In Val d’Orcia...
The centre of Pienza was completely redesigned in Renaissance times by Pope Pius II. Born here in 1405, when it was called Corsignano, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini became known as a leading Humanist scholar and philosopher. He was elected pope in 1458 and in the following year decided to commission a new centre in Corsignano and rename it Pienza in his own honour. He planned to transform his birthplace into a model Renaissance town, but the grand scheme never progressed beyond the handful of buildings around the Piazza Pio II. The architect Bernardo Rossellino was commissioned to build a Duomo, papal palace and town hall, which were finished in three years. Subsequently Rossellino was caught embezzling papal funds, but Pius II forgave him because he was so delighted with his new buildings.
The isolated monastery of Sant’Anna in Camprena with its wonderful frescoes painted by Sodoma is nearby. The original monastery dates from the 13th century, however the present building is 16th century.
The Duomo was built by the architect Rossellino in 1459, and is now suffering from subsidence at its eastern end. There are cracks in the walls and floor of the nave, but this does not detract at all from the splendid Classical proportions of this Renaissance church. It is flooded with light from the vast stained-glass windows requested by Pius II; he wanted a domus vitrea (literally “a house of glass”) which would symbolise the spirit of intellectual enlightenment of the Humanist age.
The palazzo is next door to the Duomo and was home to Pius II’s descendants until 1968. Rossellino’s design for the building was influenced by Leon Battista Alberti’s Palazzo Rucellai in Florence. The apartments open to the public include Pius II’s bedroom and library, which display his belongings. At the rear of the palazzo there is an arcaded courtyard and a triple-tiered loggia. The spectacular view looks across the garden and takes in the valley of the Val d’Orcia and the wooded slopes of Monte Amiata.
Pieve di Corsignano
Pope Pius II was baptised in this 11th century Romanesque parish church on the outskirts of Pienza. It has an unusual round tower and a doorway decorated with flower motifs.
Towards the south, a winding road going through the hills, leads to the fortified village of Monticchiellowhich has preserved various mediaeval buildings, a fortress with long stretches of wall and the 13th century church, dedicated to Saints Leonard and Christopher which contains interesting remains of frescoes.
THE “TEATRO POVERO” OF MONTICCHIELLO
Every year since 1967, the ancient village of Monticchiello has been transformed into an entirely original theatre stage. The community enacts itself by means of a theatrical representation which Giorgio Strehler defined as “self-drama”. Here, the theatre originated in the square, and it is indeed the square, which represents the – even ideal – centre of the village that in summer houses the performances “created, written and performed by the people of Monticchiello”.
The topics dealt with have as their background the current events of the community and their roots in the past: the rustic culture, for centuries the expert on life, swept aside by the advance of progress, wars, old and new, with their ravages, the false myths pursued and never attained. They narrate themselves so as to understand themselves and other people, to try to understand how events in the world are progressing.
At Monticchiello, the theatre is also identity, testimony, civil commitment, and – thanks to the cultural excitement that accompanies it (collateral initiatives, exhibitions, meetings, study days) – constitutes an important instrument of social aggregation for the inhabitants and the devoted members of the audience. During the winter months, there is discussion on the theme to be dealt with, and preparation is begun of the texts and sets. Later on, in the square during the summer rehearsals, the ideas take on form and the contents are consolidated. Thus, the proposal of the “Teatro Povero” is born day by day.
It is performed every evening for three weeks, from the end of July till the middle of August.
This is a tiny medieval spa village which consists of a handful of houses built round a huge piazza containing an arcaded, stone-lined pool. Constructed by the Medici, it is full of hot sulphurous water which bubbles up to the surface from the volcanic rocks deep underground. The healing quality of the water has been known since Roman times and according to legend, famous people who have sought a cure in Bagno Vignoni include St Catherine of Siena and Lorenzo the Magnificent (to relieve his arthritis). The pool is no longer open for bathing but is still well worth a visit to admire the architecture. Sulphur pools in the village are open for swimming.
Castiglione d’Orcia marks the boundary between Val d’Orcia and the Monte Amiata forests. Once the property of the Aldobrandeschi family, it was fought over in the 14th century between the Salimbeni family and Siena. The village centre has the piazza dedicated to the painter and sculptor Lorenzo di Pietro, known as Vecchietta. The focal point of the piazza is a travertine well dating to 1618 and it is overlooked by the Town Hall. The churches of Santa Maria Maddalena,and of Santi Stefano e Degnaare noteworthy. The centre is dominated by the remains of the Aldobrandeschi Fortress and the magnificent Rocca a Tentennano Fortress.
The localities of the Commune include Rocca d'Orcia you will find the parish church of San Simeone (13th century) and the churches of the Compagnia di San Sebastiano and of the Madonna del Palazzo, the latter now transformed into housing.
Tra le frazioni del Comune troviamo Vivo d’Orcia, a holiday resort at the edge of the Amiata beech woods. A short distance from the centre is the Eremo del Vivo(or “ Countship ”), a building of late Renaissance form, designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. From the sources of the Vivo reservoir, which supplies Siena and Val di Chiana, an ascent among beech and chestnut trees leads to the little church of Ermicciolo and the characteristic “ drying rooms ” or, as some experts put it, the first inhabited nucleus of Vivo d’Orcia.
Also worth a visit is the historic centre of Campiglia d’Orcia, which has retained its mediaeval features with evocative alleys, narrow connecting stairways and covered walkways. Near the village you can see the remains of the Campigliola tower.
It was made famous by Brunello, one of the world’s best red wines. But Montalcino is also a magnificent city of art which, from its hilltop position, dominates the 3,000 hectares of vineyards (1,500 dedication to Brunello) that have given it fame and wealth.
Straddled between the basins of the Ombrone and the Orcia rivers, the centre is overlooked by the Fortress built in 1361 to consolidate the fact that Montalcino had become a possession of Siena. A second symbol of Montalcino is the slim tower of the Town Hall, built between the 13th and 14th centuries. At the foot of the tower Piazza del Popolo and the Gothic Loggia.
In the historic centre the churches of Sant’Agostino and Sant’Egidio (14th century) are worth a visit, as is the Civic and Diocesan Museum, which houses Della Robbia terracotta works and paintings and sculptures from the 14th to the 20th century.
Roads winding among vineyards lead to Torrenieri, Sant’Angelo in Colle and Poggio alle Mura. From Castelnuovo dell’Abate you arrive at the abbey of Sant’Antimo, one of Italy’s Romanesque masterpieces.
This beautiful abbey church has inspired many poets and painters and enchants everyone who comes here. The creamy travertine church is set against a background of tree-clad hills in the Starcia valley. The very earliest surviving church on the site dates back to the 9th century, but locals prefer to think the church was founded by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in 781. The main part of the church was built in 1118 in the French Romanesque style, and the exterior is decorated with interlaced blank arcades carved with the symbols of the Four Evangelists. The soft, honey-coloured alabaster interior has an odd luminous quality which is seen to change according to time of day and season. The capitals in the nave are carved with geometric designs, leaf motifs and biblical scenes. Recorded plainsong echoes around the walls, adding to eh eerie atmosphere. The Augustinian monks who tend the church sing Gregorian chant at mass every Sunday and there are organ concerts in the church during July and August.
At the southern border of the Val d'Orcia lies one of the most impressive fortresses in Tuscany, which for centuries has regulated passage between the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Papal State. Though the site was used by the Etruscans and Romans, the fortress was built only shortly before the year 1000. It was modified several times and, in the 16th century, reinforced with bastions capable of standing up to artillery fire.
The tower, rebuilt in the 20th century, offers an extraordinary view over the Val d’Orcia, Monte Amiata, the Apennines and the Trasimeno and Bolsena lakes. The churches of San Pietro (13th century) and Sant’Agata contain a considerable collection of Della Robbia terracotta works and wooden statues. The severe Palazzo Pretorio today houses the Town Hall.
Along the old Cassia road is the Palazzo della Posta, formerly a Medici villa, transformed into a customs house and a hotel that accommodated many illustrious travellers. A road winding through the erosion furrows leads to the mediaeval village of Contignano.
SAN QUIRICO D'ORCIA
On the northern boundary of the valley, San Quirico d’Orcia grew up around the mediaeval village of Osenna. In 1256 it was taken over by Siena. It still retains its mediaeval town-planning structure.
In the centre, enclosed by walls, you can visit the Collegiate Church of Saints Quirico and Giulitta, with its magnificent Romanesque-Gothic portals; the Church of the Misericordia; Palazzo Pretorio, Palazzo Chigi and Santa Maria di Vitaleta The Horti Leonini nearby is a 16th century garden of box hedges nestling within the town walls. It was intended as a refuge for pilgrims, and is now used as a public sculpture garden during the summer months. Your itinerary concludes with a visit to the church of Santa Maria Assunta, the Rose Garden and the ancient Scala Hospital.
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