Following in the footsteps of Piero della Francesca
A new initiative in Italy means it has never been easier to find the paintings of early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. Matilda Hickson followed the trail from Arezzo to Perugia, sampling the best of Tuscan cuisine as she went
The rooftops of Sansepolcro, home of Piero della Francesca (Image: David Butali)
I have been invited on a trip to Italy to check out an initiative by the Terre di Piero Project. This is a joint project from the Emilia Romagna, Marche, Tuscany and Umbria regions, who have put together a route to encourage visitors to see the paintings in situ of the well-known early Renaissance painter, Piero della Francesca (PDF). What a wonderful delight I thought! However, it had not got off to the best of starts. Our descent into Florence was one of the worst I have ever encountered with the plane doing a stomach flipping ‘drop’ in the sky followed by turbulence so bad that I had to shut my eyes so I couldn’t see the landscape bouncing up and down outside the window and I had to concentrate hard on not regurgitating my breakfast.
However once our feet were firmly back on the ground, things got decidedly better. We emerged into the weak sunlight of a brisk November day to meet our guides, Susanna and Francesca, who whisked us off straightaway to the former Etruscan hill top city of Arezzo. After a quick reception at the hotel we were off to explore one of Tuscany’s wealthiest cities.
Our first stop was to visit master goldsmiths Carlo and Matteo Badii, father and son who occupy a small premises with a tiny workshop that had been producing beautiful designs for over two hundred years. Arezzo has been a wealthy city for thousands of years. Back in Roman times this was due to the ‘Terra sigillata’ (red vases) pottery industry which thrived, and vases made in Arezzo were found in the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire. Today it is one of the most important manufacturing centres in the world for gold jewellery (and to a lesser extent silver and platinum too).
Leaving the jewels behind, we walked across the square towards the older part of the city (much of the medieval centre was destroyed during World War II (WWII)) and Susanna pointed out a statue of a monk holding a book of music. Who knew that music notation had been invented in Arezzo by a Benedictine monk? I love finding out things like that! But we were in for another treat. Leading the way up the steep streets to the cathedral, Susanna pointed out a loggia that had been designed by Vasari, who wrote The Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors published in 1550, and commented that he was also born here. Arezzo was becoming more interesting by the minute. On our way to the highest point in the city, we passed the former town hall, built by the Medici family, complete with an array of plaques on the wall and then finally, slightly panting from our exertions, the street opened out onto a green space with art installations and its 13th-16th century cathedral.
Inside we found the first of Piero’s painting, his Maria Maddalena (left). Originally part of a larger fresco painted in the mid-14th century, in later times the cenotaph within the cathedral was moved and some of Piero’s painting was covered up and destroyed. Looking at the enigmatic figure you could see the sky behind is completely washed out. Susanna explained that it was once blue but the colour had disappeared because of the cheap pigment used to make the colour. On wet plaster it would fade to green but when applied to dry plaster it would completely fade, as it had done here.
Susanna also reminded us that it was thanks to English visitors on their ‘grand tours’ of Italy in the 19th century that Piero had been ‘rediscovered’ as a painter. Within a hundred years of his death, his work as an artist was forgotten and his paintings were considered old fashioned and his major altar pieces no longer used. In Vasari’s Lives he speaks of Piero primarily as a mathematician of great talent, and praises his understanding of the geometry of the third century BC mathematician Euclid better than anyone of his day. Vasari also bemoans Piero’s lack of fame, which he blames on Luca Pacioli, another mathematician, whom he claims stole Piero’s work and published it under his own name. It is only at the end of Piero’s entry that he is described as ‘also an excellent painter’.
We retraced our steps back down the hill to see the highlight of the day - one of Piero’s most famous works - The Legend of the True Cross, a monumental painting found in the 13th-century church of San Francesco. The story is painted in the choir of the church and is the history of the Cross used to crucify Christ, from sprig to tree of knowledge and then as its use as a bridge during the reigns of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and also its discovery by Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor. As with all works of art at this age, they were made for a purpose - to bring a message to the masses (often called ‘the bible of the poor’) - not just to be admired aesthetically. Susanna gave a masterful explanation of the whole narrative and we listened entranced while she took us through the story which unfolded before us.
Matilda's article is from the Summer 2016 issue of Timeless Travels magazine.
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