MONTEPULCIANO IS AN INTERESTING TOWN. According to a Renaissance legend, it was founded in 509 BC by Porsenna, the Etruscan Lucomone of Chiusi, following the expulsion of Tarquinius the Proud from Rome. Though that cannot be proven, the Bishops of Siena and Arezzo did meet before the Steward of King Liutprando in about 700 AD, and argued bitterly for suzerainty of Montepulciano's Pievi. The Bishop of Arezzo won, perhaps sowing the seeds for the long-standing antagonism between Siena and Montepulciano that helped make the town one of Florence's staunchest allies in her centuries of war with Siena. In any case, Florence took considerable interest in Montepulciano, especially after Angelo Ambrogini, better known as Il Poliziano, befriended Lorenzo il Magnifico and educated his sons, one of whom later became Pope Leo X. In 1494 the Sienese finally succeeded in forcing Montepulciano to bow to them, but in 1511 Florence got the town back and dispatched Antonio da Sangallo, one of the greatest architects of the period, to shore up the walls. While he was there he found time to work on several palaces, which are delightfully variable in style, and designed the Tempio di San Biagio, one of Tuscany's most harmonious and graceful churches. Nor was Antonio alone: Michelozzo, Simone Martini and Taddeo di Bartolo contributed their talents too, as did many others. A thorough visit will take a day and will be wonderful in crisp fall weather.
To reach Montepulciano take the A1 motorway to the Val di Chiana exit and follow the signs. You will arrive under the walls; to the right of the Agip station is a free parking lot. The church with the striped façade outside the walls is Sant'Agnese, which was begun in 1306, and expanded in 1317, when it was given an elegant Gothic door; the façade instead dates to 1935. The chapel inside to the right, dedicated to Santa Caterina da Siena, has a fresco attributed to Simone Martini, and flanking the altar there are two paintings from the Temple of Saint Biagio (the altar itself contains the body of Saint Agnese). The cloisters have delicate columns and are quite pretty.
Upon exiting the church cross the street and follow the walls to the 12th century Porta al Prato, which Antonio da Sangallo reworked, adding decorative elements. It consists of an inner and an outer gate, and had a roof until it was bombed during the Second World War. Follow Via di Gracciano, the Corso, to Piazza Savonarola. The lion bearing a shield, Florence's Marzocco, was placed on the column in 1511, to replace a Sienese Lupa erected during a brief period that they held sway over the town. The palace facing the column, with the elegant façade and the two lion heads flanking the entrance, is Palazzo Avignonesi. After admiring it, duck into the wine shop run by Fattoria di Pulcino (n° 80), which occupies the lower part of Palazzo Tusci. Their cellars form a labyrinth of tunnels under the street, and house, in addition to casks of wine, an odd collection of medieval weapons and torture implements. As you climb the stairs at the end of the tour, which is self-paced and free, you will see the door of an Etruscan tomb dug into the earth.
Continue up the hill. When Pietro Buccelli renovated his family palace in the early 1700s he incorporated many pieces from his collection of antique sculptures in the façade, thus forming an odd outdoor museum consisting of fragments from funerary urns and frieze plaques (the rest of the collection was given to Archduke Pietro Leopoldo and is in Florence). Just beyond Palazzo Buccelli is Sant'Agostino, which rises up imposingly, giving the impression of being much too large for the small amount of space allotted it on the street. The façade is by Michelozzo, and inside there are Cesare Nebbia da Orvieto's Ascension, Barroccio's Madonna della Cintola, and a Crucifixion Vasari attributes to Donatello. As you exit the church you will see the Torre della Pulcinella, a 15th century tower with a statue of Pulcinella, donated by a Neapolitan, who strikes the hours with his stick. To the right of the tower is Via Ruga di Fuori, which winds through a section of mediaeval row houses to a bastion from which you can admire the high part of town.
Upon returning to the tower, continue up the Corso, and pass through the Arco della Cavina, a holdover from an earlier set of city walls. In the middle ages Santa Maria della Cavina, the city hospital, was located here, and the bricked-over door immediately to the left after the arch is where unwed mothers left their babies. Continue along Via Voltaia nel Corso; Palazzo Cervini (n° 21) was home to Cardinal Marcello Cervini, who reigned as Pope Marcello II for a few days in 1555. It is one of Montepulciano's most elegant buildings, and is somehow vaguely reminiscent of Florence's Palazzo Pitti, with two wings helping to define what one might call a "semi-court," an open space in front of the building that remains distinct from the street. According to popular tradition Antonio da Sangallo had a hand in its design. A little further on is the Caffé Poliziano, which has delightful Liberty décor, fine coffee, and a magnificent view over the valley.
The Corso will lead you to the Chiesa del Gesù, whose simple prick façade hides a sumptuous Baroque interior by Andrea Pozzo, the great illusionist who did the false cupola in Rome's Sant'Ignazio -- the statues, cornices, and columns are all frescos painted on the walls. Duck down Via delle Farine to admire the massive 13th century gate, then return to the Corso and continue past the birthplace of Angelo Ambrogini, Il Poliziano, who fled to Florence following the assassination of his father, becoming friend of and advisor to Duke Lorenzo il Magnifico. There's a magnificent view of the Monti della Totana and the Val di Chiana, and then you'll come to Santa Maria dei Servi, which has wondrous Baroque stuccos by Andrea Pozzo, and a Madonna with Child attributed to Duccio di Boninsegna. At the top of the hill is the fortress, which looks old but was almost entirely rebuilt in 1885; recent excavations have shown that it is built over a Roman temple dedicated to Mercury. Continue down Via San Donato, past Ambrogio Zamparro's studio, to Piazza Grande.
The façade of the town hall, which bears a considerable resemblance to Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, is by Michelozzo. To the right is the Duomo, which was built on the site of the Pieve di Santa Maria following Montepulciano's elevation to a Bishopric by Pope Pious IV in 1561. The town fathers asked Ammannati (yet another Florentine) for plans, but got no response and thus turned to Ippolito Scalza; construction began in 1586 and continued until 1680. Seen from the outside the building is oddly broad, and though the bell tower looks more recent it is actually from the earlier Pieve. Inside the Duomo is large, but not as airy as one might expect. There are, however, a number of beautiful statues, including a Madonna with Child by Benedetto da Maiano, and Michelozzo's sarcophagus of Archpriest Bartolomeo Aragazzi, which was part of an elaborate funerary monument that was broken up and dispersed in the 18th century (part was buried and only recently discovered, while two of the angels it included are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum). Fortunately, Taddeo di Bartolo's triptych of the Virgin Enthroned has survived intact. It's extraordinary, with scenes from the life of the Virgin, the Passion of Christ, and saints revered by the people of Montepulciano. Saint Antilia, who is in the right-hand panel, is carrying a painting of Montepulciano as it appeared at the time.
Palazzo Contucci will be to the right as you emerge from the Duomo; construction began in 1518 under the direction of Antonio da Sangallo and continued until after his death in 1534 (his contribution stops where the bricks begin). The great hall on the ground floor has more frescos by Andrea Pozzo, and can be visited upon request. Antonio is also said to have worked on the palace facing the Duomo, Palazzo de'Nobili Tarugi; the contrast between the sober lines of Palazzo Contucci and the zesty vitality of the interplay of arches and pilasters of Palazzo de'Nobili shows how versatile an architect he was. He also designed the elegant well next to the palace, skillfully pairing griffins and lions, symbols of Florence and Montepulciano.
To the right of Palazzo Cantucci is Via del Teatro, which leads to the Teatro Poliziano, a beautiful 18th century theater now used, among other things, for the international musicfest Montepulciano hosts in July. Return to Piazza Grande and walk down Via Ricci to Palazzo Ricci. The view from the courtyard is beautiful. A little further down the street is the Museo Civico, which has a number of pleasant works, and also architectural marbles taken from Montepulciano's palaces.
Once you have seen the museum, you can either walk down Via De'Grassi to the Tempio di San Biagio, or return to your car and drive around town. In either case, it will likely be lunch time, and I suggest that you eat at the Ristorante la Grotta, in the shadow of the Tempio. The food is excellent and you can taste Montepulciano's famed Vino Nobile by the glass. After lunch you can explore the church, which replaced a small chapel that contained a Madonna who performed miracles, attracting pilgrims from far and wide. Antonio da Sangallo worked on the new building from 1518 until his death in 1534, designing and building models for the construction crews to follow, and visiting the site at least twice a year (by contract). Though he obviously worked on other things as well during that time, this is certainly his masterpiece, an extraordinarily serene and harmonious structure one can spend hours contemplating. It's also, from an intellectual standpoint, quite interesting: Though at a first glance it appears to be square, if you include the bell towers you'll realize it has a cross hidden within its outline, and, according to art historians, it shows that Antonio was familiar with Bramante's research into architectural theory. This all becomes academic, however, as the afternoon sun dips to the horizon and the stones turn to gold.
Have a great time,
PS -- if you'd like to be kept abreast of what's happening on this site, and of what's going on in the world of Italian Cuisine and travel, sign up for my newsletter! Or, if you have a general Italian food or travel-related question or comment, post it on the Bulletin Board.
Text & photos © Kyle Phillips.