Some years ago I was driving across the hills rising above the Tuscan Val di Chiana and passed a large, abandoned church. A few days later I returned to find the 10th-century Abbey of Farneta and Don Felice. The Abbey had lost most of its surrounding buildings by the late 18th century when it became a parish church and still is, though many have left the countryside to find better jobs in Siena, Montepulciano or Florence. We walked round it first, noticing that a deep trench had been dug outside the three apses. The nave had been shortened and it was on lower ground. Once buildings leaned against the nave and surrounded the former abbey cloister on the far side, now a small square with a few farm buildings on one side.
A small figure in black came down the steps from one of them holding out his hand.
‘Let me introduce you to the Abbey of Farneta,’ he said proudly. He pointed out that when the Abbey fell on hard times and was made into a parish church the nave was shortened. We followed him up the steps to the transept and the three apses.
‘Strange the way people don’t look at architecture properly,’ he continued. ‘When I came here as a young priest in 1937, there was no crypt. Why didn’t people look at this balustrade? And the one on the other side? The steps were blocked, but I had the ditch cleared around the apse to reveal the narrow windows. They had a purpose too.’
So he was the one who had excavated the crypt and found it filled with muddy water, serpents and human bones. He thought it might have been used as a prison during wars in the past but was researching this. He was anxious for us to see his museum with everything he and his parishioners had found nearby.
‘There were mammoths here,’ he mumbled while unlocking a door to a stable. His enthusiasm carried us to his favourite objects: a baby’s swaddling clothes ‘not used any more, but just like the ones wound round baby Christ’; a Roman matron’s skull, ‘there was a Roman temple somewhere near here – we are looking for it, because of the Roman columns reused in the crypt, one with pink granite from Aswan in Egypt’; a bullet from WWII made into a holy water stoop, ‘objects of destruction can become symbols of peace’; and many remains of one or more huge mammoths,’ this was a very important area in pre-history’, and so on.
Afterwards he invited us up the steps into his top-floor study, wending his way round an old bicycle with rosaries hanging from the handlebars, stacks of posters for Farneta folk festivals, a pile of books of local folklore and songs that he had published, finally sitting down at his desk to beam up at us. He handed me a brass cross with a loop at the top. ‘This is a sign we find everywhere in ancient buildings. I’ve had some made. Keep it.’
It seemed as if those Renaissance paintings of St. Jerome or St. Augustine in their studies sitting at desks with images of Christ, books, candles, astrolabes and the clutter of a questing mind had miraculously come to life in front of me.