Summer is just around the corner and here is some recommendations on what to see while wandering around the area close to Montepulciano, in order to get a taste of the diversity and beauty of this magnificent part of Tuscany.
Traces have been found that this area was inhabited from the Neolithic to the Bronze age and this hamlet was also known in Roman times. The history of Pienza coincides with that of its founder, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later to become Pope Pio II. When his family was forced out of Siena, they took refuge in Corsignano, in the Val d'Orcia, where they owned a house and some land. Enea Silvio was born here in 1405 in a small fortified hamlet built around a Romanesque parish church.When he became Pope decided to transform his birthplace from a hamlet into a town. He invited famous architects and artists to create what he renamed "Pienza", a city which is a monument to the Renaissance. It is difficult to know what Pienza would have become if Pio II had not died suddenly on the eve of his crusade in 1464. After his death Pienza remained unchanged, perfectly balanced in its modern geometry. The Piazza Pio II, laid out by Bernardo Rossellino, demonstrates an architectural and philosophical concept that represents the Humanist movement. In the square, the celebrated cathedral "domus vitrea", with a Renaissance facade and a Gothic interior, contains works by some of the finest artists from that period: Giovanni di Paolo, Matteo di Giovanni, il Vecchietta, Sano di Pietro; here you can see fine wooden choir stalls in Gothic style and other sacred works of great value. In the majestic Papal residence Palazzo Piccolomini, there is a museum, in the "Sala d'Armi" there is a display of arms and one can visit the Pope's Bedroom, the Library and the collection of medals of Pio II and Pio III. The Museo Diocesano (in Palazzo Vescovile) contains beautiful Flemish tapestries from the XV-XVI century and works by Bartolo di Fredi, Vecchietta, Maestro dell'Osservanza, Sano di Pietro and Pellegrino di Marino. In 1996 Pienza was recognized by UNESCO for its cultural value and went on to be part of the World Heritage List.
Monticchiello is a pretty medieval village in the heart of the Val d'Orcia, which origins lose themselves in time. The first official document dates back to 973 AD, when the marquis Lamberto Aldobrandesco surrendered the castle to the Badia Amiatina for a conspicuous sum of money. In the following years Monticchiello will belong to the Roman church and particularly to the Teutonic Order (until 1230) an order accustomed to administer a territory of frontier. The first document relating the free Commune of Monticchiello bears the date 1243. From that moment, for more that three centuries, the castle remains faithful to the Republic of Siena until its capitulation in 1559 when it became part of the Granducato of Tuscany. After five centuries, Monticchiello came under the jurisdiction of the Comune of Pienza in 1777.
Teatro Povero di Monticchiello
The "poor Theater of Monticchiello", born in 1967 by the local inhabitants, who, starting from the end of July for almost one month, they stage a drama, in the main square of the village, with daily replicas, that is completely written, directed and staged by themselves; the same staff composes the music and the scenery. Recently, they perform in the typical Val d'Orcia dialect and the whole act has been divided in two parts, the first concerning experiences of the past country life during the first half of the 20th century, the second dramatizing themes of current events. The theatrical experience of the people of Monticchiello has become a meaningful example of creating theater in Italy.
San Quirico d'Orcia
Originally an Etruscan town, San Quirico d'Orcia acquired importance thanks to the neighbouring Via Franchigena. Federico Barbarossa, in 1154, received the ambassador of Pope Adrian IV here and this event is recalled in the "Festa del Barbarossa", 3rd Sunday of June. The Florence rulerCosimo I de' Medici purchased it in 1559. The Collegiata of SS. Quirico and Giuditta is in the Romanesque style: it has three portals and one whit facing the south is attributed to Giovanni Pisano.Palazzo Chigi was built in the XVII century. The "Horti Leonini"(16th century) is one of the first examples of Italian Garden style: from August to October there is an exhibition of sculptures called "Forms in green". The Romanesque parish church of S. Maria Assunta was, perhaps, constructed on the remains of a pre-Christian temple. The inside of the church of S. Francesco holds two wooden polychrome statues and a Robbia's Madonna.
The area of Bagno Vignoni was known since roman times for the benefits of the waters from its spring which gush forth at temperatures of more than 50°C, and flow in the big basin which lies at the centre of the town giving its evocative appearance. There is a small sanctuary dedicated to S. Caterina from Siena situated at the side of the basin. The castle of Vignoni looks down upon the town and can be reached either by S. Quirico or by Bagno Vignoni: a nice walk offering spectacular views on the surrounding valleys.
Cortona was once part of the twelve cities of the Etruscan League. Fragments of its primitive cyclopean defenses can still be seen, incorporated in the medieval walls. Apart from a few fine Renaissance palaces, the prevailing character of Cortona's architecture is medieval, conferring on the steep narrow streets a strong sense of imposing atmosphere. The city is situated almost on the top of the highest hill of the area (600 mt.) and there are magnificent panoramas over the surrounding valleys, embracing the whole of the Val di Chiana region. Prominent among many art works of various periods in the Museo dell' Accademia Etrusca are the Etruscan Chandelier known as the "lamp of Cortona", one of the most celebrated bronzes of antiquity, and the "Polyhymnia Muse", a painting of the Roman era, of remarkable beauty. The Museo Diocesano displays works by Luca Signorelli, distinguished Renaissance painter and native of Cortona, and a much-admired "Annunciation" by Beato Angelico. The most important medieval buildings are the churches of San Francesco and San Domenico as well as The Palazzo Casali, which displays a Renaissance facade. In these Palazzi, and in the Renaissance churches of Santa Maria Nuova and San Niccolò, valuable works of art are preserved.
Montefollonico (576m above sea level) is a small medieval village whose raison d'être is found in the past rivalries between the republics of Siena and Florence; in fact the village was born as a Sienese fortress, against the "Florentine" Montepulciano. The first evidence of the area being inhabited dates as far back the Neanderthal era (approx. 60.000 years ago) with the Lithic tools found in the area of "Il Tondo" (nowadays the public garden). In the following centuries there are accounts of various territorial disputes, as in the year 715 for the ownership of the church Pieve di San Valentino. The history of the village as such, began in the XIIIth century with the foundation of the church Pieve di S. Leonardo by the Cistercian monks coming from the nearby monastery, who dedicated themselves to fulling wool and that gave the village its name Mons a Fullonica. After various events, Montefollonico was incorporated into the Tuscan Grand Duchy in 1555.
Almost everybody knows Montalcino as the birthplace of the famous Brunello wine, which someone once defined as the best and most renowned wine in Italy. From the height of its 564 mts. the ancient town dominates the surrounding countryside, clinging to the slopes of a hill crowned by the imposing 14th century fortress. In the labyrinth of the tiny streets, among artisans' shops, small cafès and places selling typical local products (honey, olive oil and locally-made cantucci biscuits) the sights worth seeing are the Town Hall, the Bishop's Palace (housing the United Civic, Diocesan and Archaeological Museums, with works by important 13th-16th century Sienese artists, such as Bartolo di Fredi, Il Sodoma, Bartolomeo Neroni), the antique Crucifix of Saint Antimus dating back to the mid-12th century, and the churches of Saint Augustine, Saint Giles and Saint Francis, all built between the 13th and 14th centuries, as well as the Sanctuary of the Madre del Perpetuo Soccorso. Just outside of the town, near Castelnuovo dell'Abate in the Starcia valley, the heart of Montalcino spirituality is to be found: the Romanesque abbey of St. Antimus, a striking little temple enveloped in an almost magical atmosphere, founded by Charlemagne in 781. Finally, there are several castles around Montalcino: First and most important of all is Poggio alle Mura, which has Longobard origins.
On the eastern slopes of the mountain bearing the same name, Cetona has retained its medieval structure, with roads, alleys and stairways all leading to the fortress which dominates it. The local economy is mainly agricultural, but tourism as also been actively developed. A lot of celebrities live here in their renovated country homes and villas. Within a distance of only 5 kms out of the town one of the oldest settlements in central Italy can be found, dating back 40.000 years, the Parco di Belverde. Also, more than 25 prehistoric caves and in the largest of these, St. Francis prayed. The Museo Civico contains remains from the bronze age collected from the area around the caves.
San Casciano dei Bagni
The main feature of this medieval town, on the border with Umbria and Lazio, is the more than 40 hot water springs. Already known in Roman times (Oratius alludes to their therapeutic qualities), they are the main economic activity of the area together with the "agritourism" business which thrives thanks to the unspoiled woods and countryside. Traditional festivals include: in June the "Sagra del Ciaffagnone" while the "Sagra dei Pici", a homemade pasta speciality, takes place in Celle sul Rigo, a village built on the site of a former fortress, while Palazzone is well-known for its wine festival and its particular Chianti Colli Senesi local wine.