Some months back, I happened to see a programme on Italian television which included a piece on the town of Pienza in Southern Tuscany. I’ve been there several times, and in a way it’s odd to see the locations on the screen and think “I sat exactly there”. Anyway, the programme was about traditional social activities associated with festivals, and in Pienza they have the “Gioco del Panforte”, the Panforte Game.
Panforte is a traditional form of confectionery, a flat cake made from honey, nuts, fruit and spices. Every small baker’s shop has its own secret recipe, and some of the more modern, avant-garde versions might include chocolate. The famous city of Siena, near Pienza, is the acknowledged home of panforte, where all the best varieties originate. Siena even has bars where you can buy a slice and a glass of vin santo. (Seeing it on the programme did put the notion on me to have some, but Sainsbury’s don’t have any.)
The Panforte Game consists of tossing the panforte cake onto a table from a set distance. The winner is whoever gets the cake to teeter on the far edge with the largest overhang, or “capanna” (literally that means “shack” or “hovel”. Don’t ask me.) And, er, as they say, that’s it. Hardly enough to sustain a centuries-long history of the game, but maybe there’s not much to do in Pienza.
The reason I’ve been there is because of its history. Pienza was originally the village of Corsignano, birthplace of Pope Pius II, but the new Pope had a notion to enlarge and enrich his home town. He employed the architect Bernardo Rossellino to change Corsignano into the perfect little Renaissance city of Pienza, based on the newly-developed ideals of humanist urban planning, with Pius consecrating the new Cathedral in 1462.
Or at least that’s what the history books and guide books say. In fact, it’s largely bollocks. I realised this one day when I was sitting in the shade of the loggia of the town hall, looking directly at the Cathedral opposite. Or not quite opposite. That’s the thing, you see. If Rossellino had got to completely redesign the town, he wouldn’t have made the main piazza an irregular asymmetric shape. The obvious fact is that all that happened was that a couple of new, fancy buildings were inserted into an existing ground plan: the Cathedral, the Pope’s holiday home, the town hall, the entrance archway.
The rest of the town is also just as unplanned. There is a selection of expensive townhouses and small palazzi, originally built by Cardinals and courtiers who wanted to be close to the Boss when he was in his country residence. But they sit on the medieval streets too. Not Renaissance at all.
That’s not to say that Pienza is unattractive. In fact, it’s gorgeous. It is true that there’s not much to do (I didn’t know about the Panforte Game when I was there) but there’s a nice ambience and you can visit the major buildings. I remember walking into the Cathedral, and stopping short, thinking “something’s not right”. In this case, the guide book came in handy, because I was able to find the cause of the dissonance. Before becoming Pope, Pius had been a diplomat, and had travelled in Northern Europe, as far away as Scotland. He had come to like the severe, soaring, luminous architecture of the Northern churches, and had his designed to create the same impression. It doesn’t look Italian inside at all.
Easy come, easy go. The Pope died just a couple of years later, in 1464. Although his family were rich enough to keep up the palace in Pienza until 1968, the town no longer had any purpose for the hangers-on and the resulting relative poverty kept it static, frozen in time. It has that air today: nothing to do but sit in the sun and flip panforte.