The medieval Abbey of Sant'Antino (right) has been welcoming some new arrivals — among them Ed Vulliamy
OCCORRENZA storica a historic occasion confirmed Professor Piero Angelo Nannini, with the tube of a vacuum cleaner in one hand and making a sweeping gesture around his head with the other.
It was, actually; at least it certainly was a historic occasion for what is arguably Italy's loveliest and most mystical yet somehow mercifully secluded medieval building.
Professor Nannini, a local school headmaster, is treasurer of the Amid (Friends) of the Abbey of Sant'Antimo, a jewel of the Romanesque which nestles in a valley in southern Tuscany. One Saturday last month, he was leading a team from the nearby village to remove the Abbey's pews and replace them with metal and canvas chairs in preparation for the occorrenza storica the inauguration of the new organ, whose music would fill the building and its valley for the first time that evening, played by maestro Ciaude Bouglon, all the way from France.
All the village of Castelnuovo dell 'Abate would be there plus not a few dignitaries whose handwritten names Professor Nannini was sticking with due deference onto the backs of the best seats: the President of the Court at Siena, Professor Ponticelli, and the maker of the best wine in the region, Dottore Franco Biondi-Santi, who is also president of the Amid of the Abbey.
Sant'Antimo is one of those buildings that makes you catch your breath when you turn a bend in the little country road and see it settled in its lyrical pastel-coloured valley. After visiting almost every year over the past decade, it still has the same effect.
Against a backdrop of a wooded slope to the west, surrounded by an olive grove, a field of oats and a cattle pasture, the Abbey, which dates from 1118, stands a treasure of Romanesque harmony grandiose but intimate. There is an unusually sharp curve at the back of its apse, echoed by the lower, parallel curve of an ambulatory behind the altar inside (this is in the French style, very rare in Italy). There is a square Lombardic bell tower.
Inside, the soft lines and curves of the nave, pillars and tribunes are constructed in pale, clean marble and stone on the principles of medieval sacred numerology, affording an eerie sensation of almost musical balance. It is rather like looking at a Piero della Francesca painting: you know something is strange and sublime, but it is intangible and inexplicable: and if the answer is to be explained in terms of the material world, it is found in mathematics.
Charlemagne founded an Abbey here in 781 when retreating from Rome, ostensibly as an offering of gratitude after his prayer that a pestilence sweeping the region be halted was duly answered. The friars were put under the strict but often lucrative Rule of St Benedict — by far the most influential in the early Middle Ages. The Abbey, like the Rule, reached its golden age in the late 12th century before it declined under the assault from newer, more mystical and personal Franciscan and Augustinian orders.
In 1984, there was a terrible shock on visiting Sant'Antimo. Access to the old Romanesque church and the rooms of the former Bishop of Montalcino were denied: the Abbey had been desecrated, frescoes defaced, windows made of gossamer-thin alabaster damaged. But nothing was stolen, and people in the village murmured that this was the work of the followers of Anti Christ.
The episode gave impetus to two projects: not long before the Bishop of Siena had invited a team of French Augustinian monks to come to Castelnuovo and re-establish a religious community. During the past few years, you could see them walking in their white habits through the late afternoon sun down the silvery-green olivestrewn slopes from the village to sing a Gregorian Rite at the Abbey on Sundays.
The idea now was to restore the old monks' quarters in the courtyard of the Abbey, which had become a farmhouse in the mid 15th century and had long since dilapidated. So, this summer, on turning the bend to sec the church, the line of the bell tower was added to by the less sightly one of a crane — and by next year, monks will again live at Sant'Antimo for the first time since 1462.
The second project under way, steeled by the dark act of vandalism, was the new organ, at a cost of 150 million lire, commissioned from the unchallenged living master of the organ building art, Anselmi Tamburini, who comes from the same region in the north as Monteverdi and Stradivari. The delightly slothful but beautiful bell in Castelnuovo announced to the valley that it was four o'clock — and from within the church came the deep ethereal sound of the organ Maestro Bouglon had arrived from France and was testing the machine. Within two hours, for the first time ever, the local Carabinieri with smart red stripes down their blue trousers, were marshaling cars along the little dirt track.
Inside, the dignitaries greeted each other: elegant men in pressed pale suits accompanied by women in silks with their hair tied back in velvet ribbons; young friars, lean and fitlooking with their cropped hair, and more severe, unsmiling monastic figures dressed in black.
After a number of proud speeches and a blessing from the senior friar, the venerablelooking Padre Andrea Forest, the music began, each piece introduced at length by an animated young monk, Br Olivier — "this triple fugue by Bach is a meditation on the Holy Trinity . . ."
It had been an overcast day, but now, through the windows of the apse, you could see deep sun smothering the vineyards that climb the eastern slopes of the valley; shafts of the same sunlight tumbled in the west door, across the people's heads and on to the clear, pale stone and marble. At the back were the people of Castelnuovo: women in black, girls in their party make-up, scouts and guides, workers of the land and the lads who had left their Lambrettas parked outside.
After the last, thunderous blast of Messlaen, the VIPs, the monks, the maestro, and Mr Tamburini were invited for supper and wine at the villa of the President of Amici a proposal sal which had one huge advantage among many others: Brunello di Montalcino is generally regarded as the finest wine in Italy, and Dottore BiondiSanti's is generally regarded as the finest Brunello. Recently, he gave a 100-year-old bottle to the President of Italy.
His ivy-smothered villa overlooks the undulating hills of southern Tuscany; it is all built with venerable stone, lined with venerable wood and decorated with venerable old firearms and paintings. Maestro Bouglon, who had brought along his old mum, chatted in French to the fit-looking monks and said yes he would be delighted to play at Mass tomorrow. Old friends who had returned for the occorrenza storica met again — a professor from Boston and the portly Don Giovanni Guiso, who had stayed to become a lawyer in Siena where, he said over a glass of the vino della
casa, "Yes, I live very well."
Dottore Biondi-Santi is one of those Italian noblemen in a suit that never seems to lose its crease and whom you could never imagine spilling or knocking anything over.
So, the following day, with the valley drenched in silvery sunlight, the Greg -ian Mass was heard at Sant'Antimo, accompanied by an organ for the first time. An article in the Florence newspaper argued that not only did the instrument obstruct the architectural flow of the interior, but that it was also liturgically inappropriate to the sung Gregorian Rite.
But its author was a lone voice. The villagers packed the church again to hear the contraption, and when the incense had settled, Br Olivier got up to say that by popular demand, Maestro Bouglon would now play a Meditazione Musicale which meant in the event, playing yesterday's concert to the same audience all over again.