Founded by San Bernardo di Clairvaux in 1135, as a daughterhouse of Clairvaux, this is one of Italy’s most important monastic complexes, located in the periphery of Milan within the extensive lowland of the Parco Agricolo Sud Milano (south agricultural park).
The traditional Cistercian monastic community is still very much present in the village of Chiaravalle today; the Abbey is a place of devotion and an important fulcrum from a historical, artistic and cultural point of view.
In literal observance of the Rule of San Benedetto da Norcia, over the centuries, the Chiaravalle monastic community has played a fundamental role in the reclamation and regeneration of the marshy lands and woodlands south of Milan. They laid the foundations for economic and agricultural practices that resulted in the thriving cultivation that, still today, makes this part of the Milanese countryside one of the most fertile in Europe.
A visit to the Milanese Abbey of Chiaravalle offers a unique opportunity to learn about its history and its founder, San Bernardo di Clairvaux.
Not to be missed
Still visible today are the Renaissance frescoes of unique beauty which decorate the interior of the church, created by important Italian artists: Giotto's first pupil, Stefano Fiorentino, the Lombardy renaissance painter Bernardino Luini, the ‘i Fiammenghini’ brothers and Luigi Miradori known as ‘il Genovesino’.
The massive wooden sixteenth-century entrance door to the Abbey inlaid with carved tiles depicting the founders of the monastery.
The monastic choir, an example of spectacular marquetery in walnut wood carved by Carlo Garavaglia in the 1600s and a daily place of devotion for the monastic community.
Giotto’s extraordinary 14th century fresco cycle of the Entombment of Mary.
Bernardino Luini’s Renaissance masterpiece the Madonna della buonanotte (Madonna with Child), that enables the visitor to comprehend the Cistercians’ strong dedication to the figure of the Virgin Mary, throughout its history the Order was closely identified with its devotion to her cult.
The symbolic knotted marble column in the cloister: an atmospheric place of transition between the monks’ working life and their quotidian tranquil reflection and dedication to prayer.
The chapter house which contains sgraffiti attributed to Bramante depicting the Duomo of Milan, Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Castello Sforzesco
The fully-functional Chiaravalle water mill with wheel and milling machine reconstructed in oak wood and the medicinal herb garden where, as was customary in monasteries, plant species were cultivated for healing.
The beautiful frescos in the Chapel of San Bernardo.
The elegant polygonal bell tower, over 50 meters high, was built in the first half of the fourteenth century and stands at the intersection of the main nave and the church transept. Still today the ancient bell is pulled manually by the monks.
Legend has it that the name Ciribiciaccola, which was attributed to the tower, probably derives from the squawking sound of the storks and their young chicks that nested therein.
Thus, a popular nursery rhyme in Milanese dialect was invented to tell the story:
«On the Chiaravalle bell tower
there’s a ciribiciaccola
with five hundred and fifty-five ciribiciaccolini.
What’s worth more… the ciribiciaccola or
the five hundred and fifty-five ciribiciaccolini?
Interestingly, a thousand-year history links the Abbey of Chiaravalle to the origins of the world-renowned Grana Padano PDO cheese.
Tradition has it that, right within the ancient walls of the Abbey, around the year 1000, the Cistercian monks created Grana Padano, the hard Italian grana cheese, as a way to utilise their excess dairy production.