of the Abbey of Passignano
Giovanni Aretino, in his life of St.
Zanobius, a Florentine bishop,
narrates that His Holiness gave away all his possessions to the poor and
founded a community of monks at Passignano in 395. There is no historical proof of this,
nor for the date 989 (or 899)
associated with a certain Sichelmo as founder. The oldest records
belonging to the Abbey are dated 891.
The fact that the church is dedicated to St Michael suggests it was
founded in the
period. In 1049, the Abbey of Passignano was donated
to St. Giovanni Gualberto. To understand the history of the Abbey fully, we
must first make the acquaintance of the great Florentine saint, St.
Giovanni Gualberto, founder of the
Abbey at Vallombrosa
Vallombrosan Monks take their name.
Giovanni, son of Gualberto, was born in Florence into a noble family in
about the year 1000. During those tragic times of fratricidal strife he
was still a young man, undecided whether to hate or whether to love
mankind. A member of his family, possibly his brother Ugo, was murdered and, following the custom of the times, Giovanni was
expected to take revenge by killing the perpetrator of the murder. The
dramatic encounter took place in a narrow passageway outside Porta S.
Faced with his enemy, who, trembling, his arms outstretched in the form
of the cross, beseeched mercy, Giovanni cast down his sword, dismounted
his horse and granted forgiveness. He then went up to the church which
stood not far from where he was and knelt before the crucifix. The story goes
that the Christ on the Crucifix nodded his head as a sign of approval. Because of this act,
Giovanni was thenceforward known as the Hero of Forgiveness.
After this episode, Giovanni, overcoming his father's strong objections,
decided to retire to the Benedictine monastery next to the church of
San Miniato al Monte.
His indomitable spirit as a knight also inspired him as a monk and came
to the fore when the time was ripe to defend the church, corrupted above
all by simony. His burning evangelical zeal was turned against the
Abbot of that very monastery and also the Bishop of Florence, Pietro Mezzabarba,
both of whom were simonists. Powerless to remove them from office
and refusing to debase himself by compromise, he decided to
withdraw and live in solitude.
He left the monastery of San Miniato and, after travelling widely,
reached Vallombrosa. Other monks and youths, drawn by his personality
and saintliness, followed San Giovanni Gualberto and in this way the new
fraternity at Vallombrosa came into being. Desiring to live a monastic
life based on the rules of the Benedictine order, Giovanni bound the community to a life of strict poverty, prayer, brotherhood,
hospitality and toil. The monastic reform which was practised at
Vallombrosa was the chief life work of St. Giovanni Gualberto. In
addition to the monks who went forth from his school and the foundation of new
monasteries, he made a great contribution to a wider movement of
ecclesiastical renewal of monks, clerics and laymen.
During the life of St. Giovanni Gualberto, many of his most cherished
disciples were sent to Passignano. Among them were Leo the Abbot (of the
Conti Guidi) and the young Pietro Aldobrandini, later Cardinal of Albano.
Abbot Leo restored the ruined monastery. Outside it he had the church
of St. Biagio built for the parishioners. He was present at the Roman
synod in 1050 and arranged the encounter between Pope Leo IX and
Giovanni Gualberto at Passignano. The Prior of Passignano, Pietro, was
then named "igneus" because he walked unharmed through fire at Badia a
Settimo on Ash Wednesday, 13 February, 1068, forcing the simonist bishop
of Florence, Pietro Mezzabarba, to leave the city.
| Badia a
At this time, the Abbey of Passignano already owned hospices and
hospitals and its influence extended from the parishes of Sillano,
Campoli and Cintoia to the Valdarno and the gates of Siena. On 12th July
1073, in the monastery of the Abbey of Passignano, the life of St.
Giovanni Gualberto drew to an end, although not before Ildebrando
become Pope. He was the very monk, who, alone against the Roman synod in
1067, had defended the monastic ideals of Vallombrosa.
Known as Gregory VII, he gave his name to the Vallombrosan reform which
came to be called "Gregorian reform". The destruction of
by Florence in the 12th century had a profound influence on the life of
the Monastery. The Florentines, who feared heavy punishment by Pope
Onorio II, turned to the Abbot of Vallombrosa, St. Atto, in order that
he might intercede with the Pope in their favour.
The Holy Abbot promised to intervene on condition that the Bishop of
Florence ceded to the Bishop of Fiesole the parish of Sillano to which
Passignano belonged, in exchange for some land belonging to Fiesole in
This separation from the diocese of Florence forced Passignano to follow
the political leanings of Siena. When eventually the Bishop of Fiesole,
forced to take up residence in Florence, tried to transfer his seat to
Figline in order to free it from the yoke of Florence, the church of San
Lorenzo was purchased by the Abbey of Passignano to be used as a
cathedral. But the Florentines destroyed Figline and set fire to it.
The Alberti family planned to build not a castle but a whole town to
defend against the Florentines, and this was Semifonte. Passignano
contributed to this plan by building a church and a hospital.
In 1196 the Florentines destroyed the buildings at Passignano and
several years later razed it to the ground. In 1255 members of the
Florentine family Scolari set fire to the monastery, but although it was
severely damaged, the church was saved. In 1266 Ruggero Buondelmonti was
appointed head of the community to keep away the Scolari family and to
reconstruct the ruined buildings.
Work on this continued to the end of the century. We can still read the
name Buontalenti with the date 1287 inscribed on one of the church
Abbot Ruggero also took part in the conclave at S. Trinità where the
elevation of Charles of Valois was decided and consequently the exile of
(including Dante). In 1312 the Emperor Henry Vll
occupied first the Monastery of S. Salvi in Florence then later moved to
Chianti and occupied the Monastery of Passignano.
On this occasion the monks, threatened with destruction by the Imperial
troops, made a vow to the Virgin to celebrate every year the Feast of
the Immaculate Conception on December 8th in order that the monastery
might be saved. The vow was fulfilled the very same year.
In spite of these vicissitudes in the 14th century, two major works of
art were created in Siena: the reliquary of St. Giovanni Gualberto,
which was completed in the next century, and an altar piece for the main
altar by Jacopo di Mino (1358) (unfortunately lost). In 1365 St.
Caterina of Siena wrote two letters to the Abbot Martino and one to the
monks of Passignano begging them to choose to die rather than fail to
fulfill their monastic vows.
In the Renaissance period, the Abbey flourished thanks to two Florentine
abbots, Francesco Altoviti (1440-55) and Isidoro del Sera (1455-85), who
renovated many parts of the buildings and built several large rooms. The Refectory which we see today with the Last Supper by Domenico
Ghirlandaio belongs to this period. The community consisted of about
30-35 monks, many of whom were young novices and students.
However, even during the full flowering of the Renaissance, difficulties
due to strife within the church, which involved the Abbey of
Passignano, were not lacking, and the Abbey was unable to avoid the
ruinous system of the commendam. In 1487,
Lorenzo Il Magnifico
through Innocent VIII, in entrusting the Abbey in commendam to his son
Giovanni, the future Leo X, to whom the monks were obliged to pay two
thousand fiorins per year. Moreover on 24th December, 1515, Passignano
lent its tapestries to decorate the
church of Impruneta
for the Papal
At the end of the 16 C, it was planned to complete the
Renaissance building with the reconstruction of the church. Domenico
Cresti, the local painter known as "il Passignano", made a
great contribution to this work. The events of the 16th century also had a
great influence on the history of Passignano.
The Spanish, who occupied Florence in 1530, defeated the French in 1565
and occupied Siena as well. The territory of Siena was annexed to that of
Florence, and consequently the centre of political, military and economic power was
transferred and the monastery of Passignano no longer had the strategic
importance of previous centuries. In the 18th century the monks at the
Abbey, anxious for reform, became involved in following the ideas of
Bishop Scipione dei Ricci who ended his life at Rignana,near Passignano
and was buried there in the family chapel.
S. Giovanni Gualberto was buried at Passignano and the monastery always
enjoyed a privileged place in the Vallombrosan Order. For many
centuries the Abbey was the seat of learning for every branch of science
"where it seems (according to Franchi) that knowledge has, up to
now (1640) sustained the pillars of the seven liberal arts." In its
library there was a collection of more than six thousand documents which
Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo
ordered to be added to the 140,000
belonging to the archives of Florence. The writings in Greek and Hebrew
in the wooden choir of the church bear witness to the monks' knowledge of
In 1587-8 the chronicles of the monastery mention the presence of
Galileo Galilei who, having studied in the Abbey of Vallombrosa when he
was a youth, returned to visit his old teachers and at the same time
devoted his attention to teaching the young monks. In the middle of the 18th
century, a Vallombrosan monk by the name of D. Leto Guidi, built all
kinds of telescopes at the Abbey of Passignano, and which were set up in
various places in Europe.
On 10th October 1810, under the Napoleonic suppression, monastic life at
Passignano was temporarily suspended. A large part of the art and
literary treasures were lost. Houses and land were rented out - 40 farms
and 80 farmhouses, apart from the monastery itself. At the restoration in
1816, Grand Duke Ferdinand III re-instated the religious communities but
only the monasteries of Vallombrosa, S. Trinità and Montenero were
assigned to the Vallombrosan order. In 1818 the monks, by paying a
little at a time, repurchased the Abbey of Passignano and its estate
and set up a small community once more. It was not till 1858 that it was
possible to re-install the Abbot and increase the numbers of the
But the life of the community was not to last long. In 1866, the reigning
government again suppressed all the religious orders and confiscated the
whole property of Passignano, including the monastery, with the
exception of a small part which was left to two monks who were to act as
custodians of the church and parish.
On 7th October, 1870 the Abbey of Passignano and all that belonged to it
(39 farms with 1264 hectares of land) was put up for auction and sold. A
long period of quiet and silence but also of transformation for the
Abbey began in this way. The name was changed and it was no longer the
Abbey, but the Castle of Passignano. New architectural features were
added to make it look like a castle.
At the beginning of this century, a visitor wrote the following:
"The Abbey of Passignano used to be an austere community dedicated
to the Saints, in which the discipline and sackcloth mortified the flesh
of the monks; now it is a pleasurable residence, an elegant and even
Before concluding with the last historical event that affects us, I would
like to relate something which was written by a monk who resided at the
Abbey at the beginning of the century: "Such were the principal
vicissitudes of this illustrious monastery under the double suppression
of Napoleon I and the Italian government.
May the Lord grant that the century which has just begun be happier for
the Abbey and for the Vallombrosan monks than the last one and may He
bless the sons of Giovanni Gualberto, custodians of his proud sepulchre,
that they may follow in the glorious steps of their forefathers".
The Vallombrosan monks had long desired to return to the Abbey at
Passignano and various attempts had been made in past years but only in
1986, after 120 years, was it possible, thanks to the goodwill of
several people and the real, tangible assistance of San Giovanni
Gualberto, for the monks to return to the ancient Abbey of Passignano.
Biagio DELLA VECCHIA
Prior of the Badia a Passignano
Published in: Il monachesimo medievale nel Chianti (1995)