Pienza Cathedral, the Cattedrale dell’Assunta dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is one of the highlights of Pienza and a UNESCO listed site. It’s a harmonious Renaissance building with elements of Late Gothic, which boasts some impressive 15th century paintings by artists of the Sienese school.
The cathedral represents the ideas and ideals of its ‘father’, Pope Pio II better than any other buildings in Pienza. But who was this famous 15th century Pope and what was his role here? Enea Silvio Piccolomini, alias Pope Pio II, was born in this town, and wanting to “establish a lasting sign of his origin”, he employed Florentine architect Rosselino to give his birthplace a complete facelift. He also gave him a clear ‘brief’ on what he wished the new town to look like.
The Cathedral Square was the starting point for the work that eventually turned the jumbled Medieval village of Corsignano into the ‘ideal city’ of Pienza, “city of Pius”. Built from 1459 to 1462 on a pre-existing church, Pienza Cathedral was consecrated in 1462 by the Pope himself.
=> To really appreciate your visit, allow half an hour: after exploring the church, climb down into the crypt (there’s a small admission fee).
Explore Pienza and the Val d’Orcia with this Full-Day Guided Tour from Florence: visit Pienza, Montepulciano and Montalcino and taste some of the local specialities, mouthwatering pecorino cheese and wine.
Pienza Cathedral, the highlights
The facade appears rather simple and geometrical, almost severe. The design is extremely clean, void of extravagant decorations or the stripes of marble that we often find in Tuscan churches. It’s all in pale travertine, divided in pillars, blind arches with columns and pilasters ( features often used by Humanist architect Leon Battista Alberti that the Pope admired so much). High up on the gable you can see Pio II’s coat of arms, which appears almost like a signature.
The slender bell tower was damaged in 1545 by an earthquake and rebuilt two decades later.
The interior – What to see
Pienza Cathedral has a spacious and bright interior, that mixes elements of Renaissance and Late Gothic style. Pio II wanted to create a place that admitted so much light that worshippers felt they were “not in a house of stone, but of glass”. The three naves are very similar in size, and have various beautiful Gothic decorations including ribbed vaults and tracery windows.
Notable artworks: the marble tabernacle by Rossellino’s workshop, in Renaissance style. And 5 altarpieces from the Sienese school – take your time to admire the artistic highlight of Pienza Cathedral, the masterpiece by Lorenzo di Pietro known as ‘il Vecchietta’, “Assunzione della Vergine” (1460-63). You’ll find another work by the same artist in Pienza’s Museo Diocesano.
You can round off your visit by climbing down into the crypt (the former Church of San Giovanni) where you’ll see a baptismal font by Rossellino, and taking a walk around the labyrinth which is under the crypt.Image by Luca Aless – Opera propria, CC BY-SA 3.0, Collegamento
Architectural influences – Where did the Pope get ideas for Pienza Cathedral?
When he planned the remaking of his hometown, the Pope took an active part in the design of the space and the buildings. He worked side by side with his employee, Bernardo Rossellino, who was amongst the architects who helped to bring about a classical revival, that was so fundamental to the Renaissance movement.
But Pio II had eclectic taste. He had lived in Germany and appreciated the architecture of the Medieval Hellenkirchen, so he decided that ‘his’ Cathedral had to copy their style, with naves of the same height to give the space an harmonious feel. He also liked Franciscan Churches, like the one in Assisi, with their rich and sombre forms, and appreciated the work done in the Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence by Leon Battista Alberti, a great student of ancient Roman architecture and a Humanist philosopher.
Pio II Piccolomini , the “Humanist Pope”, died in 1464 without being able to complete his town. Before becoming Pope he had been an able diplomat, a poet laureate, and he’s the only Pope to have written an autobiography – in 12 volumes, the”Commentarii”. Pienza Cathedral stands as one of his greatest achievements, a testimony to a rich and fascinating time in history.