Pienza in Tuscany – a Renaissance model town

View from the Palazzo Piccolomini over landscape in Tuscany

Whenever we travel, we have a look at the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. In Northern Italy we expected to find places like Florence, Verona, or Ravenna, but there were also some unknown places (at least to us), like the small town of Pienza in Tuscany.

Pienza is situated in the beautiful Valle d’Orcia, only 23 km away from Montalcino, where we did some fantastic Brunello Wine tasting. The tiny town of Pienza is cute enough to merit some tourist attention, but to be cute is not enough for a UNESCO inscription. Pienza in Tuscany got its status in 1996 because Renaissance town-planning concepts were put into practice there for the first time in the 15th century. And even cities like famous Florence later used the town layout of Pienza as an inspiration.

The story of Pienza

It was Pope Pius II who transformed his birthplace according to Humanist ideals of the time. The village then still went by the name of Corsignano. In the new city, he decreed, the focus should be the main square. This would be where trade as well as encounters between citizens could take place. The cathedral and the administrative buildings also cluster around or near the main square, thus representing the religious and the secular powers united. Of course, this reflects the quite secular status of the papal institution in the 15th century. Even today, the pope is formally a head of state – but at that time he was a powerful world leader!

Pope Pius II hired the Florentine architect Bernardo Rossellino who realized the pope’s ambitious plans within a few years. Apart from the speed, we totally recognize the patterns of public building projects. That is, just like in modern times, Bernardo Rossellino significantly went over his budget. In hindsight Pius II remarked that he might have stopped the project had he known about the real costs beforehand. He named the rebuilt town “Pienza”, meaning “Pius’s”.

The Palazzo Piccolomini

Loggia of the Palazzo Piccolomini

One of the first things Pius II did when becoming pope was to build a representative summer residence for himself. Of course, according to his own town planning rules, it had to be right next to the main square. Pope Pius II was born as Enneo Silvia Piccolomini, a member of the influential Piccolomini family – thus the palace got the name Palazzo Piccolomini.

Today’s travellers can only visit it with a guided tour. The last one for the day starts, conveniently for us, at 4 pm. The “guided tour” is practically self-guided by means of an audioguide. However, to get into the upstairs rooms an overseer with the key accompanies the group. The palace was a private residence belonging to the Piccolomini family until the 1960s and the interior is pretty much a collection of old furniture, weapons, and paintings. Interestingly enough the last owner also collected hourglasses from different periods. On the ground floor we stroll through the beautiful “Hanging Garden”. It is built on the verge of a rock and offers an unobstructed view over the wide Valle d’Orca.

The Palazzo Borgia in Pienza

Pope Pius' cape in Opus Anglicanum

The Palazzo Borgia is the other Renaissance palazzo tourists can visit in Pienza in Tuscany. Today it is church property and houses a religious museum. But originally it belonged to a pope from the Borgia family, hence the name. Contrary to the Palazzo Piccolomini there is no old furniture to see, but pictures of saints, altar wine cups, statues of Jesus, and such. The most impressive exhibit is a magnificent cloak of Pope Pius II. It is over and over embroidered with stories about the holy family and different saints. The embroidery consists of gold and silver threads on rich velvet or linen ground. These kinds of embroideries were very complex and thus made for lavish diplomatic gifts. Since they were mainly produced in England, they are called Opus Anglicorum (“made in England”).

Pienza’s main square – Piazza Pio II

Piazza Comunale in Pienza, Tuscany

As everything evolves around the main square in the model town of Pope Pius II, the square consequentially bears his name: Piazza Pio II. All the administrative buildings as well as the cathedral Santa Maria Assunta surround the Piazza Pio II. The cathedral is unfortunately closed for renovation but we have a look at the nice porticoes of the Palazzo Communale, the town hall. Pope Pius II did not only build a big palazzo for himself, but he also harassed colleagues and friends to build summer palaces in his newly founded town. One of these, which we can still admire today, is the Palazzo Ammanati next to the piazza. Its owner, Cardinal Giaccomo Ammanati, promptly stopped the construction works when Pius II died.

Piazza Pio II / Piazza Comunale at night

Pienza in Tuscany after Pius II

Pope Pius II died in Ancona while trying to gather a Christian army against the Ottoman expansion. Only a few soldiers and peasants showed up for the endeavor in the first place, and after the death of Pius II none of them boarded any ships bound for the orient.

Before he became pope, Pius was bishop in Siena for a while and we saw wonderful paintings illustrating his life in the Piccolomini Library at the Siena Duomo.

Pienza street

However, after his death, Pienza almost fell into oblivion. And to the joy of today’s tourists it still seems as if time stands still in Pienza. Small alleys, cobbled streets and porticoes …

Most people come for a day trip only, but staying the night is worth it as you can take pictures of the empty streets. No wonder the Renaissance town of Pienza is a popular shooting location. Films such as Tea with Mussolini or The English Patient used Pienza in Tuscany as a backdrop.

What else to do in Pienza / Tuscany

View of Pienza from the Valle d'Orca

We enjoyed buying some regional specialties in the numerous small artisan food shops. Pienza is the capital of Pecorino cheese, a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk. You should definitely try it while in Pienza in Tuscany. There even is a Pecorino Festival taking place in September every year. It is also worthwhile to walk from Pienza for a few hours into the Val d’Orcia. Or you can at least take a stroll on the meadows outside town and take some pictures of the city walls.  

Sometimes the not so well known areas or cities of a country are quite charming. Later the same year we went to the Aosta Valley, another off-the-beaten path destination in Italy, and enjoyed it very much.

Is Pienza in Tuscany worth a visit?

Pienza street at night

We liked our 24 hours in Pienza. The museum entrance fee includes an audio guide, which also gives information about the town and the Piazza Pio II. We came by public transport and therefore had to plan a little bit as the buses only go every 2 to 3 hours.

Would you consider including Pienza in your Tuscany itinerary or have you been to Pienza? What did you like?

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NB: This travel blog article about Pienza in Tuscany was not sponsored in any way. We planned everything ourselves and paid all expenses.

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23 Comments

  1. I would love to visit Pienza on a return trip to Tuscany, along with a road trip to Montelpulciano (my favorite wine!) and through the Valle d’Orca. I explored Siena and Chianti on a day tour from Florence, but I would definitely enjoy experiencing this village so well-preserved in time. It’s always so fascinating how the church and politics were so intertwined during this era. I believe Pope Pius was instrumental for his role in Vatican II, but this is the first of heard of his work in the model town of Pienza. Thank you for this history lesson. I learned a lot, and am inspired to add this stop to my next Tuscan itinerary. In the mean time, I will watch for it in scenes from movies you mentioned, too!

    1. Dear Jackie, I am so happy, that you enjoyed reading our post about Pienza in Tuscany. We stayed for one night and ventured out into the small alleys after sunset. There are not many restaurants or bars, but the town itself was very, very charming.

  2. Thank you for giving another small town for me to visit in Toscana. Living in Veneto, I’m spoiled by our small towns and cities in the north. The history with Pope Pius is fascinating to read about too, I’d do the tour of the palazzo.

  3. I now have the ancient city of Pienza in Tuscany on my list of preferred destinations. Its history fascinates me greatly and is quite enlightening. Due to the enigmatic nature of the treasures housed there and the “Hanging Garden,” I’m keen on taking a tour of the Palazzo Piccolomini. The structures in Piazza Pio II appear to be vintage but nevertheless charming. I’ve never tried Pecorino cheese before, but I’d like to.

  4. I would have loved to visit Pienza when I lived in Tuscany for a month, but somehow I didn’t make it there. What a fascinating story the town has! I would love to explore the Palazzo Piccolomini, even if that’s through a self guided tour. How funny that someone does come in the end to unlock the door to the upstairs rooms.

    1. Dear Joanna, they do not want the visitors to roam through the building. Maybe they do not have security cameras or it has something to do with the insurance.

  5. Too bad you have not had the chance to see the cathedral as it was close. Better luck next time. I found your article very helpful in terms of learning the history of Pienza in Tuscany. I really enjoyed reading it.

    1. Dear Ossama, we did not mind that much. We have visited so many churches in Italy and the church in Pienza is not one of the most famous in Tuscany.

      1. Quite interesting to note that town planning principles were laid down in this cute little town of Pienza in Tuscany. With quite a bit of history behind it.Yes. It will be worthwhile to visit.

  6. I love Tuscany for its scenery, architecture, and wine. I also had the opportunity to walk for a few hours in the charming town of Pienza that you describe. It has a vibrant history connected with Pope Pius II. I liked The Palazzo Piccolomini and the cathedral Santa Maria Assunta surrounding the Piazza Pio II. Next time I will stay longer to enjoy the sunset.

  7. If I go to Tuscany, I don’t think I’ll put Pienza as the top 5 places to visit in the region. I think other areas have more beautiful churches or cathedrals and other historic buildings compared to Pienza. However, I found the history of the city fascinating.

    1. Dear Umiko, I guess it depends on the time you are going to spend there. If you have only one week or so in Tuscany, you would definitely want to see the famous cities like Florence, Sienna and Pisa. However the Val d’Orcia where Pienza is situated is a UNESCO site too and it is the embodiment of the Tuscan landscape.

  8. I have to say that I have never heard of Pienza before this. But it looks absolutely beautiful and has so much history in it. We also like to check out all the Unesco Heritage Sites. We have found many interesting places that we never knew existed by following the list. Pienza would definitely be in our list if we would be close by. I’m glad it is open for public and not privately owned anymore.

  9. This is the first time I heard about this place. Thank you for sharing a brief history of Pienza. It’s actually very interesting and controversial. Also, I am a fan of The English Patient and it’s awesome to know that they used this place in the film.

  10. I love to read about new towns in Italy we can explore on a return visit. Some of the smaller towns are gems. Lots to see wandering around. We would definitely visit the Palazzo Borgia. And would not leave without trying the local Pecorino cheese. Maybe we should plan a visit in September for the Pecorino Festival!

    1. Dear Linda, I think food festival are always fun and a perfect time to visit certain places. On the other hand it is always very crowded during festivals and accomodation is more expensive.

  11. I loved visiting Pienza! So excited to see and read about it through your eyes, and it helped to relive some memories of visiting this Tuscan town. I never visited at night, and can imagine it would be even prettier on the cobblestone streets and dining late a night in one of the delicious restaurants.

  12. Oh my god, the picture of the yellowish-illuminated street beams me right back to Italy. As a matter of fact, I haven’t heard of Pienza before, but there are so many beautiful places in Italy, one simply cannot know them all. I’m also checking out World Heritage Places and am often amazed at how many there actually are – apart from all those big shots everyone knows. So, next time when in Italy, I know where to go!

    1. Dear Renata, Pienza was lovely. We stayed at an AirBnb in one of the cobbled streets and walked through the town late in the night and early in the morning.

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