It helps when a pope was born in your town. Pope Pius II Piccolomini was native to a small town in the Val D’Orcia area of Tuscany called Corsignano. During his pontefice, in 1459, he visited home after a period of absence and found it unacceptable. Populated by only old people and with no urban structure or buildings of note, Pius set out to rebuild the town. He named it Pienza after himself, and had built the Palazzo Piccolomini (his family name) and other buildings around a central piazza. His death in 1464 brought an abrupt end to his project, but a lot was accomplished in just a few years. Delusions of grandeur aside, what the modern visitor finds today from an art historical perspective is a harmonious Tuscan town with Renaissance buildings, overlooking an impressive valley.
What to do in Pienza
The Piazza is the center and the fulcrum of the city in Medieval life, and becomes idealized in Renaissance times, when humanist thinkers imagined the perfect shape and elements of a town or city’s main square. It should be regular in shape, and facing on the piazza one ought to find representatives of church, state, and private life. In Pienza, the piazza is trapezoidal in shape – the two buildings flanking the Cathedral slant towards it to make it look more monumental. Slip through the space to the left of the church and you’ll find yourself on a beautiful path overlooking the valley, dotted with benches from which to enjoy it.
The Duomo (Cathedral) was built under the supervision of architect Bernardo Rossellino and influenced by Leon Battista Alberti’s Renaissance style. The idea was to create a kind of “palace of light”. Thus its upward thrust and large windows is quite different – more Gothic in style – from most Renaissance church construction (think, if you’re familiar with it, of Brunelleschi’s buildings in Florence, such as San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito).
Palazzo Piccolomini and gardens
The pope spared no expense to have his episcopal palace built here in a style similar to what Alberti used on Florence’s Palazzo Rucellai. He boasted that the windows were large enough for three men to look out of one together, but that the building faced all directions, so was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. An inner courtyard and the pope’s library and chambers can be visited, as well as the terraced garden out back, a structured space that contrasts with the undulating hills beyond it.
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday (closed Monday), 10am to 4:30pm in the winter, until 6:30pm in the summer. Closed in the winter from mid January to mid February. Entry, 7 euro (adults).
Pieve di Corsignano
Following a walking path down from the town (facing the cathedral, turn right and take the road out the town doors and into the valley), you’ll find a 11th-century Romanesque rustic church (pieve) in which Pius was baptised. It’s generally closed to visitors, but worth the walk for a glimpse at an idyllic Medieval surrounding, in contrast with the Renaissance “city” above. The church itself is typical of its period, built in stone, with few beautifiers except the rough carving around the doorway.