When local boy Enea Silvio Piccolomini was elevated from cardinal to Pope Pius II in 1458, he decided to play God with his hometown of Corsignano and rebuild the village based on High Renaissance ideals. The man he hired for the job was Bernardo Rossellino, a protégé of Florentine architect Leon Battista Alberti. Rossellino leveled the old center and built in its place Piazza Pio II, a three-dimensional realization of the "Ideal City" ideas drawn up by such artists as Piero della Francesca.
The square is flanked by the cathedral and three palaces: one for the government, one for the bishop, and one (of course) for Pius II. The pope liked the result so much he felt the village needed a new name for its new look, and he modestly decided to rename it after himself: Pienza ("Pio's Town"). As with modern big productions, Rossellino's civic face-lift came in both late and way over budget. (He fudged the account books so Pius wouldn't realize how deep the architect was dipping into the papal purse for funding.) Pius, aware of the duplicity but still immensely pleased with his new burg, reportedly reduced Rossellino to tears by saying, "You did well, Bernardo, in lying to us about the expense. . . . Your deceit has built these glorious structures, which are praised by all except the few consumed with envy." When the pope went on tour to try to drum up support for a Crusade to the Holy Land, he left a papal bull that said, in refined Latin, "Don't touch anything until I get back." He died in the same year as Rossellino, 1464, trying to raise his army in Ancona, and Pienza dutifully kept the cathedral and palaces exactly as Pius II left them in the 15th century -- the only Renaissance town center in Italy to survive the centuries perfectly intact.
Pius II liked the Austrian churches he'd seen in his travels, so he had Rossellino grace one side of the piazza with a syncretic Duomo whose Renaissance facade hides a Gothic interior. The gigantic coat of arms gloating above the rose window is that of Pius II's Piccolomini family. Not above letting everyone know who was financing all this, Pius II had the family cinque lune (five moons) device repeated more than 400 times throughout the church. The apse is set right on the cliff's edge so that sunlight can stream through its tall Gothic windows unencumbered by surrounding buildings, making this the best-lit church in Tuscany. Alas, the site has proved none too stable, and dangerous cracks have appeared in the fabric; you'll notice the slope as you walk toward the apse. With no good way yet found to shore up the structure, the altar end of the church threatens to slide down the slope without warning.
Unusually for Tuscany, the five altarpieces painted specifically for the cathedral by Sienese masters (1460-62) are still in situ; they make a good study of how the mid-15th-century artists worked a theme: Four of the five paintings are Madonna and Child with Saints (the other is an Assumption). First, on your right, is Giovanni di Paolo's take, where angels cluster around Mary to coo at the baby. A young Matteo di Giovanni rendered the scene next, his Mary accompanied by Saints Catherine of Siena, Matthew, Bartholomew, and Lucy (the last carrying an awful lot of her martyrs' eyeballs on a plate). The following chapel has a marble tabernacle by Bernardo Rossellino (there's a bit of St. Andrew's head inside), and after the choir stalls comes Vecchietta's Assumption, in which it takes quite a number of angels to boost Mary up to Heaven. The final two are by Sano di Pietro and a later altarpiece by Matteo di Giovanni. The Duomo is open daily 7am to 1pm and 2:30 to 7pm. Admission is free.
Opposite the Duomo, you'll see the travertine portico of the Palazzo Comunale, also by Rossellino and another odd hybrid -- this time Renaissance architecture masquerading as a medieval Tuscan town hall. To your right is the Palazzo Vescovile, built by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who later became Pope Alexander VI. It's the home of both the tourist office and the Museo Diocesano (tel. 0578-749-905), entered at Corso Rossellino 30, which collects treasures of Sienese art from the churches of Pienza and small towns in the area. One of its most important works is the early-14th-century Cape of Pius II, a silk papal garment embroidered with gold, saintly portraits, and colorful scenes from the Life of the Virgin. The 14th-century school of Bartolo di Fredi produced a portable triptych that reads like a comic strip, and the master himself is responsible for the Madonna della Misericordia (1364), in which Mary protects a kaleidoscope of tiny saints under her shawl. Il Vecchietta's altarpiece of the Madonna and Child with Saints, Annunciation lunette, and predella show off the peculiar grace and intent perspective of his flowing lines. From March 15 to October 31, the museum is open Wednesday through Monday from 10am to 1pm and 3 to 6pm; November through mid-March, it's open weekends only from 10am to 1pm and 3 to 5pm. Admission is 4.10€ adults and 2.60€ ages 8 to 13 and 65 and over.
Across the piazza, past Rossellino's Renaissance well, is the architect's finest palace (and Pius II's Pienza digs). The Palazzo Piccolomini (tel. 0578-748-503; www.palazzopiccolominipienza.it) was inspired by Alberti's Palazzo Rucellai in Florence, but Rossellino added an Italianate hanging garden out the left side of the inner courtyard. Pius particularly liked his small patch of box hedges backed by a triple-decker loggia. It's perched on the edge of Pienza's tiny bluff and offers postcard views across the rolling cultivated hills of the wide Val d'Orcia to Monte Amiata. Half-hourly tours take you through the pope's private apartments and out on the loggia to see the gardens Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 6pm (4pm Oct 16-Mar 14). Admission is 7€ adults and 5€ students. Members of the Piccolomini family lived here until the 1960s but kept the Renaissance look in the pope's bedroom, the library, and a heavily armed great hall. The palace is closed the last 2 weeks in November and January 7 through February 14.
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