Monday, June 4, 2012


Pienza has always been one of our favorite towns to visit. It is quite small and sits on a hill overlooking the Val d'Orcia to the south, and has distant views towards Cortona
and the the Val d' Chiana to the north. Since auto traffic is prohibited within the walls, we enter through one of the gates towards the town center. Immediately the air is saturated with the wonderful aroma of cheese. While the towns of Montelcino and Montepulciano can boast of great wines, Pienza prides itself
on the spectacular sheep cheese known as pecorino ( more on this soon).

Corso Rossellino and the Campanile

Walking towards 'Il Centro' is a delight, the narrow lanes are clean and beautiful. However, it is the town square ( piazza) that has always been kind of a puzzle, for perhaps this is the most famous town square in the world and it is the product of two incredible minds coming together. Two minds that defined the Renaissance as we know it.


The first person was Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, often regarded as the first humanist Pope, consecrated Pope Pius II in 1458. He will always be on the 'good guy' list because he forgave the painter Fra Fillipo Lippi's " indesgretion' in getting a nun pregnant resulting in the great painter Fillippino Lippi.
The second is Bernardo Rossellino,a Florentine student of Leon Battista Alberti and the Chief Architect of what was to be the ideal Renaissance city, Pienza.

As you turn onto the Corso Rossellino you see the Campanile ( bell tower), and then you enter the sun filled looks so small and feels crowded! What gives?
All great art requires serious observation and thinking to fully understand it's importance. Fortunately, there is a small bar/cafe right next to the Renaissance well and a good place to sit and look at this most marvelous arrangement of buildings.
First, Pope Pius came from this tiny agricultural community, it was originally known as Corsignano. He was schooled in Siena and Florence and travelled extensively. A cosmopolitan scholar. In order to escape the heat of Rome he decided to construct a summer Papal Palace here.

Il Duomo

The first building to command your attention is the church ( Duomo), clad in travertine, white and finely carved with fully articulated columns, three arches (echoing Roman arches), and topped with a huge papal insignia. When you enter the Duomo, you are flooded with light due to the fact that instead of being oriented on an East-West axis ( typical of temples going back to the Egyptians), this is set on a South-North orientation, allowing sun to fill the interior through large windows, more Northern European than Italian.

All the other buildings on the piazza are clad in less expensive sandstone. If you look at the front corner of the Duomo you can observe this transition. Facing the Duomo, on the right is the Pope's palace, Palazzo Piccolomini, mainly sandstone only trimmed in travertine with flat columns and arches above the windows.

Palazzo Piccolomini ( well) ahead, Duomo to the left.

The front entrance of the Palazzo is on the Corso Rossellino and through it you can see the gardens and landscape beyond ( see previous post). Two side doors open, one to the old Cathedral of St. Francis and the other to the Duomo.

Bishop's House

Across the piazza sits the Bishop's House, Pienza was raised to an Episcopal seat. The facade, while still sandstone is much simpler yet is divided into three levels, the arch over the main door mirrors the arch of the Duomo. It is clear there is an order of importance here.

Canon's Residence

If you look to the right of Bishop's palace you see the Canon's Residence, clean and sparse and quite modern in it's lines with an arched doorway asymmetrically placed towards the piazza, a delight.

The Renaissance well with the Artisan's House ( now bar/cafe with red canopy)

Palazzo Communale with Campanile

Facing the Duomo and it's ecclesiastical supporting buildings
is the Town Hall or Palazzo Communale, the seat of secular power. With it's crenellated clock tower ( campanile), this a smaller version of the Palazzo Pubblico in the Campo of Siena. The exterior is etched in sgraffito and has an arcade of classical columns. It becomes an excellent civic counterweight to the Papal Cathedral.

Finally, if you are sitting in the bar, you are in front of the Artisan's House, built to represent the common laborer. Pious was well aware of the Lorenzetti's " Good Government" fresco in Siena and knew that an effective government required the service of all levels of society.

By the way, that beautiful well, the one where tourists pose in front of for pictures, was designed by the architect of all of these buildings, Rossellino.

Bird's Eye View of the Pienza Piazza

There is one more thing that has always been perplexing, the buildings are not squared to the piazza. The piazza itself is more of a trapezoid, wider at the Duomo end, why? Some say it is to let in the fresh breeze from the valley and to open up views. Other say that the buildings are on the ancient 'footprints' of earlier buildings. But, as we sit here looking at the whole, from this point, at the cafe, the buildings appear to arrange themselves in "correct" perspective as they all come together in an ordered logical and symbolic whole, a Renaissance city. Pienza.

all photos and text are copyright 2012 Aponovich & Johansson and cannot be used without permission.

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