The town of Bibbiéna stands at the centre of what is today the administrative area of the Casentino, and it is the largest and most densely populated commune of the entire valley. The old hill-town is today thinly populated but its numerous shops dsplay good quality wares and exceedingly good taste. In the Summer months the town comes to life with many local and foreign visitors, and cultural events entertain vast crowds every evening in the main square, which becomes a stage during the peak of the season Bibbiéna owes its urban character to its social and architectural history, rather than to its size. The hill of Bibbiéna must have been a tribal and social point of reference for most inhabitants of the Casentino since prehistory. Other similar centres were undoubtedly Poppi and Romena. Its road link with Sarsina along the Corsalone valley and over the Alpe di Serra must go back to late prehistory; its link with the Romagna, via Partina, Camaldoli and the Eremo, to the Bidente Valley, is probably equally ancient and as important. It would be really surprising if the houses of Bibbiéna, and the medieval structures of its castle, weren't hiding a substantial Bronze Age and Etruscan settlement. It might be, however, that before the erection of the 10th c. castle, the top of the hill was levelled and all remains were swept away. The spade of the archaeologist will have the last word.
Hypotheses on the origins of Bibbiéna - including those of its name - which were made by Prof. Giacomo Caputo, the Superintendent of Archaeology in Tuscany, in 1979 remain to this day the most authoritative. If the name BEBLENA, which appears in a parchment of 979, shows an Etruscan ending (ENA), how do we explain its root? It was perhaps a family name, rather than the name of a tribe or of an area, and this might derive from VIPENA. A little known Etruscan burial ground was identified in the vicinity of St Maria del Sasso near the rural hamlet of Lonnano. In the 11th c. 'Biblena' was a 'curtis' of the Bishopry of Arezzo, with an isolated Pieve, on the road to the Romagna and was protected by a circuit of walls. It had a bridge on the Arno, next to its confluence with the Torrent Vessa, connecting it with the Roman road on the opposite bank of the Arno. Since time immemorial a drover's road to the Pratomagno and to the Maremma coming from the Apennines and Poggio Baràlla had forded the Arno next to this bridge. The sheep drove, still called "Via della Dogana" (toll road) crossed over the Roman Road at Terròssola and climbed up to the summit of Poggio Fallito. Bibbiéna grew up on its hill above the Arno at the end of a ridgeway descending from Poggio Baralla (1198m) which connected with the grazing grounds of the Apennines between Mount Falterona and Mount La Vèrna. We can envisage Etruscan Bibbiéna laid out, as is Fiesole, on two adjoining hills; to the south the hill of "Le Monache", and to the north, the present "Piazza Grande", in the middle there would be the market place, as in the Middle Ages. From the bridge on the Arno, the town was reached by the "Via degli Archi", still in existence, which from Pollino climbs up to the 'saddle' between the two hills. The ancient Pieve of Bibbiéna, dedicated to the Saints Ippolito and Cassiano, was situated well out of town on the way to Pàrtina and the Romagna at Castellare, now a farmstead standing on a plinth made out of ruins. Beyond the Arno, on the old Roman Road, was another ancient church, now also vanished: the Pieve of Arcèna. Curiously Bibbiéna is mentioned as a "small but populous town" by Arab geographer el Idrisi in the 12th c. In mid 13th c. the Bishop's Palace was erected in Bibbiéna and the Bishops of Arezzo appointed a Delegate (Vicario) of the Republic and a Podestà. After the battle of Campaldino and the defeat of the Bishop, Bibbiéna was devastated by Florentine troops. Since the Florentines spared Arezzo, the town came again under the control of the Bishop, and in 1355 became property of his brother, Pier Saccone Tarlati, who had sold Arezzo to Florence, thus avoiding bloodshed. In 1359 a rebellion by the people of Bibbiéna against the Florentines ended in a siege, a new devastation of the town and the regency of a Florentine Podestà.
From 1367, the restoration - better described as a reconstruction - of the town took place. Thatch and slate roofs were replaced with the "Corinthian" tiles of Etruscan memory. The structure of the historical centre, as we know it now came into being; the later buildings, the Renaissance and Baroque town houses of the Florentine bourgeoisie are, in the main, restorations and conversion of the 14th c. ones.
In 1440, Bibbiéna was again seized and damaged, this time by the army of Milan which was later defeated at Anghiari. In 1494 another devastation occurred by the hand of the Venetian army, which had descended upon Tuscany to reinstate the rule of the Medici, but the Florentine army regained control by 1499. During the following ten years Bibbiéna was neutralised by the Florentines who pulled down its walls, put the town under the authority of the Florentine Vicario of Poppi and moved the southern border of the Casentino to the Corsalone River. From this time onwards Bibbiéna experienced a period of architectural embellishment lasting over 200 years. More than 18 stately homes (Palazzi) came into being, making a city of the town on account of the aristocracy which took up residence in Bibbiéna. Several Florentine families settled in Bibbiéna, and from them came families such as the Galli and the Dovizi, who were to spread the fame of Bibbiéna world-wide for their achievements in the world of theatre and stage design. (Adapted from: Giovanni Caselli "The Casentino, its Nature and History" - English edition - Editrice Le Balze, 2004). Taking the Via di Santa Maria, south of old Bibbiéna, beside the hill of Le Monache, the avenue of trees on the left leads to the Convent of Santa Maria del Sasso If we take it, we are soon in the middle of ample fields and rolling hills, in one of the most beautiful spots in the Casentino: the valley of the Torrent Vèssa. Looking back at Bibbiéna we shall see and admire its best side. To the east we shall recognise the distinctive outline of La Vèrna, and below it, right down in the bottom of the handsome valley, rises the spire of the church of the Dominican Convent of Santa Maria del Sasso. This is yet another cult site of the Madonna, sprung up after apparitions of Our Lady in medieval times. The cataclysms of ages long past, which pushed up and shifted along the massive rock of La Vèrna for hundreds of miles, brought down to this valley huge boulders which had split from it. One of these massive megaliths came to rest on the bank of the Vessa in an upright position: it looked like a rough hand-axe pointing to the sky. Early men could not have failed to attribute magic powers to this wonder of nature. During the last Ice Age, this rock must have served both as a shelter and as a place of worship, and must have continued to be regarded as a sign from Mother Earth to successive cultures right down to historical times. The genius loci which manifested itself in that place continued to attract the attention of those who lived in the area. Nearby, an Etruscan and Roman cemetery was found; we don't know whether this was a cemetery for Bibbiéna or for the small settlement of Lonnàno, now a farm, nearby. During the Middle Ages, old pagan places of worship were regarded as being possessed by the devil and as being ideal gathering places for witches. Especially in the Casentino, such places as this invariably turned into sanctuaries dedicated to Our Lady, and the pointed rock by the Vessa was no exception. At the beginning of the 13th c. a chapel is recorded here by the rock. This was before the apparition of a white dove, which stood perched on the tip of the rock for months during the year of our Lord 1347. In the same place Our Lady kept appearing to various people and the priest of Bibbiéna decided to erect a shelter by the chapel, for the comfort of the faithful, who in cold weather or rain, came here in pilgrimage. Later a pilgrim's hospital was built here for the diseased as well as for the passing pilgrims heading to La Vèrna. In the 15th c., after the Florentines had consolidated their hold on Bibbiéna, it was decided to give the sanctuary into the care of the Dominican Convent of St Marco of Florence. In 1468 Santa Maria del Sasso officially went to the monks of San Marco and, becoming a convent, began its evolution towards becoming the most significant renaissance monument in the Casentino, both on account of its architecture and its relevance as a centre of culture.
The present church was built in 1495 by architect Bartolommeo di Pietro Baccelli, known by the nickname of "Baccellino da Settignano", it is said with the contribution of Lorenzo de' Medici, which Savonarola obtained. The building complex has the imprint of Brunelleschi especially the interior of the church, where the circle of the dome and the half circles of the nave recall, in many ways, similar features in the works of the greater architect. There are two churches, one over the other. The lower church encloses the base of the mighty rock, which, observed from there, clearly favours the hypothesis of it having been a shelter for early men. A splendid central tabernacle of sandstone, behind which the tip of the rock protrudes through the floor, embellishes the upper church. The dome of the tabernacle is covered with glazed fish-scale-like tiles. The school of Della Robbia has influenced this work and has also produced a multi-coloured altarpiece. A work of Bicci di Lorenzo elegantly represents earlier 15th century painting. The great monastic complex is the home of some friars and a few clausura nuns, obviously occupying separate wings. (Adapted fom: Giovanni Caselli "The Casentino, its Nature and History" - English edition - Editrice Le Balze, 2004)