The parish church of the Pieve di Santa Maria ad Lamulas at Montelaterone. Appearances can be deceptive.
On the slopes of Maremma's volcanic mountain. On the edge of a centuries old chestnut forest. What you see is a 13th century trachyte stone facade. But what is inside is early 9th century. And Pagan. Rich in symbolism.
If you crook your neck to see. In the dark.
Sat right on top of the confluence of an underground river. And alongside a pure freshwater source - no less known from time in memorial as the "Fonte del Diavolino", the spring of the Little Devil. The parish church of Montelaterone was also a Knight's Templar house.
Not all churches are the same.
Curious to walk inside? You'll have to cross a threshold with a legend to do so.
The earliest surviving records date the Pieve di Santa Maria ad Lamulas - also known as the Pieve di Lamulas - back to the year 853.
Written on a parchment are the words of Emperor Louis II of Italy confirming the ownership of "cellam S. Mariae ad Lamulas" - no doubt along with many other properties as regularly happened - to the powerful Benedictine monastery of Monte Amiata and surrounds. The "monasterio di San Salvatore".
Small it was. Smaller than that you see today. But nonetheless it was of great importance. For two centuries - from the 9th and 11th century - it was the chief religious and administrative centre of a huge stretch of territory to the west of Amiata. Maremma territory.
Whilst it is most logical to conclude that the word "Lamula" in the name of this church comes from the fact that once, around it, stood a village of which there is now no trace, known as "Lamule". Or, locally, "Lama". Both names of medieval Latin origin for a strip of marshy land near a river course, a stagnant pond or a swamp.
The river Ente flows close by.
But local legend and preference has it that the Pieve di Santa Maria ad Lamulas in fact takes it's name from the "la mula". The mule. Who knelt at the entrance to the church to pay homage to the statue of the Madonna and child inside. Miraculously leaving his knee-prints in the stone.
Still visible today.
But what happened to the village and those who lived in it?
By the year 1070, the Pieve di Santa Maria ad Lamulas had lost its importance and had been degraded to a parish church. It's villagers slowly abandoning it and their homes for the protection and security of the new fortified town of Montelaterone on the hill above them.
Those that were left were hounded out on one day in 1264.
The enemy arrived.
Sienese troops sent to usurp Maremma's noble and ruling family, the Aldobrandeschi - for Siena wanted control of Maremma's rich mineral lands for itself - poured down the country road and surrounded the church and it's village.
Then set light to them both.
The smoke from the blaze could be seen for miles. Rising high across the foothills of Monte Amiata and settling along one of the most beautiful locations in the world. The Val d'Orcia valley.
All that was left was stone.
Walk inside and on the first pillar on your right you will see an epigraph carved into a pillar's stone blocks.
It tells that the rebuild of the church was brought to its end in the year of our Lord 1268, in the month of June. At the time of Carlo I d'Angiò (Charles I of Naples). By one "Paganuccio".
"Nell'anno del Signore 1268 nel mese di giugno al tempo del re Carlo Paganuccio fece sì che questa opera fosse portata a termine"
But that doesn't tell the whole story.
What you need to know is that the church is situated along a branch line leading to the Via Francigena pilgrimage route.
But more than that. The church sits along a "via sacra", a sacred loop of the Francigena.
The man Paganuccio was the stone mason. Not the source of the funds. Those are believed to have come via the Grand Master of the Knights Templar at the time, one Thomas Berard.
And whilst the Pieve was not a Templar domus. It was in all likelihood. For a few years at least. A safe house. Along a very important route.
The signs are there. Still today. The same ones that you will find adorning a verified Templar church in Maremma, in Sovana. And engraved in another near Siena, in Sovicille.
The first you will see. A cross enclosed in a circle. Discrete. But there in sight as you first enter. Readily visible to Templar travellers more than seven centuries ago, who would have looked. And known what to look for.
And another. Much more formal and in relief. Not looking like graffiti. Carved in a stone block and inserted upside down - a "Seed Stone" - behind the main altar.
Simple signs. But confirmation that they would find safe haven and help.
And one only came to light very recently.
The instability of the Pieve over the years - being built directly over an underground water supply doesn't lead to the most stable of foundations - has led to numerous patching-ups and restorations that, together, have deprived it of much of its original 13th century style.
One of those raised its floor, added a Baroque altar and covered its walls in thick plaster. The facade and bell tower were completely rebuilt.
But it was under that plaster, on the left wall, that 81 years ago, one day in November of 1935, that works to restore the church to its original style revealed two lancet windows. And a door. With a carved architrave and a lunette fresco.
With more Templar signs.
The trusses you see today were replaced in 1737. You don't need to go hunting in the archives to find that date: it is written, bold as brass, on the cross-beam above your head.
Apart from the epigraph on the first pillar on your right as you enter, the rest of the "treasure" hunt finds are going to give you a crooked neck to locate!
They are a stylistically eclectic mix of carved stones. Most, if not all of which, were highly probably rescued from the ruins of the original church.
Walking inside. Not one column nor it's capital are the same as another.
One column is of particular note. Because it's winding black stone "steps" connect, here inside the Pieve, heaven and earth.
An "Axis Mundi".
But first. Another legend.
The wooden sculpture of the Madonna and child in the altar is said to have been the only thing that survived the great fire.
The same sculpture that the mule knelt down in front of.
A sculpture that, it is said, isn't of man's hands. But of God's. In that it was formed one night during a storm. When a bolt of lightening struck with force a Holm oak tree under which a local shepherd was seeking shelter.
As the story goes, the priests of all of the local churches wanted the statue to reside in their church. So it was decided to strap it to the back of a mule and set him free to roam. With the agreement that, wherever he decided to rest, the statue would stay.
He returned to the one and same chestnut wood in which the shepherd had sought safe haven the night of the black tempest. And from that day the Madonna and her child have looked over the congregation of the Pieve della Mula.
The two rams heads. Aries. Symbols of strength and guidance.
The armed knights on horseback facing a monstrous beast. There are two. One on each pillar to the left and right of the presbytery. To protect it.
And it's hidden crypt.
For beneath your feet, there is thought to be the entrance to a hidden columned crypt.
Geophysicists have established the presence of anomalies beneath the floor. Don't you love that word "anomaly" when you are talking about an archaeological site!
Now, I suspect that the anomaly probably has more to do with the river water channel space - just like that which flows under the Church of Our Lady of the Snows in Santa Fiora with its glass floor.
But what I would give to be there when they find out for sure!
I am assuming that this ever vigil knight is wearing a metal helmet with a nose plate. Otherwise he had quiet a nose on him!
What is left of the monster doesn't look all that frightening as his face isn't that dissimilar to that of the horse. But it is eating something and it does have claws, rather than hooves.
Behind the knight, on the left is a representation of a laughing juggler with an upturned face.
It is an odd combination and I don't know why. Especially as their games were forbidden in churches. But those who put him there did and that is all that is important!
Still, I have an inkling to find out. But as nearly all of my, "another little bit of research..." turn into weeks of reading and visits to the library vaults, I'll post this article first and update it if/when I chance upon the motive.
What I do know is that it isn't the only instance. Even Canterbury Cathedral in the UK has one: adorning the capitals of it's crypt alongside a battling dragon.
And this interplay between a central doctrinal image and playful margins full of drolleries is carried through into adorned manuscripts, illustrated books, and paintings of the medieval period.
But this one is scary. "Una fiera". A ferocious, wild predator. Lurking up there. Under the eaves.
Another beast. With its claws on the face of the horse carrying another armed knight.
A big, wild, cat perhaps?
One of two faces in the presbytery. This one is a mask of probably Etruscan origin.
A Lombard Romanesque weaved lintel with Solomon knots above the door along the left aisle. Above it in the lunette are two symbolic frescoes, both contained in circles. The first, the flower of life. With six petals separated by small spheres.
The second, another flower. This time of eight petals around a central corolla.
And then it gets interesting. Because, not easy to see, are three other symbols. But these are medieval graffiti. With a coded purpose.
At the bottom, a stack of six small balls. Above that a circle containing a Greek cross with branched ends. And above that, an octagonal shield containing seven small spheres.
Marks of the Knights Templar. In all probability left during the restoration works between 1267 and 1270.
A close-up because in the dark inside it is near impossible to see them.
NOTE: It's not that I go hunting for graffiti in churches and chapels. But there is so much in Maremma to find.
With so much story behind each one.
The very first that got me started were carved in the 16th century during a period of Maremma's history that I am so glad I never got to witness.
A "volto" pillar dressing of curls.
And a zig-zag stone frieze above the lancet window in the right apse. It is a carving in the style of the Capetian House of Anjou, one of the three royal houses of Angevin.
There are still seven more treasures to discover inside the church. But I challenge you to see how many you can find without resorting to the photograph collection on the left wall of the nave. Where they are numbered with their locations.
For twenty minutes of fun for them and peace for you to take a wander around, why not write down a list of all of the treasures to be found before you arrive, and give a copy of each to your children. I bet they find them before you do!
I have to say, however, that in the reduced light inside the Pieve, even with the locations and with a helping pair of eyes of a friend, I couldn't find them all.
You still have to find:
As you walk outside into the light again and make your way on over to the" Fonte del Diavolino" - the Little Devil's spring - ponder on this.
Under your feet. Between the church and the fonte is a tunnel. Some 5 metres deep in places and 1.4 metres high. That runs from the north west of the church and ends at the spring.
It's entrance discovered in the church grounds one early August day in 2011 and its length explored a fortnight later by a caver and lawyer - both passionate about medieval mysteries, of which there are many in the Monte Amiata area.
Now. Records show that the tunnel was constructed in 1941 as a flood control measure to protect the church.
But. The documents also mention a 7 metre deep well. That has not been found.
And, what's more interesting. Well, for me anyway! Is that there is speculation - and the speleological guys in the area on on the case! - that this modern day tunnel was in fact constructed in the footsteps of a much older. Secret. Subterranean. Knights Templar one.
That connects the hidden crypt with local Franciscan monasteries.
Now wouldn't that be something to write home about on a postcard :)
Don't drink the water. Well, not at the moment anyway.
The sign at the beginning of the path down to the spring tells you that the water is "portabile". Which means it is drinking water.
But. The sign above the outlet says the opposite. "Non portabile".
The source has been used for centuries and drunk by many a modern-day coach tour visitor because it is considered to have magical properties. Blessed as it is by the Madonna. And, indeed, it is the subject of many legends and miracles.
But recent analysis has shown that it is no longer safe to drink. It's shallow source has made it susceptible to pollution.
The local authority has undertaken to test it again. But in the meantime. Don't drink the little devil's water!
The Pieve di Santa Maria ad Lamula is a popular location for Monte Amiata couples for their weddings. Pagan roots and mysteries aside, it is a pretty location in a tranquil spot, close to two main towns.
Once celebrated on the 1 May and now on Low Sunday (the first Sunday after Easter), the Festa della Pina is an annual festival that has its roots in a once pagan ritual held at the original church.
Full of symbolism it is, but, even if its original date of occurrence hasn't given it away, you won't need to have studied ancient cult signs or traditions to work out it's purpose.
For all the local lads arrive holding sticks on the end of which are pine cones. And the girls with sweet ring donuts.
The guys declare their love to the girl they fancy. If she accepts, she allows him to spear her donut with his cone.
Explore some more...