Does Pienza need an introduction? I don’t think so, but, OK, I’ll do it all the same. Pienza is a tiny burg perched on a hill in the Val d’Orcia. Zeffirelli chose it to shoot some scenes of his Romeo and Juliet (the House of Juliet, the feast and Mercutio’s speech). Who agrees with me that Olivia Hussey was the most beautiful creature on earth?
Pienza, the ideal city
You have to know that, during the Renaissance period, many artists and philosophers in Italy discussed about the “città ideale”, the ideal city. Architects and urban designers of the time aspired to combine functional requirements and aesthetics and create the perfect town.
Pienza’s original name was actually Corsignano, when it was a simple village like many others. But someone important was born there in 1405, Enea Silvio Piccolomini.
Piccolomini became Pope with the name of Pio II. He never forgot his birthplace and decided to renovate the entire burg (between 1459 and 1462) with the help of architect Rossellino, according to Leon Battista Alberti‘s theory (architect of Santa Maria Novella in Florence). The death of Piccolomini caused the interruption of the works. But Corsignano had already changed, becoming a little ideal town. Thereafter the town was renamed Pienza (from PioII).
For the beauty of its historic centre and as the first application of the Renaissance Humanist concept of urban design, Pienza became UNESCO world heritage site in 1996.
What to see in Pienza
- Corso Rossellino is the main street that crosses all the village from West to East, overlooked by the most beautiful palazzi and many boutiques and deli shops.
- Palazzo Gonzaga Simonelli (38, Corso Rossellino) was once property of Francesco Gonzaga, native of Pienza and appointed Cardinal by Pio II. The Pope invited him to build a palazzo and he did it! The highlight of the palace is the roof garden overlooking the Val d’Orcia. Pity it is not visitable!
- Piazza Pio II (see below) and its landmarks
You can’t miss the love streets and the Belvedere along via del Casello. When I first came to Pienza I ignored this. Suddenly I looked up and I found out I was standing in via del Bacio (Kiss street). But there’s also a Love Street, via dell’Amore, both leading to the panoramic terrace of the burg. And finally a Fortune street (via della Fortuna) so you’re warned. Better to go and see it, you never know 😉 This time, while we were there I saw a nonna teaching her nephew how to ride a bike. It is a kind of love, isn’t it? It is not romantic but near there you can also see an alley called Vicolo Cieco (the Italian way to call a dead-end street).
Panorama worth a poem
On the belvedere you may notice a bench with a writing. It is a verse by poet Mario Luzi, dedicated to his village. It says:
Lo sfolgorio d’oro dei platani s’inciela.
It is a quite complicated verse, cause the verb does not exist actually. The poet made it up. In English would be something like
The plane trees golden glare becomes sky
The core of the ideal city
It is indeed piazza Pio II. There you will find the main attractions:
- Cattedrale of Santa Maria Assunta. It reminds of some German or French Gothic churches, that the Pope had seen during his travels, but the whole is in Renaissance style, extremely balanced. The bell tower is octagonal. It was under restoration when we visited it. I always find something under restoration when I travel. Always. But OK, it is a good sign, they are taking care of it.
- The Town Hall is the one with the loggia, the clock tower and of course the flags. It was reshaped in the XX century. Under the loggia you can see the crests of the former chief magistrates, of Pope Pio II and of the Municipality.
- Palazzo Piccolomini, to the right side of the Cattedrale (looking at the Cattedrale facade). Built according to the Renaissance canon, has therefore a sober and symmetrical aspect. On the inside there’s a pleasant courtyard with a loggia. On the rear side, there’s a garden. Its beauty is enhanced by the spectacular view on the valley. Nature and architecture here merge in a perfect balance. We visited the Palazzo with a guided tour. Actually an audio-guided tour, in a small group of people of different countries. Sadly photos were not allowed. I think it is useful to visit this palace to better understand the spirit of the Pope and its intentions when he decided to create this new city. It was also chosen to be part of the set of Medici: Masters Of Florence.
- The sober palace in front of Palazzo Piccolomini is the Palazzo Vescovile. Pio II donated this palace to his closest collaborator Rodrigo Borgia, future Pope Alessandro VI, father of Lucrezia Borgia. On the corner you can spot the Borgia emblem. Later it became the Episcopal Palace. It now houses the Diocesan Museum.
If you’re not an architecture geek don’t worry. You’ll find surely other interesting activities in Pienza. For gluttons there’s an embarrassment of riches (in Italian l’imbarazzo della scelta, the embarrassment of the choice): an incredible sequence of local food shops along the main street and lots of enoteche (wine shops).
I tried a gelateria I found on TripAdvisor and I must say I loved it. It is Gelateria Buon Gusto in via delle Case Nuove, 26.
The speciality of Pienza is the Pecorino cheese though. Pecorino is produced also in Lazio, Umbria, Sardegna and Sicilia, but each one has a different taste. Along the streets, other then leather (there are some shops selling bags and belts) you will smell cheese.
In Italy we normally call cheese formaggio [fohr-MAHJ-joh]. In Tuscany they call it more often cacio [KAH -cho]. But, of course, in the Tuscan way of speaking they do not pronounce the first “c”, and the second “c” becomes more an “s” so it becomes [HAH -sho]. But don’t bother. If I’d try to say it, they immediately could tell that I’m not Tuscan, so…
The first Sunday in September you can attend to the Cacio Festival, Fiera del Cacio. The highlight of the day is the Palio del Cacio al Fuso, a funny game similar to bocce. I love bocce. Why is this game not included in the Olympics? I am thoroughly disappointed!
Anyway, in the main piazza, one player for each town contrada must roll a Pecorino wheel towards the fuso, a spindle. Yes, like that of Sleeping Beauty! We missed the competition but we attended the opening ceremony the day before, with parade, flag throwers exhibitions, presentation of the palio and iron branding of the cheese wheels. Very peculiar!
Apart form that, Pienza is very rich in romantic corners and beautiful sights. It is a little gem worth a visit and also a stay. I can say it really is the città ideale!