This tour is representative of a category in which there is a shift of emphasis away from the major masterpieces of a region towards the lesser delights, from a concentrated diet of cultural achievement familiar from text books towards a mélange of landscape, less accessible art and a sense of the continuity of life and community amidst ancient masonry.
All six nights of the tour are based in the small hill town of Pienza. Formerly called Corsignano, it was the birthplace of Pope Pius II, humanist, historian, traveller, autobiographer and patron of architecture. Between his election in 1458 and his death in 1464 he commenced the rebuilding of his home town and provided it with a cathedral, bishop’s palace, town hall, a palace for himself and a new name. Consequently Pienza entered the annals of architectural history as the earliest example of Renaissance town planning.
If you delight in places which lie off the beaten track, in tiny hill towns where vineyards clamber up to the 14th-century walls, in majestic landscapes of storm-tossed hills punctuated by cypresses, in the discovery of great architecture and exquisite paintings in unexpected places, in tracing a maze of alleys scarcely changed for 500 years, this tour is likely to please.
Pienza. Fly at c. 8.15am from London Heathrow to Pisa (British Airways). From there drive to Pienza, a gem of Renaissance architecture set in some of the best of Tuscan landscape. Late-afternoon visit to the Palazzo Piccolomini, built as a summer residence for the pope and now containing a small museum.
Castelnuovo dell’Abate, Montalcino, Pienza. Located in a remote valley, the partly ruinous monastery of Sant’Antimo has a strikingly beautiful Romanesque church, in part constructed of luminous alabaster. Once an impregnable fortress and now centre of Brunello wines, Montalcino is a walled hilltop village with magnificent views and a collection of Sienese painting in the museum. In the afternoon, continue the leisurely exploration of Pienza, the tiny hill town rebuilt 1459–64 by Pope Pius II in accordance with Renaissance ideals. The cathedral and palaces grouped around the main piazza were designed by Bernardo Rossellino in collaboration with his papal patron. Visit the cathedral and the diocesan museum in the restored Palazzo Borgia.
Montepulciano, La Foce. The main thoroughfare of Montepulciano, lined with grand palaces, winds circuitously through this once important city, with the Piazza Grande at the summit. The cathedral here is rich in Renaissance works of art. Outside the town, the centrally planned church of San Biagio by Antonio da Sangallo is one of the masterpieces of the Renaissance. Villa La Foce, former home of Iris Origo, has a garden designed by Cecil Pinsent.
Monteriggioni, Montesiepi, Cetinale, San Galgano. In the parish churches of San Leonardo al Lago and Montesiepi are two remarkable Sienese paintings of the Annunciation, respectively by Lippo Vanni and Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Villa Cetinale is a fine 17th-century garden excellently restored by the late owner Lord Lambton. At San Galgano are the impressive Gothic ruins of what in the 13th century had been one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in Italy.
Siena. Siena, City of the Virgin, is the most beautiful of Italian hill towns. You can opt to join the lecturer for his personal selection of some of the choicest items or go your own way (the itinerary assumes that you will be familiar with the main places of interest). Palazzo Piccolomini (1460s) contains the archives and a museum displaying beautifully painted covers of civic records. Visit the hospital of Sta. Maria della Scala, with its exceptional collection of Renaissance frescoes. The imposing cathedral, a Romanesque and Gothic construction of white and green marble, offers an outstanding array of sculpture and painting. Especially deserving of close attention are the crypt and Pinturicchio’s frescoes in the Piccolomini Library.
Monte Oliveto Maggiore, Bagni Vignoni. In the morning visit the monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, an exquisite complex of Early Renaissance art and architecture, the main cloister having 36 frescoes by Signorelli and Sodoma (1505–8). Bagni Vignoni has a central square occupied by an arcaded Renaissance piscina. Return to Pienza for a free afternoon.
San Gimignano. Visit the Romanesque collegiate church containing two great cycles of trecento frescoes depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The town hall also has 14th-century frescoes and houses a small art gallery. Fly from Pisa to London Heathrow, arriving c. 9.00pm.
Dr Michael Douglas-Scott
Dr Michael Douglas-Scott mixes scholarship with accessible discourse, wit with reasoned opinion, and is highly sought-after as an art history lecturer. He has lectured for New York University (London campus) and is an Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London, specialising primarily in 16th-century Italian art and architecture. He studied at the Courtauld and Birkbeck College and lived in Rome for several years. He has written articles for Arte Veneta, Burlington Magazine and the Journal of the Warburg & Courtauld Institutes.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £2,190 or £2,010 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,440 or £2,260 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 320); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 2 lunches and 3 dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admissions; all tips for restaurant staff and drivers; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager..
Relais Il Chiostro, Pienza: 4-star former friary dating to the 15th century close to the main square; bedrooms vary in size and are simply decorated and furnished. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
There is a lot of walking on this tour, much of it on the steep and roughly paved streets of the hill towns. Average distance by coach per day: 76 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.
'A fantastic programme of art.'
'Each day had a variety of venues.'
'Excellent – met our expectations to a very high degree.'