Pienza, Via Francigena, and La Foce Gardens
My first day began with a drive through Montepulciano, and then quickly moving on to Pienza. Set on a crest and surrounded by green, rolling hills, the small town of Pienza packs a lot of Renaissance punch. In the 1400s, locally born Pope Pius II of the Piccolomini family decided to remodel his birthplace into a city fit for a pope, in the style that was all the rage: Renaissance. Propelled by papal clout, the Etruscan town of Corsignano was transformed, in only five years’ time, into a jewel of Renaissance architecture. It was renamed Pienza after Pope Pius. The plan was to remodel the entire town, but work ended in 1464 when both the pope and his architect, Bernardo Rossellino, died. Their vision, what appears today, was completed a century later.
Pienza’s architectural focal point is its main square, Piazza Pio II, surrounded by the Duomo and the pope’s family residence, Palazzo Piccolomini. It was dedicated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1996. Tidy, tranquil, and tame, Pienza feels like the idealized Renaissance burg it was designed to be, but along with that civic pride comes more than its share of pretense. Nearly every shop sells the town’s specialty: pecorino, a pungent sheep’s cheese that sometimes contains other ingredients, such as truffles or cayenne peppers. Along with a glass of local wine, this just might lead you to a new understanding of la dolce vita
Many of the sights in this region line up along the route of the Via Francigena. During the Middle Ages, when devout Christians undertook a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Rome, this route was heavily trod by the footsore faithful flowing from northern Italy and northern Europe, hence the name Road of the Franks. While there were many variations and feeder paths, the route wound from Firenze to Siena, then through the Val d’Orcia to Rome. Without even realizing it, many modern-day tourists follow this millennium-old route as they travel through this part of Italy.
The first documented pilgrimages along the route took place around 725, and the trend continued for many centuries. In 990, Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury undertook the entire 1,100 mile round-trip from England. Upon his return he documented tips for fellow pilgrims about where to sleep, where to eat, what to see, and how to pack light...arguably the world’s first travel guidebook.
The history of Tuscany is inextricably tied to the Via Francigena. During the Dark Ages, a long journey was treacherous, rife with opportunity for illness, injury, and being robbed or murdered. Pilgrim traffic represented a huge injection of wealth into communities along the route, and fortresses popped up, or were repurposed, to keep the route safe. Abbeys and churches were built to cater to the masses, and many shrewd communities leveraged the passing pilgrim trade into enormous prosperity. The part of the Via Franciagena that ran through the Val d’Orcia was dedicated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2004.
One of the finest gardens in Tuscany, La Foce caps a hill with geometrical Italian gardens and rugged English gardens that flow seamlessly into the Tuscan countryside. In 1924, the British aristocrat Iris Cutting, who had grown up amidst wealth and privilege at Villa Medici in Fiesole, overlooking Firenze, married Antonio Origo, the illegitimate son of the marquis of Val d’Orcia. They took a dilapidated country home high in the hills above Chianciano Terme and set about converting it into a luxurious estate of manor homes and gardens, importing British landscape architect Cecil Pinset to bring their vision to life. The Origo clan also revived the Renaissance ideal of landowners helping the local peasants, and built a school and other institutions for the public good. During World War II the Origos took in refugee children and hid partisans. This experience led Iris Origo to write her most famous book, War in Val d’Orcia