Nestled in the Val di Chiana, along the road from Cortona to Foiano della Chiana, the Abbey of Santa Maria a Farneta is one of the oldest and best-known Benedictine monasteries in the Arezzo area. It experienced its greatest period of splendour from the X to the XIV century.
The first document to mention it is a certificate from 1014, in which Emperor Henry II confirmed to Farneta the many castles, monasteries, churches and lands it possessed in a vast territory that encroached on the Val di Chiana. The papal bulls of the XII and XIII centuries tell us that the abbey was powerful and free from the authority of the bishop of Arezzo, but dependent directly on the pontiff. The abbots were exempt from participating in diocesan synods.
From the mid-15th century, when Pope Nicholas V downgraded it to commenda and united it to the Monastery of San Martino della Vena on Lake Trasimeno, the abbey’s progressive decline began. From the XVI century to 1779, it was united to the Monastery of Rapolano, but with the Leopoldine suppressions of the 1780s, the Olivetan monks left. The property was thus assigned to the Cortona Cathedral Chapter, effectively decreeing the end of the centuries-long history of the abbey.
Nothing remains of the convent today, because after its closure it became a quarry for material for new buildings. Fortunately, the Church of Santa Maria Assunta survived, although it was heavily reduced after the monks’ departure. The old bell tower was also demolished in the early 19th century and later replaced by a bell gable, while the precious crypt, which had been adapted as a mass grave since the 16th century, was filled with earth and water.
An arbitrary intervention in 1924 did more damage than improvement, until 1940 saw the start of the long and successful recovery of the building, which also regained its abbey title in 1974.
Today, the church is in Romanesque style, with a single nave, three apses in the back wall and two apses at the head of the transept. Originally, it probably had a basilica-like appearance with three naves. On either side of the entrance door of the church are two columns of reclaimed granite from Roman buildings.
The right wall of the transept contains three lacunose frescoes from 1527 depicting “Madonna and Child between Saints Sebastian and Rocco”, “Saint Lucy” and “Saint Peter the Martyr”, signed by Tommaso Bernabei and Papacello dated back to 1527. The former includes an interesting view of the abbey of the period and thus becomes a fundamental document for understanding what has been lost. It was commissioned by Silvio Passerini, a Cardinal from Cortona and a great friend of Pope Leo X.
The presbytery is considerably elevated above the crypt, the most precious and fascinating place in Farneta, which has retained its original appearance and develops under the cross-aisle. The structure follows the tradition of early Christian cemetery shrines, with two clover-shaped side cells and a central cell in the shape of a four-leaf clover.
The crypt is covered by a cross vault without sub-arches. The columns supporting the vaults are from the Roman period, differing also in material: pink granite, ashy granite, cipolin marble and travertine. The motifs of the capitals are also remarkable.
In the church sacristy, until a few years ago, there was a small antiquarium with fossil remains of the local fauna from the Lower Pleistocene such as elephants, hippopotamuses and deer, Etruscan urns and a Roman tomb, which were discovered in the 1960s by the historian Sante Felice, a palaeontology and archaeology enthusiast. The small museum in Farneta, now located in the former primary school, called the Don Sante Felici Collection Interpretation Centre, displays remains that are very important for understanding the habitat of the Val di Chiana a million and a half years ago, such as those of a Mammuthus meridionalis vestinus.