Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

The pilgrimage church of The Madonna of San Biagio lies just outside of the town of Montepulciano. Its symmetrical greek-cross plan reflects the High Renaissance drive towards perfection in a combination of squares and circles.

Approach from left, rounded apse

The church was begun by the architect Antonio di Sangallo the Elder in 1518 and is considered one of the first great examples of Cinquecento architecture.

Biagio sunset

Open all day without a lunch closure, and with ample (free!) parking adjacent to the church, it is an essential stop on any Tuscan wine-lovers’ itinerary. One of the best times to visit is at sunset, as the location provides for dramatic photos.

Ground plan of S. Biagio with shapes and lines to demonstrate symmetry

The concept for a centrally planned church obsessed High Renaissance architects like Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Leonardo, thAntonio di Sangalloe Elder and the Younger, Bramante, and Michelangelo. This is based on the Vitruvian idea that man, which represents perfection, can fit into both a square and a circle. As man provides the measure for these forms, if we create a space based on a combination of these forms, we are likely to understand that space inherantly. So, many plans for churches in the Cinquecento were based on greek cross plans and tried to combine these perfect shapes. But, many ACTUAL churches do not! Due to the impraticality of not having a nave down which to process, architects and patrons often found the need to give the space a certain directionality by differentiating at least the apse. S. Biagio is in fact one of these cases, but it comes very close to the Renaissance ideal. As you can see in the ground plan, the whole complex except the rounded apse fits into a square that can be, of course, subdivided into smaller squares.

The church as it stands today took about a hundred years to complete, and in fact it was never finished according to plan. You approach it from the side that has a rounded apse. Going around to the right side, this would have been the facade, which was planned to have two identical towers. One tower was completed while the other stands as an odd, incomplete structure. The towers flanking this side would have provided a sense of directional axis towards the apse. The central core of the structure is articulated by three flat facades that appear to be identical; the rounded apse occupies the lower part of a fourth facade that also provides this repetition in design.

Church of the Madonna di San Biagio interior

Church of the Madonna di San Biagio interior

The interior is a a beautiful open space that, at certain times of day, is illuminated by dramatic directional light. The sense of symmetry is apparent as one observes the equal vaults on three sides. The interior is entirely decorated in travertine. Architectural elements like engaged columns and Doric or Tuscan pilasters offer repetition and division of space. The arches are punctuated by strongly extruding rosettes. The vocabulary is a specific ancient one that references the Basilica Aemilia in the Roman Forum, as has been observed by Lehmann in 1982 [JSTOR link]. For details of the interior architecture see this person’s flickr page. For more exterior photos see gallery below.


Interior photo credit:

Further reading

-If you’re in the area, chances are you’re going to Pienza, about which there is a post on arttrav (forthcoming! scheduled for release May 17 2009)
-This new book would be handy if you’re preparing a lecture on the intersection of art and math: Squaring the Circle: Geometry in Art and Architecture
-and this is a good overview read: Murray’s Architecture of the Italian Renaissance

The church of San Biagio outside Montepulciano view from right

One of four equal facades


By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.