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Traipsing Through Tuscany- The Piccolomini Pienza

On Our Way to Pienza

On Our Way to Pienza

From Monticchiello we are off to Pienza, a small town that we can see on the hill in the distance. Pienza, is on a hill, but after arriving in the town, walking here is on flat ground. Unlike Montepulciano,  which is all up hill, Pienza is flat. There is a parking lot outside of town, but since it is full, we drive closer to the school and find a spot there.  Walking to the Town Gate, Porta Prato, I stop and admire a beautiful lawn and garden.  Before I know it an older gentleman came from the porch of the house and down to his gate to talk to me. He speaks Italian and when he realizes I am an American, he thanks my husband and me for saving Italy in WWII!  Then he opens the garden gate and offers me a tour of his lovely flower garden.  It was beautiful and just one of the many flower gardens in this small village.  Directly in front of Porta Prato is a public garden and the fragrance here is unbelievable!  The lawn is surrounded in a small bush hedge covered in white blossoms that are so fragrant!  I tried asking everyone and no one knew what that bush was and even my elderly gentleman friend was gone when I went back by his house to ask him, as we made our way out of town.  Darn! That’s what I will always remember about Pienza, the flowers and the fragrances.

Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405-1464) was born in Corsignano, the small town on a hill overlooking the Orcia and Asso Valley.  In 1458, Piccolomini became Pope Pius II and when he returned to his home town, he decided to transform the town with the first humanist concept of urban design, (Renaissance) with the aid of Bernardo di Matteo Gamberelli, known as Rossellino, ingenere di palazzo, of Pope Nicholas V in Rome. Rossellino was responsible for the overall layout of the town which consisted of a main street joining two town gates.  On this basic structure he planned the major buildings around a town square, which served as an outdoor room, called the Piazza Pio II. The Piazza is surrounded by the Duomo, the Piccolomini Family Palace, City Hall with the Bell Tower, and the Bishop’s Palace.  All were designed by Rossellino in five years time. In 1464 the work stopped because both Pope Pius II and Rossellino, the architect, were dead. What we see today was completed a century later.  The town was renamed, Pienza after the Pope.  What remains now is a mixture of old stone, potted plants, grand views and a fragrance not to be forgotten.

Traipsing Through Tuscany- Florence and San Gimignano

Palazzo Vecchio

Palazzo Vecchio


Rooftop Sculpture in Florenc

Tte Window of the World

The Window of the World

Thinking about our visit to Florence I can’t get over all the beautiful art we have seen in the Uffizi Gallery, the Pitti Palace, the Duomo Museum and the Accademia. I was especially excited over the artwork of Artemisia Gentileschi, (1593-1653) that SB pointed out to me in the Uffizi Gallery ( Judith Beheading Holofernes) and the Pitti Palace (The Conversion of Magdalena, Judith and Her Maidservant and David and Bathsheba). I first read about Artemisia Gentileschi in a book called, The Passion of Artemisia: a Novel, by Susan Vreeland. Delving into the themes of art, history and the lives of women, this is is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed.  Gentileschi painted many pictures of strong and suffering women from myth and the Bible. Her works include victims, suicides, warriors and especially, the Judith story. When you read the book and then see her paintings, her real life and her paintings intertwine and give you perspective of the times and how this woman lived and painted, and why she did so. Even her style of painting called chiaroscuro, which represents a strong contrast between light and dark, gives us a glimpse of her life.

One of Gentileschi’s works, David and Bathsheba, completed in 1635, had been found after centuries of deterioration, in a storage deposit area of the Pitti Palace, revealing decay, color flaking, due to improper storage conditions, and humidity damage. The re-evaluation of the Gentileschi’s courageous life and works were brought into focus with the attention of the Florence Committee of National Museum of Women in the Arts, who decided to fund the restoration of David and Bathsheba. Today, Gentileschi is regarded as the most progressive and expressionist painters of her generation.

Thinking of that book, brought to mind another book, called The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant. This historical novel of Florence is a story of love, art, religion and power  as told by Allessandra Cecchi when her father brings a young painter to paint the chapel walls of the family’s pallazzo. This story is told while Florence is caught in a state of turmoil imposed by the fundamentalist monk Savonarola, who is seizing religious and political control and the Medici State, with it’s love of luxury, learning and art. On our walking tours of Florence we learned a great deal about the Medici family and Savonarola.  Recalling that book, brought to mind The Lord’s Supper, painted on the wall of the Santa Maria della Grazie Church in Milan, which I have been lucky enough to see.

I was curious to learn how all this beautiful artwork was saved during WWII. Now, I am currently reading, Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis, by Robert Edsel. In particular I am interested in, General Karl Wolff, a German officer, who risked his life to save the collections of the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace. Robert Edsel also wrote, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and  the  Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, now made into a motion picture of the name, The Monuments Men.

San Gimignano, twenty-five miles south of Florence, will be our first stop on our way to Montepulciano, where we will be making our home base for our Tuscany visit.

The parking lot outside the main gate, Porta San Giovanni, was very busy as we approached.  The village itself is pedestrian only. Getting in the car parking queue we had to wait for a car to come out before we could go in and take the spot. One in, one out.  San Gimignano gives you a glimpse of a real Italian countryside experience, but with just enough shops and restaurants added to make it interesting for tourists.  The towers are restored replicas of the original, but they look authentic.

San Gimignano is a small, walled, medieval hill town with fourteen towers of various heights, replicated of the original seventy-two. Before the walls were developed around the town, these towers were a refuge, when ruffians and rival city states were sacking the town.  If under attack, the tower owners would set fire to the external wooden staircase, leaving the sole entrance to the house and it’s strongholds, unreachable. Today you can see all these tiny slit entrances way up on the second story of the towers, minus stairs to get to them. Also, notice that the buildings are made of different colored stones and brick. Heavy stones were used for the bottom floors and lighter cheaper bricks for the upper floors. In the year 1300, about 13,000 people lived within the walls. In 1348, a six-month plague left the town with 4,000 survivors. Crushed and demoralized, the town came under Florence’s rule and was forced to tear down it’s towers, and the trade route was re-directed away from San Gimignano. The town never recovered and poverty drove the well-preserved city to be as it is today.

Our walk takes us through the Porta San Giovanni up to the Piazza del Duomo, and the church itself, which features Sienese Gothic art_ Old Testament to the left___New Testament to the right. Further up the hill is the is Sant’Agostino Church, built by the Augustinians, who arrived in 1260. Here there are English speaking friars, who are happy to tell you about the church and their way of life. We stop and have lunch at the Locanda di Sant’Agostino, right next door to the church on a beautiful small piazza. The restaurant serves typical Tuscan home cooked meals, which would be paninos, pizza, pasta and insalatas, served with a local fruity white wine.   Walking back down the hill, along the ramparts, there are superb views of the Tuscan countryside. Soon we are inside the Rocca, originally another walled defense area, now a small walled garden of olive trees, where a group of men are singing and playing instruments. I loved our time in San Gimignano, but it is time to move on to Montepulciano. For more interesting history and scenes of Sam Gimignano, view the movie, Tea With Mussolini, a 1999 drama of the plight of American and English expatriate women during WWII. Most of the scenes are of Florence and San Gimignano, where the movie was filmed. In particular it reveals the artworks inside the Duomo of San Gimignano and how the women came to be there and tried to save the art. For more readings about the war and art see my  blog postings on Milan, and the War in Val  D’ Orcia, near Montepulciano. See you next in Montepulciano!

One Day in Milan

San Bartolomeo by Marco d'Agrate

San Bartolomeo by Marco d’Agrate


We are on the early morning commuter train from Varenna to Milan. We are meeting up with a private local guide, Lorenza Scorti, who knows the city’s history well. We have marked off certain sights we would like to see. We are hoping Lorenza has been able to get us tickets to get into the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, the Last Supper, is housed. One of the leading families of Italy during the Renaissance, the Sforza Family of Milan, hired da Vinci to decorate the dining hall of the Dominican monastery that adjoins the church. Ultimately, the Sforza family was bribing the monks with this gift so the monks would allow their family tomb to be placed in the church.(Which never happened) The fresco began deteriorating within six years of it’s completion due to the experimental technique used by Leonardo.  Bombing during WWII left only one wall standing in the church.  The wall of the Last Supper. Truly a miracle! In 1999 a 21-year restoration project was completed peeling away 500 years of touch-ups, leaving the masterpiece intact.

Lorenza meets us at the central train station and after going up several escalators in the fashionable shopping area of the train station, Lorenza buys tickets for the metro and we are off! It is early morning and the streets are quiet. First stop, the Duomo, with a forest of spires on its roof, is the fourth largest church in Europe, after the Vatican’s, London’s, and Seville’s. The church was built with Pink Candoglia marble, rafted in from a quarry 60 miles away. We went past this quarry on the train when we went to Cinque Terre. Marble is still extracted from the sight. Inside the church is a beautiful marble mosaic floor and looking up we see The Quadroni, (large paintings on canvas, each about 20 by 26 feet) depicting the life of St Charles Borremeo. The paintings have been brought out and displayed for a special anniversary in the church. The 1st cycle of paintings (starting in 1602), The Facts of Life of Blessed Charles, consists of 28 paintings depicting his life, and were painted by seven different artists. The 2nd cycle, The Miracles of St Charles, consisting of 24 smaller paintings of his miraculous works and healings, were all painted between December 1609 and November 1, 1610, when Charles was canonized. These paintings were displayed for the first time together on November 4, 1610, when the paintings of his miracles could be shown after he had been declared a saint. Now they are only displayed on special days in the church and we were fortunate to be able to see them.

The Duomo

The Duomo


An impressive, detailed statue of San Bartolomeo Flayed (1562), by Marco d’ Agrate, is upfront and center in the church. That is his skin draped over his shoulder!

After the church, we are delighted to be shown a small museum in a private palazzo. I have wanted to see what was behind those big oak doors! Following Lorenza, we are lead through an intricate laid marble entryway and up the stairs to the private apartments.  Today there are collections of clothing, shoes and those little bitty one woman carriage/carriers that were lifted on the shoulders of servants to whisk one about town and prevent your dress and shoes from being soiled. Boy were those women TINY! On the outside of the palazzo is a beautiful fresco above the rim of the windows.  (See the video I made)

The Palazzo

The Palazzo

The Dress

Inside the Palazzo

Next, we walk to the La Scala Opera House and museum, the world’s most prestigious opera house!  All that red velvet! Following that we head to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a four story glass domed arcade on the main square, featuring all the Italian high end shopping stores and great for people watching as well. It was the first building in Milan to have electric lighting! Oh how Italians love fashion!  Around the center dome patriotic mosaics symbolize the four major continents and the mosaic marbled floor reveals the city’s symbol, a torino. (little bull) Here locals step and twirl on the bull for good luck.

Inside the Galleria

Inside the Galleria

Il Torino

Il Torino

We go to a local pizza restaurant and I am so glad to sit.  The one person pizzas are HUGE (enough for three people) and we wash it down with good red wine.

Afterwards, we make our way to the Sforza Castle, previously the residence of the Sforza family. It is now a museum of ancient art which features the last and unfinished Pietà, by Michelangelo and the Sala della Asse, frescoed by Leonardo da Vinci, who worked for the Sforza family as a painter, sculptor, and hydrologic engineer. Seventeen layers of whitewash are slowing being removed to reveal the entire mural by da Vinci, sections having been discovered on the walls as late as 2013.

The Sforza Castle

The Sforza Castle

The Pietà

The Last Pietà

The Pietà

The Last Pietà


Our last stop of the day is Santa Maria della Grazie Church and we are thrilled to find admittance tickets waiting for us! The church is now hermetically sealed, so you go through sections of air filter stations, filtering the air from the outside, until it is deemed pollutant free and we are admitted.  At last, a group of twenty, is turned out into the refectory for 15 minutes at a time. In the Convent, where the work on the end wall was started in 1495, the mural, measuring 180 inches by 350 inches, represents the scene of the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples. Completed in 1498, the mural specifically portrays the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray Him. Working a new technique, dry plaster rather than wet, and choosing to seal the stone wall with a layer of pitch, gesso and mastic, da Vinci painted the sealing layer with tempera. Due to this method the piece began to deteriorate a few years after he finished it. As early as 1517, the painting was starting to flake and by 1556 it was deemed “ruined” and so deteriorated, the figures were unrecognizable.  In 1652, a doorway was cut through the painting, so the monks could get to the kitchens easier.  This door was later bricked up, but can still be seen as an irregular arch shaped structure near the center base of the painting.  In 1768, a curtain was hung over the painting to protect it; but instead it trapped moisture on the painting’s surface and whenever the curtain was pulled back, it scratched the flaking paint. In 1821, Stefano Barezzi, an expert in removing whole frescoes from their walls intact, badly damaged the center section of the mural before realizing the work was not a fresco.(Painted on wet walls) He then attempted to reattach the damaged sections with GLUE.  From 1901 to 1908, Luigi Cavenaghi completed a thorough study of the structure of the painting, then began cleaning it. On August 15, 1943, the refectory was struck by a bomb, but a protective structure of sandbags and an additional wall in front of the painting protected it from bomb splinters. Pictures of the damage to the church line the walls upon leaving.  It was the only wall left standing. We leave Milan and return to Menaggio by train and then ferry, weary but so thankful we have been able to see some of the greatest art in the world.

For more information on a private tour of Milan contact Lorenza Scorti at

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