The Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore: a dreamy monastery
The great Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, in Asciano, Tuscany (in the province of Siena), is a place full of dreams. It was born itself out of a dream: one by Giovanni Tolomei (1272-1348), member of an aristocratic family in Siena, who at forty decided to change his lifestyle completely, becoming a hermit under the name of Bernardo (in honor of Bernard of Clairvaux).
“While Giovanni was praying, right where he would have the Abbey built,” professor Umberto Barcaro explains in his essay, “Il sogno memorabile di Francesco d’Assisi” (Franco Angeli, Milan 2014), “he saw a silver staircase go up to the sky towards the Orient – an image clearly derived from Jacob’s dream, as told in the Bible; he saw Christ and the Madonna, dressed in white, at the top of the stairs; and a group of monks, also dressed in white, climbing up the stairs with the help of angels.”
According to Barcaro, the Abbey has many references “to paradigmatic dreams linked to the construction of sacred buildings”; “the so-called Great Cloister is decorated with scenes from the life of Saint Benedict, painted by Luca Signorelli […] and Antonio Bazzi, known as Il Sodoma […]: in one of the latter’s frescoes, Saint Benedict appears to two sleeping monks, giving them instructions on how to build a monastery. The Abbey also has a 1790 painting by Ermenegildo Costantini, illustrating Giovanni Tolomei’s dream.”
“The direct and indirect references to dreams that led to buildings being built span an extraordinary time frame,” professor Barcaro concludes. “Jacob’s dream dates back to the biblical patriarchs’ time; Saint Benedict lived between 480 and 547; Tolomei had his conversion dream during the 1310s; Il Sodoma painted the cloister’s frescoes in the 1500s, and Costantini’s work is from the late 1700s”.