A few years ago, with a friend of mine, originally from Siena, I had spent a short holiday visiting his friends, relatives and hometown. The vacation was drawing to a close. Instead of making an "A-line" to the autostrada for the return to Rome, we decided to follow the longer, infinitely more interesting route through some of Tuscany's most beautiful countryside, stopping here and there in the towns of the so-called Italia minore. This term was coined to describe most everything that is not an artist's universally acclaimed masterpiece or a major city like Rome, Florence or Venice. It is a shocking misnomer, because almost anything minore in Italy would be considered maggiore anywhere else.
Our itinerary began at the gates of Siena (a city to which one could dedicate page after page) and headed towards the monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore (pictured at left). It was late August and despite the asphyxiating heat, the countryside was a real splendor. Dark green patches of cyprus, oak and evergreen topped every little hill or mound, often tucked in around a hamlet or an isolated farm house, and alternated with the golden hues of grain, vineyards (remember we were near the famed Chianti region) and acres of sunflower patches that skirted the lower slopes of the hills and completely inundated the valleys lying between them.
Our first stop was at San Quirico D'Orcia, a tiny medieval borgo. For defense purposes, it was built atop a hill, which divides the Orcia and Asso valleys. Its main attraction is the Collegiata, a simple but extremely moving romanesque structure. Be sure to note the grandiose Romanesque portal (c. 1080) and the late 13th-century lions and caryatids sculpted on the façade.
On the 14-kilometer drive from Pienza to Montepulciano, we rounded yet another bend in the road and there before me, on the opposite side of the valley, my glance fell upon what I instantly recognized as my church. After all the years of searching, there it was right in front of me, nestled in quite comfortably under the lovely hill town. It is almost impossible for me to describe the exhilaration I felt as we drove up to San Biagio (pictured at left), considered to be Antonio da Sangallo the Elder's masterpiece and one of the most significant structures of the Renaissance. Set just outside the southwest wall of town in a quiet pastoral location, its clean lines and harmonious structure (Greek cross with a dome) are a joy to the eye, and although it is quite small it appears to be utterly monumental.
As you wander through Montepulciano's side streets, don't forget to stop and have a sip of its world famous wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Buy a bottle to take home too. On your way out of town, remember to have one last glance at S. Biagio.