Abbey of Sant'Antimo | Tuscany Region

ABBEY OF SANT'ANTIMO | TUSCANY

abbey of sant antimo

The Abbey of Sant'Antimo, considered one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Italy, is located only 9 km from Montalcino.

According to tradition, in 781 Charlemagne was returning from Rome along the Via Francigena. While camped near Monte Amiata, many in his court and army were struck down by plague. During the night, an angel appeared to the Emperor in dream and recommended that he pick a particular grass, dry it and then make an infusion with some wine and have it drunk by the soldiers. He did this and the army was cured. The grass is known to this day as "Carolina". In return for an end to this scourge, the Emperor promised to found the abbey.

According to historians, the foundation goes further back, to the Longobards and the Monastery of St. Savior (Salvatoris) at Monte Amiata. It is possible that the Abbey of Sant'Antimo was constructed on the site of a Roman villa and it is known with certainty that in the 4th and 5th centuries the village of Castelnuovo dell'Abate, on the hills nearby, was an important inhabited centre, endowed with a parish.

The monastery of Sant'Antimo was in existence in the year 814, as indicated by a document from one Ludovico the Pious that endows the abbey with gifts and privileges. In the 9 C, the abbey faced financial difficulty, to the point that in the 877 Charles II, "the Bald", entrusted it to the Bishop of Arezzo, with the obligation to maintain 40 monks there at his own expense. From the 10 C, the abbot of the monastery was also the Count Palatino, a public position of great importance conferred by the Emperor.

In 992, according to a deed emanating from Pope John XV (985-996), the monastery passed into the direct jurisdiction of the Apostolic See. The year 1118 saw the beginning of the golden years of Sant'Antimo. Count Bernard degli Ardengheschi surrendered his entire patrimony in goods and property, including the Abbey, "in toto I reign Italic et in tota Tuscie marks" to Hildebrand, son of Rustic. A testimony to this exceptional donation was engraved on the steps of the altar as a perpetual memorial of the event. The Abbot Guidone (1108-1128), who received the donation, immediately initiated the great era of the construction of the new church, the Abbey of Sant'Antimo. The apse of the original 9th century abbey still stands alongside, and is dwarfed by, the new 12 C. The Abbey became the most powerful monastic landowner and foundation in Tuscany, via its imperial connections and gifts from those travelling the nearby Via Francigena, the pilgrims' route to Rome. At its height, the Abbey owned large tracts of eastern Tuscany from Lucca in the north to Orbetello in the south.

Bagno Vignoni | Tuscany Region

BAGNO VIGNONI | TUSCANY

bagno vignoni

Bagno Vignoni sits on a hill above the Val d'Orcia just south of San Quirico and about 20 minutes by car from Pienza and slightly further from Montalcino and Montepulciano. The name of this ancient village derives from Vignoni, already a famous castle in the 11 C, whose traces dominate the hill over the village. The thermal waters where frequented by the Romans. A porch-type bridge passes over the waters flowing from the bath towards the thermal establishments and subsequently going on to feed a series of mills situated along the steep banks of the river.

It is known that Catherine of Siena stayed in Bagno Vignoni several times, taken there by her mother in an attempt to dissuade her from taking the Holy Orders. Visits by Pope Pius II Piccolomini and Lorenzo the Magnificent, who stayed for a period in 1490, also bear witness to the popularity of the baths.

The vicinity of the bath to the Via Francigena, the pilgrims' route to Rome, persuaded the less-hurried travellers to make the acquaintance of the spa waters. Michel de Montaigne mentions this in his travel diary of 1581. During the 16 C, the waters and their curative properties inspired the Siennese scholar Lattanzio Tolomei to write the Greek verses dedicated to the water nymphs engraved on the marble table now encased on a pillar in St. Catherine's open gallery.

The municipality of Sienna always kept the thermal treatments carried out in its territory under strict control and indeed two articles of the City Constitution are dedicated specifically to the Vignoni baths, prescribing the division of the men's from the women 's baths, with the cost of the operation to be borne half by the inhabitants and the hotel keepers of the area and the other half by the inhabitants of the Val d'Orcia castles. Room prices were also established.

Among the authors who spoke of Bagno Vignoni was the physician Andrea Bacci who, visiting the bath in 1548, praised the hospitality of the Amerighi famlly. In 1592, the Grand Duke granted the Amerighi the tax rights to the bath, on the understanding that they in turn would arrange for the necessary maintenance. This agreement became permanent in 1599, on the same condition together with the obligation of keeping a bakery, a butcher's shop and a tavern in Bagno, as well as the staff required for carrying out the spa treatments. The annual emptying of the bath in May saw the Amerighi family authorised to call upon the inhabitants of the Val d'Orcia for this purpose. The small chapel dedicated to St. Catherine built in the center of the porch overlooking the thermal pool, was constructed by this family.

In 1677 the Grand Duke Cosimo III enfeoffed St. Quirico d'Orcia to Cardinal Flavio Chigi, together with the little villages of Vignoni and Bagno Vignoni. The thermal establishment, together with three mills, eight houses, a tavern and a certain amount of land thus passed into the hands of the Chigi family and their descendents to whom a part still belongs. 

Castiglione d'Orcia | Tuscany Region

CASTIGLIONE D'ORCIA | TUSCANY

Castiglion dOrcia

Castiglione d’Orcia marks the boundary between Val d’Orcia and the Monte Amiata forests, in the Siena Province. Once the property of the Aldobrandeschi family, it was contested in the 14th century between the Salimbeni family and Siena. In the village centre there’s a piazza dedicated to the painter and sculptor Lorenzo di Pietro known as Vecchietta. In the middle, there is a travertine well dating back to 1618 and the piazza is overlooked by the Town Hall. The churches of Santa Maria Maddalena and Santi Stefano e Degna are noteworthy. The centre is dominated by the remains of the Aldobrandeschi Fortress and the magnificent Rocca a Tentennano fortress.

The Rocca Aldobrandesca of Castiglione D'Orcia is first documented in 714 when it was a possession of the Aldobrandeschi and was known as Petra. In 1252, it became a free municipality but its independence lasted no more than a century. In 1274 it became a part of the County of Santa Fiora with the breakup of the Aldobrandeschi territories. During the 14 C, it became a Siennese possession and in return for financial favours was conceded to powerful families, including successively the Piccolomini and the Salimbeni. The latter used the Castiglione d'Orcia itself as one of their bases for their revolt against the Siennese. Later, Castiglione d'Orcia passed into the hands of the Florentines who in 1605 entrusted it to the Riario, a family of Bolognese nobles.

The Piazza il Vecchietta in the centre of town is dedicated to Lorenzo di Pietro (1412-1480), called "II Vecchieta", who was a painter, sculptor and architect. At the centre of the square, there is a beautiful fountain in travertine dated 1618, and the Municipal Palace on the square houses a Siennese school fresco of a Virgin Mary with Infant Jesus and two Saints. A walk through Castiglione should also include a visit to the Romanesque Church of S. Mary Magdalena, which has been restored recently. Its facade dates back to the 13 C, while the apse is 12 C and it has a fine bell tower. The Church of Saints Steven and Degna was the most important religious building in Castiglione, based on the number of works of art that it contains, even though its interior is not particularly interesting. Its facade dates back to the 16 C and it contained a Virgin Mary with Infant Jesus (later than 1320) by Simone Martini and another Virgin Mary with Infant Jesus by Pietro Lorenzetti, both now in Siena.

Castle of Ripa d'Orcia | Tuscany Region

CASTEL RIPA D'ORCIA | TUSCANY

castel ripa d orcia

The Castle of Ripa D'Orcia, in earlier times, Ripa al Cotone, is documented as having been sold between 1250 and 1258 by the Consorteria dei Tinniosi, a political association of related aristocratic families, to the Republic of Sienna, which valued it for its strategic and military importance during their many bitter struggles with various powerful families. In 1274, the Ripa d’Orcia Castle, and much other property, was once more owned by the Salimbeni family who had taken over the Val d’Orcia and ruled it, in effect, as an independent state. The Ripa al Cotone di Valdorcia, though less valued than other property owned by the Consorteria, assumed such military significance that it appeared in the 1316 List of Property as “Roccham et fortilitiam de Ripa Cotone” owned by Niccolò and Stricca di Giovanni di Salimbene. The Consorteria consolidated its position in Val d’Orcia after having obtained the Emperor Charles IV’s recognition of their rule and in 1355 Giovanni d’Agnolino obtained “recognition and confirmation of the fiefs of Ripa with the related territory and districts and with all the rights of jurisdiction transmissible to his legitimate heirs”.

The 1410 the peace agreement between the Republic and the Salimbeni family conferred Ripa al Cotone on Antonia de’ Salimbene, yet by 1417 it was Niccolò di Cione di Sandro who, through intervention of the Santa Maria della Scala Hospital, sold the fortress and territory of Ripa del Cotone and Bagno Vignoni “with towers, tenants, houses and fulling mill” to the Siennese for 5,000 gold florins. Subsequently, in 1437, the Hospital Chapter passed a resolution for the sale to Compagno di Bartolomeo della Agazzara whose descendants, in 1484, conveyed the estate, with “its boundary on one side the Asso and on the other the Orcia, on the other the court of Sancto Quirico and on the other the court of Vignone” to Francesca, widow of Pietro di Bartolomeo Piccolomini. Thus from 1484 the castle, together with the fortified village and surrounding land, became the property of the Piccolomini family.

By this time, the invention of artillery had initiated the decline of the military importance of castles which were thus reduced to strictly productive use. Typically, only the profitable parts of the castle estates were retained and everything else was sold or rented. Unusually, this was not the case for the Ripa d’Orcia castle properties. Though its cultivable land, like much of the Val d'Orcia, was not easily worked and had been neglected during the long periods of war, the will of Emilio Piccolomini Carli in 1605 rendered it inalienable and part of the inheritance of the family’s firstborn son.

At the end of the 19 C, Count Pietro Piccolomini Clementini initiated restoration work under the supervision of the engineer Savino Cresti, and this was continued by his widow, Countess Marianna. As a result, the Ripa d’Orcia Castle today retains many of its original features.

Though it had long lost its military significance, the Castello Ripa d’Orcia continued to be the centre of production and administration for the vast properties belonging to it. This ended with the agrarian reforms following WW II and the subsequent disappearance of sharecropping. The estate was partitioned and the village was abandoned. Since that time, agriculture has resumed on the remaining property and the restored castle itself now offers tourist accommodation.

Crete Senesi | Tuscany Region

CRETE SENESI | TUSCANY REGION

crete senesi tuscany

The area is not defined by piazzas, cathedrals or castles, but by nature, cypress trees, the smell of sheep’s-milk cheese pervading a little grocery, the relaxing warmth of spa waters, the mystical simplicity of a small Romanesque parish church. The landscape of the Crete Senesi is a triumph of harmony, a timeless image, a picture that blends the forms of an Etruscan graffito and a sign of modern art. It is a harmony that gets you and has the power to bring your energies back into balance: emotions and sensations transform and dilate in the calm of space.

Crete Senesi means "Siennese clays" and these give the soil of parts of the Val d'Orcia south east of Sienna a distinctive grey colouration. This characteristic clay, known as mattaione, represents the sediments of the Pliocene sea which covered the area between 2.5 and 4.5 million years ago. Erosion of the soil has played a major role in the formation of the landscape, with the clay laid bare and forming craggy badlands known as calanchi and clay knolls called biancane or mammelloni. This amazing landscape, dotted with Tuscan farm houses, castles and ancient villages is a photographers' paradise and should not be missed by anyone visiting southern Tuscany.

The area of the Crete Senesi consists of a range of hills and woods among villages and includes the comuni of Asciano, Buonconvento, Monteroni d'Arbia, Rapolano Terme and San Giovanni d'Asso, all within the province of Siena. Crete senesi are literally ‘ Senese clays’, and the distinctive grey colouration of the soil gives the landscape an appearance often described as lunar. This characteristic clay, known as mattaione, represents the sediments of the Pliocene sea which covered the area between 2.5 and 4.5 million years ago. Nearby is also the semi-arid area known as the Accona Desert. Perhaps the most notable edifice of this area is the monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The region is known for its production of white truffles, and hosts a festival and a museum dedicated to the rare fungus (genus Tuber).

Montalcino | Tuscany Region

MONTALCINO | TUSCANY

Bike Touring Italy, Montalcino Tuscay

Famous for its Brunello di Montalcino red wines, this hill town, once part of Siena's empire, is worth a visit for its enoteca, housed inside the 14th-century fortezza at the edge of town (tel. 0577-849-211, www.enotecalafortezza.it). After sampling a glass of the local vino, wander down into the heart of town at Piazza Garibaldi. The TI is just off this square in the City Hall (daily 10:00–13:00 & 14:00–17:50, closed Mon in winter, tel. & fax 0577-849-331, www.prolocomontalcino.it).

WHAT TO SEE

Besides the fortezza and the Brunello, Montalcino's main sight is the Civic Museum on Via Ricasoli, where you'll find art from the late Gothic/early Renaissance period. Non-wine lovers may find Montalcino a bit too focused on vino, but one sip of Brunello makes even wine skeptics believe that Bacchus was onto something. Note that the Rosso di Montalcino wine is also good at half the price. Sweet-tooths will enjoy munching Ossi di Morta ("bones of the dead"), a crunchy cookie with almonds.

GETTING THERE

From Montalcino by Bus to: Siena (€3, 8/day, 90 min), Montepulciano/Pienza (10/day, change to line #114 in Torrenieri, 60 min plus changing time). Anyone going to Rome or Florence changes in Siena. The town bus station is on Piazza Cavour. Bus tickets are sold at tabacchi shops or the bar on Piazza Cavour — not on board. Check schedules at the Tourtist Office or the bus station on Piazza Cavour.

Montepulciano | Tuscany Region

MONTEPULCIANO | TUSCANY

Bike tour Italy, Montipulciano Tuscany

Montepulciano sits between Val D’Orcia and Val di Chiana. Built along the narrow top of a limestone hill, this beautiful medieval village seems to be the natural continuation of the landscape on which it was built. Coming from the striking but more touristy city of Pienza, just eleven kilometers away, the landscape that you encounter just before reaching the village is the perfect reflection of classical Tuscany. Immediately below town’s castle walls and fortifications, you can admire the beautiful church of the Madonna di San Biagio. This sixteenth century treasure stands out in the distance welcoming anyone who chooses to spend a day strolling the streets of the village. Don’t miss a luxurious bath in the hot sulphurous waters of the nearby thermal springs. Leave your car in one of several parking lots located outside of the town’s walls and you’ll be able to visit the elegant, ancient town on foot.

Montepulciano welcomes visitors with vino and views. Alternately under Sienese and Florentine rule, the city still retains its medieval contrade districts, each with a mascot and flag. The neighborhoods compete the last Sunday of August in the Bravio delle Botti , where teams of men push large wine casks uphill from Piazza Marzocco to Piazza Grande, all hoping to win a banner and bragging rights.

The city is a collage of architectural styles, but the elegant San Biagio Church, at the base of the hill, is the most impressive Renaissance building. Most ignore the architecture and focus more on the city's other creative accomplishment, the tasty Vino Nobile di Montepulciano red wine.

WHAT TO SEE

Montepulciano centers on two streets, the steep Via di Gracciano nel Corso, and Via Ricci, but the quiet back streets are well worth a visit. The Tourist Information is on Piazza Don Minzoni (daily 9:30-12:30, 15:00-18:30, tel. 0578-757-341, www.comune.montepulciano.si.it, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).  Don't confuse the TI with the more central and less helpful "Strada del Vino" office on Piazza Grande, which may not give out much city information, but does organize wine tours in the city and minibus winery tours farther afield (call for current days and times, tel. 0578-717-484, www.stradavinonobile.it).

The pleasant, lively Piazza Grande is surrounded by an architectural grab bag. The medieval Palazzo Comunale has a Florentine-style clock tower that you can climb for a windy, panoramic view (€1.50, daily 10:00-18:00). The Palazzo de' Nobili-Tarugi is a Renaissance arcaded confection, while the unfinished Duomo glumly looks on, wishing the city hadn't run out of money for the facade. Dream up a way to finish it while you enjoy a cappuccino at the café on the square.  Small and eclectic, the well-presented Civic Museum is worthwhile if only for its colorful della Robbia ceramic altarpieces (€4, Tue-Sat 10:00-13:00 & 15:00-18:00, Sun 10:00-18:00, closed Mon, Via Ricci 10, tel. 0578-717-300).

Down a picturesque driveway lined with cypress, the San Biagio Church, designed by Antonio da Sangallo,  is a great example of  Renaissance, with proportions of the Greek cross plan give the building a pleasing rhythmic quality. The lone tower was supposed to have a twin, but it was never built. The interior is impressive, with a high dome and lantern (daily 9:00-13:00 & 15:00-19:00). The street Via di San Biagio, leading from the church up into town, is an enjoyable walk.

Pienza | Tuscany Region

PIENZA | TUSCANY

Bike Tour Italy Pienza, Tuscany
Set on a crest, 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 in the current Renaissance style. Propelled by papal clout, the town of Corsignano was transformed — in only five year's time — into a jewel of Renaissance architecture. It was renamed Pienza, after pope Pius.

The plan was to remodel the whole town, but work ended in 1564 when both the pope and his architect, Bernardo Rossellino, died. The architectural focal point is the square Piazza Pio II, surrounded by the Duomo and pope's family residence, Palazzo Piccolomini.

The culinary focal point is Pecorino cheese, a pungent sheep's cheese, which can be found at almost any shop and can be eaten fresh (fresco) or aged (secco).

WHAT TO SEE

The Tourist Office is on Piazza Pio II, across from the Duomo (Mon–Sat 10:00–13:00 & 15:00–19:00, closed Sun, tel. & fax 0578-749-071). They rent audioguides for self-guided hour-long town walks (€5). The Tourist Office will normally let you leave your bags there. Market day is Friday.

GETTING THERE

From Pienza by Bus to: Siena (6/day, 90 min), Montepulciano (8/day, 30 min). Bus tickets are sold at the bar just inside Pienza's town gate.

Rocca d'Orcia | Tuscany Region

ROCCA D' ORCIA | TUSCANY

rocca dorcia

Rocca d'Orcia is located in the Siena Province and sits on the eastern slopes of Monte Amiata.  The Rocca d'Orcia, more correctly known as the Rocca di Tentennano, is a fortress standing on a pinnacle high above the Val d'Orcia with the small village of the Rocca d'Orcia just below, and the valley spreading out on all sides. The Rocca is constructed of limestone and, like so many other castles in the area, played a role in the interminable territorial conflicts between Florence and Sienna, and was also a strong point on the Via Francigena, the pilgrim's road leading from Canterbury, through France and Italy, to Rome.

Most of the Rocca was built between 1250 and 1258, but the peak on which it stands was used as a military lookout and defensive point from the 10 C onward. The Rocca is also famous as a refuge of Saint Catherine of Siena in 1377 who was miraculously taught to read and write here. The Saint's writings make reference to this and the Rocca is thus a destination for religious, as well as of military and historical, pilgrims.

The Rocca di Tentennano was abandoned in the early 20 C. The last owners, the Scotto family, donated it to the country and it is now restored and open to the public.

The defense systems of the Rocca di Tentennano were closely integrated with the village of Rocca d'Orcia. The walls of the town contained the entrance courtyard of the fortress, and part of an ancient door is still extant. To visit both Rocca d'Orcia and the Rocca di Tentennano, it is best to park in the area that lies at the foot of the steep slope leading up to the fortress. One can then walk along the cypress-lined hill that leads to the main entrance and afterwards stroll down into the village.

Although structurally much as it was in the days of Siennese military glory, the restoration of the Rocca di Tentennano was carried out in 1975. The views are even more striking here than from the nearby ruined fortress of Castiglione d'Orcia. At the top of the village is the Chiesa di San Simeone which was built in 1200 AD. This ancient church once housed art treasures that were stolen in the 1980s. A cobblestone walk leads from San Simeone through the main part of the village, the Borgo Maestro, and to the Chiesa di Madonna del Palazzo, which is now a private home. Nearby lies the Piazza del Cisterna, a tiny but rich Folk Art Museum, and the ruins of the Palazzo Comunale.

San Giovanni d'Asso | Tuscany Region

SAN GIOVANNI D'ASSO | TUSCANY

San Giovanni dAsso

The area around San Giovanni d’Asso, which is the oldest hamlet in the entire Crete Senesi region, produces black truffles as well as the sought-after and costly white truffle. A truffle market fair is held here in November and the cellars of the ancient castle house a Museo del Tartufo (truffle museum).

The village takes its origins from an ancient Longobard parish, built in the dawn of Christianity in Italy, on which was erected a castle. Its building work, between the XII and the XIV centuries, was on the project of Agostino and Agnolo di Ventura. At the beginning of the XII century the village was attested as a fief of Count Paltonieri of Forteguerra. In 1551 it was donated to the council of Siena, but subsequently a large number of noble families alternated at power. Still under Siennese sovereignty, the village passed to Ugolino Scolari, then to the Aldobrandeschi of Civitella.

In the same way, another village in today’s council’s territory was developed, that of Montisi, firstly autonomous, then during the last years of the 14th century annexed to the property of the Ospedale della Scala, that organised it as a “grangia”, or fortified farm. Halfway through the XIII century the castle of San Giovanni was purchased by the Buonsignori, then passed to the Salimbeni and finally to the Petroni. In fact a rural reality was consolidated, dominated by the various noble citizens of Siena. Only towards the middle of the 15th century did Siena place San Giovanni under its direct administration.

A century later, together with the whole of the Siennese territory, San Giovanni became a part of the Medici’s Grand Duchy of Tuscany, who were succeeded by the Lorenas in the XVIII century.The economic life of the territory, still on the margin of the main commercial roads, has always been based almost exclusively on agriculture, especially after the drainage of the Asso Plains in the 13th century by the Siennese. To the classic cultivations (cereals, vines and olives) the last few centuries have seen the additional cultivation of mulberries and, consequently, the breeding of silk worms. The lacking industrial development of the post-war years provoked depopulation, a fairly common phenomenon of the rural towns of Tuscany.

Val d'Orcia | Tuscany Region

VAL D'ORCIA | TUSCANY REGION

val d orcia tuscany

The Val d'Orcia is one of several geomorphologically distinctive areas in the large and diverse Region of Tuscany. Each of these areas has its fervent proponents. Many strongly prefer the rounded hills, dense vineyards, olive groves and woods characteristic of the Chianti area, between Florence and Sienna. The Maremma, both the Alta Maremma and the Bassa Maremma, once far off the beaten track and remote from the principal art cities, now draw visitors to their hill towns, thermal springs, Etruscan remains and nature reserves. Visitors enthusiastic for mountain vistas favour the Garfagnano, while the Mugello, home territory of the Medici, is a surprisingly wild area of castles and forests full of interest and within easy reach of Florence. The valleys of the Upper Arno - the Casentino with the Castello di Poppi - and the Upper Tiber Valley (Valtiberina), where Tuscany merges with Umbria, the towns such as Anghiari and Sansepolcro are characterised by their broad river flood plains and precipitous mountainsides. Of all of these, the Val d'Orcia is unique among the areas of Tuscany in having been accorded UNESCO World Heritage Site status and its advocates are perhaps the most fervent of all.

The Val d'Orcia or Valdorcia refers, strictly speaking, to the valley of the river Orcia but in general it refers to the area extending from the hills south of Sienna as far as the Monte Amiata. Nothing could differ more from Chianti, for example. The landscape in and around the Val d'Orcia is characterised by open vistas of ploughed and sown land that stretch over low hills to the horizon, punctuated here and there by clusters or rows of cypresses and umbrella pines, and isolated farmhouses. The crete senesi are areas of badlands that generations of farmers have brought into cultivation. Nothing has been easy here. The volcanic cone of Monte Amiata dominates the southern panorama.

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