The Iconic Chapel on the Hill

I remember the first time I saw the chapel, from a distance in the middle of no where, on a road trip through Tuscany on my way to Pienza. I thought I had seen a mirage. I had to blink twice and rub my eyes. The view I saw had been photographed thousands of times yet it seemed like it could not possibly exist. An iconic picture found in almost every calendar or note card set about Italy that leaves you thinking there can be no place on earth that beautiful and yet here I was looking at it in real-time, in the flesh.

The Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta in Italy’s stunning Val d’ Orcia is one of the most photographKONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAed views in Tuscany. Built on a solitary hill against a sweeping panorama of agrarian fields and stands of cypress, the chapel once held a Renaissance statue of the Madonna sculpted by Andrea della Robbia in 1590. Recently classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta is an indelible memory of my travels in Italy and a sight that will forever define the landscape of Tuscany.

Click here to see some amazing pictures of the Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta in San Quirico d’Orcia and Tuscany.

Fortune is Fickle

pinturicchio mount of wisdomIf you need a visual image to keep you focused on your Lenten journey you might consider the Italian Renaissance artist Pinturicchio’s Allegory of the Hill of Wisdom (1504). The Greek philosophers Socrates and Crates are caught in a rather tricky balancing act on the top of a steep hill with the Roman goddess Fortuna. A desperate band of travelers are shown trudging upward on a difficult path, supposedly a path we humans have to undertake if we want to reach wisdom.

To view Pinturicchio’s Allegoria del Colle della Sapienza you have to look downward rather than upward as it is part of the floor intarsia in the Cathedral of Siena. A masterpiece underfoot, Giorgio Vasari called the floor of Siena’s Duomo “the most beautiful, big and magnificent that has ever been done”. Normally covered by carpets to protect it, the floor is uncovered for a few months each year when stories from antiquity, biblical scenes and allegories come to life through intricate patterns and designs created in marble as vivid and alive as any Renaissance sculpture. Siena cathedral floor

Siena is one of my favorite cities in Italy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must see when traveling in Tuscany. Siena is located in the Val d’Orcia, a breathtakingly beautiful part of Italy that makes the journey all the more memorable. A perfect image in my mind’s eye to reflect on life’s journey.  Pinturicchio’s travelers to the Hill of Wisdom find their fortunes cast from the top as if to say Fortune is fickle and Wisdom lies in knowing so.

Maturus, Fucus, Siccatus, Sauvis and Rubens

Maturus, Fucus, Siccatus, Sauvis and Rubens? At first you might think these are names of Senators from the time of the Roman Empire but rather than conveying the power and prestige of the Roman Senate these names refer to an illustrious group of cheeses from Pienza, an ancient Renaissance city a few miles from the wines of Montepulciano. Pienza is the capital of Tuscan pecorino, a sheep’s milk cheese (cacio di pecorino) that is one of the most prized and favored cheeses of the Val d’Orcia. Known for its inviting and mild flavor, even when aged, Pecorino Toscano is the Tuscan relative of the more well-known Romano which because of its stronger flavor is preferred for some pasta dishes with highly flavored sauces.

Both are sheep’s milk cheeses (pecora means sheep in Italian) and both have PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status but the similarity stops there. Pecorino Toscano thrives under the Tuscan sun surrounded and influenced by vineyards, olive orchards and the clay soil of the Crete Senesi.  The characteristic flavors and aromas of the grass, herbs and wildflowers (wormwood, meadow salsify, juniper, broom, burnet) on which the sheep graze create a taste of Tuscany that is incomparable.

You can taste some of the best pecorino cheeses in Tuscany at Zazzeri, one of my favorite cheese shops in Pienza, where Maturus, Fucus, Siccatus, Sauvis and Rubens debate the best wine and honey pairings and whether apples or pears are to be chosen as an accompaniment. Walnut leaf wrapped or anointed with Tuscan olive oil, seasoned on wooden tables and displayed like a still-life from the Renaissance, these cheeses of Pienza were favored by Lorenzo the Magnificent and remain an evocative taste of Tuscany.