A trip to the Crete Senesi has the flavor of a daydream with your feet placed firmly on the ground. The Crete Senesi is a voyage for the soul, an itinerary of discovery to be followed with the same spirit as the Grand Tour.
The area is not defined by piazzas, cathedrals or castles, but by nature, cypress trees, the smell of sheep’s-milk cheese pervading a little grocery, the relaxing warmth of spa waters, the mystical simplicity of a small Romanesque parish church.
The landscape of the Crete Senesi is a triumph of harmony, a timeless image, a picture that blends the forms of an Etruscan graffito and a sign of modern art. It is a harmony that gets you and has the power to bring your energies back into balance: emotions and sensations transform and dilate in the calm of space.
The ‘Senesi Crete’ is located a few kilometers from Siena and is famous for its lunar landscape.
For years, the area around Asciano provided grain to busy Siena and was built around farms and other isolated buildings in the countryside where entire families dedicated themselves to working the fields-, which revolved around grain, vineyards and olive groves.
During the 1960s, the end of sharecropping led to many of the structures being abandoned before being reclaimed by Sardinian shepherds who brought sheep farming to Tuscany.
Still today, men and sheep populate the hills of the Crete, which become surreal aroundChiusure and the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore where the clay earth has formed great gashes in the countryside—open wounds of a sweet yet bitter land. Travertine is found in abundance here, especially in the Serre di Rapolano area. San Giovanni d’Asso is celebrated for its delicious white truffles. Don’t miss the famous November truffle fair in the town’s 15th century castle.
The Crete become gentler and the sky even bigger in the area near Buonconvento where the Arbia and Ombrone streams meet. Biking in the Crete is an amazing experience for those who love a beautiful and challenging ride. Bring plenty of energy and snacks for your ride.
Siena’s glorious history of art began in the 1200s with its gilt-background panels. The precious nature of gold symbolised the sky’s divine light, perfect and absolute.
There is a gilt background in the Madonna di Montaperti, a kind of token of thanks for the victory of Siena over Florence. There’s also a gilt background in the Madonna delle Grazie that Siena’s victorious contrada members rush to following the August Palio. But the most famous gilt-background painting of all is the breathtaking Maestà by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-1311). Siena’s inhabitants carried it out of Duccio’s workshop and into the cathedral with a triumphant procession through the city streets and Piazza del Campo. Today it is conserved in the Museo dell’Opera in a darkened hall that recreates the mysterious atmosphere of the cathedral, where it reigned unrivalled and resplendent for centuries.
The abundance of the pictorial experience that the lively town of Siena managed to prompt in the last part of the fifteenth- and the beginning of the sixteenth-centuries, is important not only for the quantity produced but for its quality as well.
The two main focal points of Siena representing the civil power on one hand (Palazzo Pubblico and theSpedale di Santa Maria della Scala) and the religious power on the other (The Cathedral) conserve the most relevant examples of that cultural change.Within the Palazzo Pubblico the sumptuous consistorial hall was decorated byDomenico Beccafumi with scenes of the civic virtues, project that lasted from 1529 to 1535. Emphatic mannerism, vivid colours and daring illusionistic representations attract the spectator to one of the most fascinating pictorial cycles of the time.
Not far way, on Via Pellegrini which leads to the baptistery, Beccafumi himself developed a complex series of images with characters from mythology and ancient history, commissioned by the owner Marcello Agostini. The cycle is considered one of the highest expressions of the Italian 1500s, one of the “secret” places in a palace that is still owned privately and is only rarely open to the public. Nearby is the Palazzo del Magnifico, residence of Pandolfo Petrucci, Siena’s ruler at the time, a sumptuous patrician residence. It was furnished by the most important artists present in Siena at the end of the fifteenth-century though only the architectural structure remains after it was stripped of all its decorations and furniture during the XIX century. These items today are part of local and foreign museum collections. Two evocative scenes by Girolamo Genga (Flight of Aeneas from Troy, The liberation of the prisoners) can be found in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Siena.
Not far away Palazzo Piccolomini, built by the heirs of Pope Pius II after his death, is one of the purest examples of Renaissance architecture. Thought to be built on a plan by Bernardo Rossellino, the pope’s architect, the palace is today the site of the State Archives of Siena and the museum of the Biccherne where it is possible to admire the outstanding collection of painted biccherna tablets – book covers of the ledgers of the financial and fiscal offices of the commune of Siena.
Almost all the Sienese Renaissance artists painted on wooden panels, and their work was often characterized by the representation of the main events of Sienese history. Sano di Pietro was commissioned more than once to celebrate contemporary people and their noble achievements (in 1457, in 1471,and in 1473);Vecchietta depicted the Coronation of Pope Pius II Piccolomini in the biccherna of 1460; Francesco di Giorgio recalled The Earthquake in the biccherna of 1467;Neroccio was entrusted with the Intercession of the Virgin Mary to Jesus for the town of Siena and Guidoccio Cozzarelli depicted the scene of the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, so skillfully that considering he was confined to the small surface of the tablet the result is with no doubt equal to any of his altarpieces.
Duomo: For the Sienese Duomo the most innovative artists conceived the main pictorial and sculptural cycles: Bernardino di Betto, known as Pinturicchio, was commissioned to fresco the Piccolomini Library, created to house Pope Pius II’s library and to celebrate his magnificence. It depicts major episodes from his life in a representation of rare elegance, sharp narrative spirit, formal style and chromatic exuberance. Right below the frescos, the glass cases contain a collection of antiphons decorated with miniatures by Girolamo da Cremona, Liberale da Verona, Sano di Pietro, which are the most outstanding examples of the fifteenth century.
Sculpture production includes the leading figures of the Renaissance plastic arts. To remember just a few important ones: the bronze Baptist by Donatello; the Ciborium for the high altar by Vecchietta; the Angels by Francesco di Giorgioand Giovanni di Stefano; the Candelabras in the form of Angels by Beccafumi; and Piccolomini’s altar decorated with marble sculptures by Michelangelo. The intarsia work of the marble floor, of unparalleled elegance, was created by the greatest Sienese artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth-centuries: Matteo di Giovanni, Guidoccio Cozzarelli, Benvenuto di Giovanni, Antonio Federighiand above all Domenico Beccafumi who designed thirteen of them.
The Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala in front of the Duomo,a very powerful economic institution, saw, after the great achievement of the frescoes of the Pellegrinaio (in which scenes from the hospital daily life were depicted byDomenico di Bartolo) the contribution of Vecchietta, in the Grand Vestry, who frescoed the entire hall with stories from the Old and New Testament, and the contribution of Beccafumi with an early work, The Visitation.
The Pinacoteca Nazionale is a veritable encyclopedia of the Sienese figurative arts where all the artists are vastly represented by very high quality artworks: two very large halls show the works of Francesco di Giorgio, Matteo di Giovanni,Neroccio di Bartolomeo; and the great altarpieces by Vecchietta, Benvenuto di Giovanni, Girolamo di Benvenuto, Francesco di Giorgio and Beccafumi.
The figure of the ruler of Siena, Pandolfo Petrucci, is linked to one of the most significant religious buildings, the Basilica dell’Osservanza, founded by San Bernardino and chosen by Pandolfo as his resting place. In the Vestry, planned by him, there are the elegant choir-stalls of carved wood by Antonio Barili and the sculpture in polychrome terracotta moulded by Giacomo Cozzarelli in an intense expressive language supported by stylish polychromy, a masterpiece of Sienese late-Renaissance statuary.
The influence of the revived figurative language in the more classic forms of the late-Renaissance, filtered, with no doubt, through the presence of the most influential artists of the quattrocento (Donatello, Benedetto da Maiano, Bernardo Rossellino, Luca Signorelli, Pinturicchio) spreading out rapidly through the Sienese culture in such a way to gain commissions even from outside the city’s territory. We can positively affirm that it is not possible to find a place in the whole of the Sienese province that has not seen at least one of the relevant artistic episodes of the time.
It’s towards the end of 1100 A.D.. The story that we are about to tell centers around a round chapel, a knight and a sword in the stone. But instead of the mythical kingdom of Camelot, we are in Montesiepi, in the heart of Tuscany.
The sword in the stone is not Excalibur and the knight is not King Arthur.
Its mystery is kept in a book that has been sealed for more than 800 years. A book that could reveal many of the secrets that surround the search for the Holy Grail.
Galgano Guidotti was born in Chiusdino in 1148, the only son of Guido and Dionisia. From his youth, Galgano leads rather a dissolute life, until, at the age of 32, the Archangel Gabriel appears to him in a dream and tells him to follow him. In the dream, Galgano receives an order from the 12 apostles to build a round chapel at Montesiepi and to retire there to live. His mother and friends try to convince him to desist, but his horse takes fright and takes him to Montesiepi. At Montesiepi, Galgano thrusts the Sword forcefully into the ground to make a cross and miraculously the Sword gets stuck in the stone. This situation causes quite a sensation and Montesiepi becomes filled with many pilgrims asking Galgano to outperform Miracles. Before his canonization in 1185, 19 such miracles occur.
In 1190 a French writer wrote a lengthy text telling the story of a king and other riders who leave in search of a mysterious object, which is the Holy Grail. A few years later, another German writer tells a similar story and writes the Parsifal. Much of what these writers tell in their works have strange similarities with the sword in the stone that is found in this church.
There are many coincidences and when analyzed in detail they are even more impressive because the life of Galgano of Montesiepi, as certified in the beatification, corresponds almost entirely to the life of Parsifal. The Grail is the chalice of the Last Supper, or the container that collected the blood of Christ and the Round Chapel at Montesiepi, reminiscent of an upside down cup, would be just such a representation. Many have indicated the place as a possible hiding place of the Holy Grail. Testimonies speak of a secret underground cavity which is accessed by moving a single stone in the floor of the anteroom. No one has yet succeeded in finding the secret passage, but in addition, the Grail and the Sword in the Stone point to a connection that may exist between Galgano and King Arthur, that they could perhaps be one in the same person?
What emerges quite clearly in the novels of the round table is the fact that at the beginning, this gentleman, Galvano, whose name resembles very closely Galgano, plays an important role in the tale of the round table, as he is known as the “first Knight”. Then there is a gradual phenomenon of the name fading away over the years, due to the evolution of the tales of the round table, and the name of Galvano becomes less important, as if the novels about the round table no longer have need of this Tuscan knight.
What is certain is that, in the representations of the Knights of the Round Table, the Sword Excalibur often appears in the hands of Galvano and the mysteries of Montesiepi do not end here. When Galgano dies, the round chapel is built, which according to many scholars constitutes a real book in stone. Whomever is able to interpret it, will then know the secret of the Holy Grail.
Galgano dies in 1181 and in record time the Church proclaims him a Saint. In fact, only four years later, Pope Lucius III acts with the swift canonization process of the Knight. Yet San Galgano was not a very venerated Saint during those years, in as much as, his message was inspired as an act of peace. Planting a sword in the stone to pray, was the opposite of what the church needed during the bellicose era of the Crusades. In the literature of that era it is possible that San Galgano becomes King Arthur and that his legendary sword was used instead to defy the infidels.
A few years ago, a confirmation: the University of Pavia certified that the sword is actually from the 12th century. The Enigma of San Galgano, however, is likely to remain a mystery. The truth lies indeed impenetrable among the records regarding his canonization which are kept in custody in the safe of the Consistory of Siena. A truth sealed for eternity? What seems certain is that the myth of King Arthur has completely stolen the true story of the Tuscan Saint and, perhaps, the real sword in the stone is here, in Italy.