Set in some the most suggestive landscapes
In the Medieval times, and for centuries before and after, parish churches (pieve) were the glue that kept the scattered Tuscan community together. The church and pieve, a Romanesque structure, provided not only a place to practice religion but, many times, it also provided protection in times of invasion, a place to meet for government decisions, hospitality for pilgrims and a local reference point for the time of day or warning of danger.
The church was also the principal showcase for the many artisans that traveled in the artistic triangle between Florence, Siena, and Assisi, therefore, becoming an important point of reference when we talk about many of the “up and coming” artists of their day. Artisans who were noted for their artistic masterpieces as well as those who worked on the architecture, columns, and facades of these buildings.
Today, these stone structures truly grace the Chianti landscape, sitting on prominent hillsides, nestled in small hamlets and sometimes abandoned in the green fauna. Here is a list of our top eight favorite churches - some are easy to visit, and some require that you take a hike so you can admire their beauty.
1. Pieve di San Cresci
Address: Loc. San Cresci, Greve in Chianti (Florence)
Definitely, an architecture that stands out from other churches in Tuscany. It is nestled in the countryside surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, not far from the bustling town of Greve in Chianti.
Recently restored, after much ado, this little jewel is considered one of the oldest "documented" churches in the diocese of Fiesole (year 963). One of the more distinguishing interior aspects is the narthex, a small area in the front of the church once designed to hold penitents not allowed into the main body of the church.
If you want to visit this little church, you need to head towards the località San Cresci, in the direction of the Viticcio vineyards. The road is calm and very panoramic, or just follow the signs after the hamlet for the even smaller hamlet of San Cresci.
The interior of this church is visitable only by appointment but the exterior is a site to behold at all times.
2. Church of San Pietro
Address: Loc. Cedda, Castellina in Chianti (Siena)
When winding through the beautiful roads that connect Castellina in Chianti and Poggibonsi, you will view this little beauty, considered perhaps one of the more beautiful in the valley d’Elsa, with one long nave ending in a covered abside.
The construction of the initial structure was built all in one time, which means from the moment that they cut the stone to when they actually placed the stone there were no long breaks in time. Though we find it mentioned in documents in the year 1046, that the prestige of this church didn’t happen until after the 1200’s when the castle was built in Poggibonsi and the wealth of the reigning families became more solid.
Inside there is a 15th century altar piece representing the "Madonna and Child with Saints" and two frescoes: a 14th century one representing "Saint Peter" and the other, representing a saint, from the second half of the 13th century.
3. Basilica di S. Maria
This church is amazing for so many reasons including the wealth of artwork, ceramics and silver located inside but, perhaps the one reason that sticks out is that this church was completely rebuilt after WWII when it was bombed.
The importance of this church is evident in the story that the entire town of Impruneta came out to sift through the rubble to retrieve the broken pieces of treasure within the church and the to rebuild it as soon as possible.
Some would say that it truly was the grace of God that saved so many of the pieces within, such as the stunning della Robbia ceramics and their framework. A special surprise for the history buffs was the discovery of an authentic piece of embroidery dating as far back as the 1300’s now visible at the museum next door.
4. Pieve di Sant'Appiano
Address: Loc. Sant’Appiano, Barberino Val d’Elsa (Florence)
No list of churches in Chianti would be complete without mentioning Sant’Appiano.
The steps and columns at the entrance are definitely suggestive, but the beauty doesn’t end there; the interiors are just as impressive and a leisurely visit is definitely worth the time. The four columns situated at the entrance of the church once supported a baptistery just outside the front door of the church which is located near Barberino Val d'Elsa. This is one of the few examples of an external baptismal font in the countryside of Tuscany.
Unfortunately, the structure was partially destroyed in an earthquake in the 1800’s but it still holds a mystical grace. As you tour the interior of the church, you will find several paintings of stunning colors but I suggest you keep your head a bit in the clouds and also admire the stone columns, arches and the capitals.
5. Pieve di Santa Maria a Spaltenna
This church stands out from the rest because it was actually considered an "armed parish church" together with the adjacent fortified monastery and a small group of country houses. In fact, it is often cited as being a perfect example of spontaneous medieval architecture.
The interior of Pieve Spaltenna is Romanesque with typical stone walls, three aisles and a single circular apse. It later came under the patronage of the Ricasoli Family, and if you don’t recognize that name as an important historical family then you might recognize the name in reference to the Castello of Brolio and some delicious wines.
6. Pieve di Santa Maria a Pàcina
Address: Loc. Pàcina, Castelnuovo Berardenga (Siena)
On a picturesque back road between Castelnuovo Berardenga and Siena, this church rises in the landscape offering spectacular views of vineyards and the Siena hills. Just as a side note, this track of road makes up part of the Ecomarathon ... for those who have a more adventurous and sporty side.
This little church, which is thought to have origins in the 600’s, has been restructured and that would include extending the church so that it incorporated the bell tower. However, the now bland façade can’t cover up the circular bell tower, which is a singular architectural structure in Tuscany - and many times indicating the possibility of a pre-existing building from the Roman times. A visit to this little corner of Tuscan not only promises delicious vineyards but also an opportunity to contemplate the centuries of people who cultivated this land.
7. Pieve di San Donato in Poggio
Address: Via della Pieve, San Donato in Poggio (Florenece)
Most certainly older than the first documents that mention this church, Pieve di San Donato in Poggio is located just a short walk outside of the city center. It is thought that the bell tower actually existed before the church, possibly from the Lombard period.
The simplistic beauty, both inside and out, of this parish church is an authentic documentation of the typical Florentine Romanesque style of the 12th century.
Visit the inside of this splendid church and you can view a terracotta baptismal font attributed to Giovanni della Robbia in the 1500’s and a painted Crucifix, which can possibly be from the Florentine artist Giotto and his workshop. After you have toured the church stroll up to the town for a peek at this well preserved hamlet of San Donato, which at one time was on the main road that connected Florence, Siena and Rome.
8. Canonica di San Michele a Rencine
Address: Loc. Rencine, Castellina in Chianti (Siena)
Not far from the picturesque hamlet of Monteriggioni (about 8 km) you will find the singular Canonica di San Michele.
The striking aspect of this one room rectangular building is the facade, not only is it larger than life (so to speak) but it exhibits a unique series of blind arches and columns. The extended front wall is actually bigger than the building behind it perhaps, to create a bit of overall symmetry after the structure apart in the 1300’s and needed to be rebuilt.
This church was in possession of quite a bit of fertile land and even a mill for grain, making it a very desirable possession for the constantly battling Florentines and Sienese military parties. Even though it boasted a notable standard of living, it was never considered a parish church and was used normally to house passing pilgrims going towards Rome on the via Francigena.
The Mystical Landscape of Chianti
With so many churches to choose from, these are just some of the marvelous architectural jewels hidden in the Tuscan countryside. We encourage you to explore others as they come up on your travels. Normally churches are indicated with a brown and white sign, indicating not only the name but also the year or century in which it was built. During the Jubilee, the church also installed signs for many of the more notable churches with detailed information in reference to the architecture and artwork.