgrimage route. No doubt this is one of the reasons the original church was expanded and embellished by its Benedictine monks around 1100. Certainly, the Via must have allowed for French Romanesque influences to filter into this valley.
The sculptural detail at Sant’ Atimo contains motifs found in the Romanesque world—i.e. foliage (classical Roman tradition); geometric forms (from Celtic Christianity); biblical or mythological animals (from the Byzantine world). But some of the column capitals reflect Lombardi characteristics, betraying the multitude of cultural influences at work on the abbey.
A thousand years after these masters finished Sant’Antimo, it remains actively in use. Taking refuge inside the church from the scorching Tuscan sun, I was greeted by the telltale sounds of liturgical chanting. Just in front of the apse, eight monks stood in two rows facing each other, singing their mid-day prayers. I rested my irritated body and contemplated the elegance around me to solemn but mellifluous accompaniment.