The Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore is a large Benedictine monastery and the mother-house of the Olivetan order. It was founded in 1313 by Bernardo Tolomei and lies to the south-east of Siena in an area known as the Creti Senesi.
The monastery is noted in particular for a celebrated series of frescoes, which illustrate the life of Saint Benedict. The frescoes decorate the walls of the Chiostro Grande (the largest of the abbey's three cloisters) and were begun by Luca Signorelli (1445-1523). Signorelli worked on the frescoes from 1497-8 before relinquishing the commission and departing for Orvieto. They were completed by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (better known as Il Sodoma, 1477-1549) after 1505. Sodoma was a rather eccentric character and the monks nicknamed him 'Il Mattaccio' (the madman).
The abbey church takes the form of Latin cross. It was renovated in the Baroque style in 1772 by Giovanni Antinori. The choir stalls (1503-5), with their beautiful intarsia work, are by Fra Giovanni da Verona.
The abbey has renounced none of its traditions; daily life is still regulated by the Rule of St Benedict. The main activities of the small community of monks are book restoration and the distilling of liquors. The latter are made from aromatic herbs and the age-old recipes are jealously guarded.
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