San Biagio:
The Jewel I Couldn't Find
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For years I had tried to discover the location of an anonymous church I had first seen in a poster of Italy when I was in my early teens. The image I remembered was shot from the town above the church, and I had always pictured it clearly. Unfortunately, the camera's point of view precluded me from finding any significant clues in the background that could help me pinpoint the location, except for the fact that it was set amongst lovely Italian countryside. Again and again I tried to describe it to people, but the description of a church in a square in Italy never got me far in a land where the churches are, if not equal to the size of the population, at least "a dime a dozen." Eventually I accepted the fact that no one would ever be able to help me rediscover my church. My only hope was to someday stumble upon it by chance.

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.

We left the medieval world of San Quirico and journeyed into the high Renaissance in Pienza (pictured at right). With only a few miles and a few hundred years separating them, it is extraordinary that these two villages are so remarkably different, so clearly representative of diametrically opposed philosophies. Whereas San Quirico is somber and mystical, Pienza is an architectural expression of the humanistic world of the 15th century. A glorious experiment in town planning, it was virtually rebuilt between 1459 and 1462 by the architect known as Il Rossellino, by commission of the humanist pope Pius II (Enea Silvio Piccolomini). Corsignano (as Pienza was originally called) was Piccolimini's birthplace; after elevation to the chair of St. Peter, he decided to transform it into a model town. It is charming. The most important buildings all face onto the central Piazza Pio II: the cathedral, Palazzo Piccolomini (Rossellino's masterpiece, inspired by Palazzo Rucellai in Florence), Palazzo Comunale with its colonnaded portico and elegant tower, and Palazzo Vescovile (Episcopal Residence). A true jewel of the Renaissance.

San Biagio 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.

Now that I know the name, everyone I ask recalls San Biagio in an instant. Naturalmente. The walled town of Montepulciano (pictured at right) sits just above it, and it's a must. Leave the car at the parking lot inside the walls and walk up the Via di Gracciano (which eventually becomes Via Voltaia). It is worth the stroll if you don't mind seeing Gothic and Renaissance noble structures on both left and right. Piazza Grande is like Pienza's central square: everything centers on it, including the Palazzo Comunale and Duomo with its unfinished belltower. If you have a chance, try to visit the charming little Municipal Museum (Museo Civico) just behind Piazza Grande.

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.

Michael Brouse, Rome

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