Tuscany's most-visited abbey sits in an oasis of olive and cypress trees amid the harsh landscape of Le Crete. It was founded in 1313 by Giovanni Tolomei, a rich Sienese lawyer who, after miraculously regaining his lost sight, changed his name to Bernardo in homage to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who is sometimes credited with the creation of medieval monasticism. Bernardo then founded a monastic order dedicated to the restoration of Benedictine principles. The name of
the order—the White Benedictines—refers to a vision that Bernardo had in which Jesus, Mary, and his own mother were all clad in white. The monks are sometimes also referred to as Olivetans, which is the name of the hill where the monastery was built. Famous for maintaining extreme poverty—their feast-day meal consisted of two eggs—they slept on straw mats and kept a vow of silence. Although the monks look like they are eating a little better these days and are not afraid to strike up a conversation, the monastery still operates, and most of the area is off limits to visitors. One of Italy's most important book restoration centers is here, and the monks still produce a wide variety of traditional liqueurs (distilled from herbs that grow on the premises), which are available in the gift shop along with enough food products to fill a pantry, all produced by monks in various parts of Italy.
From the entrance gate a tree-lined lane leads down to the main group of buildings, with paths veering off to several shrines and chapels dedicated to important saints of the order. The church itself is not particularly memorable, but the exquisite choir stalls (1503–05) by Fra Giovanni da Verona are among the country's finest examples of intarsia (wood inlay). Forty-eight of the 125 stalls have inlaid decoration, each set up as a window or arched doorway that opens onto a space (a town, a landscape) or an object (a musical instrument, a bird), rendered in marvelous perspective. Check at the entrance for the schedule of Masses, as the monks often chant the liturgy.
In the abbey's main cloister, frescoes by Luca Signorelli and Sodoma depict scenes from the life of St. Benedict. Signorelli began the cycle by painting scenes from the saint's adult life as narrated by Saint Gregory the Great, and although his nine scenes are badly worn, the individual expressions are fittingly austere and pensive, full of serenity and religious spirit, and as individualized as those he painted in the San Brizio chapel in Orvieto's Duomo. Later Sodoma filled in the story with scenes from the saint's youth and the last years of his life. The results are also impressive, but in this case what stands out are the use of color and earthier imagery. Note the detailed landscapes, the rich costumes, the animals (similar to those Sodoma was known to keep as pets), and the scantily clad boys he apparently preferred (for this he was called "the Sodomist" and described by Vasari as "a merry and licentious man... of scant chastity").