Pienza, a Renaissance masterpiece
Pienza is one of those places to visit absolutely at least once in a lifetime. Located in the beautiful Val d’Orcia about 50 km south of Siena and 20 km east of Montalcino, Pienza is a real gem, rich in monuments and works of art. The position in which the village is located is another strong point: perched on a hill from which it enjoys excellent panoramic views and within walking distance of many other places of considerable interest.
The history of Pienza is inextricably linked to the figure of Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who went down in history as Pope Pius II. Enea Silvio Piccolomini was born in 1405 in Corsignano, a small village of little importance. Elected Pope in 1458, Pius II visited his hometown during a trip to Mantua. On this occasion, the poor conditions in which his hometown was facing, the pontiff decided to radically transform it to make it an “ideal city”. The intent of Pius II was to transform this small medieval village into a papal residence in the Renaissance style and, as we will see, he succeeded perfectly.
The works for the renovation of the city were entrusted to the architect Bernardo Gambarelli known as Rossellino. In less than four years the urban planning work was completed and the city was renamed with the name of Pienza. Rossellino’s project has its fulcrum in the central square, Piazza Pio II, which is overlooked by the main Renaissance buildings. The main street of the village branches off from this extraordinary square, named after the Rossellino. The end result is a concrete example of an ideal city, a true symbol of the Renaissance.
In 1996 UNESCO declared the city a World Heritage Site. Today Pienza, in addition to being one of the most popular tourist destinations in the whole province of Siena, is also known for the production of a typical cheese, the delicious Pecorino di Pienza, and because some scenes of the film Gladiator.
Things to do in Pienza: the guide
Let’s see what are the main points of interest to visit in the historic center of Pienza:
- Piazza Pio II
- Museo Diocesano d’arte sacra
- Palazzo Piccolomini
- Chiesa di San Francesco
- Pieve di Corsignano
- Romitorio di Pienza
Piazza Pio II
The square, which follows the existing one, has a trapezoidal plan on which the Cathedral overlooks the center. On the sides of the church we find Palazzo Piccolomini (on the right), Palazzo Borgia (on the left), later renamed the episcopal palace and today the seat of the Museo Diocesano and the Palazzo dei Canonici, always on the left. On the opposite side from the Cathedral are the Palazzo Comunale and Palazzo Ammannati. It is one of the most beautiful squares in all of Tuscany, a real masterpiece of Renaissance town planning!
Cathedral of Pienza
In a fully Renaissance style, the travertine facade of the Cathedral is divided into three parts and opened by as many portals. In the highest part, above the rose window, there is a tympanum bearing the coat of arms of Pius II.
The interior, which maintains a Gothic imprint, is divided into three naves of the same height. The apse is divided into three chapels to which are added two more positioned at the height of the cruise arms.
Some masterpieces of sacred art commissioned by Pius II adorn the interior of the Cathedral, among these we mention the altarpiece by Giovanni di Paolo, Madonna and Child with Saints Antonio Abate, Bernardino, Francesco and Sabina, the Madonna Enthroned between Saints Nicola, Martino, Agostino and Girolamo by Matteo di Giovanni and The Assumption of the Virgin by Lorenzo Vecchietta.
Museo Diocesano d’arte sacra
The Diocesan Museum, housed inside the Palazzo Borgia, displays numerous works of art and ecclesiastical furnishings. The museum itinerary consists of eleven rooms in which the works, coming from the Duomo and the surrounding area, are exhibited according to a chronological criterion (from the XII to the XVIII century). There are really many masterpieces on display, among them we find the Madonna di Monticchiello by Pietro Lorenzetti, the Madonna della Misericordia by Bartolo di Fredi and the altarpiece by Lorenzo Vecchietta, Madonna and Child with Saints.
For information on museum hours and tickets, I refer you to the official website.
Huge but very elegant, Palazzo Piccolomini is a three-storey building with an almost square plan. Entirely covered with ashlar on the facade, the building develops around a refined central courtyard, around which an arcaded portico develops on columns with Corinthian capitals. On the left of the building there is a beautiful garden which overlooks an extraordinary three-order loggia; from here you can enjoy a beautiful panoramic view of the Val d’Orcia which ranges from Monte Cetona to Monte Amiata and the hills around Montalcino.
The interiors of the building present a series of magnificent rooms where you can admire extremely valuable furniture and works of art worthy of the best museums. On the website of the Palazzo Piccolomini you will find all the information on the opening hours, tickets and events taking place at the palace.
Chiesa di San Francesco
The chiesa di San Francesco in Pienza was built between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, following a pattern common to many other Franciscan churches, which provides for a single nave with a final apse. The exterior is very simple with a single decoration aimed at highlighting the entrance portal. The interior is much more interesting as it preserves numerous remains of fourteenth-century frescoes, attributed to Cristoforo di Bindoccio and Meo di Piero, which depict various scenes including the Annunciation, the Deposition and episodes from the life of San Francesco (in particular San Francesco who receives the Stigmata). The Madonna della Misericordia and the Saints Sebastiano and Bernardino located in the left altar come from the workshop of Luca Signorelli.
Pieve dei Santi Vito e Modesto in Corsignano
The pieve dei Santi Vito e Modesto in Corsignano is located just outside the town of Pienza about 500 meters from Piazza Pio II. Documented since 714, the current church dates back to the 12th century and is a beautiful example of Romanesque building. Noteworthy is the facade with a richly decorated portal surmounted by a mullioned window which has a female statue per column. On the left stands the mighty cylindrical bell tower, while a second portal, also decorated, opens on the right side.
Romitorio di Pienza
The Romitorio di Pienza is a place of worship created by digging in the rock that is located below the Church of Santa Caterina. Probably built between the 14th and 15th centuries, this very particular complex is made up of a series of rooms inside which there are the remains of various rock sculptures. A real hidden corner of the city a stone’s throw from the historic center. If you find it open it is definitely worth a visit, to reach it you will have to take Via Santa Caterina. Along the descent towards this hermitage you will also meet the small Cappella della Madonna del Latte (15th century).
What to see around Pienza
Pienza is located more or less halfway between San Quirico d’Orcia (9.8 Km) and Montepulciano (14.8 Km). If you are planning a visit to the Val d’Orcia, it could be a good starting point; from here you can quickly reach all the other main centers such as Montalcino, Castiglione d’Orcia and the thermal baths of Bagno Vignoni.
The main points of interest in the municipal area of Pienza are the pretty village of Monticchiello, the Castello di Spedaletto, the Castello di Cosona, the Castelluccio, the Riserva naturale Lucciola Bella and the Quercia delle Checche while film lovers will be happy to know that the location of the famous scene of the Elysian fields of the Gladiator is located in Terrapille, between San Quirico d’Orcia and Pienza.
Moticchiello is a fine medieval village located just 6 kilometers from Pienza. Still enclosed within solid stone walls, the town is known for its “Teatro Povero”, a theatre where the actors are the inhabitants of the village. To see the building of the Cassero, the city walls and the Pieve dei Santi Leonardo e Cristoforo.
Castello di Spedaletto
The Castello di Spedaletto is a remarkable fortified complex which dates back to the XII century. Although modified over the centuries, the castle still retains towers and walls with battlements. At the castle there is also the Church of San Niccolò in Spedaletto which preserves some 15th century works. Today the Spedaletto Castle is used as a hotel.
Riserva naturale Lucciola Bella
The Riserva naturale Lucciola Bella is a protected area located southeast of Pienza characterized by the presence of badlands, which are typical elements of this area. In 2003, fossils of a marine mammal (similar to the dolphin) that lived here 4.5 million years ago, when the sea covered the entire area, were found. This is considered a very important finding because it is the most complete finds of this species ever found.
How to get to Pienza
By car: to reach Pienza by car you must take the A1 highway to the Valdichiana exit, from there continue in the direction of Torrita di Siena on the SP326 and then towards Pienza.
By train and bus: the nearest station is Buonconvento, from there you must continue with the bus, line 112 of Siena Mobilità.
If you are in Siena, you can take the Siena Mobilità line 112 directly.