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Sarteano & Chiusi

Ancient Etruscan tombs, Renaissance art and a medieval castle perched on travertine

By: Donald Strachan Writer & Journalist | Specialist in Italy & European travel

Sarteano & Chiusi travel guide

The pace is fairly sedate in Sarteano, a small Tuscan town 12 miles south of Montepulciano. The pretty drive from one to the other leads away from the open spaces and big skies of the Val d’Orcia towards the edge of the Valdichiana, a vast glacial trough often called “the breadbasket of Tuscany”. Its agricultural produce, including excellent olive oil pressed around Sarteano, appears on tables all over central Italy.

Although one of the 20th century’s most important Etruscan finds was made just outside of town, Sarteano remains well off most standard Tuscan itineraries. The collection at its small town museum focuses on the Etruscan period, mostly through finds unearthed in the local hills, and there’s a painting collection with one of the masterpieces of the Sienese Renaissance.

Nearby Chiusi has even more Etruscan treasures.

In the Beginning...

This whole area was part of the Etruscan heartland. Numerous signs of ancient habitation surround Sarteano, none more spectacular than the tomb complex at Le Pianacce (see below). The area was still inhabited through the Roman era, thanks to its thermal springs. (The Romans loved a bath.) Roman villa remains survive at Peschiera Giannini, beside the road from Sarteano to Chiusi.

Present-day Sarteano owes its rustic medieval appearance to a rebuilding boom that took off in the 11th century. Sarteano was at an important crossroads between rival powers in Siena, Perugia and Orvieto, and finally threw its lot in with the Sienese Republic in the 1370s. Sarteano was also the birthplace of Pope Pius III, in 1439.

Only discovered in 2003, the tomb walls are still covered in paintings that date to the 4th century BC

Visit This

Long shut for restoration, Il Cassero (the castle) is a mighty relic of Sarteano’s time as a strategic prize. The keep, walls and surrounding landscaped park with holm oak trees are now open to visitors.

Inside a mostly 16th-century palace, the Museo Civico Archeologico displays the town’s most precious artefacts. There’s a major focus on the Etruscan period, of course, with many exhibits dug up at necropoli (burial sites) around the town, some dating as far back as the 9th century BC; 7th-century canopic jars came from the Macchiapiana tomb, where a powerful female ruler was buried. Extensive excavations at Le Pianacce (see below) in the last decade fill basement displays.

In 2016, the church of San Martino was converted into a permanent exhibition space for Sarteano’s most precious painting: an “Annunciation” (1545) by Sienese Renaissance painter, Domenico Beccafumi. It was his final completed work, and is celebrated especially for Mary’s sinuous pose; eerie, ethereal light and colour; and a remarkable landscape in the background.

The collection’s supporting cast (works by Rosselli, Sangallo and others) doesn’t shine as brightly, but Beccafumi’s panel alone is well worth the admission price.

There is another jaw-dropping view at Le Pianacce, an Etruscan tomb complex beside the road to Cetona. The tombs here date to the late 6th century BC. Most were raided long ago, so you are free to explore and get a sense of how Etruscans buried their important dead, in tombs that ramp gently down into the earth and travertine rock.

If the tombs’ inhabitants ever re-emerge from the underworld, they’ll be met with an unforgettable view. Le Pianacce is like a little balcony that looks east across the trough of the Valdichiana, right at Chiusi, with Cortona beyond and Orvieto farther south. All 3 were important Etruscan city-states: Pianacce’s location is no accident.

On Saturdays only, you can go inside the Tomba della Quadriga Infernale, part of the Pianacce complex. Only discovered in 2003, the tomb is 19m/62 ft. long and has walls still covered in paintings from the 4th century BC. The vivid “Demon Charioteer” image is unique in Etruscan art. The preservation of its pigments is extraordinary.

To see inside the tomb, it is essential to book ahead by calling the museum or emailing museo@comune.sarteano.si.it. Numbers are seriously limited, because these frescoes are so precious; reserve well ahead. If you can’t make a Saturday, there is an excellent reconstruction in the basement of the Museo Civico (see above).

Another important tomb complex is open to curious visitors: Mulin Canale, beside the road from Sarteano to Castiglioncello del Trinoro.

Note: Sarteano’s main sights are usually all closed on Mondays, even in high season.

Eat This

Sarteano’s weekly market is on a Friday morning.

Da Gagliano 
has an established and well-earned rep as the place in the area to eat modern southern Tuscan food. Produce is all seasonal and typical: rabbit and wild boar, hand-rolled pici pasta, Chianina beef, truffles, pecorino cheese and of course local olive oil. The restaurant is tiny and popular, so book ahead.

Out of Town: Chiusi

Six miles north-east of Sarteano, Chiusi has an even more illustrious Etruscan heritage. As Clusium (or Clevsin), it was one of the key members of the 12-member Etruscan alliance, and ruled over Sarteano and the surrounding area.

The so-called Labirinto di Porsenna is a network of tunnels under Chiusi’s main square that date to Etruscan times. The name comes from Lars Porsenna, an Etruscan king who fought Rome in the 6th century BC. The labyrinth was still in use a couple of millennia later, when private fire brigades used the Roman-era cisterna (tank) as a water source.

Chiusi’s Museo Nazionale Etrusco has one of the best Etruscan collections in Tuscany, including painted, Attic-style ceramics and cinerary urns galore.

The museum ticket includes admission to a tomb complex 2 miles north of the centre, where you can wander the subterranean corridors of the Tomba del Leone (Lion Tomb) and Tomba della Pellegrina (Pilgrim’s Tomb), which date from the 5th and 2nd centuries BC, respectively.

Festivals

Held on the evening of August 15, the Giostra del Saracino is a jousting competition between Sarteano’s five neighbourhoods. The main event is preceded by an afternoon parade and pageant in medieval costume.

Three Excursions from Sarteano

  • Montepulciano: Renaissance palaces line the steep Corso of southern Tuscany’s highest hill-town, also home to one of Italy’s finest red wines, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
  • Radicofani: 896m/2,940 ft. up on a hill, the steep, cobbled town of Radicofani is dwarfed by its castle, mostly built under Cosimo de’ Medici, but with a longer heritage as an outpost of “gentleman bandit” Ghino di Tacco, who was regaled in verse by Boccaccio and Dante
  • Chianciano: a modern medicinal spa town beside its charming old town with spectacular Valdichiana views, where Nobel-prize winner Luigi Pirandello wrote (and set) “Pallino e Mimì”

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