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  • Writer's pictureMark Tedesco

Uncovering the Beauty: Exploring the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore in Italy

PART 88: It might be interesting to share how we pulled off living in Italy for part of the year. I will post some steps and what we are learning along the way.

We love every minute of it, and what was once a dream is our life!

We live in Tuscany in the Fall, then back again in the Spring, and in California for the rest of the time (in a previous blog, I explained why we live in Italy only part of the year).

Step 1: As we explore areas and towns in Italy, we discover some gems worth sharing. Some of these are well-known tourist magnets; others are lesser known but always amazing.

This week, let's explore an abbey dating from 1319.

Step 2: History

The Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, located in Tuscany, is a Benedictine monastery founded in 1319 by three Senese noblemen who decided to embrace the Benedictine way of life. The monastery comprises different buildings from the 1300s to the 1700s and is built around three cloisters of various sizes.

The Great Cloister is home to frescoes of the Life of St. Benedict, painted by Luca Signorelli and Giovanni Bazzi (Il Sodoma). The church, which dates back to the 1400s, showcases artworks by Il Sodoma and a magnificent wooden inlaid choir by Giovanni da Verona.

The Middle and Small Cloisters are currently not open to visitors. However, the Monastic Library houses around 40,000 volumes and is accessible via stairs decorated with frescoes by Sodoma.

The church is designed like a Latin cross and was renovated in the Baroque style in 1772. The main attraction is the amazing wooden inlaid choir, which dates from 1505. Behind the main altar is a painting of the Assumption, dating from 1598, and there is also a dramatic 14th-century wooden Crucifix in the Sacrament Chapel.

Step 3: Visiting and what not to miss

After parking your vehicle, you can reach the Abbey by walking through a fortified medieval building with a square tower and a drawbridge. The entrance to the building features a stunning glazed terracotta Madonna and Child, which is likely a product of the famous Della Robbia family. The building now houses a restaurant and bar with an outside terrace. After leaving the entrance building, you will proceed down a long avenue flanked by cypress trees. About halfway down the avenue, you will find a sizeable 16th-century fish pool, and at the end of the avenue, you will see the Abbey itself.

When you visit the Abbey, be sure not to miss the inlaid choir inside the Abbey church.

The great cloister's frescoes are the Abbey's real attraction. Thirty-five frescoes cover the entire surface of the four sides of the cloister. These frescoes depict the life of St. Benedict and are considered masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance due to their incredibly vivid colors and rich details. The paintings offer a fascinating look at the life and landscape of the time.

Step 4: Our experience

I enjoy living monasteries. It makes me feel empty if I visit an abbey or monastery that has been abandoned, even if it is filled with great artwork. So when our local friend informed us that this monastic community had been present at the Abbey since the 1300s and that about 30 monks were in the community who chanted their prayers every day, with their culminating event, the Gregorian Chant Mass, on Sundays, I was excited to go and visit.

I was surprised by the vast grounds, the beauty of the woods lining the path to the Abbey, and the peacefulness of the place. When we entered the church, the organ filled the space with incredible music, the monks were preparing for the service, and the fantastic architecture and the inlaid choir stalls were striking.

Regarding the Gregorian Chant service, I realized that it is not entertainment. The music developed in the 9th and 10th centuries and is more subtle than "in your face." I had to settle into it and stop my mind from trying to understand the words. Once I allowed myself to be carried by the chant, I was in another world.

On that particular day, we had to go to Florence for an errand, so we skipped the cloister frescos. We had seen them a few years before but resolved to return in a few weeks to give them the focus they deserve.

When we walked out of the church, the first thing I said to my partner was: "What do you think if we would come here once a month?" It was that type of experience; it keeps drawing you back.

Step 5: Cool things

The pharmacy

The monastery pharmacy continues its tradition of preparing herbal remedies for body health. One of the liqueurs available at the pharmacy is La Flora di Monte Oliveto, a blend of 23 herbs that have been infused for more than six months according to the recipe of the ancient pharmacy of the Abbey.

Wine cellar

In the upper courtyard, on the side of the church, there is a shop that sells souvenirs and products from the Abbey's farm. Try the herbal liqueur, which is believed to have curative properties.

It's highly recommended that you visit the wine cellar located below the cloister. Here, you can witness giant wine barrels containing wine produced from selected vineyards in the surrounding area and taste the wines with the guidance of an expert.

The guest house

According to the thousand-year-old Benedictine tradition, the monks at Oliveto provide accommodation at their guesthouse next to the abbey church. The guesthouse has twenty-five rooms and is modern, clean, and inviting.

The restaurant/cafe

A historic restaurant run by the Giustarini family is located at the main entrance of the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The family specializes in Tuscan cuisine. You can savor a variety of delicious dishes such as ribollita, croutons, cold cuts, cheeses (including the authentic Tuscan pecorino), and flavorful meats. The restaurant's atmosphere is warm and welcoming, making you feel right at home.

On sunny days and during summer, you can enjoy your meal at the outdoor tables under the umbrellas. The evening atmosphere resembles the past, with flavors, sounds, and lights transporting you back in time.

The land

The monastery today is surrounded by picturesque countryside, which boasts cultivated fields, vineyards, olive trees, and woods. The monks residing here have been engaged in agriculture since the 1300s and have produced various products such as olive oil, wines, cereals, and liquors. These products are available at the monastery itself or can be purchased online. The monks generate their income through these activities.

The drive to Florence

After attending the Sunday service, we had to go to Tecnomat in Florence. So, we put on our GPS and started driving through the rolling hills. I am mentioning the drive because as soon as we left the monastery grounds, it felt like we were driving through some fantasy land for the next hour or so. The rolling green hills and stone houses looked like something out of a dream. We were so enchanted by the beauty of the place that we decided to take our visitors on the same drive after a visit to the Abbey.

Step 6: Link


Experiencing a living monastery is more than touring an ancient series of buildings representing something from the past. Visiting the Abbey of Monte Oliveto was like stepping into another world that still exists today, being renewed by it, and returning to daily life. As we drove through the hills to Tecnomat outside Florence, we knew we would revisit the Abbey because the experience was too beautiful to be had only once.

More next time.

Now on sale for $2.99: My book is "Stories from Puglia: Two Californians in Southern Italy." Amazon US:

Amazon Italy- my book "Lei mi ha sedotto. Una storia d'amore con Roma":

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