Wednesday 3 April 2013

Photo Essay: Last Days of Winter and the Dawn of Spring in Tuscany

Little Jerusalem ~ the ancient town centre of Pitigliano that appears to grow out of the tufa cliffs in central Tuscany
Photographer Andreas Romagnoli travels across the Val d’Orcia shooting the narrow streets, stone houses and great cathedrals that make up the self-contained towns set high above the plains in central Tuscany. After lunch on a cold winter’s afternoon, the medieval villages clustered on hilltops seem deserted and desolate until the early evening passeggiata, writes Jeanne-Marie Cilento

THE thick-walled, stone palazzi look blind with their wooden shutters closed and metal doors pulled down on shop windows. Looking out from a scenic rampart, rolling green and brown hills undulate below with no hint of movement. The wind whistles up from the valleys and blows unfettered through empty vicoli and up steep, dimly-lit stairs.   

But after 4pm the towns begin to stir. Shop shutters are pulled up and signs of life begin to appear. A slant of sun draws people out of doors for a post-lunch passeggiata to the piazza for an espresso or gelato. Streets begin to fill up as family groups merge with pre-dinner gatherings of teenagers linking arms and taking an early evening stroll. Locals buy a few last necessities before the stores close until Monday. The tranquil towns are immersed in the quiet and dark of the countryside with only lamplight to add a spark to Saturday night.

An atmospheric village rising theatrically from the plains is the old town of Pitigliano ~ known as Little Jerusalem. Honey-coloured buildings with blank windows appear to grow out of the sheer tufa rock with ravines cascading below. Historically a frontier town between the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Papal States,  Pitigliano was home to a flourishing Jewish community after people fled from Rome during the persecutions of the Counter Reformation. 

One of the caves in the tufa below the town was used for the Passover matzoh bakery called the forno delle azzime. During the Second World War, all of the town’s Jews escaped capture by the Germans with help from their Christian Pitigliano neigbours. Today, there are few Jewish families left but the synagogue built in1598 is still used and was restored in 1995.

One of the most spectacular churches in the Tuscan central region is the medieval duomo of Siena with it’s dramatic dark-green and white striped marble campanile and lacy red marble and mosaic façade. Originally designed and completed between 1215 and 1263, it is in the form of a Latin cross with a dome and lantern by Bernini. 

The façade of the Siena duomo is one of the loveliest in Italy. The west front is the main entry to the cathedral and has three portals, the central one capped by a bronze sun. Built in two stages and combining elements of French Gothic, Tuscan Romanesque and Classical architecture, the façade is a beautiful example of Sienese workmanship. Using polychrome marble, the first work was overseen by Giovanni Pisano with the doors and columns between the portals richly decorated with acanthus scrolls, allegorical figures and biblical scenes.

Across the rich green fields of the Val d'Orcia is Pienza, a town still in the province of Siena, between Montepulciano and Montalcino.  An influential example of Renaissance urbanism, the town was declared a World Heritage Site in 1996. By 2004 the entire valley of the Val d'Orcia was included on the list of UNESCO's World Cultural Landscapes.

Pienza was originally rebuilt from a village called Corsignano, the birthplace of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini in 1405, a Renaissance humanist born into an exiled Sienese family, who later became Pope Pius II. Once he became Pope, Piccolomini had the entire village rebuilt as an ideal Renaissance town. Intended as a retreat from Rome, Pienza represents the first application of humanist urban planning that spread to other Italian towns and then to cities across Europe.

Click on photographs for full-screen slideshow

The old centre of Pitigliano showing the medieval palazzi still standing but empty above the cliffs of tufa

 The bell-tower of Pitigliano's duomo rises above the old town perched on the cliff

Below the walls of rock that the town is built on are green fields stretching across the Val d'Orcia
A little red Ape truck trundles across a great, arcaded bridge of a valley in the Val d'Orcia
Budding signs of spring are blooming on a wintry hillside in central Tuscany
A cascading river flows down the ravine in Pitigliano

 Bare winter trees wait for spring along the river bank outside Pitigliano

Mossy terracotta tiles roof the old houses in Pitigliano

Cezanne's roofscapes in Tuscany

A steep medieval stairway of worn stones in the old town of Pitigliano

The rough tufa stone palazzi and quiet alley-ways of Pitigliano that was once a haven for Rome's Jewish population

An urban palcoscenico provides a stage to look out on the countryside below Pitigliano

 A local man texts in the streets of  Pitigliano that have not changed since the 15th Century 

A fountain in Pitigliano reflects the wintry light of  a solitary Saturday afternoon in the Val d'Orcia

The gentle undulations of the green hills of the Val d'Orcia
The lovely west facade of the Siena cathedral with it's polychrome marble carving and glinting mosaic decoration

 Looking behind the west front of the duomo in Siena

The soaring green and white striped marble campanile of the Siena cathedral

One of the early Renaissance buildings ringing the beautiful central piazza in Siena

The Siena Cathedral in all of it's polychrome marble glory

Green hills and blue skies show spring is on its way in Tuscany

The road to Pienza

 Russet-coloured trees surround the houses scattered on the hillside outside Pienza

The swelling curves of Tuscany's fertile plains

 Late afternoon sun outside Pienza

Looking towards the hilltop town of Pienza

The rectilinear Renaissance palazzi lining the streets of the centre of Pienza ~ an urban plan that was copied across Europe

The beautifully-laid herringbone bricks paving a street in Pienza

A winter afternoon in Pienza 

The Tuscan coastal town of Porto Santo Stefano

Fishing along the Tuscan coast 

 Porto Santo Stefano and Porto Ercole are resort towns on the slopes of Monte Argentario

The cafes around the placid waters of Porto Santo Stefano are a haven for an early evening aperitif in winter and summer

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