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San Galgano and the legend of the sword in the stone

San Galgano and the legend of the sword in the stone

Few tourists realise that many of Tuscany’s legends are just as dramatic and captivating as its landscapes. One of the most fascinating is connected to a medieval abbey southeast of Siena, between Chiusdino and Monticiano. The Abbey of San Galgano was once a Cistercian monastery: its Gothic aesthetic and backstory both bring King Arthur to mind. Some even say there’s a chance that the legendary court’s origins can be traced back to this Tuscan story, which, upon its dissemination throughout Europe, might have evolved into the tale of King Arthur as we know it today.

Theories aside, however, the main character of San Galgano’s legend of the sword in the stone is the knight Galgano Guidotti, who was said to have led a life of thoughtless self-indulgence and wealth before undergoing a Franciscan-like conversion and becoming a monk. Legend has it that Archangel Michael appeared to Galgano in a vision, taking him to Montesiepe and leading him uphill to a peculiar temple, a place that would eventually become his personal residence. After an alleged interaction with the twelve apostles and with God himself, Galgano felt called to plant a cross on the site, signifying his shift from a life of knighthood to one of Christian servitude. With no logical way of constructing this cross, he plunged his sword into a rock, creating a similar visual effect. He then went on to spread the gospel around the Siena area. Shortly after Galgano’s death, the Hermitage of Montesiepe was built on the site where he famously left that sword.

It wasn’t until four decades later, however—in roughly 1220—that construction on the nearby Abbey began. Work continued for approximately 60 years, and the drawn-out process is reflected in the structure’s hybrid architectural style, which combines elements of the Romanesque aesthetic with French Gothic influences. Sadly, over the course of several years, beginning in 1363, English mercenary John Hawkwood and his men gradually pillaged the monastery, with only the abbot remaining by century’s end.

Sky's the limit here in San Galgano! | Ph. Antonio Cinotti (Flickr Creative Commons)

Sky’s the limit here in San Galgano! | Ph. Antonio Cinotti (Flickr Creative Commons)

Structurally, the abbey waned over the next few centuries, staying barely intact until the belltower was struck by lightning toward the end of the 18th century. With the fall of the belltower came the crumbling of the already-weakened abbey roof. What remains standing today is essentially a “skeleton” of the original building, yet it has a palpable spiritual air about it, a feeling of almost eerie magnificence. The abbey’s architects relied on principles of sacred geometry to achieve this level of structural balance and harmony. It’s for the best, then, that guided tours inside the abbey aren’t possible—this is a place that’s best experienced in peace, quiet and solitude—ideally just before sunset!

Though the abbey alone is worth the trip, don’t skip out on the hermitage further uphill, where you can see the very sword in the stone that many claim is the original. The hermitage’s roof is a marvel in its own right: it’s made up of a semi-spherical dome that’s barely detectable from the outside. Be sure to make your way to the small chapel in the round, where you’ll find several remarkable frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, depicting the Annunciation and scenes from the lives of several saints and Cistercian monks.