The Museum of Religious Art of the Abbey of Vallombrosa at Reggello

The monastery of Santa Maria at Vallombrosa in Reggello, the Mother House of this Congregation, rises on the site of the first small chapel built in around the mid 11th century by its founder St. John Gualberto for the small group of monks who had followed him into hermitage. The imposing monastic buildings of today date mainly from the 15th and 17th centuries, with the exception of the 12th century bell tower. The interior of the church is instead decorated in late 18th century Baroque style.
The Museum, which opened in June 2006, occupies one section of the rear right-hand wing of the abbey complex; it displays most of the Abbey’s remaining artistic works together with a few exhibits that come from other Vallombrosian institutions, like that of Santa Trinita in Florence.The great salon displays a wide variety of “treasures” that range from religious vestments, paintings, books and illuminated manuscripts to objects of everyday use, like pottery or ancient missals. Several important examples of scagliola work moreover testify to this unusual artistic activity practiced by Abbot Enrico Hugford, who developed this technique to the highest degree in the 18th century; using predefined designs, his method was that of mixing selenite gypsum with various shades of colour to create a form of false inlay.
The salon contains two outstanding treasures, which were removed after the suppression of the monastic orders under Napoleon in 1810 and only came back to the motherhouse when the museum was opened. The first is formed of the famous Altoviti Altar Trappings, composed of an altar frontal, two tunicella and a chasuble, carried out in precious and richly embroidered materials; carried out for the Abbots Francesco Altoviti (1454-1479) and Biagio Milanesi (1480-1513/14), it dates from around the middle to the late 15th century. The second is the great altarpiece of the Madonna and Child with Sts. Blaise, John Gualberto, Benedict and Anthony Abbot by Domenico Ghirlandaio and school, probably commissioned by the Abbot Milanesi, which now displays all its brilliant colours after a long and complex restoration. Both these works are here on loan from the Florentine Galleries, where they were conserved from the 19th century.
Several glass cases display ancient printed books and illuminated manuscripts (13th-15th century), many of which come from the Abbey library. The T-shaped Crutch, a 14th-16th century composite work in ivory, silver and enamels, is similar in form to the staff of St. John Gualberto, symbol of the power of the Abbot of Vallombrosa.The adjoining treasure room displays 14th-20th century liturgical furnishings that include chalices, monstrances and reliquaries. One of the most fascinating exhibits is the Reliquary of the Nail, in gold, enamel and a sapphire, which was donated to Vallombrosa in around 1230 by St. Louis IX, King of France, in exchange for the reliquary of the hand of St. John Gualberto. According to legend, angels brought the arm of the saint from the Abbey of Passignano, where his body is preserved, and it was placed inside the great Reliquary of the Arm, in gilded silver, enamels and precious stones, which Abbot Milanesi commissioned from the famous goldsmith Paolo di Giovanni Sogliani, who carried it out in the year 1500.
The Museum is not the first structure of its kind at Vallombrosa because the Abbey housed a motley collection of archaeological finds, fossils and works of art that had been put together by the Abbot Lotario Bucetti (1791-1792) from as early as the 18th century. The collection was almost completely lost after the 1810 suppressions, but an inventory still remains to testify to its importance.The Napoleonic suppression mentioned above also led to the scattering of many of the Abbey’s art works, now preserved in Florence: the altarpiece with the Assumption of the Virgin by Perugino for the high altar (now replaced the same subject on canvas by Volterrano) is now to be found in the Academy Gallery; the so-called Vallombrosian Altarpiece, carried out by Andrea del Sarto for the Hermitage of Cells, is now dismembered and preserved in the Uffizi.