Art, history and hill towns of Tuscany

Art towns and history near Montalto Castle in Tuscany

Tuscany is known for its rich artistic legacy. The region boasts six localities designated as UNESCO world heritage sites: the historical centers of Siena, Florence, San Gimignano and PienzaPisa’s cathedral and the Val D’Orcia. The region around Montalto itself is incredibly rich, particularly in art, architecture and history.

A large portion of the masterpieces of Italian art can be found in Tuscany — not only in the major museums, such as the Uffizi in Florence, the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena, and the Etruscan museum in Chiusi, all of which are within easy reach — but also in the churches, palaces and squares of every town and village and the abbeys, castles and simple centuries-old farmhouses that dot the countryside.

You will not tire of exploring back roads, and each excursion will bring some new discovery even if you come back year after year. There is always something else to see!

In your house or apartment you will find a booklet with some suggestions about the most interesting art towns and monuments in this area of Tuscany. A selection of guide books, sight-seeing brochures and magazines offering information on the area is also available in our office.

Siena
30 KM (18.5 miles)

The historic centre of Siena has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The city has preserved its gothic character more than any other. Its 13th century Palazzo Pubblico or city hall is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe, as is the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo in front. In the museum within the city hall you can see Ambrogio Lorenzetti's series of frescos on Good government and the results of good and Bad government and also some of the finest frescoes by Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti.

  • The Cathedral (also called Duomo) is one of the great examples of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture; it has a magnificent inlaid marble floor with stories from the bible and classical mythology, a pulpit by Giovanni Pisano, and a choir-book library beautifully frescoed by Pinturicchio. The Baptistry beneath the Duomo features a baptismal font with bas-reliefs by Donatello, Ghiberti, Jacopo della Quercia and other 15th century sculptors.
  • The Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, next to the cathedral, holds Duccio’s Maestà, the altarpiece so beloved by the populace when it was painted by Duccio di Buoninsegna in the 14th century that the whole town carried it in procession to the cathedral. Santa Maria della Scala, the former hospital on the other side of street, grew bit by bit from the 11th century on: it is here that St. Catherine of Siena nursed lepers and victims of the Black Plague. Now a museum, it houses the Etruscana collection, the cathedral Treasury and rooms for Special exhibits, as well as the many frescoes created in past centuries to adorn the hospital.
  • There are many notable churches, such as Santa Maria dei Servi, San Domenico, San Francesco and the Sanctuary of St. Catherine's house, as well as numerous gothic palaces such as the Palazzo Chigi which houses Siena’s conservatory of music.
  • Make sure to stop for gelato or get an espresso at one of the bars in Piazza del Campo or the via Banchi di Sopra, one of Siena's main shopping streets. And if you are here in July or August, don’t miss the Palio (July 2 and August 16) or the parades of the various contradas in the days preceding and following the race.

Florence
75 km (46 miles)

Known as the "cradle of the Renaissance" and proclaimed as the "art capital of Italy", Florence has immense artistic and cultural richness and contains numerous monuments, churches, museums and art galleries where some of the world's most important works of art are held. In 1982, the historic centre of Florence was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fragments remain of the medieval walls that were built in the 14th century to defend the city, but the character of the city is mainly Renaissance. It would be impossible to include everything in this small space, but we will try to sum up some of the sites you should not miss.

  • The best-known site and crowning architectural jewel of Florence is the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as the Duomo, whose magnificent dome was built by Brunelleschi. The nearby Campanile (partly designed by Giotto) and Baptistry are also highlights. Both the dome itself and the campanile are open to tourists and offer excellent views; the dome, 600 years after its completion, is still the largest dome built in brick and mortar in the world. The Museo dell'Opera del Duomo contains many of the original works of art and sculpture from the Cathedral, including important works by Michelangelo, Donatello, Ghiberti, della Robbia and others.
  • At the heart of the city, in Piazza della Signoria, is Bartolomeo Ammannati's 16th century Fountain of Neptune, which is a masterpiece of marble sculpture at the terminus of a still-functioning Roman aqueduct. A copy of Michelangelo's famous statue of David stands here, along with statues by other sculptors such as Donatello, Giambologna, and Cellini.
  • Nearby is the Uffizi Gallery, one of the most famous and important museums in the world, founded on a large bequest from the last member of the Medici family. It contains works of art by Giotto, Cimabue, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raffaello, Tiziano, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Piero della Francesca and many others. It has the largest collection of Botticelli's works in the world, including his Birth of Venus.
  • The huge Palazzo Pitti contains over 500 mainly Renaissance paintings, including several by Raphael and Titian, which were once part of the Medicis' and their successors' private art collection; as well as large collections of costumes, ceremonial carriages, silver, porcelain and a gallery of modern art dating from the 18th century. It also houses the Royal Apartments, a suite of 14 rooms formerly used by the Medici family (largely altered since the era of the Medici, most recently in the 19th century) containing a collection of Medici portraits; in contrast to the great salons containing the Palatine collection, some of these rooms are much smaller and more intimate, better suited to day-to-day living requirements.
  • Adjoining the Pitti palace are the beautiful Boboli Gardens, elaborately landscaped and home to a collection of sculptures dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries, with some Roman antiquities.
  • Other important museums include the Galleria dell'Accademia, famous for its Michelangelo collection which includes the famous David and his unfinished Slaves; and the Bargello museum, which concentrates on sculpture and contains many priceless works by sculptors including Donatello and Michelangelo.
  • Palazzo Vecchio is the town hall and was for centuries the political heart of this great city in Tuscany; its history is reflected in the magnificent interior decoration and artistic collections. It holds works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, Vasari and many other Florentine artists. Other famous palaces of Florence are Palazzo Strozzi, Palazzo Rucellai which was designed by Leon Battista Alberti, and Palazzo Ammannati with several rooms furnished as they were in Renaissance times.
  • Spanning the river Arno is the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), whose most striking feature is the multitude of mainly jewelers' shops built onto its edges, held up by stilts. The bridge also carries Vasari's elevated corridor linking the Uffizi to Palazzo Pitti. Although the original bridge was constructed by the Etruscans (the original settlers of the region we now call Tuscany), the current bridge was rebuilt in the 14th century. It is the only bridge in the city to have survived World War II intact.
  • Notable churches are, among others, the Basilica di Santa Croce, originally a Franciscan foundation, which contains the monumental tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Dante and many other notables; and the church of San Lorenzo which contains the Medici Chapel, which is the mausoleum of the Medici family, the most powerful family in Florence from the 15th to the 18th century.

San Gimignano
72 km (45 miles)

San Gimignano is famous for its medieval architecture, especially its many towers which may be seen from several kilometers outside the town. While in other cities in Tuscany and Italy most towers were brought down by wars, catastrophes, or urban renewal, San Gimignano has managed to conserve fourteen towers of varying height out of the original 72, which have become its international symbol. Like Siena and Florence, San Gimignano’s historical center too has been designated a world heritage site. The town is also known for the white wine Vernaccia di San Gimignano produced in the area.

  • The Palazzo Comunale (city hall), once the seat of the podestà (mayor), houses works by Pinturicchio, Filippo Lippi and others. From Dante's Hall in the palace there is accesss to the Maestà by Lippo Memmi, as well as to the Torre del Podestà or Torre Grossa, built in 1311 and still standing 54 meters high.
  • There are many churches in the town. The main ones are the Collegiata, formerly a cathedral, and Sant'Agostino, housing a wide representation of artworks from some of the main Italian renaissance artists.
  • Located in the heart of the city, the museum San Gimignano 1300 offers a massive reconstruction of the city as it existed 700 years ago. Architects, historians, and a team of artists worked nearly 3 years to create this spectacular model which includes 800 meticulously handcrafted structures, 72 towers, street scenes, and figurines.

Other cities in Tuscany within easy reach from Montalto

All of these are worth a visit, while you are on holiday in Tuscany:

  • Assisi is the town of Saint Francis, and its beautiful 3-tier cathedral is decorated with Giotto's famous frescoes.
  • Perugia is now a large city but preserves its medieval and renaissance heart. Also famous for the Perugina chocolate industry, it stages various events during the year. Nearby Deruta is home to beautiful hand painted ceramics and decorated pottery.
  • Lucca and Pisa are a bit farther but since they are close together they can be visited in the same day: stop to admire the Leaning Tower of Pisa before going on to Lucca, with its oval piazza (once an amphitheatre) and a small but lovely cathedral; particularly nice is the walk around Lucca on top of the old walls.

The hill towns of Tuscany

In addition to the famous cities like Siena and Florence, Montalto is surrounded by many interesting smaller towns, such as:

  • Montalcino, home of Brunello wine, in whose castle the Sienese government took refuge after the Florentines conquered Siena in the 16th century;
  • Pienza, the town designed in Renaissance style by Pope Pius II, with the houses on its square artfully proportioned to make the space seem larger;
  • Montepulciano with its steep medieval alleys;
  • Monteriggioni with its crowning circle of walls;
  • Arezzo, which houses fine frescoes by Piero della Francesca;
  • Cortona, beloved by Frances Mayes who celebrated its life in Under the Tuscan Sun and other books
  • Volterra, an Etruscan town still encircled by walls and home of an important industry of alabaster artifacts. Its museums hold lovely collections of alabaster artisanry and also a beautiful painting by Bronzino; an entirely frescoed baroque chapel is rarely open to visit.

…and and there are many other beautiful towns in Tuscany — too numerous to mention.

Even the smallest villages hide treasures you won't find in guide books, there waiting for you to discover: the church in Badia a Ruoti, for example, a very short distance from Montalto, has a dazzling 14th-century altarpiece; and in Pogi near Bucine there is a medieval bridge on ancient Roman foundations that is still in use today, identified only by its single high arch and ancient stones.

Abbeys and Castles

Abbeys in Tuscany that are well worth a visit for their splendid architecture or frescoed cloisters include ethereal Sant'Antimo, Monte Oliveto Maggiore and, on the other side of Siena, the roofless ruins of gothic San Galgano.

Less than 5 miles from Montalto the beautiful belfry and apse of a Romanesque church at Badia d'Ombrone remain from the abbey founded there in the year 867.

Several castles also dot the Tuscany hillsides. Some allow at least partial visits: for example Brolio, where the “Iron Baron” Bettino Ricasoli first codified Chianti wine in 1872, and Meleto. Most others, like once-mighty Cennina near Montalto, can be enjoyed against the skyline from the country roads.

The ancient Etruscans

The Etruscans called Tuscany their home (and gave it its name), creating the first major civilization in this region: large enough to lay down a system of roads, to implement agriculture and mining and to produce vibrant art. This civilization filled the area between the Arno River and Tiber River and reached its peak during the 7th and 6th centuries BC before succumbing to the Romans by the 1st century. It is thought that Roman art was greatly influenced by Etruscan art. If you are interested in this ancient people that pre-dated the Romans, there are several museums within 1-2 hours of Montalto:

  • Cortona’s museum displays artifacts from the many Etruscan tombs in the surrounding countryside. These probably came from wealthier members of society; they contained weapons, armour, bronze statuettes and jewelry as well as frescoes. There are also funeral urns: square stone or terracotta boxes that contained the ashes of the deceased; commonly battle scenes are depicted on the sides and a carving of the deceased on the lid. The tombs and artifacts are our main source of information about the Etruscans, since, unlike the Greeks and Romans, their civilisation left few written records. If you would like to visit an Etruscan tomb, it is possible to arrange a visit through the museum.
  • In Chiusi is the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale. The Etruscans of this area of Tuscany made a particular kind of pottery called Bucchero that is very dark and imitates metal, and the best collection of it is in Chiusi. The most important discovery in the area is the Tomba della Scimmia (tomb of the monkey), rich in wall paintings and only visitable by appointment; but your museum ticket includes entry into two other unadorned but interesting tombs about 3 km out of town: the Tomba del Leone and Tomba della Pellegrina, the latter of which still contains the urns and sarcophagi it was built to hold.
  • The Guarnacci Museum in Volterra, which originated as a private collection, has a very large number of small urns that are arranged on shelves lining every room, with other pieces set up in glass cases in the center.
  • The Civic Museum of Gubbio holds the Eugubine Tablets, the bronze slabs of Umbrian writing that are kind of the Rosetta stone of Etruscan language. This museum has a mixed collection (it’s not exclusively dedicated to Etruscan items) including some really lovely elongated “shadow figure” sculptures. The building itself is also of interest.

There are also museums showcasing Etruscan artifacts in Arezzo, Fiesole and Florence.

 

Tuscany is a land to explore at leisure, if possible without a tightly fixed program, so that you can turn off at side roads and stop longer than planned where your attention is caught. Every detour will be rewarded!

Montalto is the perfect home base for your holiday in Tuscany. Art, history, culture, architecture are all within reach. Visit www.montaltointoscana.com/en/accommodations.html to learn more about our holiday rentals!