Sun & Moon in Montepulciano, Under the Tuscan Sun & New Moon Film Locations

by Deborah Downes

Please note: New Moon spoilers!

From an upper floor window overlooking the piazza, American Frances Mayes watched the acrobatics of two flag throwers in front of Palazzo Communale, a crenellated building with a clock tower. Along with two friends, she cheered on their favorite flag thrower. Down on the piazzaBella Swan, a clumsy American teenager with latent talents, turned the heads of Italian men while fighting her way through the red clad crowd. In desperation, she hurried to the clock tower to stop Edward Cullen, gorgeous vampire and love of her life, from forcing the Volturi to destroy him.

Ardent fans around the world might curse me for combining a lighthearted scene from the 2003 film version of Under the Tuscan Sun, loosely based on Francis Mayes’ bestseller, and a captivating scene from New Moon, the second book of the popular Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. But as a fan of both, in addition to being an American writer living in Italy, the comparison came about innocently while the movie New Moonwas under production.

I got caught up reading blogs that discussed the filming locations of the Italian scenes of New Moon, released November 2009. When official word got out Montepulciano was chosen over Volterra, the actual Tuscan village featured in the book New Moon, the scenes I imagined while touring each town collided and melded in my mind.

Shortly after I moved to Tuscany, I put Montepulciano near the top of my list of hill towns to explore. As I read Under the Tuscan Sun I fell in love with this region of Italy. I clearly recalled a scene from the flim in which Frances, the protagonist (played by Diane Lane) watched a festival flag throwing contest in Montepulciano. This particular scene was the only one in the movie shot in this hill town.

While perusing the historical sites leading up to Piazza Grande (the square featured in the film) a scenario formulated in my mind, involving the moment I imagined Frances and her friends arriving in Montepulciano and getting caught up in the pageantry of a festival event.

Months later, while wandering Volterra’s shadowy lanes and Piazza dei Priori, the terrifying New Moon scenes I’d read, involving Bella and Edward (the star-crossed lovers in the Twilight series), came to mind. At that time, the producers of New Moonappeared committed to film in Volterra.

Among the fans of the Twilight series able to associate Volterra scenes with places in the real village, I originally questioned the wisdom of filming elsewhere. I admit Montepulciano does offer a more beautiful setting and is more accessible. And as the movie New Moon shows, Montepulciano brought the Volterra scenes to life on the big screen. The only feature it lacked, a key one in New Moon, was the fountain in the piazza, but the real Piazza dei Priori doesn’t have one either. Filmmakers solved that problem by using a bit of movie magic to produce the needed fountain.  This is the same movie magic employed in the Cortona fountain scene in Under the Tuscan Sun.

Shortly before cameras began rolling in Montepulciano during the production of New Moon, I imagined seeing this hill town through the eyes of Frances (as played by Diane Lane) and Bella (as I pictured her in the book) while they made their way to the town’s main gate and up the winding corso (main road) to the piazzaatop the village’s highest point.

Everything I visualized Frances doing during that time was purely a product of my imagination, but all the historical sites still exist. I also visualized the Italian scenes involving Bella.  They are versions of the Volterra scenes from the novel New Moon, but set in Montepulciano.

I pictured Frances, as a writer and former professor, researching Montepulciano before going there. Among her findings: This hill town cascades down a limestone ridge with a summit over 600 meters (1,950 ft). Originally an Etruscan settlement, in the fifteenth century the Sienese conquered Montepulciano. The Florentines won it back during the middle of the sixteenth century and sent Antonio da Sangallo, one of the greatest architects of the period, to build the walls and fortifications that still surround the town. He also worked on several of the palaces within those barricades, adding to the architectural beauty of Montepulciano.

On the morning of Montepulciano’s Bravio Della Botti (a festival usually held on the last Sunday in August and includes a flag throwing contest), I imagined Frances driving a red Fiat Panda and stopping at Porta al Prato, Montepulciano’s twelfth century gate to speak to the two guards stationed there for the festival. They accept her logical reasons for wanting to drop off her friends as close to Piazza Grande as possible before parking outside of the village walls. Soon after she and her friends make their way up the corso, it becomes evident they beat the crowd that will shortly fill the narrow streets for that day’s festivities, including Contrades (districts) of the town competing by rolling casks of wine up to the main square in traditional medieval fashion and an open “block party” in each Contrade.

With her friends safely deposited near Piazza Grande and her car parked by an outer wall of Montepulciano, Frances leisurely checks out some of the interests along the steep snaking corso. Shops, restaurants and museums are closed for the festival, but she peruses the exteriors of historical buildings and peeks in shop windows, noting places she’ll return to later.

Frances first stops in front of the wine shop with the sign Citta Sotterranea (underground city) above its door. According to more signage, the store’s cellars hold a collection of medieval weapons, torture implements and an Etruscan tomb (as well as casks of wine) and form a labyrinth of deep and winding tunnels under the street. But it’s the vino Frances desires, since Montepulciano is known for its top rated Vino Nobile. Frances, an avid cook and entertainer, is always on the lookout for good wines.

Continuing up the corso, Frances notices the fragments from funerary urns and frieze plaques that were added to the facade of Palazzo Buccelli in the 1700s during renovation. Just beyond the palace is the imposing fifteenth century church of Sant’Agostino by Michelozzo, who also made the terra cotta relief above the portal. She’s most attracted to the beautiful Madonna within that relief. Frances has grown fond of Mary since her move to Tuscany and finds comfort and beauty in the variety of Mary icons in every Italian city and village … even though she is not Catholic.

As soon as she leaves the church, Frances sees Torre della Pulcinella, a fifteenth century tower, and chuckles over its comical statue of Pulcinella, who strikes the hours with his stick.

She’s taken aback by the bricked over door to the left of Arco della Cavina. This was the site of the hospital Santa Maria della Cavina in the Middle Ages. Unwed mothers left their babies where the closed-off door now exists.

Frances glances at the simple brick facade of Chiesa del Gesu and looks forward to viewing the ornate Baroque interior by Andrea Pozzo. Climbing the final slope to Piazza Grande, she sees Palazzo Comunale (begun in the fourteenth century) on the far side of the square, and admires how its massive battlement top and clock tower appear etched against the clear cobalt blue sky.

Stepping up onto the expansive rectangular piazza, she’s not surprised by the number of people already there. She looks at the festival goers who wear colorful medieval costumes and hold the uniquely designed flag of their contrade. She’s thankful she and her friends will get to watch the day’s events on the square from a window of Palazzo Contucci, the austere sixteenth century palace near Palazzo Communale.

With the warmth of the sun on her back and the babble of several languages dancing in her head, Frances slowly makes her way across the square. She pauses to look at the seventeenth century duomowith a wide facade that appears stark and unfinished. Across from this cathedral is the sixteenth century Palazzo Tarugi with lovely arches and palisters. There is a well with two Entruscan columns that support a beam mounted by two lions, a Medici coat of arms, and two griffens.

Hours after Frances joins her friends on the second floor of Palazzo Contucci, I again picture Bella clinging to the black leather passenger seat of a yellow Porsche as it zips up the winding road leading to Volterra. She’s too distracted to care about the beauty of the countryside or about the history of the hill town she’s about to enter, other than its connection to the Volturi (a royal-like family of powerful vampires).

Not only is her stomach in knots over Edward, but also by the speed of the Porsche, commandeered and driven by Alice Cullen, Edward’s perky vampire adoptive sister who can see into the future with certain limitations. Those restrictions led Edward to believe that Bella had killed herself by jumping off a cliff, and to formulate a plan to end his own life. Now Alice can see how Edward intends to force the hand of the Volturi and when. Only Bella can save him by showing him she’s alive before the clock tower at Piazza dei Priori finishes chiming for the noon hour.

When Bella and Alice reach the main gate of Volterra, the festival Frances is attending meshes in my head with the fictitious Saint Marcus Day festival in New Moon honoring the character Father Marcus, who according to legend drove all the vampires out of Volterra 1500 years ago. Ironically, this Marcus is one of the three oldest and most powerful Volturi vampires. Though Alice is stunning and has a killer smile, she fails to sweet-talk her way into the walled-in heart of Volterra. A large wad of cash put into the right hands gets them through the gate, but the number of people, all decked out in red in the street make moving forward almost impossible. Bella must go alone to the Palazzo dei Priori to save Edward. She jumps out of the Porsche and dashes up the rest of the corso.

As Bella worms her way across the main piazza toward the clock tower, the face of the duomo, now fully shaded, looks foreboding. Two large shadows on Palazzo Tarugi turn its beautiful facade into one with an underlying feeling of evil, made more frightening by two figures, wearing hooded grey cloaks touching the ground, barely visible within the open loggia of that palace.

So now we’re back at my overlapping fictional movie scene at Piazza Grande. As Frances and her friends look down at two competing flag throwers from a second floor window of Palazzo Contucci, will Bella reach Edward in time to save him from doing what will surely lead to his demise?

I refuse to answer this question on the grounds of spoiling things for those who have yet to read and/or see New Moon.

Picture my delight over having just discovered the 1998 film version of Midsummer Night’s Dream (starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline) was also filmed in Montepulciano. Hmm … imagine if Shakespeare’s woodland fairies danced among the flag throwers as Frances watched and Bella scurried between them.


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