I MAY SEEM self-indulgent to add Montalcino to this book. It is inevitably outshone by its greater neighbours, and it boasts no building to be compared with Sant’Antimo in walking distance to the south. But few towns,
even in Tuscany where development has on the whole been relatively well-controlled, are more happily placed. Whether approached through the hills to the west or on one of the two roads that climb up from the Via Cassia to the east, Montalcino imposes its presence.
Given to Sant’Antimo in 814, Montalcino later became a free commune. After the Battle of Montaperti, Montalcino abandoned an alliance with Florence and accepted Sienese control. Despite sieges in 1525 and 1553 it remained loyal to Siena even after the republic was extinguished in 1555; in 1559 it passed to the Medici.
At the high point at the southern end of the hill is the uncompromising fortress. Incorporating two earlier towers, this was built by the Sienese in 1361 after an unsuccessful revolt, and was, albeit briefly, to be the last outpost of the Sienese republic. Near the centre of the town is the Piazza del Popolo, with the inevitable medieval Palazzo Comunale, once the Palazzo dei Priori, its front studded with carved coats of arms, and with a statue of Grand Duke Cosimo I. To the right is a late gothic loggia. There are several churches, of which the most ambitious is the Duomo, rebuilt from 1818 by the Sienese Neoclassical architect, Agostino Fantastici, whose fine portico is an unexpected presence.
The Museo Civico is not large. There is a significant collection of early ceramics and Sienese maiolica, which is complemented by altarpieces by followers of the della Robbia. The pictures naturally are almost all by Sienese masters, Luca di Tommè, Giovanni di Paolo, Sano di Pietro and Benvenuto di Giovanni, among others. The most forceful Sienese painter of the late Trecento, Bartolo di Fredi, worked at Montalcino, executing frescoes in the church of Sant’ Agostino. The museum’s great treasures are the surviving fragments of a signed polyptych of 1382 and that of 1388 from the Cappella della Carceri. Bartolo was a narrator of genius, as the frescoes at San Gimignano demonstrate, but scenes from the life of the Virgin that flanked the central Coronation of the Virgin of the 1388 altarpiece are surely his signal achievements.