While we were exploring Tuscany recently, a lively waitress at our favourite coffee shop tut-tutted when we admitted we hadn’t yet visited the monastery of San Galgano. It was roughly an hour out of our tiny settlement, Acquacalda, on the outskirts of Siena, so that’s where we headed. I found the idea totally thrilling as the site’s most famous feature is a rock into which a sword (apparently) was thrust by a knight in the Middle Ages. I was intrigued. It was all very King Arthur-ish, wrapped in an aura of mystique, and the sword still stands there imprisoned in stone for all us ardent travellers to stare wide-eyed at.
Except … it was slow-going. The narrow windy roads slowed us down to a snail’s pace, especially when two unwieldy tour buses ahead of us tried to negotiate the tight curves. “That must be the ultimate in misleading advertising,” said Hirsh. On the back of the bus, in huge letters, were the words Bologna Express. It got worse when the buses turned into exactly the site we were visiting. Talk about bad timing.
The ruined abbey is wonderfully photogenic, though. But to see the rock-engulfed sword we had to walk up a steep hill to a beehive-shaped temple-chapel on the hill. Full disclosure . . . I was a teeny underwhelmed. The hilt, wooden grip and a few inches of the 3-foot-long blade protrude from the rock but it’s all under a plastic transparent dome, which makes testing the authenticity of the whole thing a bit difficult, never mind the photos. It felt slightly tacky and a bit staged. The guidebooks, too, mislead you with crisp clear photographs (sans the dome) of a pretty authentic-looking combination of steel meeting rock. The legend goes, though, that anyone who tries to remove the sword will have his arm ripped out of his socket.
Still … I discovered a 2001 article by The Guardian (UK) in which Italy claimed, through archaeological tests and carbon dating of the site, that the sword could actually be traced back to the 12th century. In the article the university involved is quoted as saying: “Dating metal is a very difficult task, but we can say that the composition of the metal and the style are compatible with the era of the legend.”
In the meanwhile, the legend goes something like this. Galgano Guidotti began adult life as a selfish, arrogant and war-loving knight whose values were tested when the Archangel Michael appeared, challenging him to renounce his contrary ways. The vision guided him up the hill, called Monte Siepi, and here a disembodied voice tried to persuade him further. Galgano’s response was that giving up his wild ways would be as difficult as splitting rock with his sword. With those words he struck his sword against a rock standing before him. The sword sliced into the heart of the stone with no resistance, becoming lodged there. Galgano subsequently became a hermit, living in the hills until his death. The little chapel, as well as the Gothic monastery at the foot of the hill, were then built by the Church. The Pope insisted that he be made a saint, hence the ‘San Galgano’ of today.
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