Often reality, faith and legend converge in one place: the Rotonda di Montesiepi is one them
San Galgano: the saint, the king and the sword
This is the story of the knight Galgano and how a vision made him renounce to wealth, war and women in name of a life of meditation and prayer. This is a story where faith, legend, history and literature merge in one intriguing tale, to the dénouement of which, in truth, we won’t be able to come.
This is a story of Tuscan hills, hermits, abbeys and secluded chapels, filled with the scents of incense, religion and popular lore. This is the story of a sword, buried deep into the stone and of the holy man who stuck it there almost 1000 years ago.
Think of the sweet, rolling hills of Siena's countryside, around the middle of the 12th century: we’re in the Middle Ages, magical yet often misinterpreted times of profound faith and chilling superstition, of illiteracy and sublime poetry, of dirt and breathtaking art. An era of dichotomies and opposites, an era, indeed, where the otherworldly crossed into the lives of people with an uncommon regularity, or so literature and tradition passed on to us.
Then, in the Merse Valley, just a handful of kilometers from Siena, our story takes place. It begins with a a married couple of noble descent, who has been having problems conceiving…
Galgano Guidotti di Chiusdino: from debauchery to holyness
Sources say Galgano Guidotti di Chiusino was the only son of Guidotto and Dionisia, a wealthy couple living in their family castle, in the Merse Valley. The two had had problems conceiving and they had almost abandoned all hopes, when Dionisia finally became pregnant. In 1148, she gave birth to a male heir for the family’s fortunes, Galgano.
A wholesome, earthy child, Galgano grew to be a healthy young man, who loved hunting, riding horses and hanging out with his friends. He loved women, too and soon became engaged to Polissena Brizzi, a young noble from Civitella: not that he had any intention to be faithful, Galgano loved female company too much. He also had a penchant for using his hands and sword to solve diatribes, all characteristics his family, his mother in particular, were not too happy about.
Here’s where our story becomes “medieval” and that thin line between the real and the surreal, the visible and the invisible is crossed.
Shortly after Galgano’s father untimely death, the young hell riser had a dream. In it, he saw his own mother holding the hand of a beautiful angel with golden wings and a sword: the angel spoke to Galgano, inviting him to become a warrior. And so he did.
Other dreams of the same type followed, until one day, in 1180 – legends say during a balmy Spring morning – while traveling to Civitella to see young Polissena, Galgano had a vision of the Archangel Michael, the same of his many dreams: so startled was he, that he fell from his horse. Back on his two feet, Galgano was a different man: he took his sword and plunged it into a rock, transforming it into a cross. It was time to become a Miles Christi, a soldier of Christ, abandoning a worldly army to join a celestial one. The branches of the trees all around, as to protect the physical evidence of the miracle, curved upon it, creating a natural dome. From that moment on, Galgano devoted his life to prayer and holiness.
As a matter of fact, even his betrothed, Polissena, converted to a life of asceticism.
Galgano passed away on the 3rd of December 1181, legends say near his sword in the stone. On that very spot, today, is the Rotonda di Montesiepi, a small chapel where you can still see it. The Rotonda was built between 1182 and 1185, much earlier than the nearby abbey of Saint Galgano, today abandoned, the construction of which began only around 1220. Its fortunes ran with ups and downs until 1789, when it was deconsecrated and abandoned.
Saint Francis and Galgano
For those interested in the history of the Church, hagiography or simply devout to Saint Francis of Assisi, the similarities between the conversion of Galgano and that of the patron saint of Italy and Europe must have immediately jumped to the eye. Saint Francis was also the unruly child of a wealthy family and his conversion came after many years of debauchery and sins.
Similarities, those between the two holy men, so close to bring many to believe Galgano may be a legendary character based on the life of his prestigious contemporary. Galgano died the same year of Saint Francis’ birth, 1181 at the age of 33, the same as Christ: some see this as yet another piece of evidence proving he may have been an invented character. Truth is, there is not enough material to demonstrate he never existed so, for the sake of our story, let us think of him as a real, bona fide holy man of the late Italian 12th century.
Galgano and King Arthur
Truth is, Galgano’s story gets even more fascinating after his death: it is then that his figure and that of another mysterious medieval hero, King Arthur (or Re Artù, as we say in Italy) meet each other. In 1190, only a handful
of years after Galgano’s death, Chrétien de Troyes writes Le Roman de Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal, the first of a long series of works dedicated to the holy grail’s legend; albeit incomplete, the story of Perceval, the protagonist of Chrétien de Troyes’s adventure, resembles very closely to that of Galgano. Twenty years later, in 1210, Wolfram von Eschenbach gives his version of Perceval’s life in Parzival: once again centred on the quest for the holy grail, once again with a Perceval very much resembling Galgano.
As surreal and, possibly, fantastic as it may be, the similarities between Galgano and Perceval’ stories helped create the connection between the world of Arthur and that of the Italian saint, to the point some even advanced the possibility Galgano may have been one of the king’s own knights, pointing at one in particular, Gawain, who in Italian becomes… Galvano.
The presence of Galgano’s sword in the Rotonda makes the association between the saint and Arthur’s knights even more enticing. If you add into the mix that the Rotonda has the round shape of a cup (the holy grail is traditionally believed to be either the cup where Christ drank wine from during the Last Supper, or the vessel used to gather his blood during crucifixion) the connection between Galgano, the grail and Arthur seems magically possible.
An historical side to the legend?
No, not that of the holy grail: the diatribe on whether it exists or not has been going on for decades and, let us face it, recent historically dubious incursions of novelists into the field did little to clarify things. Is there, though, a possible link between the figure of Galgano and the birth of King Arthur’s legends in France and northern Europe? Some say it could be historically plausible that tales of Galgano’s mystical conversion and miracles reached Britain through France, in the years immediately successive to his death.
The reason could lie in the presence of the Cistercians in Saint Galgano’s area (even his monastery was theirs): the order had been particularly active in the dissemination of Arthurian legends all over Europe and their numerous monasteries in Italy, France and Britain make it possible to believe it was, indeed, through them that Galgano and Arthur metaphorically met.
If we take for granted the relationship between Galgano and Arthur, it still remains hard to ascertain whose life – or legend – influenced whom: is it the story of Galgano and his miraculous sword that travelled all the way up North to Britain, or was Galgano a keen follower of Arthur’s legendary tales, as recounted by the Cistercians, to the point he stuck his sword into stone aware of emulating, albeit in reverse, a great hero?
The mystery, indeed, remains.
Something more to read
The interest a
round San Galgano, his sword and his ties with King Arthur have been the subject of much interest and discussion: a quick internet search will give you plenty of hits, both in English and Italian about the topic. If you read Italian, you may be interested in a volume first published in 2005, with a second expanded edition dating from 2012, dedicated to the saint and the mystery of his sword. L’Enigma di San Galgano, by milanese Mario Moiraghi details all you have just read, with the addition of interesting chapters dedicated to recent research carried out by the Universities of Padova and Pavia on the sword and on the relics of Galgano, both kept in the Rotonda di Montesiepi.