Val d’Orcia: hot baths and culture
Located in the heart of Tuscany, the Terre di Siena is an area of great beauty where an almost perfect and enchanted landscape can be explored alongside the area’s rich cultural, artistic and historic heritage. The Val d’Orcia is the incredible result of the close ties between Tuscany’s naturalistic beauty and centuries of agricultural and human settlements. The reddish-copper colored earth is one of the most incredible characteristics of this area, creating a landscape that has been celebrated and loved for centuries. This is in addition to the soft hills of the countryside which is scattered with medieval hamlets and small towns, olive groves and vineyards.
The natural richness of this area is mirrored in the vast selection of minerals: thermal springs have flowed from this territory for centuries, modifying the landscape and the wealth it offers. The thermal baths of Bagni Vignoni were used by the civilizations of yore that inhabited the area. The Etruscans used these healing waters, as did the Romans after them. A large rectangular bath is the enchanting frame for this small town: here the thermal waters have flowed for centuries, and the bath faces ancient buildings like the portico of Santa Caterina and the church of San Giovanni Battista. The healthy ‘vapours’ of this ‘piazza of thermal waters’, especially at night, offer a magical and mystical atmosphere. Not far off from this thermal spring town is San Quirico d’Orcia, an important trajectory along the Via Francigena, where visitors can see the Collegiata from the 12th century and the Horti Leonini, a magnificent green oasis and 15th century garden, situated under the walls of the ancient town.
Along the slopes of Monte Amiata is a thermal spa that is some 500 meters above sea level. These sulphur-rich waters create enchanting calcium falls that emerge from the thick forest of the mountain. Called Bagni di San Filippo, these natural thermal springs and baths are a spectacular sight that offer health and relaxation—free of charge. Nearby is the ancient town and birth place of Lorenzo di Pietro detto il Vecchietto, Castiglione d’Orcia. There is lots to visit here: the city hall building, the churches of Santa Maria Maddalena and the Santi Stefano e Degna, the remains of Rocca Aldobrandesca and the magnificent Rocca a Tentennano.
The Val d’Orcia is a symbol of the Terre di Siena, the lands surrounding Siena. The cypress-lined road that leads from Val d’Orcia to Val di Chiana is a beautiful way to discover this corner of Tuscany,one of the region’s most beautiful areas.
Pienza, city of the Pope
The year following his papal nomination, he hired the architect Bernardo Rossellino to transform his obscure village into a city. Piazza Pio II opens up in the centre of the little town and is the hub of Pienza’s urban structure. The little Renaissance square was studied to welcome the urban constructions being built at the time, and in fact all of the main monuments of the town face onto it. You can see the squared flooring and the travertine well with the coat of arms of the Piccolomini family. The Cathedral is the most grandiose and imposing element among the constructions. It was in fact the Pope who wanted this building to be the most important as a symbol of his faith. Its vigorous Renaissance façade is divided into three parts by arched columns, at the centre of the gable is the Piccolomini coat of arms in a delicate crown of foliage and fruits carried out by Siennese masters. On the left wing is the octagonal, cuspidate bell-tower that shows a strong resemblance to those of Austrian and German churches. Its eclectic style was strongly inspired by the Hallenkirchen (hall churches) of Northern Europe that Enea had seen before becoming Pope.
The Crypt conserves fragments that come from the Romanesque church of St. Mary, destroyed to make space for the new Cathedral. Palazzo Piccolomini is Rossellino’s masterpiece, the second most important building that faces onto the piazza. This was Pio II and his family’s home and to build it the architect took inspiration from the forms of the Rucellai palazzo in Florence. On the southern side is a magnificent loggia of three orders with a view of the roof garden, the Val d’Orcia and Monte Amiata: the courtyard is bordered by travertine columns. The first floor has been turned into a museum where you can visit the apartments and see the furnishings. Palazzo Borgia was given by Pio II to Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and its aspect reveals his pre-existence more compared to the other buildings. The Cardinal limited himself to merely lifting the structure up a level and substituting the gothic windows with cross windows, adding a travertine doorway and an internal courtyard. The building is the seat of the Diocesan Museum that is formed around the nucleus of the Cathedral Museum; the ancient museum collected works that belonged to the Cathedral, as well as numerous sacred furnishings that belonged to the Pope and the bishops that followed him over the course of the centuries. In the eleven rooms that make up today’s museum, in chronological order from the 13th to the 18th century, important paintings, sculptures, sacred furnishings and manufactured fabrics all relative to the area of the Pienza Diocese are exhibited.
Of particular interest: the Cross painted in the XII century that represents Christ Triumphant over Death; The Madonna with Child painted in the 14th century by Pietro Lorenzetti; the large panel of the Madonna della Misericordia painted by Bartolo di Fredi in 1364. Palazzo Comunale is the most recent of the buildings of the piazza with its ample loggia and its façade decorated with a scratched plaster technique and by a brick tower, built later. This is lower than the bell tower to underline the more important power of the church compared to the civic power. The Church of St. Francis is the only monument that remains of the ancient village of Corsignano, other than being one of the oldest Franciscan buildings in Italy. It dates back to the second half of the XIII century and presents a gabled façade, decorated with a Gothic style doorway. Inside we find frescoes that tell the story of the life of St. Francis. In the vaults are shown the three Franciscan virtues and on the walls can be found twelve episodes of the life of St. Francis carried out by Cristofano di Bindoccio and Meo di Pero, Siennese artists of the second half of the XIV century.
The palazzos Ammannati, Gonzaga and of the Cardinal Atrebatense complete a very fascinating urban fabric. Pienza is a recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site. Every second weekend in May the “Pienza and its flowers” show and market of plants and flowers is held. In occasion of this exhibition plant breeders and schools of the sector meet up to re-propose wonderful floral scenes inspired by Renaissance art, within the most beautiful areas of the city.
The first Sunday in September is the Festival of Cheese. Pienza is considered the “capital” of pecorino cheese; this is because the little town is situated in the middle of a clay area, the Val d’Orcia, in which the sheep pasture is characterized by a series of aromatic herbs that make the milk particularly tasty and fragrant. Don’t leave town without buying a selection of the local pecorino cheeses
San Quirico d’Orcia, with its rich collection of architectural monuments (the Collegiata of Saints Quirico and Giulitta, the Church of the Misericordia, Palazzo Pretorio, Palazzo Chigi, the Church of Santa Maria di Vitaleta, and the Church of Santa Maria Assunta) and the Horti Leonini, 16th century Italian style gardens designed by Diomede Leoni which are used today as the site of contemporary sculpture installations.
The primitive nucleus of the abbey of Sant’Antimo dates back to the cult of the relics of Sant’Antimo from Arezzo, to the death of whom, in352, in the place of his martyrdom, was built a small oratory. In the same place rose a roman villa :as it is testified by the numerous findings of the Roman period on the northern side of the bell tower or some columns in the Carolingian crypt. The inscription “venite et bibite” on the contrary would let us think about the presence of a font with therapeutic properties . In 715 the church was kept by a priest of the diocese of Chiusi. In 770 the Long bards charged the abbot from Pistoia Tao to start the building of a Benedectine monastery and they assigned him the managing of the properties of the land. The abbeys were used as a halting by the pilgrims who went to Rome , by the merchants, the soldiers and the king’s messengers. Charlemagne, coming back from Rome in 781, passing through the great road created by the Long bards and then called the “via Francigena” because it was a “road built by the Franks”, he arrived in Sant’Antimo and put his signet on the foundation of the monastery. Almost certainly the foundation made by Charlemagne has to be interpreted as a simple medieval legend. On the 29th December 814 a document by Ludovico il Pio, son and successor of Charlemagne, enriches the abbey with presents and privileges. The abbeys became to all intents and purposes an imperial abbey. Under the Carolingian influence the community started its period of climax.
In 1118 it began the building of the new church, under the guide of the abbot Guidone. The most important reference point for the planning of the new church is the Benedictine abbey of Cluny. The abbot asked for the intervention of the French architects to plan the new building, which is partly inspired to the Benedictine church of Vignory of 1050. Some sculptures, the northern and southern doors, the jambs of the sacristy, some capitals collocated in the northern tribune, other capitals, fragments of decoration or small plasters, let us think about the existence of a building of the new abbey. Around 1000, it would have been built a church, of which it only rests the bell tower, which was originally separated by the nave, according to the medieval tradition. For this reason the following modifications of 1118 have taken into consideration the already existent architectonic ties, adopting the volumes of the presbytery so as to put it between the bell tower and the Carolingian chapel. The choir’s area in fact is smaller than the rest of the building. Around the half of the XII century the building of the new abbey is almost completed , only the front is unfinished. In 1870 the abbey passed under the jurisdiction of the Fine Arts. With seven restorations the abbey has come to the present state .
It was made famous by Brunello, one of the world’s best red wines. But Montalcino is also a magnificent city of art which, from its hill, dominates the 3000 hectares of vineyards (1500 for Brunello) that have given it fame and wealth.
Straddled between the basins of the Ombrone and the Orcia, the centre is overlooked by the Fortress built in 1361 to consolidate the fact that Montalcino had become a possession of Siena. A second symbol of Montalcino is the slim tower of the Town Hall built between the 13th and 14th centuries. At the foot of the tower Piazza del Popolo and the Gothic Loggia.
In the historic centre the churches of Sant’Agostino and Sant’Egidio (14th century) are worth a visit, as is the Civic and Diocese Museum which houses Della Robbia terracotta works and paintings and sculptures from the 14th to the 20th century.
Brunello di Montalcino It’s one of the world’s most famous wines—Brunello di Montalcino. This wine, “created” during the last century thanks to the genius of Ferruccio Biondi Santi, is now known the world over for its interpretation of the most Tuscan of varietals—Sangiovese.
In the Val d’Orcia, Brunello is a sort of monumental wine, a product that highlights the connection between the work of man and of nature. This is equivalent to the Renaissance spirit. By law, wine cannot be sold unless it has been aged for at least five years—the result can only be described as a suspension in time and the expectation of a revelation (the opening of the bottle): a sentiment that has often inspired great works of art. But what does the Amiata have to do with Brunello? With its peak, the Amiata protects Montalcino from rain and wind from the east, making it one of the least humid areas in Tuscany. This, along with the uniqueness of the terrain and human labor, makes Brunello di Montalcino one of the most structured and long-lived wines in the world.
Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore
The history of the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore began in Siena around 1313, when Giovanni dei Tolomei—a brilliant nobleman in his forties—decided to make a break from ‘normal life’ and dedicate himself to more spiritual practices. Together with Patrizio Patrizi, Ambrogio Piccolomini and other Sienese friends, he travelled 35 km from Siena and chose the secluded Tolomei estate of Acona, to be the center of their retreat. There, the friends spent years of semi-ascetic life and so that they wouldn’t be confused with heretic sects, the group became officially recognized in 1313, as the congregation of the ‘bellicose’ bishop from Arezzo, Guido Tarlati Pietramala.
The new Congregation chose to become part of the Benedictine Order, following the code of conduct often described by the Latin phrase ‘ora et labora’. Visitors to the abbey should expect strict monk-style schedules when it comes to opening and closing hours; both are announced by the unmistakable chimes of the monastery’s clock tower. The abbey’s structure reflects classic influences and has many of the characteristics of a typical Benedictine complex including a large church, and one or more large and small cloisters. The Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore also hosts a main classroom, a refectory and a large library.
Modern-day visits begin with a tour of the church, built at the beginning of the 1400s. Like many Sienese churches of the time, its abundant collection of paintings make it a quasi-gallery or sacred art museum. In addition to paintings, visitors can admire statutes and grand inlaid works like the chorus lectern with the cat, created by Brother Raffaele da Brascia (1520). The church leads into the Grand Cloister, which is completely frescoed by Luca Signorelli and Antonio Bazzi, known as the Sodomite. From the Grand Cloister, visitors have access to the refectory and can take the stairs up to the main classroom and the abbey library. Many guests save the time to attend Holy Mass during their visit; this sung-mass showcases the beauty of Gregorian chants and is officiated by the Olivetano Monks.