Nestled in the heart of Tuscany, the enchanting town of Pitigliano boasts a rich history that spans from the Bronze Age to World War II. Carved from volcanic stone, this hidden gem is located south of Montepulciano and a short distance from the thermal mineral waters of Bagno San Filippo. The town’s striking landscape features cliffs that once protected the Fiora Valley, which has been home to various civilizations since 2300 BC.
Uncovering Pitigliano’s Unique History
Pitigliano’s unique features and rich history set it apart from other Italian towns. Visitors can explore artifacts from the Bronze Age, Neolithic times, and the Copper Age, many of which are displayed in local museums. The town also features the ruins of a necropolis and a temple, suggesting an Etruscan community inhabited the area in the 6th century. However, it is believed that these settlements were destroyed by Porsenna, the King of Chiusi, around 500 B.C.
Although the Roman presence in Pitigliano is less visible, evidence of their attempts to build on the plateau in front of the town remains. Fast forward to the 17th century, and visitors can still admire the majestic Medici aqueduct in the town center.
In the early 1600s, Pitigliano saw a significant influx of Jewish settlers, thanks to Ferdinando I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who made it easier for this persecuted group to find a home in the area. The town is also notable for its role in helping Jews escape from racial laws and opposing forces during World War II.
Exploring Pitigliano and its Surroundings
Pitigliano, perched atop a tuff spur, is part of an area known as “borghi del tufo” — towns carved from tuff stone. Its location near the border of Tuscany and Lazio makes it an ideal base for discovering the beauty of these two Italian regions.
In Tuscany, visitors are only an hour away from the coast, famous wine regions, and the picturesque Val d’Orcia. In Lazio, travelers can explore Bolsena Lake, the town of Orvieto, Civita Bagnoregio, and various Etruscan strongholds. Additionally, a short drive leads to major train hubs, providing easy access to Florence and Rome.
Savoring the Flavors and Wines of Tuscany
Pitigliano and the surrounding Tuscan countryside offer unique and flavorful dishes, many of which were created through inventive use of limited ingredients. One such example is the “sfratti,” a stick-shaped biscuit filled with ground walnuts, honey, nutmeg, and orange peel, wrapped in dough.
The region’s wine tradition is based on Tuscany’s white grape of choice, Trebbiano Toscano. Bianco di Pitigliano is a crisp white wine with floral and mineral notes, while other notable red wines fall under the Morellino di Scansano or Sovana DOCs. The town celebrates its wines during the SettembrediVino event, when cantinas (wine cellars) carved from stone in the cliffs of Pitigliano are opened to the public.
Discovering Pitigliano’s Architectural Marvels
Visitors can park their cars outside the city walls and explore the town center by foot, admiring the town’s walls and gates. The town’s Etruscan walls and the Porta Sovana, originally built by the ruling Aldobrandeschi family in medieval times, can be found in the northwestern part of Pitigliano. The southern part of the town
features a late-medieval wall section, where the pillars of the imposing Medicean aqueduct stand. The historic center is surrounded by fortress bastions and other fortified structures built by the Orsini family, who took over after the Aldobrandeschi had no male heirs.
Notable Churches in Pitigliano:
- Santi Pietro e Paolo Church: This parish church and cathedral were built in medieval times and have undergone various modifications. The current structure showcases a sober 18th-century baroque design, both inside and out. A 35-foot bell tower, initially built for civil/military purposes, now serves as the church’s “campanile.”
- Santa Maria and San Rocco Church: Considered the oldest and most artistically significant church in Pitigliano, this late-Renaissance structure features a facade decorated with Corinthian columns and a portal. Inside, visitors can admire 17th-century frescoes and colorful paintings of coats of arms from various rulers.
- The Tempietto (“Small temple”): A small cave, probably of natural origin but reworked by human hands, located near the city center. It consists of three areas with vaulted ceilings and is believed to have served as an Etruscan tomb, Roman temple, or a shrine.
Exploring the Mysterious Vie Cave
The “excavated roads” or vie cave in Italian, are a source of intrigue for historians and archaeologists. Despite their mysterious origins, it is clear that they held significant importance, as their construction required the removal of over 40,000 tons of volcanic rock. Theories about their purpose range from sacred and funerary use to connecting paths, defensive systems, or water outflow works.
Pitigliano, also known as “Little Jerusalem,” became a crucial haven for Jews as early as the 14th century. The Jewish population grew considerably, leading to the construction of a temple in 1598. Throughout history, the town’s Christian and Jewish residents have shown solidarity in protecting each other, as seen during the French military’s attempt to sack the Ghetto in 1799 and during World War II.
Visitors can explore the Jewish Museum, Synagogue, and Ghetto, which feature points of interest such as the Kosher butcher, kosher wine cellar, and a Jewish bakery for unleavened bread. The architecture of these sites showcases how the Jews adapted excavated spaces to meet their community’s needs.
Exploring Pitigliano’s Museums
- Alberto Manzi Outdoor Archaeological Museum: This interactive museum appeals to adults and children alike, showcasing a proto-historic village from the Bronze Age and an Etruscan town through full-scale models and virtual views.
- Civic Archaeological Museum of Pitigliano: The museum tells the story of the region through artifacts from the Bronze Age to the Etruscan necropolis in Poggio Buco. Visitors can also view live restoration work on ceramic vases recovered from archaeological digs.
- Palazzo Orsini and Museum of Sacred Art: This museum not only hosts artwork from local churches but also allows visitors to experience the atmosphere of the Orsini family’s life, complete with elegant vaults, painted wooden ceilings, narrow hallways, steep stairs, and secret rooms.
Pitigliano offers a fascinating glimpse into Italy’s rich history, making it a must-visit destination for travelers looking to explore the heart of Tuscany.
While Pitigliano lacks a train station, you can reach this charming town via bus from various Tuscan cities like Siena, Florence, and Grosseto, as well as from Rome and Viterbo in Lazio. To fully experience the region and visit nearby attractions like Saturnia Hot Springs, consider renting a car for your journey. As you approach Pitigliano, you’ll encounter a belvedere, a small terrace offering breathtaking photo opportunities.