Olivetans, a branch of the white monks of the Benedictine Order, founded in 1319. It owed its origin to the ascetic fervor of Giovanni Tolomei (St. Bernard Ptolomei), a gentleman of Siena and professor of philosophy. He is said to have vowed himself to religion in gratitude for the recovery of his eyesight through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. In fulfilment of this vow he left his home (1313) and went into the wilderness, to forsake the world and give himself to God. Two companions of his, Ambrogio Piccolomini and Fatricio Patric’, Sienese senators, accompanied him. They settled on a bit of land belonging to Tolomei. It was a mountain top, exactly suited to the eremitical life. Here they devoted themselves to austerities. Apparently they were somewhat aggressive in their asceticism; for, six years later, they were accused of heresy and summoned to give an explanation of their innovations before John XXII at Avignon. The two disciples—Tolomei remained behind—obeyed the mandate and succeeded in gaining the good-will of the Holy Father, who, however, in order to bring them into line with other monks, bade them go to Guido di Pietromala, Bishop of Arezzo, and ask him to give them a Rule which had the approbation of the Church. The bishop remembered that once, in a vision or dream, Our Lady had put into his hands the Rule of St. Benedict and bade him give white habits to some persons who knelt before her. He did not doubt that these monks were the Sienese hermits commended to his care by the pope. Wherefore, he clothed the three of them with white habits and gave them the Benedictine Rule and placed them under the protection of the Blessed Virgin. Tolomei took the name of Bernard and their olive-clothed mountain hermitage was renamed “Monte Oliveto”, in memory of Christ’s agony and as a perpetual reminder to themselves of the life of sacrifice and expiatory penance they had undertaken.
Evidently, in what he did, the good bishop had before his mind the history of St. Romuald—there is even a repetition of the well-known “Vision of St. Romuald” in the story—and hoped, through the enthusiasm of Bernard and his monks, to witness another widespread monastic revival, like that which spread from the Hermitage of Camaldoli. He was not disappointed. Through the generosity of a merchant a monastery was erected at Siena; he himself built another at Arezzo; a third sprang up at Florence; and within a very few years there were establishments at Camprena, Volterra, San Geminiano, Eugubio, Foligno, and Rome. Before St. Bernard’s death from the plague in 1348—he had quitted his monastery to devote himself to the care of those stricken with the disease and died a martyr of charity—the new congregation was already in great repute, as well for the number of its houses and monks as for the saintliness of its members and the rigour of its observance. Yet it never succeeded in planting itself successfully on the other side of the Alps.
St. Bernard Ptolomei’s idea of monastic reform was that which had inspired every founder of an order or congregation since the days of St. Benedict—a return to the primitive life of solitude and austerity. Severe corporal mortifications were ordained by rule and inflicted in public. The usual ecclesisatical and conventual fasts were largely increased and the daily food was bread and water. The monks slept on a straw mattress without bed-coverings, and did not lie down after the midnight Office, but continued in prayer until Prime. They wore wooden sandals and habits of the coarsest stuff. They were also fanatical total abstainers; not only was St. Benedict’s kindly concession of a hemina of wine rejected, but the vineyards were rooted up and the wine-presses and vessels destroyed. Attention has been called to this last particular, chiefly to contrast with it a provision of the later constitutions, in which the monks are told to keep the best wine for themselves and sell the inferior product (“Meliora vina pro monachorum usu serventur, pejora vendantur”) and, should they have to buy wine, to purchase only the better quality (“si vinum emendum erit, emetur illud quod melius erit”). Truly, relaxation was inevitable. It was never reasonable that the heroic austerities of St. Bernard and his companions should be made the rule, then and always, for every monk of the order. But the mandate concerning the quality of the wine chiefly aimed to remove any excuse for differential treatment of the monks in meat and drink. Where everything on the table was of exceptional quality, there could be no reason why anyone should be especially provided for. It was always the custom for each one to dilute the wine given him.
Though the foundation of the Olivetans was not professedly an introduction of constitutional reform among the Benedictines, it had that result. They were a new creation and hence, as we may say, up-to-date. They had a superior general, like the friars, and officials of the order distinct from those of the abbey. They set an example of adaptation to present needs by the frequent modification of their constitutions at the general chapters, and by the short term of office enjoyed by the superiors. In 1408 Gregory XII gave them the extinct monastery of St. Justina at Padua, which they occupied until the institution there of the famous Benedictine reform. This great movement, out of which the present Cassinese Congregation resulted, may, therefore, in a very literal sense, be described as having followed in the footsteps of the Olivetans. At the present date, the Order of Our Lady of Mount Olivet numbers only 10 monasteries and 122 brethren.