Utopia

picture gallery

This is the word associated by our Elderhostel hosts, the Green Guide, travel websites, and real estate agents with the town of Pienza, which was on the itinerary for Tuesday October 11. In 1516, the English Humanist Sir Thomas More coined the term—stemming from eu-topia, “the good place” in Greek but also from ou-topia, or “no place”—to name an ideal city state, but also to lightly mock the notion of such an ideal. Pienza was created by our local hero with the funny name, Pope Pius Piccollomini, an Italian Humanist crowned poet-laureate and later head of the Catholic Church. Like More, he tried unsuccessfully to bring peace and justice into a world more amenable to agression and greed. PPP dedicated some of his considerable resources to turning his sleepy home town into a showpiece of social engineering and architectural perfection with the help of a great Renaissance builder known as Rossellino.

Like the other hilltowns we had visited, Pienza today is vehicle-free and immaculate. We left the bus in the car-park outside the wall and walked through floral window-box lined streets and discreetly signed shops offering specialties of the countryside into a small but indeed perfectly designed town square. It was all elegant and discreet high Renaissance style, which by now I was clearly differentiating from the cruder medieval and crasser Baroque forms. The city hall to the left, housing a tourist information center, was an airy miniature of Siena’s. Before us was the Duomo’s chaste but lucious travertine facade, backlit by the sun shining on the valley below. To the right stood an unostentatious but imposing structure recalling the Villa Antenori that had lured me in Florence. This was the Piccollomini Palace, through which we were conducted by a local guide whose Italian-accented English was even thicker and more savory than that of our native Elderhostel facilitators.

The place was inhabited by PPP’s descendants until 1968 and then maintained in the condition they left it—sparely furnished with centuries-old portraits and tapestries accentuating 20 foot ceilings, wall frescoes, and the light pouring in through large stained glass windows ornamented with the family coat of arms signifying either accommodation between the cross and the crescent or the triumph of the latter over the former. Also in evidence were 20th century photographs showcasing the blood connections between this family and the royal Italian house of Bourbon along with the heroic expoits of pilots in Mussolini’s air force. Out on the three story loggia we learned that the lovely though too misty view of the formal gardens and Val D’Orcia below was itself a UNESCO world heritage site.

Jan and I roamed slowly through the village, trading photo-ops with another couple under the street sign placed here to promote tourism in the nineteenth century, joining those window shopping for real estate, and buying Pinocchio puppets for our grandsons and some typical Tuscan ceramics I have faith were not produced in China.

After lunch the bus wound through the painterly countryside of La Crete and left us off in nearby Montalcino, home of the legendary Brunello, allegedly the crème de la crème of Italian wines. Seeking some exercise and adventure trekking through the steep streets of this larger town, we found ourselves suddenly marooned at the bottom of the hill, far from any restroom. The relief provided by facilities in the Enoteca we finally came upon eclipsed the pleasure of drinking a seven dollar glass of the house specialty.

Leave a Reply