Renaissance in Italy
The landscape of Val d'Orcia served as inspiration for some great Renaissance artists. We follow a route trailing in their footsteps.
In the hills of southern Tuscany are many charming communities where art and architecture have been flourishing for centuries. The good wines and the tasty food make this trip a delight for both the eyes and the tongue.
Travel from Siena in a southeastern direction through a landscape of bare clay hills to the village of Asciano with its Romanesque-Gothic church from the end of the 13th century.Asciano is a typical, somewhat extinct town where all life seems to take place in and around a small bar on the main street. But behind the fortified medieval walls that surround a part of the city, an authentic Tuscan heart beats. Two special museums are worth a visit. The Museo Civico Archeologico e d'Arte Sacra, located in Palazzo Corboli, is the most important museum of the Crete Senesi. The historical museum has a number of interesting Etruscan objects. You can safely skip the Museo Cassioli. Amos Cassioli (1832-1892) was a local painter who mainly enjoyed fame for his portraits and historical scenes. Mediocre painting that pales with the rich collection in the Museo d'arte sacra that houses some masterpieces by Sienese masters from the 14th and 15th centuries. "The birth of Mary" of the Maestro dell’Osservanza is an undisputed masterpiece.
Take the picturesque southern road towards Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore, a Benedictine abbey with medieval art. The abbey is located in a beautiful park and is still inhabited by monks. There are stunning frescoes from Sodoma in the main building. The monastery was founded in 1313 by Bernardo Tolomei, who turned his back on the world with some companions to live here in isolation as 'Olivetan Benedictines'. The order was recognized in 1344 by Pope Clement VI. The enormous building complex is the result of four centuries of construction. The entrance is formed by a gatehouse that with its tilted tower resembles a medieval castle. Beyond the gate, which is decorated with terracotta reliefs from the Della Robbia workshop, a path leads to the 15th-century church, which was radically altered in the 18th century and has only preserved the portal and the campanile from its original appearance. To the right of the church is the entrance to the monastery. Via a vestibule you enter the famous Chiostro Grande, where the famous fresco cycle unfolds against the walls in which Luca Signorelli and Giovanni Antonio Bazzi have depicted the life of Saint Benedict. Signorelli is responsible for scenes 21 to 29 of this cycle, one of the largest in Renaissance painting. The graceful way in which people are depicted and the detailed attention to the architectural backgrounds and landscape are impressive.
Then continue to medieval Montalcino, which is best known for its famous wine, the Brunello di Montalcino. The hills around the town are therefore full of beautiful vines, where the precious grape grows of which the pride of Montalcino is made.
Be sure to taste a glass of this wine in the enoteca located in the Rocca, or at Caffè Fiaschetteria, with a beautiful historic interior. The earthy taste, in which herbs, plums and cherries predominate, is best combined with meat. The Brunello is not a wine to drink alone, but it is best combined with salami or a nice piece of meat. In addition to the Brunello, take time for Montalcino itself, with a beautiful Duomo, the Santuario della Santissima Maria del Soccorso (whose terrace offers stunning views), the Convent of Sant’Agostino, with a small art museum, and the Palazzo dei Priori.
Drive eastwards to the picturesque Val d'Orcia. The first community you come across on the SS323 is Castiglione d'Orcia, a town with cobblestone streets. Nearby is Bagno Vignoni, whose famous square is actually not a square at all, but a large piscina (pond) with bubbles from the sulfuric hot spring below.
Bagno Vignoni is still almost a village from the 16th century when the Piazza delle Sorgenti was built. This square in the middle of the village is not your average square, but is characterized by a huge water basin with a length of almost 50 meters. This is where the natural hot water source enters from the ground. The water that flows into the basin has a temperature of around 50 degrees Celsius.
Nowadays it is no longer allowed to enter this basin, but there are more than enough alternatives in the area to still enjoy the healing water. You can visit the natural pool in the Parco Naturale dei Mulini. From the basin on the Piazza delle Sorgenti, the water seeps down nearby rocky walls through the Parco Naturale dei Mulini, where it eventually ends up in the Orcia River.
Once you have passed San Quirico d'Orcia, Pienza is the next stop. In the 15th century, Pope Pius II tried to transform the village into the epitome of a Renaissance city. The cathedral, the papal quarters and the square with the palace are still there, making Pienza one of the most attractive villages in Italy.
Road to Pienza
Continue on the SS146 to Montepulciano, a classic town with 16th-century churches and palaces.
The end of the route is one of the highest places in Tuscany: Montepulciano. The town shines at an altitude of no less than 605 meters, allowing you to enjoy beautiful views. For the widest view, climb the tower of the Palazzo Comunale. With clear weather you can see as far as Monte Amiata and Lake Trasimeno.
Montepulciano is known for the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the "noble wine of Montepulciano". You can taste a glass of noble wine at the enoteca of the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, in the Palazzo del Capitano on the Piazza Grande. Here you can enjoy the Vino Nobile every afternoon (from the beginning of April to the end of October) in an atmospheric environment. You can taste by the glass, but you can also take a special 'tasting menu', such as Degustazione Bruscello, where you can taste three glasses of wine for ten euros (Rosso di Montepulciano DOC, Vino Nobile DOCG and Vino Nobile Riserva DOCG), accompanied by three local cheeses.