Pienza

This is an excerpt from the book “Florence and Tuscany

Landscape near Pienza – Photo © Pallasathena
Landscape near Pienza – Photo © Pallasathena

Pienza is town and commune in the province of Siena, in the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany (central Italy), between the towns of Montepulciano and Montalcino.

In 1996 UNESCO declared the town a World Heritage Site, and in 2004 the entire valley was included on the list of UNESCO’s World Cultural Landscapes.

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History and main sights

Pienza was built on a village called Corsignano, which was the birthplace (1405) of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, a Renaissance Humanist born into an exiled Sienese family, who later became Pope Pius II. Once become Pope, he had the entire village rebuilt as an ideal Renaissance town – which has led some historians to dub Pienza as the first “utopian” town. It represents the first application of so-called humanist urban planning concepts, creating an impetus for planning that was adopted in other Italian towns and cities and eventually spread to other European centers.

The rebuilding work was done by Florentine architect Bernardo Gambarelli (known as Rossellino) under the guidance of Leon Battista Alberti, starting in about 1459. Pope Pius II consecrated the Duomo, which sits across from the Piazza Comunale on Pienza’s main piazza, the Piazza Pio II, on August 29, 1462. The Palazzo Piccolomini, the Pope’s family home (inspired to Florence’s Palazzo Rucellai), and the Palazzo Borgia (Palazzo Vescovile, residence of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, later Pope as Alexander VI) also front the piazza. Noteworthy is the internal court of Palazzo Piccolomini, with a giardino all’Italiana preceded by a portico and sided by a loggiato on two floors.

The travertine well on the Piazza carries the Piccolomini family crest, and was widely copied in Tuscany during the following century.

A sight of the main piazza of Pienza Palazzo Pubblico (Communal Palace).
A sight of the main piazza of Pienza
Palazzo Pubblico (Communal Palace).

Though most of the buildings are decidedly Renaissance, the bell tower of the Duomo(Cathedral) has a Germanic flavor as a result of Pope Pius’ exposure to German architecture before he ascended to the Papacy.

This can be seen also in the general Hallenkirche structure of the church; the facade, however, is purely Renaissance. The interior has Latin cross plan, with a nave and two aisles divided by high pilasters covered by semicolumns. Artworks include five woods by Sienese School painters. Under the apse of church is the Baptistry (or San Giovanni), including part of the original Romanesque edifice and resembling a crypt.

There is a brick bell tower on the Piazza Comunale, but it is shorter than its religious counterpart, to symbolize the superior power of the church. The tower is annexed to the Palazzo Pubblico, also probably designed by Rossellino.

The Palazzo Borgia is home to the Diocesan Museum, and the Duomo incorporates the Museo della Cattedrale. The Diocesan collection includes local textile work as well as religious artifacts. Paintings include a 7th century painting of Christ on the Cross (La Croce), 14th century works by Pietro Lorenzetti (Madonna with Child) and Bartolo di Fredi (Madonna della Misericordia).

There are also important works from the 14th and 15th centuries, including a Madonna attributed to Luca Signorelli.

Facade of the Cathedral of Pienza.
Facade of the Cathedral of Pienza.

The church of San Francesco, with a gabled facade and gothic portal, is among the buildings that survived from the old Corsignano. It is built on a pre-existing church that dated from the 8th century.

The interior contains frescoes depicting the life of Saint Francis, those on the walls having been painted by Cristofano di Bindoccio and Meo di Pero, 14th century artists of the Senese school.

Other noteworthy buildings in Pienza include the Ammannati Palace, the Gonzaga Palace and the Palazzo del Cardinale Atrebatense, all built in the 15th century.

The Pieve of Corsignano, in the neighborhood, is one of the most important Romanesque monuments of the area.

The frazione of Monticchiello is home to a characteristic Romitorio, a series of grottoes carved in the rock by hermits monks.

Pienza gastronomy: cacio

Rather than milky-white or creamy-white, in Pienza its ‘cacio’ white.

A dream-town brought to life by its former inhabitant, Humanist Pope Pio II, who transformed his poor village, with its privileged panorama over Val d’Orcia, into a small architectural jewel. ‘Cacio’: today a word abused by a thousand synonyms of ‘light’ or ‘creamy cheese’ along with numerous other alchemical concoctions unbeknownst to cows and sheep.

Pienza’s ‘cacio’ pecorino (unimaginatively!) contains just one ingredient: sheep’s milk.

The sole basis for a cheese of countless nuances of taste and smell dependent on time of year – the meadow grass is continually in flux – its maturity (it comes fresh, mature and even aged like a bottle of good wine) and its type of manufacture, which means it can be served as it is, preserved in walnut leaves, in bran, in ash and countless other ways.

Each flavor unique: pungent or delicate, clean or scented, with one element in common: its incomparable taste that many have attempted, in vain, to replicate.

End of the excerpt from the book “Florence and Tuscany“. Get the entire content of the book free from advertising.

Where to stay in Pienza

There are numerous high quality hotels, villas, apartments and agriturismi (Farm stays) available, check them out and make a reservation here.