Today, the walled Tuscan town of Montepulciano looks just as it did in the late 1500s, a comfortable blend of medieval architecture with Renaissance updates. Some fine baroque touches decorate the churches, but the architecture is surprisingly unified. It is probably of Etruscan origin, and at its medieval height was variously allied to, or subject to, Siena or Florence. Leading artists and architects were drawn to the city by the noble families who retained their influence here longer than in other Tuscan cities, giving rise to fine Renaissance buildings. Perched high on a hill, the city itself is perhaps its biggest tourist attraction.
1 Great Square
Montepulciano’s main square is officially called Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, but everyone calls it Piazza Grande. Some of the city’s most important buildings surround it. The austere Palazzo Comunale commands the west side of the piazza, begun at the end of the 14th century and given its present form in 1424 by the Florentine Renaissance architect Michelozzo. The simple facade with its rounded top and the shape of the tower are reminiscent of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, although it is more symmetrical. From the top of the tower, which you can climb, you have a panoramic view of the Tuscan countryside. Palazzo Contucci , opposite, was the work of Antonio da Sangallo the Elder in the 16th century and contains frescoes by Andrea Pozzo. massivePalazzo Tarugi has an open loggia on the ground floor and adjacent to the palazzo is a fountain built in 1520, with two Etruscan columns and at the top two lions with the coat of arms of Médici.
Address: Piazza Grande, Montepulciano
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Montepulciano
2 Duomo (cathedral)
The current duomo, designed by Ippolito Scalza, was built between 1592 and 1630 on the site of an earlier parish church, of which the campanile is the only remnant. The rough stonework of the façade, intended to support a more decorative piece, was left unfinished. Inside, to the left of the main doorway, is the Early Renaissance figure of Bartolomeo Aragazzi, secretary to Pope Martin V, by Michelozzo di Bartolommeo. The tomb was smashed to pieces and you will find other fragments elsewhere in the cathedral. Behind the main altar is a beautiful 15th-century triptych of the Assumption by Taddeo di Bártolo. Sano di Pietro’s Madonna of the Pillar is a small but beautiful panel painting of Mary with a chubby red-haired Jesus holding a little bird.
Address: Piazza Grande, Montepulciano
3 San Biagio
Below the city walls at the end of a long cypress-lined avenue, the Church of San Biagio was built in 1518-45 by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder, but shows Bramante’s influence. Built of golden travertine to house a highly revered statue of the Madonna, it is considered one of the most beautiful buildings of the Renaissance. The open and beautifully proportioned interior is on a Greek cross plan, with four arms of equal length and a high dome on a drum. Of the two detached campaniles, the one on the right is unfinished. The presbytery has 16th-century frescoes depicting the Death, Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, believed to be by the Zúccari brothers. The retable of the main altar from the same period shows four figures of saints. The nearby canónica (priest’s house) and fountain were designed by Sangallo but built after his death. It now houses a small museum dedicated to St. Blaise (San Biagio). The late afternoon sun turns the church a golden color, a beautiful sight among the trees.
4 Civic Museum (Gemeentemuseum)
Housed in the 14th-century Palazzo Neri Orselli, the Museo Cívico is devoted to archaeological finds, medieval and Renaissance paintings, and some fine terracottas by Andrea della Robbia. You will first come to the archeology section, with Etruscan and Roman artifacts discovered nearby at Acquaviva di Montepulciano. The Etruscan funerary urns and the bronze candelabra and focula– a kind of bracelet – are not only beautiful and precious for their artistry, but are evidence of the importance of the region in ancient times. Consisting largely of displaced churches and monasteries, the Della Robbia collection includes a Madonna and Child, commissioned by the Palazzo del Capitano in 1484. Palazzo Neri Orselli is a rare example in Montepulciano of 14th-century public Sienese architecture, with a beautiful courtyard with a loggia and a well.
Address: Via Ricci 11, Montepulciano
Official site: www.museocivicomontepulciano.it
5 St. Augustine
The church’s handsome Renaissance façade, along with the terracotta relief in the tympanum above the door, is by Michelozzo di Bartolommeo, who collaborated with the eminent Florentine architect Brunelleschi and was a supporter of the sculptor Donatello. However, the church is from several centuries before. It was begun in 1285 and is the oldest surviving church building in Montepulciano. Restorations in the late 17th century significantly altered the interior and removed the previous aisles. Look on the high altar for the wooden crucifix attributed to Donatello. In front of the church is a bell tower topped by a Pulcinella from the 16th century that strikes a bell on the hour.
Address: Piazza Michelozzo, Montepulciano
6 Santa Maria dei Servi
The Church of Santa Maria dei Servi is located just outside the city walls. Built in the 14th century, the exterior is Gothic in style, but the elegant Baroque interior was the work of Andrea Pozzo in the late 17th century. Inside, look for a 14th-century fresco of the Madonna of the Sienese school, a painted panel of the Madonna and Child in a larger fresco, and a fresco of the crucifix.
Address: Via di Collazzi, 78, Montepulciano
7 St. Agnes
Outside the walls on the north side of town is the Church of Sant’Agnese, dedicated to St. Agnes of Montepulciano, a Dominican prioress who died in 1317 and is the town’s patron saint. It stands on the site of the former church of Santa Maria Novella, which was built by St. Agnes himself. Although the facade has been rebuilt, it retains the Gothic portal. In the first chapel on the right is a fresco of the Madonna, from the school of Simone Martini; on the main altar is the reliquary of the saint from the 17th century. Adjacent to the church is a cloister with frescoes.
Adres: Porta al Prato, Montepulciano
8 Palazzo Avignonesi
The Palazzo Avignonesi is probably designed by Giácomo da Vignola, whose real name was Giácomo Barozzi, in the 16th century. The late renaissance facade has rustic stonework on the ground floor and windows on the upper floors with alternating triangular and arched fronts. In the square in front of the palace is a column with the Marzocco, a lion that symbolized the authority of Florence. The lion is the work of the sculptor Sarrocchi.
Address: Via di Gracciano 99, Montepulciano
Official site: www.palazzoavignonesi.com
Day trips from Montepulciano
In the Val di Chiana, about 20 kilometers southeast of Montepulciano, Chiusi was an important Etruscan city by the sixth century BC and later a Roman city. The Museo Nazionale Etrusco (National Etruscan Museum) has a rich collection of Etruscan material and Greek pottery recovered from excavations in the Chiusi area. You will see ash urns, sarcophagi, bronze and pottery masks, tombstones, amphorae and canopic jars. The museum offers an excellent insight into the life of the Etruscans, their cult of the dead, their craftsmanship and their artistic sensibility. Ask at the museum about visiting some of the Etruscan tombs in the area. Some of these are open and contain wall paintings, urns and sarcophagi.
Address: Via Porsenna 2, Chiusi