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SIENA Specials - Out of town - Pienza - the old town centre

Right in the heart of Tuscany, Pienza stands between the Val d’Orcia and the Val d’Asso.

Considered one of the finest examples of Renaissance town planning, Pienza has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The original small fortified hamlet over which today’s city stands was called Corsignano and was part of the estates of the powerful Piccolomini family. But the town’s prosperity flourished exclusively thanks to Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, who in 1459 commissioned the architect Bernardo Rossellino to transform Pienza into his ‘ideal’ city. Although Rossellino respected the original Medieval structure of the town, his plans were carried out at such pace that in 1462, just seven years after the start of the works, the new Pienza was officially.

The centre of town is the piazza named after Pius II. Rossellino designed its unusual, trapezoid shape, along with the fishbone arrangement of the paving bricks. The Cathedral, as well as the Palazzo Comunale, Palazzo Piccolomini and Palazzo Borgia, face onto the square..

With its octagonal bell tower, the Cathedral stands at the base of the trapeze design of the square. Its imposing façade in travertine contains a drum with the Piccolomini coat of arms at the centre, probably completed by Senese craftsmen. The interior is divided into three naves and is full of light thanks to the large gothic windows.

There are a number of interesting Senese School altarpieces, including one by Matteo di Giovanni and Lorenzo di Pietro (known as Il Vecchietta). The crypt contains fragments of sculptures that were once part of the decorations of the former Romanesque church dedicated to Mary, as well as a tabernacle designed by Bernardo Rossellino.

To the right of the Cathedral stands Palazzo Piccolomini, the private residence of Pope Pius II and one of Rossellino’s finest buildings. The southern part of the palazzo is composed of three loggias, one above the other, commanding magnificent views over the Val d’Orcia.

The first floor of the building houses the Museo Artistico, which contains a number of Piccolomini family portraits as well as 18th century Neapolitan School works. The Sala delle Armi contains a sizeable collection of halberds and armour, while the Biblioteca boasts a number of rare documents and volumes.

To the left of the Cathedral stands Palazzo Borgia, named thus because it was given by Pope Pius II to Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, the future Pope Alexander VI. Formerly the Palazzo Pretorio, today the building houses the Museo Diocesano, with a total of 11 rooms that contain Senese School works from the 13th to the 18th century, as well as the mantle that belonged to Pope Pius II.

Next to Palazzo Borgia is the Palazzo Comunale, which was built after 1462. It has a low, broad tower and an internal courtyard with a loggia supported by travertine columns. Slender bifore windows open up onto the façade. Today the building houses the town council.

Of the religious buildings in Pienza, the most important is the Church of San Francesco, built in the second half of the 13th century. The fine gothic entrance leads to a single nave interior decorated with frescoes depicting episodes from the life of St Francis. The apse is also decorated with Franciscan scenes painted by Cristoforo di Bindoccio and Meo di Pero.

As well as its undeniable artistic and architectural beauty, Pienza is also known for its quirky street names. The town’s main street, Corso Rossellino, is named after its great architect. The parallel street to the Corso is Via del Casello and one of the town’s most romantic, with a number of narrow, shady streets leading into it such as Via dell’Amore, Via della Fortuna, Via del Bacio and Via Buia.

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