Abbey of VallombrosaGallery
Vallombrosa: the name already says it all. Because shade – ‘ombra’ - between the trees of the wonderful beech and fir trees forest is everywhere, even in August, when the sun shows no mercy. But this forest, like a treasure chest, hides a great surprise: the austere and elegant monastic complex of the Abbey of Vallombrosa. Like a Chinese box, the Abbey contains a number of artworks of inestimable value such as the terracotta tiles by the School of Robbiana and the peculiar stone inlays by Hugford. In the Vallombrosa Museum of Sacred Art you can admire artwork dating back to different eras: vestments, books, relics and paintings. The Vallombrosa brothers, who have always had a more than special relationship with nature, are also the caretakers of experimental arboretums, where interesting exotic species can be seen. Finally, you can combine nature and art with moments of reflection or prayer as you walk along the path of the chapels which crosses a part of the forest. And if after all these activities you feel tired, there is nothing better, especially in the beautiful season, than to lay on the beautiful field that extends right in front of the Abbey.
HOW TO GET TO THE ABBEY OF VALLOMOBROSA. It is located in the village of the same name 13 km from Reggello (Florence). From the Tuscan capital you can reach it by car following the Via Aretina until Pontassieve, where you will find signs for Vallombrosa. If you come from outside Florence through the A1, exit at the Incisa-Reggello tollbooth. By train, the nearest stations are Rignano sull'Arno and Reggello. By bus it is advisable to consult local Valdarno Val Di Chiana bus timetables.
ABBEY OF VALLOMBROSA: HISTORY. The history of the monastic complex begins shortly after the year 1000, precisely in 1008, when San Giovanni Gualberto left the convent of San Miniato to look for a more isolated place where to devote himself to prayer. He later found such space in a village called 'Acquabona', where, first with only one companion, then together with other friars, he built a small ruin and some wooden cellars. These few and humble buildings are nothing more than the original nucleus of Vallombrosa. In 1015 San Gualberto was named superior and the new congregation of the Monaci Benedettini Vallombrosani was founded, just like the Order of the Benedictines developed around the precept 'ora et labora'. In 1036 the works began to create the oratorio and the cells. They ended in 1058 with the consecration of the Church. Subsequently, in 1220, the bell tower was added while between 1224 and 1230 the Church was further enlarged. Again in the fifteenth century a series of works began to enlarge the complex, which thus acquired its present appearance. In those years the sacristy, the premises for novitiate and the kitchen were built. The large tower that overlooks the entire structure was built in 1529 after the looting and in order to have a safe place to protect the many precious volumes. In 1713 the Church was elevated to Abbey. In 1810 after the suppression of all monasteries wanted by Napoleon, the Vallombrosan monks were evicted and forced to leave the complex. Like many other religious centres, it was reopened in 1817 thanks to the Grand Duke Ferdinando. The monks' vicissitudes, however, did not end here because they were 'evacuated' again in 1866 when the property became state-owned and was granted to the Forestry Agency. The poor monks of Vallombrosa moved to Pescia, in the province of Pistoia. Fortunately, in 1949, thanks to a concession of the Forestry Agency, the monks were allowed return to Vallombrosa. Saint John Gualberto is the Protector of the Forestale and is celebrated with a special celebration every July 12th. As we write, newspapers are filled with the news that the Forestry Agency has been suppressed. We are confident that the celebration, just like the bond between the Vallombrosa Monastery and a body based on the same principles of San Gualberto – the struggle against corruption and a love for nature - will not be destroyed by any law.
WHAT TO SEE IN VALLOMBROSA. You can go to Vallombrosa even if you simply want to go for a typical 'scampagnata', a contryside walk: the large lawn as well as the forest offer a perfect environment to relax and to spend some time of ‘dolce far niente’. This can be good for local Florentines, who can go to see the interior of the Abbey and other buildings whenever they like. For all others, to arrive in Vallombrosa without entering the Abbey or the Museum would really be a shame. To make you want to come, we will give you an idea of what you will see inside the ancient walls of the monastic complex.
- ABBEY. It has a medieval plant to which later Baroque interventions have been added. Its internal layout forms an elongated Latin cross: it is 47 metres long and eight in width. The 18th century facade is by the sculptor and architect Gherardo Silvani, one of the major exponents of Tuscan Mannerism. There is a statue of the Founding Saint in the porch, while the coat of arms above it belong to the Medici family and to the iconography of Vallombrosa, as in the case of the Tau-shaped walking stick. The baroque adaptation of the Church is especially noticeable inside: in frescoes and in the vault decorations. On the high altar stands out one of the most important works contained in the Abbey: 'L'Assunta' by Volterrano. Right in front of the altar there is an oil lamp, protagonist of a custom that involves the Forestry. Each year a different region gives its own oil, which is delivered with a ceremony on July 12th. Behind the main altar there is also a valuable wooden choir attributed to the craftsman Francesco da Poggibonsi. At the altar of the left transept there is 'La Trinità' by Lorenzo Lippi, another work on which to pause for a moment. Several works of particular artistic interest are included in some chapels: the Chapel of the Conversi, today a Baptistery, houses the 'Conversion of Saul' by Cesare Dandini while the Chapel of the S.S. Sacramento stands out for a marvellous polychrome marble altar and for the typical 'scagliole' by Enrico Hugford. The English-born monk, brother of the painter Ignazio Hugford, perfected a particular technique: using a kind of chalk called 'scagliola' he created fantastic inlays. Look around because the monk of Vallombrosa reall got down to work, and these particular works of art can be found in the whole complex. Without going too far, always staying at Vallombrosa Abbey, you can see the same technique used to decorate the altar of the Chapel of San Giovanni Gualberto.
- OTHER SPACES. While the Abbey of Vallombrosa in Italy is almost always open to the public, access to the other premises is much more difficult and, to tell the truth, it is a shame because it would really be worth it. In the Sacristy there is, for example, a Canvas by Raffaelino del Garbo (disciple of Ghirlandaio) and a beautiful terracotta piece by Andrea della Robbia. In the Refectory there is an altarpiece by the Robbia school along with 14 canvases by Hugford. In this case they are by Ignazio Hugford himself, the famous painter! The chapter hall where the friars met for readings is now used for cultural events such as conferences and meetings. It is a great opportunity to see also the twelve canvases by Venturino Venturini. The Library of the Abbey of Vallombrosa Florence can be visited, but only upon reservation, and for study reasons: it contains rare incunabula and manuscripts. Stuff for 'real' bookworms!
- MUSEO D’ARTE SACRA ABBAZIA DI VALLOMBROSA. It is located on the back side of the complex and was inaugurated quite recently, in 2006. It exhibits objects from the Abbey or from other areas in Vallombrosa. In the bigger salon there is a bit of everything: sacred vestments, books, miniature codes, objects of use such as majolica and antique missals, and the inevitable series of ‘scagliole’ by Hugford. In the other room there are some precious sacred vestments dating back to the 1400s, which belonged to Francesco Altoviti and Biagio Milanesi. In the same room there is an altarpiece by Domenico Ghirlandaio, which colours have returned to shine after a long period of restoration work. There is a 'Madonna with a child' with some saints (Biagio, Gualberto and Benedetto). In other places there are a number of heterogeneous objects: San Gualberto’s walking stick, liturgical ornaments and the reliquary that, according to legend, contains the arm of San Giovanni Gualberto.
- CIRCUITO DELLE CAPPELLE DI VALLOMBROSA. It is a beautiful walk in the forest of Vallombrosa that winds for almost 5 km between tabernacles, chapels and places related to the life of San Gualberto. It takes two to three hours to complete, depending on your pace and. In these places, faith and legend blend with tradition, as in the case of the Rock of San Gualberto, which apparently protected the saint from the temptations of the devil. Following the so-called Scala Santa, a path with steps, you reach Paradisino, a panoramic spot from which you can enjoy a wonderful views of the monastic complex and the surrounding woods. Stop at the 'Holy Beech,' which fronds are supposed to be the first refuge used in Vallombrosa by San Gualberto.
- CENTRO VISITE DI VALLOMBROSA. It is located next to the Abbey and in addition to the internal exhibition spaces it offers the chance to go on an excursion to the Vallombrosa forest Arboretum. It is an area of nine acres where the most important collection of Italian plants is contained: there are more than 1800 trees, mostly exotic. Do not miss the Dendrological Museum. For those of you who are not experts in botany, this is a collection of seeds of the plants in the area. At the Orto Botanico di Vallombrosa, instead, there are 250 species of aromatic and medical herbs. Both the arboretum and the botanical garden have always been used by students of forestry, who spend periods of study and research here.
- ANTICA FARMACIA OF VALLOMBROSA AND LIQUOR SHOP: You surely won’t want to visit a monastery without bringing home a liquor, right? Do not disappoint the Monaci Vallombrosani, who they put so much effort and passion into producing delicious elixirs. And here you find a really special one: the 'Dry Gin of Vallombrosa', produced exclusively with local juniper berries. A must. In the Antica Abbazia di Vallombrosa Farmacia you can also make other purchases such as body cream, sweets, honey, chocolate and fantastic balsamic oil.
So, be honest, do you feel like immersing yourself in the relaxing atmosphere of the Abbazia di Vallombrosa? Its main vocation is that of prayer and recollection, of course, and with the light of faith this place surely receives a mystic value. But a visit to Vallombrosa in Tuscany will give everyone, believers or not, the desire to slow down for a while. You will spontaneously want to stop: in the church, under the shadow of a fir tree, lying on the lawn while looking at the sky or while you contemplate the panorama from 'Paradisino'. Among the beauty of the works of art and nature, your stay in Tuscany, even spending just a few hours in Vallombrosa, will give you precious moments of peacefulness. They will recharge your energies like nothing else. Just enjoy your time here, and think about stress another time.