In 1435 a young Tuscan poet and diplomat visited the court of James I in Edinburgh. The purpose of his mission remains something of a mystery. But he was impressed by the women of the country, whom he described as ‘fair, charming and easily won’. It also did not take him long to discover that ‘there is nothing the Scotch like better to hear than abuse of the English’.
The writer was Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the future Pius II, and the book in which he recorded his experiences (in the third person, in imitation of Julius Caesar) his astonishingly frank autobiography, the Commentaries, available in unexpurgated form (and translated into English by Florence Gragg) only in modern times.
Piccolomini returned to the Continent, passing through England in disguise. Leaving behind the exotic savagery and promiscuous customs of the natives of the far north, it was only when arriving at Newcastle that ‘for the first time he seemed to see again a familiar world and a habitable country’. He was full of praise for York Minster, and ‘a very brilliant chapel whose glass walls are held together by very slender columns’.
Memories of the Minster and of other lofty, light-filled churches he encountered in his extensive travels in Germany and Austria were still vivid in his mind when, almost immediately after his election to the papacy in 1458, he began to plan his own memorial. It was to be created by the transformation of the remote village of his birth, Corsignano, into a miniature ideal Renaissance city.
Pienza (‘Piusville’), as the now cathedral city was renamed in the pope’s honour, occupies a hilltop amid the open, rolling grassy downs south of Siena, punctuated here and there with tall cypress trees and surrounded by more distant views of wooded slopes and misty mountains. Even today the town and countryside look much as Pius described them. This lovely spot is now the venue of a revelatory exhibition, which, among other things, investigates the multilayered symbolism of Pienza’s architectural design and decoration (in the analysis of which the German scholar Holger Wanzke has led the way).
Although of noble blood, Piccolomini was raised in grinding rustic poverty. He was 18 by the time he made it to Siena, where his engaging sociability, quickness of wit and gifts as a Latinist launched him on a dazzling, peripatetic career. He was originally bent on winning fame through his literary output, publishing verse, biography, important historical and geographical works, even a risqué romantic novel. An unabashed lover of the good things in life, the table and the bed, he only took Holy Orders in 1446, as a pragmatic prelude to his final rapid ascent through the ranks of the curia. Twelve years later he was pope.
Even his choice of title as Supreme Pontiff represented a backward look to his Latinist days, identifying him with the ‘pius Aeneas’ of Virgil’s Aeneid. Indeed, at the conclave from which Piccolomini emerged victorious, his enemies attacked his virtually pagan past, his arch-rival the Cardinal of Rouen exclaiming, ‘And look at his writings! Shall we set a poet in Peter’s place?’
Had his profound love of nature, witnessed over and again in his autobiography, been better known, he might have been doubly suspect, at a time when woods were generally feared as the lairs of brigands and wild animals, and mountains more likely to evoke feelings of horror than intimations of the sublime. This appreciation of the natural world was almost certainly nourished by classical celebrations of the pastoral, but it also seems firmly rooted in his childhood affection for the landscape of Val d’Orcia.
Pienza’s principal architect was Bernardo Rossellino, but Pius was intimately involved at every stage of the project, putting the stamp of his character on every aspect of it, sometimes openly otherwise in more recondite ways. The over-arching theme is light: spiritual light, the light of the classics, the numinous brightness of the surrounding countryside.
Of the exceptionally commodious Palazzo Piccolomini, with its wonderful courtyard, spacious loggias, hanging garden and spectacular views, Pius wrote: ‘If the first charm of a house is light, surely no house would be preferred to this one.’ Light here also had a practical aspect for a man accustomed to spending many hours reading and writing.
The significance of light in the duomo is more complex. The façade is impeccably in the new Renaissance style: in white Travertine and inspired by ancient temple fronts and triumphal arches. But beyond is a Gothic masterpiece, recalling those churches the young Piccolomini has seen and admired in northern Europe. ‘As you enter the middle door,’ he wrote, ‘the entire church with its chapels and altars is visible and is remarkable for the clarity of the light and the brilliance of the edifice.’
This effect is achieved by the three tall naves of equal height and large clear glass windows, but greatly enhanced by the abandonment of the traditional east-west orientation and the rotating of the building’s axis so that the altar is now at the southern end. In fact, the apse does not face due south, but is slightly skewed to lie in line with the peak of Mt Amiata. The highest mountain in Tuscany, and a sacred summit from time immemorial, it seems, too, to have cast a powerful spell over Pius. During construction, the roof and façade of the duomo were raised several feet to ensure that at the spring equinox a perfect shadow was cast across the new piazza, touching the exact edge of it. The brick piazza itself was divided into nine equal rectangles bordered with Travertine strips, harking back to mystic Orphic numbers and the pre-Roman divisions of days, weeks, months and years into nines. Thus, and through other symbols, did Pius seek to bring together the pagan and Christian worlds, which found reconciliation in his own extraordinary personality.