Sometimes you don’t make it, sometimes you break it. Ian Malcom explained it in Jurassic Park, circa 1993. A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine.
A single valley, two abbeys, the same Medieval overlords. One – Sant’Antimo – is still busy, its nave echoing with recorded Gregorian chants, its Benedictine monks officiating mass at least twice a day, a shop selling honey and beer and olive oil. The other, San Galgano, is a different matter.
We are alone in the car park. We hardly met anyone on the road either, heavy downpours our only companions. The hills stop the radio reception and, after a few minutes of static, we’ve turned it off. My mind plays a song telling the story of Sarajevo’s library fire. Apt.
Galgano Guidotti, to quote from the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, was a man before he was a saint, and a had a lot to answer to the Almighty by the time their meeting would’ve been due. Death, murder, rape and pillage to be precise, part and parcel of the job description of a medieval knight. Mindful of that, one fine day in the mid-to-late XII century Galgano sunk his sword in a stone, where it still stands, and became a hermit. Cistercian monks followed suit.
We are the first in the Abbey. Birds echo through the open windows and doors of the chapter house. A busload of pensioners from Ferrara was inbound, but still they linger outside, their driver being reprimanded by the ticket staff for having parked his behemoth too close. A diesel engine starts, the bus driving away.
San Galgano Abbey quickly made a name for itself. It became the largest landholder in the area, giving work to hundreds of monks and families. It appeared in Siena’s records; initially sporadically, then frequently as the spiritual power of the abbey grew increasingly political.
A cobbled path led away from the chapter house into the church. A side door opened in the flank of the giant building.
A hundred meters long, San Galgano’s abbey church stands empty, its roof the frowning Tuscan sky. Pebbles creak below us, pigeons flutter from one window to the other, wind drafts dance from mullions to trifore whence stained glass had broken away centuries before us.
It’d happened quickly. In 1328 a famine hit the abbey, then twenty years later came plague. The Black Death didn’t decimate the population; it cut it by four-fifths. Those who survived then had to deal with marauding armies of mercenaries. At the turn of the century only eight monks remained. Less than two centuries later, San Galgano was abandoned.
What could possibly explain the demise of San Galgano and not of the other tens of abbeys, nunneries and monasteries dotting the hills of Siena province? Surely there were political, economic, sociologic reasons behind the abbey’s death. Wrong choices, scarce resilience, perhaps its fame accelerated its demise. Or, perhaps, it was as simple as a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking.