On my Tuscan travels, I had a chance to stop for the evening in Monticchiello and contemplate the surrounding landscape like a painting as the sun set. Perched on a hill in the Orcia valley, this fortified medieval village is an unspoilt jewel which offers stunning views of Pienza and the neat rows of cypress trees in the rolling hills around it.
Monticchiello’s early history is not clear, but its name may be linked to the gens Cloelia Roman patrician family, deriving from the Latin “Mons Cloelii”. Records of the city appear on documents dating back to the 10th century. In the Middle Ages it was involved in several border disputes with nearby Montepulciano, while it remained a faithful ally of Siena. Trade and craft developed in the village especially in the 13th century, one of its most flourishing periods. Once Florence rose to power under the Medici family, this part of Tuscany saw its influence decline.
I approached Monticchiello on a sunny October evening. I spotted its Rocca castle at the highest point of the hill, and saw some outline of the medieval stone walls framing the village.
The views reminded me of some writing on nature by philosopher Roger Scruton in his book Beauty.
“There is something plausible in the idea that the contemplation of nature is both distinctive of our species and common to its members, regardless of the social and economic conditions into which they are born; and something equally plausible in the suggestion that this contemplation fills us with wonder, and prompts us to search for meaning and value in the cosmos.”
“Nature offers to all of us a field of free perception. We can let our faculties rest in the scene before them, receiving and exploring without the need to decipher what is being said to us.”
“Even if human beings had a part in creating the landscape before my eyes, it is not there to communicate some exact artistic intention, its details are thrown down by history, and may change from day to day.”
“Nature is generous, content to mean only herself, uncontained, without an external frame”
As the day drew to a close, I wandered up through the village, passing under Porta Sant’Agata and its defence towers.
I reached the 13th century church of Saints Leonard and Christopher, which had a pretty rose window on its facade.
I was glad the church was still open, as I had a chance to view some wonderful frescoes inside. I particularly liked this huge painting of St. Christopher by Niccolò di Segna (who lived in the 14th century).
The size of the fresco helped to portray the strength of Christopher, who’s name means “Christ bearer”. This saint’s story is not very clear, but he is usually depicted carrying the baby Jesus on his back. According to ancient Greek mythology, he carried a baby over a river, and the child then revealed himself as Jesus. He is therefore known as the patron saint of travellers, and Christians often carry an image of him as an amulet when they are on journeys.
After admiring other paintings in the church, including the important “Life of St. Catherine of Alexandria” also attributed to Di Segna, I headed further up into the town, strolling along the medieval alleys, and spotting pretty flowers and rose gardens.
I had a delicious dinner and glass of Nobile di Montepulciano in La Cantina della Porta. While I was there I read about the “poor theatre” tradition of the town, which grew up in the 60s, when its economic system, which relied on sharecropping, was in rapid decline. The local inhabitants started using theatre to express their concerns and feelings about the transformation underway in the village, which was forcing many inhabitants to leave.
Monticchiello did not have a theatre so actors performed in the streets. Their shows became a way to rediscover the meaning and sense of their lives, and a form of resistance of this small community against the crisis underway. They helped them recover their social and cultural identity as farmers, which other social groups had tended to look down on. The cooperative organisation of the theatre also played a major role in keeping the community united.
In recent years, plays performed in the centre of the town during the summer have looked at themes such as the social and political implications of the post-2008 financial crisis and the struggle young people face to find fulfilling work close to home. It sounds like a fascinating tradition, I’d like to come back in July and August to see what they will focus on in 2016.
Hope you also make it to Monticchiello too, and enjoy some of your own unique breathtaking views! Have a wine in La Guardiola bar overlooking the hills while you’re at it.