Does your heart soar on seeing religious architecture? Do you go into churches regardless of the town you’re visiting? If the answer is yes, then the Siena area is the place for you. Head for Montepulciano, Montalcino and Asciano to visit truly unique churches and monasteries. Here are our 5 tips.
Since we’re focusing on the religious buildings of the Siena area, the city’s Cathedral is the place to begin. It’s one of the most beautiful and surprising churches in the world. The earliest documentation of the Italian Gothic- and Romanesque-style basilica dates to 1226, when the Siena Republic started to note down the costs and contracts inherent to the construction of the Cathedral, which probably began in the mid 12th century on the remains of a previous building that had been built where a Minerva temple had once stood.
Today’s church is topped by a platform with a few steps and is divided into a Latin cross with a nave and two aisles and a cupola where the two wings meet. The nave is punctuated by multistyle pillars with a transept divided in two. The cross vault of the transept consists of a hexagon topped with a daring dome boasting a dodecagonal base, which was one of the largest of the era. The entire cathedral is dominated by a black and white colour scheme, a reference to Siena’s coat of arms. Among the countless works by Tuscany’s greatest medieval and Renaissance artists we’ll stick to the most vast and incredible of them all: the marble inlay floor, a uniquely ornate accomplishment in Italian art due to its vastness, inventiveness and the importance of those who worked on it. Split into 56 panels, the floor displays depictions that adhere to the theme of the Revelation. The oldest panels date to the second half of the 1300s, while the more recent ones were added in the 19th century. The artists who worked on the floor designs down the centuries include Francesco di Giorgio, Pinturicchio, Il Sassetta, Neroccio di Bartolomeo de’ Landi, Antonio Federighi, Urbano da Cortona and, most of all, Domenico Beccafumi, who made 35 scenes, profoundly innovating the genre.
Our visit continues at the Santa Maria Sanctuary, in Pancole, situated along the Via Francigena, barely five kilometres from San Gimignano. The minute sanctuary is linked to the legend whereby a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary was discovered, painted in the late 1400s by Bartolomea Ghini, a young shepherdess who was mute. Legend has it that that girl was especially saddened by her poverty in 1668 and so she started sobbing as she led her flock to pasture. A beautiful lady appeared before her, asking the reason for such sadness. When Bartolomea replied, the lady reassured her, instructing her to go home because she would find her larder full of bread, bottles brimming with oil and barrels swollen with wine. Bartolomea suddenly realised that she was able to speak and ran home, calling out to her parents at the top of her lungs. They were astounded to hear their daughter talk and to see the larder full. The townsfolk walked to the pasture, where the child had said she’d seen the mysterious woman, but all they found was a pile of brambles. They removed the weeds and discovered that an aedicule was hidden there bearing an icon of the lady who Bartolomea had seen. As the brambles were removed, the icon was scratched by a bill hook, whose mark can still be seen today.
We continue our tour at Montepulciano Cathedral, which was built in the 1500s where an old church had stood. The cathedral looks out onto one of the loveliest squares in Italy. The only surviving parts of the previous building is the impressive 15th-century bell tower, whose upper section was left unfinished. The projecting façade was never finished either. The basilica’s interior displays an architecture framework of Florentine ascendency, austere and elegance through the precision of the plaster surfaces that alternate with the masonry bands in stone blocks. The design follows a Latin cross plan, divided into a nave and two aisles by striking pillars that support rounded arches. The pulpit stands on ionic columns on a pillar to the right.
Our journey ends with the Monte Oliveto Maggiore Monastery, whose history began in Siena around 1313, when Giovanni de’ Tolomei, a brilliant noble in his forties, with Patrizio Patrizi, Ambrogio Piccolomini and other cohorts decided to break away from “normal” life. They decided to retreat, choosing as a place of meditation an isolated property belonging to the Tolomei family 36 kilometres from Siena. The group spent years of semi-ascetic life here until 1319 (so as not to be mistaken for the various heretical sects throughout Italy), they were recognised as the Congregation by the war-loving Bishop of Arezzo Guido Tarlati Pietramala. The new Congregation decided to belong to the Benedictine Order, following the “ora et labora” monastic practice. Still today a visit to the monastery is punctuated by a typically fraternal life, with strict opening and closing hours, announced by the unmistakable ringing of a bell.