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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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?
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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