Vallombrosa Abbey – Vallombrosa, Italy - Atlas Obscura

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Vallombrosa Abbey

Vallombrosa, Italy

A 14th-century abbey founded by a forest-loving order of monks now sits in the center of a pristine nature preserve.  

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Vallombrosa Abbey is a centuries-old monastery in a pristine Tuscan mountain valley founded in 1036 by San Giovanni Gualberto, a Benedictine monk who left Florence to found a monastic order emphasizing isolation, contemplation, and silence. While the Vallombrosan Order he founded has significantly shrunk in the modern era, the abbey they built over several centuries in this picturesque setting is a testament to their faith and their commitment to the natural world. 

This abbey is located in the serene Vallombrosa Forest within Italy’s Apennine Mountain range, just outside of Florence. What began as a few humble wooden huts in the 11th century expanded to feature a bell tower in the 12th century and the motherhouse in 1450, taking its current shape at the end of the 15th century (the abbey’s fishing ponds were relatively modern additions, introduced in the 1700s).

Vallombrosa Abbey has a long history of working to preserve the surrounding natural areas. Its founder, San Giovanni Gualberto was canonized in 1193 by Pope Celestine III and is the patron saint of foresters, park rangers, and parks. During the 17th century, the monks transformed the forest into Silver Fir plantations through clear felling and replanting. This made them the forerunners of pure even-aged forest cultivation (a silvicultural model), which later became prevalent across central Europe. There are many hiking trails and viewpoints in the surrounding area offering a chance to appreciate the orders’ arboreal efforts. Today, the monks who live and work at the abbey work alongside the park rangers to preserve the natural area.

Although it was founded in the 11th century, the art and architecture at the abbey present a range of artistic styles. The interior of the church offers a striking example of Baroque art and architecture, while artwork from Andrea della Robbia, Santi Buglioni, Ignazio Hugford, and Rafaellino del Garbo can also be found in the church and its chapels. There is also a reliquary containing the arm of San Giovanni Gualberto in the abbey.

John Milton mentions Vallombrosa in Paradise Lost: “autumnal leaves that strow the brooks, in Vallombrosa, where th’ Etruscan shades High over-arch’d imbow’r.” This made Vallombrosa a popular place to visit for writers, artists, poets, and scholars familiar with Milton, including William Beckford, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Frances Trollope, J.R. Cozens, William Wordsworth, Crabb Robinson, and Friedrich Nietzsche. 

Know Before You Go

There is a hotel across the street from the abbey.

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