Montepulciano, Tuscany: the Florence of the South

Taking advantage of the rich Tuscan soil and its favorable climate, Etruscans first established a settlement high on a limestone ridge around the third century B.C. as evidenced by the tombs that have been excavated in the region ine which numerous remains of the Etruscans’ typical black pottery have been found. Today this settlement is known as Montepulciano, Tuscany.

A fortress dates back to the 8th century, but for many centuries documentation is sparse and fragmented. When the Romans took over the region they used the area as a winter encampment. Soon defense walls, watch-towers and castles were built, followed by well cultivated estates surrounded by olive groves and vineyards.

The medieval gate of Porta al Prato on the town’s northern edge welcomes visitors to a 15-minute walk up the hill to Piazza Grande, the main square. It is surrounded by magnificent buildings created mostly by famous architects of the Renaissance. However, the most significant structure here is the medieval stronghold of the Palazzo Communale, today’s Town Hall. It is modeled after the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Construction began during the second half of the 13th century and, in the 15th century, its facade was replaced by one designed by Michelozzo. The inviting courtyard and high tower are original – from its top one can see as far as Siena to the northwest and the Sibellini Mountains to the east.

The town’s Municipal Museum is located in the gothic Palazzo Neri-Orselli. On exhibit are paintings dating between the 11th and 15th centuries, among them Margaritone d’Arezzo’s portrait of Saint Francis and a Nativity scene by Girolamo di Benevento. Other works include a collection of terra cotta reliefs by the Della Robbia family, sculptures and sacred art objects.

Montepulciano: Tuscany’s Southern Florence

Much of what gives Montepulciano its nickname as the Florence of the South are the classical features of the Renaissance prominent in the great buildings surrounding the Piazza Grande, characterized by massive walls, columns and half-columns, and triangular or arched pediments over entrances and windows. Antonio da Sangallo il Vecchio designed and began construction of Palazzo Contucci; it was later completed by Peruzzi of Siena. The cellars are open to the public and made an interesting visit. Palazzo Ricci, just outside the Piazza Grande, houses ancient cavernous wine cellars which are even more impressive than Contucci’s. Other significant buildings include Palazzo di Bucelli, with a foundation built of carved Etruscan burial urns filled with cement and stacked like bricks, and an impressive facade decorated with Etruscan and Latin inscriptions; Palazzo Avignonesi designed by Giacomo da Vignola; and Palazzo Cervini, attributed to Sangallo. This latter palace was built for Cardinal Marcello Cervini (who later became Pope Mercellus II), and it boasts a lovely U-shaped courtyard at the entrance which is a departure from the usual austere facade.

Building of the Cathedral was begun in the late Renaissance by Ipolito Scalza. Behind the bleak, unfinished facade (featured in the frescoed tower scene of The English Patient) the massive interior contains scattered pieces of a once great statue and tomb, designed by Michelozzi in the 15th century. Above the high altar is a splendid triptych of the Assumption by Taddeo da Bartolo. In the left aisle, there is also a small painting of the Madonna and Child to which the locals attribute miraculous healing powers.

Outside the city walls, Sangallo il Vecchio in the 16th century created a true masterpiece of high Renaissance architecture, the Temple of San Biagio, a temple built entirely of travertine with the floor plan of a Greek cross. Being dedicated to the gods of mathematical and architectural purity and only nominally to any saint, the church can be considered to be largely pagan in inspiration. The interior offers an elegant and peaceful place of repose.

Montepulciano is also famous for its wine production, in particular the Vino Nobile, with its own DOCG status based on the local soils of Pliocene origin in which clay is well blended with sand. Historically and even today, the wine has been produced by small farmers. At first, mostly Chianti wine was produced and only later was it refined to Vino Nobile. The grapes are of the Prugnolo Gentile variety, a clone of Sangiovese Grosso, and they are harvested with great care. Vino Nobile requires an extended aging process in oak or chestnut wooden casks before bottling. Aged another three years, it becomes Vino Nobile Riserva, considered one of the finest red wines of Italy. Among the best local producers are Avignonesi (which also produces what is arguably Italy’s most prized Vino Nobile, a sweet dessert wine aged for a dozen years or more) and Poliziano.