Pienza, an Italian town of 2.076 inhabitants in the province of Siena in Tuscany, is widely known as the “Ideal city” of the Renaissance, created by the great humanist Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who later became Pope Pius II.
The Pope wanted to transform his humble birthplace, Corsignano, into an urban-architectural jewel, contrasting it in this way with the city that had marginalized his family: Siena. So, he entrusted the total renovation of the village to the architect Bernardo Rossellino, who in just four years, from 1459 to 1462, defined the harmonious and typically fifteenth-century aspect of what would have been Pienza.
In this way, what will be known as the City of Author, the “Ideal City was born from a thought of love and a dream of beauty”, as the famous poet Giovanni Pascoli wrote. Another almost unique feature of the place is that of having passed through the centuries intact, allowing us to admire exactly the meaning and intention of Rossellino’s interventions, in fact after those four years of work Pienza remained substantially unchanged, also due to the premature disappearance of Pope Pius II.
Located in Val d’Orcia, Pienza it is not far from the Cassia state road and the other two important centers of the valley, San Quirico d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. The historic center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
Let’s start our tour in the Ideal City, Pienza!
Cathedral of Pienza
The Cathedral of the Assumption represents, better than any other monument or palace, the thought of Pope Pius II.
Having lived in Germany for years, Pope Pius II knew the German Hellenkirchen (in Italian this means to create churches like big halls) and therefore wanted his cathedral to have the same three aisles.
At the same time, Pope Pius II was fascinated by the Gothic lines of the Franciscan churches especially of Assisi (from which the central eye and the gable roof) and by the “rich but sober” lines of the churches of San Sebastiano in Mantua and Santa Maria Novella in Florence designed by Leon Battista Alberti.
These were the themes he gave to Rossellino to design the new Cathedral.
The Cathedral dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption is the cornerstone of the grandiose project of the ideal city of Pope Pius II and stands in the main square of the town named after him. Here, in an extremely limited space, the most important buildings of Pienza are grouped together: Palazzo Piccolomini, the Church and the Palazzo Vescovile.
The Albertini-inspired temple was erected in 1459 on the ruins of the ancient Romanesque parish church of Santa Maria with a project by Bernardo Rossellino who, while creating one of the most important monuments of the Italian Renaissance, adopted some typical elements of the French Gothic style recognizable for example in the gabled roof, in the windows and in the central rose window.
The interior, with three naves, recalls the style of Hallenkirchen, the Austrian churches that the pope had had the opportunity to visit during his travels in northern Europe.
Among the works carried out on commission of Pius II, in the church there are altarpieces, made by Sienese painters of the fifteenth century such as Giovanni di Paolo, Matteo di Giovanni, Lorenzo di Pietro known as il Vecchietta and Sano di Pietro. In the crypt are collected sculptural pieces of the ancient Romanesque church of S. Maria and the baptismal font of the Rossellino workshop.
Returning to the outside, on the tympanum of the facade you can admire the coat of arms with the emblem of the Holy See of Pius II Piccolomini which dominates the city.
Ancient residence of the Priors, probably designed by Rossellino, the Town Hall maintains all its historical charm and stands out in the suggestive Piazza Pio II among the architectural wonders of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and Palazzo Piccolomini.
Palazzo Comunale was the last building built in the famous Piazza di Pienza and dates back to 1400: the gaze is soon captured by the particularity of the three-arched portico along the travertine facade which, in the upper part, opens into four mullioned windows and is surmounted by a tower with clock; under the portico you can see, on the front wall of the building, the graffiti and the stone coats of arms of the various Powers that occupied it.
The building, which is still the seat of the municipal administration, houses a fresco of the Sienese school of the fifteenth century depicting the Madonna and Child and the Patron Saints of Pienza, San Vito, San Modesto and San Matteo inside the Council room.
The Town Hall, designed by Bernardo Rossellino but remodeled in 1900, is characterized by the three-arched portico resting on Ionic columns. The facade, in travertine, is open at the top by four mullioned windows and has a tower with a clock built in terracotta, with long windows and crowned by a double order of battlements.
Inside the portico the facade displays graffiti and stone coats of arms of the various Podestàs who lived there, in addition to those of Pope Pius II Piccolomini, of the Province and of the Municipality of Pienza.
On the left of the building it is interesting to note a small house from the 15th century. Inside the Palace, in the Council Room, there is a fresco of the Sienese School of the fifteenth century which depicts the Madonna with Child and the Patrons of Pienza.
The real architectural theme of Palazzo Piccolomini is its relationship with nature and the landscape. From the seven-axle loggia that overlooks the landscape on the back, you can enjoy an extraordinary view of the Valdorcia and Mount Amiata. On the ground floor of the building there is a square garden surrounded by walls with the well in the center. That of Pienza is the first hanging garden of the Renaissance.
This situation gives this place a symbolic, architectural, paradisiacal value, of harmonious life in the midst of nature. (taken from “Pienza the city of Pio” by Jan Pieper).
On the ground floor in the internal courtyard and in the rooms, a permanent exhibition presents the architectural structure of the building, retracing the ambitious humanistic project of the ideal city of Pius II. On the first floor, there is the noble apartment where the galleries open to the rooms: the dining room, the music room, the study room, the weapons room, the library room and some bedrooms, including the one by Enea himself. The rooms on the main floor are furnished with period furniture, paintings, furnishings and many testimonies of a past that still remains intact.
The magnificent Piccolomini palace, with a regular plan, is built around a courtyard. Overlooking the city center on three sides, it has the fourth side stretched out on the magnificent roof garden, overlooking the Val d’Orcia and Mount Amiata. Composed of four flower beds delimited by double box hedges and laurel trees, whose crown is pruned in the shape of a dome, the garden has a central fountain.
We are witnessing a perfect interpenetration of art and nature, a concept longed for by humanistic thought, of which the pope is the undisputed interpreter and protagonist. In preparing the ground, leveled to have a constant level in front of the building, some precautions were taken to prevent rainwater from penetrating through the vaults of the underlying stables.
At the bottom, the garden is closed by an ivy-covered wall, in which three windows have been created. If we look out we are absorbed by the surrounding space without limits or time and projected towards the landscape modulated by the hand of a wise painter. The surprising view of the immense Orcia valley that the garden offers us makes this part of the land extremely enchanting. The garden thus became a place of contemplation and meditation in the perfect fusion of man and nature typical of the humanistic age.
The streets of Love in Pienza
Pienza is known everywhere not only for its marvelous historic center, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, but also for the so-called “streets of love”, four very romantic streets which during the Valentine’s Day attract hundreds of tourists to the village: Via del Bacio, Via dell’Amore, Via della Fortuna and Via del Buia.
These are four tiny crossroads that connect Via del Casello with Corso Rossellino, the main street of Pienza which takes its name from the architect Bernardo Rossellino, to whom in the fifteenth century Pope Pius II, a native of the place, entrusted the project to transform the anonymous village in an elegant papal residence. The works were only partially completed, due to the Pope’s untimely death, but enough to make Pienza one of the most admirable examples of Italian Renaissance architecture.
Among the four streets of love, Via del Bacio, with its wonderful panoramic viewpoint over the Val d’Orcia, is probably the most characteristic, as well as the classic place to be immortalized in a souvenir photo. Via dell’Amore, via della Fortuna and via del Buia are more or less similar to the first: very small and, perhaps, precisely for this reason they are particularly suitable as a backdrop for the secret meetings of couples in love.
The romantic atmosphere of Pienza has managed to seduce even a world-renowned film director like Franco Zeffirelli, who in 1968 set some scenes of his famous Romeo and Juliet, played by Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey and winner of two Oscar awards.
After all, the most famous love story of all time could only find a place in the country dear to lovers.
Church of San Francesco
The Church of San Francesco is the only building totally referable to the Middle Ages and ancient Corsignano. It is a 14th-century building and, like many Franciscan buildings, it has a gabled facade and the interior with a single nave
Built in the sec. XIII by the Friars Minor, it has recovered its essential beauty thanks to the restorations carried out between 1998 and 2002. The Church presents the characteristics of the Franciscan architecture: the facade with a single portal with an oculus above and the interior with a single nave with a trusses.
Inside, along the side walls, some fragments of the frescoes depicting the life of the Saint of Assisi with an entire cycle present in the apse attributed to Cristoforo di Bindoccio (called Malabarba) and Meo di Pero, Sienese painters of the second half of the fourteenth century.
Also inside, on the left wall, a plaque with the coat of arms of the Piccolomini family is visible which recalls how for a period of time the father of Enea Silvio Picclomini was buried there, then transferred to Siena always inside the church of San Francesco.
In the first visit to Corsignano, after becoming Pope with the name of Pius II, Enea Silvio celebrated mass in San Francesco. During the restoration, the neo-Gothic altars of the early 1900s were eliminated and all the liturgical furnishings were renewed with works by the Sienese sculptor Massimo Lippi: Altar, Ambo, Processional Cross, Crucifix, See.
To the left of the entrance is a ceramic nativity scene created in 1989 by the Piero sculptor and ceramist Piero Sbarluzzi. The presence of the crib is a clear reference to San Francesco who made the first representation of the Nativity in Greggio in the Christmas of 1223.
Like the rest of Pienza, the church is built in sandstone with travertine decorations.
Palazzo Borgia, also known as Palazzo Vescovile, is located in the center of Pienza, in the famous Piazza Pio II right next to Palazzo Piccolomini.
The name of the building derives from the family to which it was given, the famous Borgia family: it was Pope Pius II who gave it to Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who would later become Pope Alexander VI. The belonging of the palace to the family emerges from the presence, on the sober facade, of the family’s coat of arms.
Palazzo Borgia is one of the Renaissance palaces overlooking Piazza Pio II. From the austere facade the building encompasses both the residence of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia future Pope Alexander VI and that of Cardinal Jean Jouffroy of Arras.
The palace was then used as a bishopric and, since 1998, the rooms of the Diocesan Museum are located inside.
Since 1998 it has been the seat of the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art of Pienza, inside which you can find precious material from a historical, artistic and cultural point of view, and extremely varied.
The exhibition itinerary, developed in eleven rooms, houses a series of works of art such as the Madonna di Monticchiello by Pietro Lorenzetti, and the ecclesiastical furnishings, coming from the Duomo and from the territory of the diocese, it also contains goldsmiths, sacred furnishings, tapestries and wooden sculptures.
Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta
The chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta is a sacred building that is located in the rural town of Vitaleta, between Pienza and San Quirico d’Orcia. The church, is included in the territory of the Archdiocese of Siena-Colle di Val d’Elsa-Montalcino.
The church, probably of late Renaissance origin, is mentioned for the first time in a document from 1590.
The religious building was later redesigned both externally and internally by the architect Giuseppe Partini in 1884, inspired by sixteenth-century models.
The statue of the Madonna attributed to Andrea della Robbia, from 1870 onwards preserved inside the church of the Madonna di Vitaleta in the historic center of San Quirico d’Orcia, is said to have been purchased in 1553 in a shop in Florence.
The chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta is located on a dirt road that leads from Pienza to San Quirico d’Orcia and is placed under UNESCO protection.
The religious building has a single hall, with the main facade covered in Rapolano stone which is characterized by a small rose window that opens above the architraved portal; laterally, the same facade is delimited by pilasters, one on the right and the other on the left, on which rests the top pediment, in whose tympanum is placed a noble coat of arms.
The side facades are covered in stone, as well as the rear part of the religious building, at the top of which there is a bell tower with two contiguous round arch bell towers.