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The Val d’Orcia, A World Heritage Site for Humanity
In 2004, UNESCO declared this valley a World Heritage Site. This historical area of Tuscany, extends from the hills south of Siena to Monte Amiata. It is characterised by gentle, carefully cultivated hills occasionally broken by gullies and by picturesque towns and villages such as Pienza, concieved by Pius the II in the 15th century as the “perfect city”. Further south is Radicofani (home to the notorious highwayman and hero, Ghino di Tacco). To the west is San Quirico d'Orcia, Castiglione D'Orcia, Bagno Vignoni and of course Montalcino (home to Brunello di Montalcino one of Italy's most prestigious wines). The Val D'Orcia is the most photographed landscape in Tuscany. Its beauty has been recorded throughout the centuries. From familiar Renaissance paintings and poems to todays digital imagery.
Val d'Orcia is an exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was rewritten in Renaissance times to reflect the ideals of good governance and to create an aesthetically pleasing picture. It lies to the south-east of Siena, its northern boundary approximately 25 km from the city centre. The landscape reflects colonization by the merchants of Siena in the 14th and 15th centuries. They aimed to create a landscape of efficient agricultural units but also one that was pleasing to the eye. The landscape that resulted was one of careful and conscious planning and design and led to the beginning of the concept of 'landscape' as a man-made creation. The landscape was thus created to be efficient, functional, equitable and aesthetically pleasing. It was based on innovative tenure systems whereby the estates owned by merchants were divided into small properties and cultivated by families who lived on the land. Half of the produce was paid to the merchants as rent - sufficient to allow the merchants to reinvest in further agricultural improvements. The farms were mixed farms cultivating grain, vines, olives, fruit and vegetables and with hay meadows and pastures for livestock interspersed between the farms. Farmers practised transhumance with routes to Meremma and l'Amiata. An illustration of the aim for the farming landscape to create pleasing pictures is the persistent tradition of planting roses to embellish vineyards. Cypresses form a striking addition to the landscape planted along routes and around settlements, their regular form punctuating the rounded shapes of the hills and their dark colour contrasting strikingly with the pale landscape
The colonization of the landscape involved creating new settlements for farmers and their families and labourers needed to work the land. It also involved greatly enlarging and improving existing villages. The most dramatic example of a planned new town is Pienza, named after its founder Pope Pius II who commissioned in 1459 Bernardo Rossellino to enlarge his village to create an ideal city with cathedral, palaces and civic buildings surrounding a central piazza, thus bringing together civil and religious authorities. Larger fortified settlements on hills include Montalcino, originally a 13th-century frontier post, Radicofani, Castiglion d'Orcia, Rocca d'Orcia and Monticchello. Elsewhere the landscape is studded with smaller villages on smaller hills, some also fortified. In many cases these settlements include remains of 13th-century buildings when Siena first gained control of the area, buildings from the great period of expansion in the 14th and 15th centuries, and also later buildings constructed under Florentine control in the 16th centuries.
The World Heritage site is significant in that the large farmhouses assume a dominant position in the landscape and are enriched by prominent architectural elements such as loggias, belvederes, porches and avenues of trees bordering the approach roads.
The strategic importance of the area, its connection with Siena, and its development, are all intertwined with the Via Francigena which has traversed the area north-south since Roman times (when it was know as the Via Cassia) linking Rome with the north of Italy and France. Since late medieval times, the route has been used an ecclesiastical route, linking the Church of Rome with its dioceses. It also facilitated a flow of pilgrims and merchants and generally allowed the transmission of people and ideas to enter the region. The route fostered the development of fine churches and monasteries such as the Collegiata di San Quirico in the Abbey of Sant'Antimo.
In the Val d'Orcia (and also in Siena) the landscape is strongly associated with utopian ideals. Siena was a sort of 'commune' and the Val d'Orcia a model of sustainable rural development, and both manifested the highest aesthetic qualities. The ideal landscape was painted by Lorenzetti in the Town Hall in Siena in 1338-40; it became reality in the Val d'Orcia and was then immortalized in paintings by artists such as Giovanni di Paolo, and Sano di Petri, who in turn helped to strengthen the ideals.
San Quirico d'Orcia, city of remote Etruscan origins, rises in the heart of the dreamy landscape of the Orcia Valley along the Via Cassia. It was once a rest station for travelers, pilgrims, and merchants on their way to Rome. Although today it is a small commercial and residential center, San Quirico is surrounded by a eminently rural area, formed by the hills between the Asso and Orcia valleys, and today agriculture remains a large part of its economy. Located a few kilometers from the marvelous and very visited monumental thermal baths of Bagno Vignoni, San Quirco often results as a rather neglected location by a flow of tourists.
The visit to the historical center, closed by the old wall and cut by the ancient streets of Via Romea or Francigena, you are immediately shown a little jewel, that is the elegant Collegiate Church, constructed in 1100 on the old Romanesque parish church: it presents a façade open by three portals, of which the central one is a splendid example of Romanesque art with Gothic returns, while the bell tower dates back to the 1700's; on the interior, next to the baroque and rococo works of art, there is a magnificent inlaid wooden chorus, done by the Sienese Antonio Barili, and a 15th-century wooden triptych attributed to Sano di Pietro. On the side of the sanctuary rises the majestic Palazzo Chigi-Zondadari (17th century), going along the Road, you then reach Piazza della Libertà, heart of the town, where the Church of San Francesco stands out with its simple Romanesque lines (with light Gothic elements): even the Church of the Madonna stands out because it holds the statue of the Madonna di Vitaleta by Andrea della Robbia. On the same way, you reach the major attraction of San Quirico d'Orcia: The stupendous Garden Leonini. Based on the design of Diomede Leoni and thanks to a donation by Francesco I de' Medici. The Garden was built at the beginning of the 16th century. Perfectly conserved, the Horti (gardens) are a magnificent example of a classic Italian garden. Because of the presence of the Horti, San Quirico d'Orcia is a privileged location for the study of Italian gardens, as is evidenced in the presence of the Italian Archive of the Art of Gardening in the City Library. In the Horti, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the mortal remains of the Tower of Cassero, destroyed during the Second World War. Among the other monuments, worth mentioning is also the little Church of Santa Maria Assunta, beautiful Romanesque construction with characteristic stone small belltower with only one nave and open by a single-lancet window, and in front of it, Scala Hospital, building that over the past centuries has offered recovery to pilgrims and wayfarers of Via Francigena: there is a 16th-century well in the courtyard here.
It is also interesting to follow the route along the medieval wall that remains almost entirely intact and is characterized by fourteen towers (in various states).
"The Perfect City"
Pienza was rebuilt from a village called Corsignano, which was the birthplace (1405) of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Italian: Enea Silvio Piccolomini), a Renaissance humanist born into an exiled Sienese family, who later became Pope Pius II. In 1459 Piccolomini had the entire village rebuilt as an ideal Renaissance town. He intended it to be a Retreat from Rome. Pienza represents the first application of humanist urban planning concepts, creating an impetus for planning that was adopted in other Italian towns and cities and eventually spread to other European centers. It was in this Tuscan town that Renaissance town-planning concepts were first put into practice. He chose the architect Bernardo Rossellin. This new vision of urban space was realized in the superb square known as Piazza Pio II and the buildings around it: the Piccolomini Palace, the Borgia Palace and the cathedral with its pure Renaissance exterior and an interior in the late Gothic style of south German churches.
The rebuilding was done by Florentine architect Bernardo Gambarelli (known as Bernardo Rossellino) who may have worked with the humanist and architect Leon Battista Alberti, though there are no documents to prove it for sure. Alberti was in the employ of the Papal Curia at the time and served as an advisor to Pius. Construction started about 1459. Pope Pius II consecrated the Duomo on August 29, 1462, during his long summer visit. He included a detailed description of the structures in his Commentaries, written during the last two years of his life.
An elegant French Romanesque edifice, Standing peacefully in a beautiful Tuscan valley. the Abbey of Sant'Antimo is surely one of the most beautiful in Italy. Its harmonious architecture pre-dates the early 10th century and shows French and Lombard influences. These somewhat remote influences are explained by its location on the Via Francigena leading to France and the area's one-time rule by Lombards.
A single tall tree stands next to the square bell tower on the north side. Surviving from the original 8th-century monastery church is the Carolingian Chapel with its small apse next to the main 10th-century apses. The chapel is now used as a sacristy and is not open to visitors. Also not normally accessible is the Carolingian crypt beneath the present church, which has an apse at each end. A third survivor of the 8th century can be seen in the pretty ruined cloister: Three round-headed bays of the chapter house. The cloister area contains a 16th-century cistern standing on the site of the medieval well.