The eremo (hermitage) of Montespecchio has existed since at least 1190, was linked belatedly in 1255 with the Tuscan hermits of the Little Union (formed in 1244), and then as part of the Little Union was swept up into the much larger Grand Union that formed the present Order of St Augustine in 1256. It was used by the Augustinian Order at least until the year 1687.
locate the Augustinian ruins in the forest of Montespeccio today, one begins at the very small Tuscan town of Montepiscini, which is located approximately forty miles south of Siena. This site of this ruined hermitage is probably the most difficult of the known early Tuscan Augustinian hermitages to reach. Beginning at Montepiscini, one has to follow an unpaved road into the hills, walk down into the woods by a steep path, and eventually cross a stream that cuts the trail in two.
The ruins of the ancient Augustinian church are located across the stream behind a few slender trees. It no longer has a roof, and the remnants of its alternating black and salmon coloured walls lean outwards. It is even a more challenging task to locate the old hermitage itself. It is situated down in a valley, near water, which obviously was one of the main reasons that the hermits chose this location. Perhaps there was some kind of a main road nearby at that time, but this certainly is not the case today. Yet in walking through the woods, a modern pilgrim receives a first-hand experience of the way the thirteenth century hermits chose natural places which would allow for a peaceful setting for their life of prayer, penance and contemplation.
The religious community of Montespecchio does not have any special history or famous names attached to it. However, there are a few known facts regarding this hermitage. It was founded on 15th October 1190, the date noted on a document attesting to the donation of the land to a certain Giovanni to build a hermitage there. It took him about ten years to construct the church and later a convento (residence) for the hermit community that by then had formed there. There is another record dated 1228 indicating that there then was a community of six living at Montespecchio: two priests (Niccolo, the prior, and Ildebrando), and four lay brothers named Giovanni, Pietro, Giacomo and Guido.
Montespecchio apparently always had a close relationship with the hermitage at Lecceto. In 1231, the names of their priors appear together on a letter requesting Pope Gregory IX to give them one or the accepted monastic rules of the time. Most likely, they received the Benedictine Rule. In 1244, Lecceto opted to become part of the Little Union of Tuscan hermitages and follow the Rule of St Augustine, but Montespecchio did not choose to do so until 1255, a year before it was drawn into the Augustinian Grand Union of many such hermitages.
The hermitage of Monespecchio had its highs and lows. It enjoyed a reputation for hospitality, despite the fact this it always had a precarious economic situation. At times, it needed to be assisted by the archbishop of Siena which accounts for its occasional appearance in old records. Gradually it reached a low point when it was incorporated into the observant Congregation of Lecceto in 1433. In 1449, it was selected as the site for the General Chapter of all the observant congregations of the Order.
During the sixteenth century, Montespecchio was the house for postulants, i.e., those seeking admission to the Lecceto community of Augustinians. Possibly, it also served as the novitiate for a time. However, by 1687, its closing became inevitable. Church services and the Augustinian community moved from Montespecchio to the nearby church of Crevole. In 1782, Crevole itself was suppressed. Today at Montespecchio, all that remains is the ruin of the former Augustinian church in ruin, yet still with its French and Pisan influence and its window spaces that indicate Gothic architecture still evident.
Upon closer inspection of the area to the left of the church, the outline of the enclosure walls and the walls of the convent are visible. Over time, the woods have taken over, but corners soon appear and the visitor can see evidence of the beginning of a stairway as well as a passage from the convento to the church. There are legends that are still told about this hermitage. It is called the 'conventaccio', "the bad convent," because it is said that women of ill repute were brought there to do penance. An occasional friar is said to have fallen from grace because of their presence! Even sightings of ghosts, 'white and silent', have been reported from time to time.
LinksS. Maria di Montespecchio - Walking in Tuscany. The Hermitage of Montespecchio is one is the most difficult hermitages to visit. It was built by hermits in 1192 – long before the Augustinian Order began in 1256. The church was later part of one of the largest Augustinian convent complexes of its time from which only a few foundation stones remain today.At the end of the 17th century the convent was abandoned, partly, because the buildings were crumbling slowly due to geologically unstable ground and also, as a surviving from those days document says, the monks were tired of being so isolated.
Eremo di Montespecchio. Located in the middle of the woods near Casciano di Murlo, to the south of Siena. A photo gallery of twelve very impressive images taken in August 2003. http://www.ipernity.com/doc/sammarcone/502202?from=502202&at=1186410252
Eremo di Santa Maria di Montespecchio (Murlo - Siena). Twenty large photographs of the chapel. Panoramio: S793 S813http://www.panoramio.com/photo/106413464