Badia in Coltibuono

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The Abbey of San Lorenzo in Coltibuono is surely one of the most enchanting places in picture-perfect - yet equally genuine - Tuscany. We are in Chianti, amidst rows of vines, olive trees and long rows of cypresses that flank the gravel countryside roads. We are also in an area between Siena, Florence and Arezzo, which has always been of great strategic importance. The Badia of Coltibuono was transformed into a farm in the 1800s, but was originally a monastery inhabited by the Vallombrosa monks, which is evident in the architectural structure that still preserves some medieval tracts. Fortunately, its interior, the refectory and the cellar can still be visited. The Church, being a parish, is open to normal religious functions. What is there to say? If you are in the area you cannot skip a visit to this special place – a place I would call of the heart rather than of the spirit. The sacredness of the atmosphere is also pervaded by the passion of six generations who have been leading of the estate. All members of the family of the owners have always taken great care of the wonderful place that, just like a precious gift, has been preserved up to today. How not to take advantage of it!

BADIA A COLTIBUONO, GAIOLE IN CHIANTI: HOW TO ARRIVE. Badia a Coltibuono is located in Chianti more or less at the same distance from all the major Tuscan cities: 62 km from Florence, 51 from Siena and 48 from Arezzo. From Florence you can reach it following the A1 towards south and exit at Casello Valdarno where you take the Strada Statale 408 for Siena until the junction for Badia di Coltibuono. From Siena simply take the same Strada Statale towards Gaiole in Chianti-Montevarchi, you will come to the same junction and then follow the signs for Badia. Also from Arezzo, take the A1 and exit at Valdarno to continue, as already indicated, along Strada Statale.

BADIA A COLTIBUONO, ITALY: HISTORY. The history of Badia a Coltibuono in Tuscany began as far back as in the 10th century with a small oratory dedicated to St. Lorenzo. The first reliable information relates to the construction of the Badia a Coltibuono Abbey, which took place in 1037 and was consecrated in 1049. It was apparently founded by the Firidolfi family from which the Ricasoli family was born, and then donated to San Giovanni Gualberto, founder of the Congregation of Vallombrosa. Some documents suggest that in 1115 the hermitage was already in possession of this order of monks, which left a lasting and characteristic impact on the place. They found two springs of water to provide for the needs of the monastery but also to irrigate the fields and the rows of vines. It even seems that they were among the first to grow Sangiovese! Who knows if those monks would have imagined that they would start such an important activity as the production of Chianti wine. They built the fantastic cellar, painted the refectory, created the c  walled vegetable garden (hortus conclus) and took care of the fir trees that surround the area. Thanks to donations, Badia Coltibuono grew of importance, so much so that it started to control others, amongst them Badia Ardenga, the Abbey of Spineta and the Monastery of San Jacopo in Siena. As would be said nowadays, Badia in Coltibuono produced well. So, after passing under the protection of Florence in 1239, it was - given to use a more modern term again - 'under management' to Cardinal Giovanni de Medici, the future Pope Leo X.

FROM MONASTERY TO FARMHOUSE: THE PROPERTY PASSAGES. Albeit not without the complaints of the people, in 1810 Napoleon decreed the expulsion of all religious people from monasteries. In many cases they managed to return to the walls of their convents, unfortunately, however, this was not the case for Badia in Coltibuono monastery. From the expulsion of the friars it began to pass into various hands that did not always treat it in the best way. Meanwhile, it seems that Napoleon was particularly interested in the Coltibuono wine cellar - hard to blame him. Once all the wine had been finished, it was transformed into a farm and bought by a merchant, Giovanni Calamai, while the Church became the parish of the area where there was only one friar, the vicar. People in the area were not happy that the monks had been sent away – these monks, among other things, also helped provide extra food for the sustenance of the inhabitants. This made things difficult for Calamai, who eventually decided to rent it to Giovanni Checcacci di Montevarchi. With the end of the Napoleon era, Giovanni Calamai followed his fate and to get rid of his debts he held a lottery with Badia a Coltibuono as one of the prizes. In the end, with an obscurely orchestrated strategy, it ‘casually’ ended up in the hands of the adventurer Giovanni Giraud. No, he did not get away with it! He was accused of cheating and tried to sell the abbey as soon as possible. Again, another very special buyer: Principe Stanislaus Poniatowsky, nephew of the King of Poland. When the prince died, the widow and children lost all their wealth to finance performances and operas, and so again, in 1846, the Badia was sold to Guido Giuntini: finally it had come in good hands and treated with utmost care up to the present time.

PRINETTI STUCCHI FAMILY: FINALLY IN GOOD HANDS! Guido Giuntini was the ancestor of the current owners of the Badia in Coltibuono, and he was the one who started to bring the wonderful place back to live, which fortunately survived even the Second World War. It was just after the conflict that Piero Stucchi took hold of the estate and began to transform it into what it is today. He began to dedicate himself to the production and sale of Chianti Classico wine and later on also of extra virgin olive oil. The following generations also contributed, as in the case of Lorenza de Medici, who dedicated herself to curating the recipes of the old family to which she belongs. Even her daughter, Emanuela Stucchi Prinetti, has contributed to many cooking books, but has also dedicated herself to promotion activities while her sister Paola has taken over the restaurant. Her son Roberto, on the other hand, is responsible of the company’s conversion to 'organic' and of re-planting the native vineyards. Badia a Coltibuono in Toscana is also one of the promoters of an event that reminds of another record of the Stucchi family: they were among the first to produce cars and bicycles and the great cyclist Girardengo, in 1919, won the tour of Italy riding a bike Of 'Stucchi & C'. And so in the white countryside streets of Chianti every year the 'Eroica Bike Race' takes place, performed with vintage bicycles: there are various paths of different length and difficulty ranging from 'bike passeggiatas’ to more challenging itineraries. The traditional itinerary is 209 kilometres long: this explains the ‘Eroica’ bike ride’s name! To complete the whole route you really need to be ‘heroes’. It takes place every year between the end of September and the beginning of October, and even if you are not a cyclist or if you do not have a vintage bike, it may be interesting just to watch it as a spectator.

VISIT THE BADIA DI COLTIBUONO. It is thanks to the Pinetti Stucchi family that in the afternoons from April to October guided tours inside the former monastery are organized. For the Church, you need to find out the Hours of the Holy Mass or, with a pinch of luck, hope to find it open outside the hours of religious functions.

  • The church. You can see right from the façade that is the classic Vallombrosano Romanesque church. You can immediately notice the impressive bell tower with a single-lancet window on each side and with an open roof, rimmed by battlements. It has a single nave whose roof is made up of false eighteenth-century vaults decorated with baroque stuccos, the walls are covered with a plaster made from river cobblestones. The barrel vaults above the transept are the original ones and in this case the cover is made with Alberese stone. Above the transept there is a peculiar octagonal dome that is covered by a cylindrical structure which makes it look similar to a pagoda. Under the altar are the remains of Beato Ricasoli who died in 1107.
  • The Monastery. From a door on the right side of the facade of the Church you can reach the Monastery, which was transformed into a country residence in the 1800s. Despite having been transformed many times, you can still distinguish the cloister and the refectory: now the refectory is an elegant salon where parties and events are held. Interesting is the history of the frescoes that decorate the walls: when the monks were forced to leave the Monastery they covered them with a plaster to protect them from profanations or any kind of damage. With great surprise, they were rediscovered only by the current owners who thought it good to bring them back to their ancient splendour. In the corner of the refectory there is also the salt safe. More than jewels and treasures, salt was truly rare and precious at that time! It is for this reason that in Tuscany the bread is ‘sciocco’: there wasn’t much salt on the market and it cost too much, so it was better to keep it safe rather than make bread with it! It is also fascinating to visit the medieval cellars where Chianti wine rests in big barrels. Still underground you can find the 'wine library' where, instead of dusty volumes, thousands of bottles are kept - just as dusty but with a certainly more inebriating content! Here 'vertical tastings' take place. Don’t worry, these are not acrobatic performances with a glass of wine in hand. Rather, they consist of drinking the same wine but of different vintages to try to grasp the subtle differences created by time.
  • The garden. It is an Italian garden with beautiful boxwood hedges trimmed into precise geometric shapes. There are still many aromatic herbs and officinal plants as well as in the garden of the brothers of Vallombrosa. In the centre there is a beautiful serene stone bathtub, a material used also to create the paved paths that run through the garden. Also remarkable is the Cedar of Lebanon, 20 meters high and with a trunk diameter of 7 metres. Considering the monumental dimensions it will not be difficult to find it, to the side of the Badia.

The Badia in Coltibuono in Chianti is a bit like Tuscany’s ‘Bignami’! Bignami, for those of you who are from the Wikipedia generation, were a series of books that contained the summaries of novels that were studied at school. Instead of reading the entire 'Divine Comedy', Italian students read these summaries. It was a bit of a shortcut, enough to get the gist of the content! So it would certainly be better to be able to explore the whole of Tuscany, discover every hidden corner and venture into the less-known routes. But if you cannot do so, Badia a Coltibuono near Siena is a great microcosm, just like a perfectly written summary. Think about it! An ancient monastery that contains a precious cellar filled with Chianti wine bottles. But it is also an organic farm that, by combining tradition and modernity, produces wine and oil. The ‘Badia del buon raccolto' has made it to the present day. Coltibuono derives precisely from the Latin 'cultus boni' which means, in fact, ‘good harvest’. And where is all this? In that part of Tuscany that for centuries has attracted visitors from all over the world. Admit it, aren’t you already attracted by a compelling force? It would be pointless to try to resist it, so just go for it! By car, train and even by bike if you want to take part in the Eroica!