I was walking along the panoramic promenade just outside Pienza in Tuscany, admiring the wonderful landscape views of the Val d’Orcia, when I first spotted a circular bell tower between the trees. Pienza, rebuilt as an ideal Renaissance town by Pope Pius II in the fifteenth century, is a jewel in itself, but I had a sense that this little Romanesque church was going to be a hidden gem that I could not miss.
I reached the church on foot down a steep road on the edge of town, following signs to Pieve di Corsignano. Pieve means parish church and Corsignano is the name of the original village that Pienza was built on. This was a key stop along an alternative route of the Via Francigena pilgrimage road from France to Rome.
Records of a church here date back to about the 8th century, and it was dedicated to Saints Vito and Modesto. According to information at the site, the facade of the remaining building dates from the 11th century, while the bell tower is older.
The decoration on the front of the church was the first thing that caught my eye. At the top, a female figure holds up the central block of stone in the asymmetrical double lancet window. Some interpretations I’ve read say this could be a pagan “Mother Earth”-type goddess of fertility, while others say it has come to represent the Virgin Mary. Above the door there were some siren-like figures, symbols that could also stem from local pagan traditions.
Here’s a closer view of the sirens and the decorative patterns surrounding them. The one in the centre is in a rather provocative position, holding her finned legs open and looking very pleased with herself. The figures on either side of her appear to be tussling or interacting with beasts, which some interpret as a warning against siren-like temptations, while others view as communication with the animal world.
Inside the church, there are several things to notice. Firstly you can see the baptismal font where Enea Silvio Piccolomini was baptised in 1405, the man that went on to become Pope Pius II and had Pienza rebuilt based on Renaissance town-planning concepts. An inscription above the font testifies to his christening here.
The interior is simple and plain in its beauty, and consists of three naves, each with its own altar. I liked the one to the right, which had a pretty decorative pattern and was surrounded by other mysterious symbols.
To the right of this altar you can descend down some steps into the crypt. Here you can find more stones decorated with patterns, parts of which may have originally been an ancient religious symbol marking a sacred centre of the earth’s energy. This appeared as a diagonal cross with a circle in the centre.
It was interesting to uncover these symbols in a Christian church. In the main building there are also two serpents on one of the capitals of the left nave. One is extended to its full length, the other is slightly coiled. This is another sign that could be linked to earth cults, according to my research.
Back outside, I turned around the corner to the side of the church, and found another decorated door.
This had more recognisable figures from Christian tradition, such as the three kings and the nativity scene.
I was really glad to have taken the stroll out of Pienza to this fascinating sanctuary. It is one of the places I remember most vividly of my one-week trip around the Siena area, and I look forward to spotting similar symbols elsewhere in Italy and beyond.