Italian Excalibur:  Could it be only coincidence that stories about the "Italian Excalibur", the sword of San Galgano Guidotti de Chiusdino, should ripple through world media during my long-overdue reading of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur?   Like the Arthurian legend, Galgano's is a story of a "sword in the stone". But unlike King Arthur, who withdrew Excalibur to prove he should be King, Galgano thrust his sword into the native Tuscan stone at the top of Mt. Siepi, near Siena, as a sign that he was renouncing worldly pleasures and the trappings of his nobility. The sword of Galgano remains there until today. Nearby, looking like they'd be more comfortable on some plain in England than in the Val di Merse, are the massive ruins of San Galgano Abbey that grew up around the San Galgano legend. According to many experts the abbey ruins are Tuscany's and perhaps Italy's best example of Gothic architecture.

Some Medievalists maintain that the San Galgano story is the origin of the Arthurian sword legend and that only in the 13th century, when Galgano's sword was already well known throughout Europe, was the sword/stone myth added to the English and French Arthurian canon. Regardless of where they come from, "sword in stone" stories arouse skepticism in modern western minds, and, thus, the interest in media items about recent scientific tests on the metal of the exposed parts of the sword: a few inches of blade and the hilt and pommel sticking up from the surface of the stone. Everyone was waiting for the exposure of yet another pious religious fraud. It turns out that the much-doubted sword is authentic -- or at least that the metal, dated by the latest and most accurate modern tests, is the right age to match the myth.

Like some other male sanctification stories of the second half of the 12th century, this one involves a roisterous young scion of the local nobility, who theretofore had made free with the properties and women of the local townsmen and peasantry. Much to the chagrin of his family, angelic visitations caused him to abandon his evil life and retire to a hermit's cave. His mother, Dionisia, hoping to cure this assumed madness, convinced him to meet with his beautiful fiancee, but, on the way to her house, he was visited again by the Angel, knocked from his horse like Saint Paul, and told to go to the mountain like Mohamed. A voice there tells him to renounce the world, and Galgano replies that it would be just as easy to split stone with his sword. With that, he thrusts downward into the peak. Instead of breaking as he expected, the sword easily slid into the solid rock. Galgano built a new hermit's shack over his sword and stayed there the rest of his life.

When Galgano went missing, searchers followed his track up Mt. Siepi, saw the miracle, and quickly spread the news. In a short time a stream of pilgrims arrived, and a small chapel was built on the hill. Galgano humbly received all visitors, dispensing advice and blessings. The Devil, unhappy with this turn of events, sent an evil monk (or, in the monkish tradition, someone disguised as a monk) to tempt (or kill) Galgano, but the local wolves, which Galgano had befriended, ate the man leaving only his gnawed arm bones. They are still on display.

Within a year, Galgano himself died and the local bishop turned Mt. Siepi over to Cistercian Monks. Starting in 1185, the year of Galgano's canonization, they built a shrine over the sword. It is an unusual round building, striped horizontally in red brick and white stone, with two side chapels, one for the display of Galgano's head (now in a church in Chiusdino), which continued to grow blond curls long after his death, and the other for the gnawed arm bones. Ambrogio Lorenzetti later painted frescoes in the chapels, but they have mostly been lost. A three story brick hostel/hermitage was built beside the shrine.

The tide of pilgrims grew dramatically after Galgano's death, and the Cistercians then built a large new hostel, a monastery to house the monks, and an imposing Gothic Abbey church in a compound in the valley below the shrine. The Abbey quickly attained primacy in northern Italy, and its monks achieved high ecclesiastic and civil positions throughout Tuscany. But the good times ended after a series of absentee abbots from powerful Italian noble families despoiled the buildings. One of the last of these, Giovanni Andrea Vitelli, sold off the lead roofing of the round shrine and the Abbey church in 1548. The round shrine survived this depredation, but the roof of the Abbey soon collapsed, never again to be restored. Within a hundred years, the once powerful San Galgano Abbey was down to one ragged caretaker monk: in the early 1700s the Pope had declared the Abbey officially closed and turned the hilltop shrine into a parish church. The Abbey's great bell tower, said to have been 36 meters high, collapsed in 1786, and within a few years the site had become a quarry, providing stone and columns for new buildings in the region. There were few parishioners, so even the round shrine went into a long gradual decline, which was only halted in 1924 when funds were finally found to clean and restore it. Both the valley and the hiltopp sites have been well maintained since then.

San Galgano Abbey is in the Val di Merse, about 30 km southwest of Siena, between Siena and Massa Marittima (highway 73, then highway 441 out of Siena). The Abbey is one of Italy's most visited Gothic sites -- architects and students from Rome, Florence and, Siena can't resist it. A few pious pilgrims and many curious visitors drive or climb to the shrine and hermitage, which, like most Italian country churches, opens in the morning. The abbey is open all the time. The nuns who keep the shrine appreciate a small donation.

The San Galgano sites and legend are very well documented on the Internet. Some of the better links are:

The basic media story of the "authenticity" of the sword from the London Sunday Observer:,6903,552628,00.html

The Scientific tests (in Italian):

The Galgano Enigma (in Italian):,
and (in English):

Toscana Medievale San Galgano web site:,
and Adriana Cucinelli-Paolo Boncorsi (acpb) web site:,
both in Italian but with easy to follow links to good San Galgano pix and Italian texts

The other sword/stone legend, full text of Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur:

And much more Arthuriana: