Pienza, Italy: A Renaissance Village in Tuscany

Pienza, Italy started out as a modest village surrounding the Castello di Corsignano, a castle built around the middle of the 8th century. But soon after Eneo Silvio de Piccolomini became Pope Pius II in 1458, he began to realize his ambitious plans for the place of his birth.

Born in 1405 one of eighteen children, Eneo was sent to the University of Siena where he studied literature, poetry, oratory and history, and later completed his education with a law degree. His aristocratic family owned large estates at Corsignano and had retired there after the noble families of Siena had lost power in the government.

Eneo Silvio’s career in the church began as a young man. As the secretary to a cardinal he was sent to a council of the church in Basel and on a number of different missions and political errands throughout Europe. He also spent several years in Germany in the employ of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. Returning to his Tuscan origins, he became bishop of Siena and soon afterwards was elected Pope Pius II.

A true man of the Renaissance, Pius II was a prolific writer on such varied subjects as history, biography, political science, horses and their care, even family life. His Memoirs are replete with colorful descriptions of Tuscan life in the 15th century.

Among the many ambitious projects he undertook during his papacy was the urban renewal of the village of his birth into an elegant example of Renaissance architecture. For this momentous task, he commissioned the Florentine architect Bernardo Rossellini. Rossellini’s design of the pavement of the central piazza in a pattern of brick and travertine was followed by the building of the Cathedral, the Palazzo Canonici (the vicarage), and Palazzo Piccolomini, a palatial residence for the Pope. When all was completed the Pope renamed the village Pienza in his own honor.

Pius II didn’t have long to enjoy the triumph: having failed to get full support from Europe’s princes and cardinals in the promotion of a crusade against the Turks, he decided to lead the crusade himself. He died soon after in Ancona on Italy’s eastern seaboard while preparing to board the ships against Istanbul.

Rossellini’s inspiration for Palazzo Piccolomini, the Pope’s residence, came from the famous Palazzo Rucellai in Florence designed by Leon Battista Alberti. Today it is a museum of three floors containing the former papal apartments, furnishings and a collection of paintings and engravings portraying members of the Piccolomini family. A remarkable library, which formerly was used as a meeting room for family reunions, exhibits a fine collection of precious incunabula and other rare books.

It is said the Cathedral was modeled after a church which Pius II had known and admired in Austria. Constructed on the site of the former church, of which very little remains, it is now on two levels. Unfortunately it lacks a solid foundation, subject to settling resulting in cracks in its wall and a leaning church tower similar to the one in Pisa. Occasionally sulphur fumes seep through its floor. While the exterior of the cathedral is in Renaissance style, the interior with its high pointed vaults and windows are a reflection of the earlier Gothic architecture. The simple three-arched entrance is decorated with the Piccolomini coat of arms and the keys of St. Peter. The superb marble tabernacle designed by Rossellini is augmented by a 1462 carved wooden choir, and altarpieces painted by famous Sienese artists Giovanni di Paolo, Sano di Pietro, Matteo di Giovanni and Lorenzo di Pietro il Vecchietta.

The Palazzo Canonici today houses the Diocesan Museum. It has an important collection of 13th- to 19th-century church furnishings and vestments, a number of paintings of the Sienese school including the magnificent panel of the Madonna surrounded by Saints by il Vecchietta, gold filigree and pearls from the middle of the 14th century, Renaissance polychrome wooden statuary, 15th-century Flemish tapestries, precious manuscripts, and anthem-books illuminated by Sano di Pietro and Pellegrino di Mariano.

A short distance outside Pienza the old Church of Corsignano with its distinctive round tower has retained its true Romanesque architecture.

Another interesting place nearby is the ancient hermitage, a fascinating place dating back to Etruscan and Roman times. For centuries it was neglected and forgotten. When the Moricciani family acquired the property in recent years, they decided to save and restore this mystical retreat, once dug out of the sandstone believed to have been an Etruscan tomb. A ray of light shining through a narrow window of the cell creates a sacred and mystical ambience.