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The Val d'Orcia (Val d’Orcia) —  Italy

The Val d'Orcia is located 25 km southeast of Siena. It is part of the agricultural hinterland of Siena, which was colonized in the XIVe and XVe centuries following an idealized model of land management.

Added to the World Heritage List as a cultural landscape in 2004, the Val d'Orcia covers almost all of the five municipalities created at the time of the colonization of the area, Castiglione d'Orcia, Montalcino, Pienza, San Quirico d'Orcia and Radicofani.

The Val d'Orcia is made up of towns and villages (some fortified), farms, abbeys, inns, bridges, forests, and more. Cypress trees are a strong visual feature of this landscape; regularly planted along roads, they often punctuate the rounded shapes of the hills on top of which generally stand the settlements.

According to the terms used by the World Heritage Committee at its decision to include the site on the List: "The Val d’Orcia is an exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was re-written in Renaissance times to reflect the ideals of good governance and to create an aesthetically pleasing pictures (criterion iv)."

The merchants’ influence

Historically, the Siena merchants aimed to create a landscape of profitable agricultural units, but at the same time one that was pleasing to the eye. The landscape has therefore been shaped to be functional as well as being aesthetically pleasing.

It was based on innovative tenure systems, where the fields were divided into small properties and cultivated by families living there. Half of the production was paid to the merchants (sharecropping system). The latter could then reinvest in new agricultural improvements.

While reflecting the richness of those merchants who owned the land, the layout of the landscape was not so much intended to honour their prestige than to reflect their ideals of good governance.

Immortalized by artists

Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted this ideal landscape in the municipal palace of Siena in 1338-1340. He became a reality in the Val d'Orcia and was later immortalized by artists such as Giovanni di Paolo and Sano di Petri, which in return helped strengthen these ideals.

The iconic and aesthetic qualities of the Val d'Orcia have had a profound influence on the subsequent development of the landscape.

Development and preservation

The history of the Valle d'Orcia is intimately linked to the Via Francigena road, which has crossed the area since Roman times (it was then called Via Cassia) linking Rome to northern Italy and France. The Via Francigena has promoted the development of churches and monasteries that are still possible to admire while cruising the winding roads of the Val d'Orcia. The Collegiata of San Quirico and Saint Antimo Abbey are among the most beautiful sites linked to this old road.

This is partly thanks to the relative neglect of the region dating back to the time when the Val d’Orcia was marginalized after the conquest of the territory by Florence in the late sixteenth century, and thus the unique characteristics of this rural landscape were preserved.

Parco Artistico Naturale e Culturale della Val d'Orcia was created in 1999 to ensure a coordinated management of the natural and cultural resources of the region. The objectives of the park management plan include the development of environmental tourism, as well as the support and promotion of traditional agriculture and its products.

A word about Pienza

The Historic Centre of the City of Pienza itself has also been on the World Heritage List since 1996, as the first application of the Renaissance humanist concept of urban design. This model would play an important role in the development of urban planning in Italy and beyond. The central square and surrounding buildings are also considered to be masterpieces of creative human genius.

Christiane Lefebvre

Source : http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1026 and http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/789, accessed April 2016.

For tourist information on the Val d'Orcia.

Reading suggestion

War in Val D’Orcia : An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944, by Iris Origo. Century Hutchison (1958).

A diary kept by Iris Origo in 1943-1944 which recounts a dramatic episode of the battle of Florence. This author's faithful report, who housed in its domain of La Foce refugee children from the northern towns taken under bombardment, make us live from inside the daily reality of the inhabitants of the Val d'Orcia at the fall of Mussolini. It also allows us to measure the general confusion that took hold of Italy at the time. It is one of the most authentic documents which has been written on the resistance of the Italian people. Even in the heart of the tragedy, there was always room for simple gestures imbued with humanity.



Villa near San Quirico d’Orcia; this site was used in the movie The Gladiator 

Farming landscape in the Valley in the fall

Lorenzetti Ambrogio, Les effets du bon gouvernement à la campagne - détail.  Work kept at the Palazzo Pubblico, Council Room, Sienna

Historic Centre of the City of Pienza




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