Last year, in May, after five days in Florence, my husband and I spent three days in the Tuscan countryside. We stayed in Cortona and from there we took some daytrips. Cortona is a wonderful Medieval town itself and I shall, in the near future, write a post about it. Today, however, I want to share with you my day in Pienza.
Pienza is in the province of Siena, in the magnificent Val d’Orcia. In 1996, UNESCO declared the town a World Heritage Site, and in 2004 the entire Val d’Orcia was included on the list of UNESCO’s World Cultural Landscapes.
Hard to believe, this was my first time in Pienza. During my freshman year as architectural student, I had taken a class on History of Renaissance Architecture.
Pienza, which is considered a model of Renaissance architecture/urbanism, was studied in great detail.
So much so, that once I was there I felt like I knew the place by heart: the piazza, the chiesa, the palazzo; all, except for the view of the valley that, from 1600ft above sea level, was simply amazing.
Until 1462, the village was called Corsignano and it was the birthplace of Silvio Piccolomini, who later became Pope Pius II. In February 1459, Pius II visited his native borgo (village) and decided to rebuilt it as his ideal residence. He hired the most famous Florentine architect – at the time – Bernardo Rossellino.
The Pope and the architect, without disturbing the original medieval village, which is aligned along a road on the crest of the hill, freed a large area – closer to the Orcia Valley – to build a group of monumental buildings. The architectural landmarks are: Cattedrale dell’Assunta (Cathedral), Palazzo Piccolomini, Palazzo Borgia, and Palazzo Pubblico, all surrounding the magnificent Piazza Pio II (Pio II Square). The Piazza, unlike others, has a trapezoid shape, emphasized by herringbone paving divided into panels by strips of travertine. The travertine is also used to shape a circle within the paving.
Do you know that if the façade of the cathedral was laying flat on the square, the occhio centrale (the central eye, the round window) would line up with the circle on the paving?
Arriving in the square, the façade is framed between the diverging walls of Palazzo Piccolomini and Palazzo Borgia.
The space appears contained and grandiose at the same time. On either side of the church, two large openings hint at the vast open space of the valley. And how could I not mention the pozzo (well), off the center, close to the Palazzo and in perfect proportion with the whole . . . my favorite element.
The church, inside, is divided into three naves, the largest one in the middle, but all three of equal height. The design was inspired by both the German Hallenkirchen – Pius II had visited the German church in Austria – and the description of Leon Battista Alberti’s ideal temple.
After visiting the church, my husband and I visited Palazzo Piccolomini, which is truly beautiful. As you enter, you are welcome into a spacious courtyard.
While the palazzo may appear similar to its contemporary Florentine palaces, with its three quadrangular shaped floors and courtyard, it has an new unique element: a panoramic loggia.
The loggia occupies the entire North façade and connects the palace to the giardino – remember, Frank Lloyd Wright was not born yet!
The Sala delle Armi overlooks both the courtyard and the loggia, where you will be amazed by the expansive view of the Val d’Orcia and the Monte Amiata.
As usual, my husband and I had lost track of time. After 3:00pm in Italy – take note of this – it is hard to find an open restaurant. So, at 2:55pm, the only place that agreed to let us sit was “Sperone nudo”. We sat outside in the small square and although the service was a little rushed, the food was good and the atmosphere enchanting. The table next to us was occupied by American tourists who after a brief conversation, realizing that I was an Italian living in the States, asked for suggestions on the menu`. Luckily, they were all pleased with mine/their selections!
We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling around the borgo, stopping for gelato – of course – and browsing all the little shops.
Pienza is also famous for its homonymous Pecorino cheese. I bought two round cheese blocks and I gave them to my brothers as a gift.
Before leaving we wanted to enjoy one last view of the surrounding landscape and we could not have found a better place than a walking path, next to the town walls on the south side . . . beautiful!
How lovely would be to wake up every morning to this view!