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08 February 2011

Pienzan Civility:

Fausto Formichi and the Museo della Città e del Territorio

Pienza is on the map since I first visited as a student in 1980. Colin Rowe, Jeffrey Blanchard and Judy Di Maio brought us by bus at the end of a nine day odyssey to this little town on a hill; I remember more of the bus sickness than the town, but I have come back to it armed with more knowledge, and more love, of what it has to offer in the years since. Back then no one but diehard architects sympathetic to tradition made the journey off the via Cassia to Pius II’s home town. Today Pienza is on any serious Tuscan traveler’s to do list, as much for its pecorino as its piazza. Yet has anyone really learned from Pienza and its rapport with the Val d’Orcia? The lessons are seemingly (to me at least) so obvious; and yet it is their simplicity, a limpid alternative to the murky thinking behind the sloppy sprawl of the last thirty years (of which even Tuscany has made itself victim), that makes them so challenging to our modern mediocre muddle.
Enter Fausto Formichi. I arrived in Pienza on a recent Sunday with a small group of graduate students in urban design from the University of Notre Dame, and my colleague Douglas Duany. Fausto met us—a largish man with a generous manner—and offered us a glimpse of the new museum of Pienza and its territory (for which he and Giancarlo Cataldi have produced a handsome catalogue, Aión Edizioni). But Pienza is seemingly so clear, what more could a museum of a town that is itself a home of the Muses possibly reveal? And yet Fausto, an architect who has worked tirelessly for decades to document and restore his hometown, patiently unpacked for us the rich, compelling history of the geology, geography, and typology of this early Renaissance jewel. Pienza, indeed, has more to offer than even the lessons scholars have described in the last few decades: it is a powerful model of a rich, sustainable rapport between town and country, history and innovation, urbanism and architecture. It is beautiful, but it is above all relevant.

Bureaucratic issues prevent the museum from opening so far, but when it does it must be on any serious architect, urbanist, or italophile’s itinerary; more than that, though, we must build the world as Pienza shows us how. As Fausto said to me, what use would there be for all of this if we didn’t use these lessons to build well today?

Now it is time for me to wake up and put to some use these ways of life which we read about daily and reflect on. For always to collect pieces of wood, stones and mortar would seem very foolish if you built nothing with them. But this edifice which we must construct to live well is so arduous, difficult and laborious, that it can scarcely be completed even if we begin young. Nevertheless I for my part have a will to try.[1]

[1] Letter from Poggio Bracciolini to Niccolò Niccoli, trans. by and cited in Thomas H. Greene, “Resurrecting Rome: The Double Task of the Humanist Imagination,” Rome in the Renaissance: The City and the Myth, Binghampton, NY: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, p.45