Skip to Content

Pienza Italy: Why You Must Visit: What to Expect

Pienza Italy: Why You Must Visit: What to Expect

Is Pienza worth visiting?

Pienza is in Southern Tuscany where you’ll find it sitting proudly above the famous Val d’Orcia. There are many hill towns you must visit in this region, but none match Pienza’s simple beauty and remarkable history.

What is Pienza known for?

An Ideal City?

That Pienza was knocked down during the renaissance and rebuilt as an ideal city, is a commonly spread belief. And while this isn’t a complete falsehood, it’s not what you should expect when you visit. While there is a monumental core which is attractive, it is however out of place in a rural town. We’ll explore this further later.

Pecorino Cheese

Southern Tuscany is renowned for its sheep cheese and Pienza is considered the centre for pecorino. You can taste and buy your favorite variant from several shops: one of the reasons why you must visit!

Pecorino cheese
Tasty selection of pecorino cheese

A jewel of Italy

Pienza was included among 21 towns throughout Italy to be labeled “Jewels of Italy” in 2013. Chosen because they promoted good Italian living and therefore helped to relaunch the image of Italy. Importantly, they enhance the environment and heritage of the cultural, historical urban architecture, and food and wine of their communities. 

Is Pienza a good base for Tuscany?

Tuscany is a large region and is best broken down into several smaller areas. Pienza is a good base for exploring the Val d’Orcia in Southern Tuscany – if you have a car. 

Pienza offers many options for accommodation, as well as ample places to find meals. However, other fortified hill towns in Val d’Orcia would serve equally well as a base for a short week. San Quirico, Castiglione d’Orcia, Monticchiello, or Montalcino are all equally convenient. Some offer even better views, but all provide excellent access to amazing photographic locations across Val d’Orcia.

Why is Pienza the ideal city?


The notion of ‘the ideal city’ most likely came from Plato’s philosophies, rediscovered in the renaissance. Moreover, they launched the renaissance humanist idea of how a city should be designed and governed. 

Pienza was the very first medieval town to receive rebuilding efforts to convert it into a modern renaissance Ideal City. 

Eneas Piccolomini

A career diplomat, Eneas Piccolomini had worked for the highest western European courts before becoming Pope Pius II. At the height of his diplomatic career he even worked for the devout Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III.

He traveled extensively throughout Europe before entering the priesthood in 1446. He became a Bishop in 1447, and was elevated to Cardinal in 1456. Elected as Pope in 1458 he set about promoting a crusade to recapture Constantinople from the Ottomans.

As Pope he set about rebuilding Corsignano after reconnecting with fond memories of where he was born. It had to reflect his status of course, and demonstrate the sophistication he had acquired through his life.

Florentine architect Bernardo Rossellino was hired to design and oversee the construction of Pallazo Piccolomini, a new Cathedral, and to replace the town hall. A couple of other private dwellings were also rebuilt, and a few were remodeled with a modern appearance.

Sadly he had only enjoyed one summer in his brand new palazzo, and would never return to the town of his cherished childhood again. He died in 1464, still trying to arrange the crusade to remove the Ottomans.

How to get to Pienza

Pienza is approximately an hour south east of Siena. It is only a twenty minute drive from Montepulciano and thirty minutes from Montalcino. For those coming from Florence, it’s about a two-hour drive.

Flying into Pisa or Rome airports you can take a train to either Siena or Grosseto. The infrequent bus service can then connect you with Pienza, but driving by car is highly recommended.

Parking in Pienza can be a little tricky during the tourist season, and of course there is no parking inside the old town. Several free parking spaces are to be found, but most tourists leave their car at one of the paid municipal car parks, expect to pay from €4-€5 for 8 hours’ parking.

Why you must visit and what to expect

Pienza isn’t like other hill towns. Okay, it has medieval origins and parts of it’s defensive wall can still be seen. But it’s not steep and sits on gently sloping ground, therefore making it easy to walk around.

It’s only some 400 metres or a quarter mile long. There are lots of shops and restaurants and accommodation, but it does have a famous renaissance styled monumental centre! 

Many will tell you that the old town was demolished and rebuilt into an ideal city. And as you walk along the main thoroughfare, Corso Rossellino, you could be forgiven for having the same thoughts.

Pope Pius II who was born here when it was known as Corsignano, renamed it as Pienza in his own honour. Known as Enea Silvio Piccolomini, he set out to transform what had become an old and broken town in 1459. 

But did he truly want to completely rebuild this small rural town in the countryside? Or did he merely wish to create a summer residence fit for a Pope?

Read on as we try to ‘get our eye in’ on Pienza and see if we can discover why it’s sometimes considered the jewel of the Val d’Orcia.

The monumental centre


The Cathedral is the jewel in the crown that is Pienza. Boldly standing in Piazza Pio II, you can see the well proportioned renaissance facade, with a Romanesque echo. 

The interior has a Southern German Gothic influence where tall columns and large windows allow light to flood the space. Quite a change from the usual dark medieval Romanesque hall. The subdued decoration brings focus to the intricate tracery of the windows. The altar pieces are painted by the most regarded artists of their time at the Pope’s request.

Entry to the crypt is outside, on the Eastern side under the campanile. Inside is evidence of the former medieval church, and drainage tunnels which double as a labyrinth. A baptismal font designed by Rossellino and a collection of illuminated pages are also there. You will need tickets to visit.

Palazzo Piccolomini

Back out and returning to the Corso you approach Palazzo Piccolomini, completed in 1462. It’s now a museum and worth visiting to see how a renaissance Pope lived while on holiday!

The rear garden is built over top of the stables, unique in being the first hanging garden of the renaissance. 

Palazzo Rucellai in Florence is almost identical and is also built by Rossellino. However, there is uncertainty on completion dates creating controversy as to which is the predecessor and which is the copy. Also, there is suspicion that the common design was by Rossellino’s mentor, polymath Leon Battista Alberti.

Palazzo Borgia

The Bishops residence Purchased by Pius II originally the town hall, but is now converted to a beautiful museum of historic art and artefacts.

Let’s walk

Okay, so let’s go for a walk. At the Porta Murello (the Western gate) look for a sign above that says 15 GIUGNO 1944 DESTRUCTA – OTTOBRE 1955 RESTITUTA. It notes the date gate was damaged during WWII and later repaired.

A fresco showing the centre of Pienza with angels floating above can also be seen. They’re declaring that Pienza is protected by the Virgin Mary.

Look for the nameplate across the piazza on a wall that states PIAZZA MARTIRI DELLA LIBERTA. This square is dedicated to the memory of the Italian resistance fighting for liberty from the occupying Nazis.

This end of town suffered most as the German army hastily retreated during WWII. Can you notice some of the rebuilding and reconstruction?

Corso Rossellino

Shops of ceramics and copperware, are along the Corso here. Delicious local produce (premade pasta, olive oil, wine, and pecorino cheese!) is also found.

The Corso widens ever so slightly and buildings appear to be a touch more modern and orderly.

The facades look more uniform, the stucco in better condition and cornices are beginning to appear. Your gaze is directed toward the monumental centre of town, ‘the ideal city’.

Suddenly, the Corso widens to your right and the sheer size of Palazzo Piccolomini becomes very obvious! To create this papal palazzo, the old Piccolomini family home and several other houses were leveled.

A medieval church

Chiesa San Francesco - Pienza
Medieval church in renaissance Pienza

Chiesa di San Francesco is also here, a simple 13th century gothic hall typical of the Franciscan order. The mendicant order didn’t waste the little money they had on extravagant decoration. 

The facade’s style is typical “austerita mendicante” (beggar austerity). The entry portal has a lamb representing Christ carved into the key stone. An odd looking face is on the capital to the left, and a modest oculus high above allows light inside.

Franciscans invested in frescoes to tell the story of the Saint in an age when literacy was rare. Sadly, throughout history there was a tendency to lime wash over frescoes as different orders took over a church. I wonder if this was a consequence of the modernisation brought to Pienza by Pope Pius II?

The frescoes are in good condition inside the apse, considering they are around six hundred years old. The cloister of the connected convent can be visited, though it now belongs to a hotel. From the cocktail bar in the back garden a somewhat obscured view over the Val d’Orcia can be enjoyed.

Remodelled buildings

The facades of the building opposite has a sgraffito effect in harmony with the palazzo. It’s thought this building was bought by the church and remodelled to be an inn and hospice for the faithful.

Medieval buildings around the monumental core were restyled to help old Corsignano transition into the modern Pienza. However, the facade of Palazzo Salomone Piccolomini (number 41 and 43) remains very Gothic. It even retains a medieval ‘porta di morto’; literally ‘door of the dead’, a narrow door with steps down to the road. These were more common in busier medieval towns, and is probably the only one here.

Palazzo Ammannati is the next building, directly opposite palazzo Piccolomini (number 45 to 53). Re-created out of four separate houses for Cardinal Ammannati, an ardent supporter of Pius. 

Number 47 was originally an alley, but was built over and fitted with a stone doorway along with number 45. Where the stucco is now missing there’s clear evidence of how the facade was modified. Holes in the brickwork that supported substantial balconies are revealed.

Gwelf window frames on the third floor match the other palazzi, and those inside the courtyard of palazzo Piccolomini.

Piazza Pio II

Entering Piazza Pio II, you are now in the very heart of the monumental area of Pienza. 

This is the theatrical centre of the ‘the ideal city’, with the impressive Papal Palazzo Piccolomini to your right. The renaissance Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta is straight ahead, and the medieval (but modified) Palazzo Borgia is to your left.

The very Tuscan Palazzo Comunale is behind you. You are surrounded by the governing authorities of church, comune, and what would be a princely family palace.

Nine buildings were purchased, aside from what was already owned by the Piccolomini family in preparation for the rebuilding of the old church and construction of the piazza and the palazzo Piccolomini.

Palazzo Comunale was built on the location of three houses. The original Palazzo Priori (administrative office) was bought by the Pope for a Bishop’s residence (Palazzo Vescovile) known as Palazzo Borgia.

How different buildings match

However, the Cathedral is the main focus and sets the tone of the buildings around it. 

It’s square pilasters are mirrored in the stone work on Palazzo Piccolomini. Sgraffito on the facades of other palazzi on the Corso echo them also.

The Cathedral doorways too are mirrored in the palazzi on either side. And the rounded arches supported by columns are mirrored on the Palazzo Comunale opposite.

Twin arched windows on the first floor of Palazzo Comunale mirror those of the Papal palazzo.

This square is the essence of what they are talking about when Pienza is called the ideal renaissance city. Less kindly it has been called a failed investment of the heart, a square in the middle of a village.

Either way, the fact remains that Pienza is the prettiest town in the beautiful Val d’Orcia.

More medieval clues

Piazza di Spagna is behind the Palazzo Comunale, where homes were cleared to provide a public space and local marketplace. Built as part of the pope’s grand plan, it provides for activities not appropriate for the church square.

Next to the Palazzo Comunale in Via Guglielmo Marconi, look above and notice the enclosed balcony. A very medieval method to create more living space, but too unsightly for a modern renaissance thoroughfare. 

Along the Corso these were removed and facades were rebuilt, or at least renovated with sgraffiti over an application of stuccato. Efforts made to fulfill the Pope’s grand vision of a new and modern heart for a new city.

Can you find any facades with plasterwork that has deteriorated enough to reveal the pug-holes for supporting balconies? Can you see where windows and doors have been bricked over, and new openings created that align vertically in the renaissance manner?

More palazzi further along the Corso are either converted or built by high ranking clergy at the Pope’s suggestion. And many more buildings have been modified and beautified with stucco and sgraffito.

Via del Casello

However, let’s walk toward the campanile side of the church where the entry from Porta al Santo meets the piazza. There is a large amount of bullet damage to walls. Evidence of the conflict witnessed by Pienza during the forced withdrawal of the occupying Nazi army in 1945.

Keep on the path close to the building and follow around to the left on Via del Casselo. 

Take in the beautiful view over Southern Val d’Orcia as you stroll along the town wall. Sitting back relaxing with a spritz is an especially pleasant experience around sunset.

There are three alleyways back to the Corso, Via della Fortuna, Via dell’Amore, Via del Bacia; the ways of luck, love, and kisses.

Continue down toward Porta Ciglio and turn left at Via Della Volpe where at the end you arrive at Via Case Nuove. 

With many properties being bought, rebuilt or updated in Corsignano’s transition into Pienza, many people were having difficulty finding somewhere to live. So, the Pope had a row of twelve modest homes built that could be rented to those in need of housing. An historically early social housing project.

From here you can wander the medieval alleys and see which houses have had windows and doorways modified for a renaissance look.

Corsignano church

Pieve dei Santi Vito e Modesto a Corsignano

Pieve dei Santi Vito e Modesto a Corsignano
where popes Pius II & Pius III were baptized.

Maybe you’ve had a nice meal and could do with a walk, or maybe you’re in the car on your way out of town. Either way you should make a quick visit to this medieval church with the round campanile. 

From Porta del Murello at the Northern end of town it’s only some 600 metres to walk, or less than 5 minutes in the car (including finding a free park).

Built in the 1100’s this medieval church has been renovated several times, but thankfully retains a somewhat authentic appearance. 

The exterior

A female figure (caryatid) acting as centre support in the mullioned window up high. As you approach you will also notice stone carving around the entrance portal. Mermaids, sirens, and dragons, are represented suggesting you will be safe in the sanctuary inside.

More carving is around the corner on the lintel above the side portal. Three Wise Kings, the new born Christ in a manger, and other scenes.

The interior

The large round campanile (bell tower) is solidly built into the church. See how it affects the alignment of the two rows of arches as you enter? Possibly the row on the right is from a restoration?

What appears to be a pair of serpents is on the capital of the left hand column, closest to the altar.

There is a thought that this is actually the serpent Regulus, a Roman deity. The suggestion is the capital is a relic of the original church dating back to before 700!

There is also a hidden crypt, in the far right hand front of the church to the side of the second altar. Take care if you wish to descend into it as you must pass through a metal gridded door. Also, the lighting may not actually work.

On the way out, the baptismal font has a small but important marble plaque engraved in Latin. It states that two Popes (Pius II and his nephew Pius III) were baptised here.

The Gladiator view

Finally, the scene from the movie Gladiator where Maximus imagined his return home is a short (5 minute) 400 meter walk down the white road.

Where Maximus visited Pienza
Maximus returns home