Guide to Valdarno: Montebenichi, Pietraviva, Pogi and Rapale
Montebenichi and its castle were established by the Lombards. The village is noteworthy for its archaeological findings – namely a Roman sarcophagus, fictile material and Etruscan tombs – which have conferred to the village an important place among historians and archaeologists in Italy and Europe. To that it shall be added the parish church of St Maria in Altaserra, seemingly built in the 8th century AD, over pre-extant Roman structures. As the whole Valdambra, the village was bitterly contested by many – the Republics of Florence and Siena, the Papal State, Venice and Milan – and as a result, both the borough and the castle were looted many times, until their complete destruction in 1478. The palace of the Stendardi that still stands at the center of the village reminds us of the figure of Gregorio Stendardi - named Goro from Montebenichi – soldier of fortune until the defeat of Gavinana and then knight at the service of Medici Family. As of today, Montebenichi is a delightful tourist town featuring an exclusive hotel allowing a perfect immersion into the wilderness, nature and history. All of this has been made possible by the careful restoration of the Castelleto, that houses its guests fully respecting its original structure.
On a small hill overlooking the state road, the borough of Pietraviva still preserves, in its most ancient nucleus, the architectural features of a fortified mediaeval village, once part of the fiefdom of the Ubertini noble family.Its foundation is believed to have taken place during the 14th century, when the lords of the Valdambra decided to build a new stronghold.Moreover, at little distance, there was another settlement, built on the neighbouring hill of St. Lucia, and eventually abandoned. As for their name, it is curious to know that Pietraviva takes its origin from the nearby sandstone quarries, known since antiquity; whereas the other village takes its name from the (supposed) healing skills of people living there, as St. Lucia people were deemed able to cure from canine rabies. Its church is somewhat of note. Built in the Middle Ages, it has been restored many times, but it has always kept its original mediaeval structure. The bell tower, instead, was completely rebuilt in its current shape in the first quarter of 20th century.
Pogi is located on the banks of the stream Ambra and is crossed by an old bridge with five arches of Roman origin. The name does not refer to a "Poggio" but it is of Latin derivation ( "Paucus") and indicated a sparsely inhabited area. A series of documents and dated around the twelfth century show that in the area there was an intense cereal activity. Attested by the presence of a mill run by the monks of the Abbey of Agnano. Once over the bridge, the village appears gathered around two small squares that in ancient times were the center of the overhanging castle on amber. Not far from that which - according to the most recent archaeological studies - had to be one of the towers of the fort, it stands the church dedicated to San Donato. The building consists of a single nave and inside we can admire a beautiful painting of the late sixteenth century (Florentine School), depicting the Madonna and Child, San Donato bishop and Saint Lucia.
On the right bank of Ambra creek, just a handful of yards short of the border between the neighbouring province of Siena, the community of Rapale is one of the most striking and peculiar places in the whole Valdambra. Cited in late Middle Ages documents, Rapale and its surroundings were certainly settled even in earlier times, and the many archaeological findings of Roman artefacts seem to validate the assumption. Roaming through its narrow streets, it is impossible to not be impressed by the place’s evocative power, in which – seemingly – time has stopped a long time ago. On the stone header of the tiny church’s portal there is carved the inscription MDCXXXIII (1633) that is believed to refer either to a pastoral visitation or to restoration works performed in that year. Once a military outpost, of its past only a cropped tower and ancient ruined ramparts remain. From the village, through a pathway going up to the hilltops and that passes through unspoilt woodlands and cultivated fields, it's possible to reach the nearby (around 1 kilometre journey) tiny hamlet of Sogna.