by Roderick Conway Morris

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Pius II's Ideal City


By Roderick Conway Morris
PIENZA, Italy 12 September 2006

 

Humanist, poet, diplomat, traveler, lover of nature, music, wine and food, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini rose from provincial obscurity to become Pope Pius II.

He left behind an autobiography unique in the annals of the papacy. Candid, observant, indiscreet, sensitive, shrewd and sometimes staggeringly immodest, "Commentaries" was written in the third person. The principal copy of the manuscript was signed by the scribe Gobelinus, who was mistaken for the author, and it was only in modern times that its true authorship was confirmed and uncensored editions published.

But Pius also bequeathed to posterity a more public monument to himself, one grander, more eccentric, more richly emblematic than any other papal memorial. He transformed his remote home village of Corsignano, a hilltop hamlet amid the rolling countryside south of Siena, into a miniature ideal Renaissance city, renaming it Pienza ("Piusville") in honor of the title he took as pontiff.

Pius was born in 1405, and in slightly tardy celebration of this 600th anniversary, Palazzo Piccolomini in Pienza is playing host to a fascinating exhibition: "Pius II: The City and the Arts." There is also a parallel show in Siena, "The Rebirth of Sculpture" at Santa Maria della Scala, devoted to the resurgence of this art form during and after Pius's reign. Both shows continue until Oct. 8.

One of 18 children, Piccolomini was of noble lineage but raised in rustic poverty. Escaping to Siena at the age of 18, he turned himself into an accomplished Latinist and secured a post as the secretary to a cardinal. The first picture in Pinturicchio's fresco cycle at Siena's Duomo illustrating his life shows the young Piccolomini on horseback turning and momentarily glancing back. In career terms, this was the last time he was ever to do so.

The years that followed were taken up with almost ceaseless travel around Europe on diplomatic missions, during which he served two popes, an antipope and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (who made him his poet laureate). He did not take holy orders until he was in his 40s, but within two years of becoming a cardinal in 1456, he outmaneuvered his rivals to win St. Peter's throne.

Internationally, Pius showed a surprisingly vigorous commitment to trying to raise a new crusade to contain the Ottoman threat after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, an enterprise that collapsed in 1464 when he himself died, about to board ship to lead the first eastbound task force.

At home, he set about advancing Piccolomini family interests and consolidating them by creating a new fiefdom centered on his home village. He elevated this out-of-the-way place to the status of a bishopric and redrew local boundaries to make it the administrative heart of a much larger territory. But most ambitious of all was his scheme to rebuild the place according to the classical revivalist ideas of Leon Battista Alberti.

The core of the project involved laying out a new piazza, flanked by a cathedral, family palazzo, bishop's residence and city hall. Bernardo Rossellino was chief architect, but Pius was a constant participant, defining what he wanted, sometimes in the most minute detail. The main components were finished in the astonishingly short time of five years. Encouraged by these major works, other individuals set about rebuilding and expanding the rest of the fabric of the city.

Palazzo Piccolomini was exceptionally luminous and comfortable, with a sophisticated system for gathering, filtering and distributing water; winter and summer rooms; concealed servants' staircases; and kitchens on every floor. The spacious loggias of the Palazzo Piccolomini, facing the countryside to the south and the distant Mount Amiata, looked out over the first "hanging garden" to be laid out since antiquity. Pius's visionary blending of architecture and the surrounding countryside into a seamless whole speaks volumes about his unusual and historically precocious appreciation of nature and landscape (a passion that runs like a leitmotiv throughout his writings).

The Duomo, the first church with a classically inspired facade ever to be completed, is an amazing hybrid. Behind Rossellino's cool, elegantly proportioned travertine marble temple front is a dramatic, high-vaulted Gothic cathedral. This was specifically required by Pius, who had encountered such light- filled churches on his travels in Germany and Austria, and in England, where he was impressed by York Minster and admired there "a very brilliant chapel whose glass walls are held together by very slender columns."

In defiance of the traditional east-west orientation of churches, the Duomo was built on a north-south axis, shifted slightly to the west. This aligns the windows behind the altar with the summit of Mount Amiata. The highest in Tuscany, Amiata had been a holy place since ancient times, and Pius himself described it as a "sacred mountain."

During the building of the church, the pillars of the three naves were raised several feet to heighten the roof and facade. This adjustment meant that at the spring equinox (according to the Julian calendar then in use), the Duomo casts a shadow that exactly reaches the edge of the piazza (which is itself divided into nine equal rectangles, recalling the pre-Roman divisions of days, months and years in nines, and a number associated with Orphic and pagan rituals).

At the same time, the open round window at the center of the cathedral's facade, "a great eye like that of the Cyclops," in Pius's own words, is matched by an identically proportioned closed eye at the center of the piazza formed by a ring of stone.

The key elements of Pius's new city came in at well over twice the original budget. The architect, a Florentine whose appointment had been resented by a number of the local Sienese, received an ominous summons there, and was as astonished as the bystanders when Pius, as he records in his autobiography, announced: "You did well, Bernardo, in lying to us about the expenses involved in the work. If you had told the truth, you could never have induced us to spend so much money and neither this splendid palace nor this church, the finest in Italy, would now be standing."


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016