Ridley Scott’s colossal drama Gladiator (2000) features several scenes filmed in this dreamy region, with General Maximus’ recurring visions of home nostalgically colored by Val d’Orcia wheat fields and textbook Tuscan scenery. A particularly emotive segment in the film’s final moments (no spoilers!) sees Maximus move along the road connecting the Agriturismo Terrapille (www.terrapille.it) to the Pieve di Corsignano (piazza Dante Alighieri 29, Pienza), a Romanesque church dating to the 12th century.
If you’re not a gung-ho Gladiator fan, there’s no need to go to this specific road, as the scenery is striking everywhere you turn. Rather than following Maximus’ exact footsteps, make the one-hour drive from Siena to Pienza, perhaps stopping off for lunch at San Quirico d’Orcia, a hilltop town worthy of its own Oscar.
Once you set foot in Pienza, take note: this is the definitive blueprint of Renaissance urban planning. The trapezoidal Piazza Pio II—commissioned by Pope Pius II, hence its name—is the city’s capstone, and is featured in Michael Hoffman’s 1999 take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (along with a panoramic view of the Val d’Orcia toward Pienza as the movie’s opening shot). The square’s architect, Bernardo Rossellino, applied the Humanist principles of his mentor, Leon Battista Alberti, in its design.
Standing tall in the square is the Palazzo Piccolomini, which makes an appearance in another adaptation of a Shakespearean classic. Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) spotlights the Piccolomini courtyard as the setting of the glamorous ball where a masked Romeo makes his first appearance; a later scene unfolds at nighttime between piazza Pio II and Corso Rossellino, the town’s main shopping street.
Staying with the star-crossed lover theme, the big-budget melodrama The English Patient is set during the Italian Campaign of World War II, with several key scenes filmed outside Pienza at the Monastero di Sant’Anna. Once an Olivetan Benedictine monastery, it’s a short 6km drive or bike ride outside the center and now home to an agriturismo (private farmstay).