A true piece of heaven for art lovers in Tuscany is the route that my art history professor Rab Hatfield called the “Piero Pilgrimage“. On the tracks of the great Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca, you start in Arezzo in Tuscany and in the end you cross the entire country, spend some time in le Marche and finish on the East coast in Rimini! This itinerary does not include the museums in Milan and Perugia, nor the Uffizi in Florence, all three of which house important works by Piero. Rather, the trip follows Piero’s path through works still found in-situ, or in their city of production in the case of Urbino.

The Piero della Francesca Pilgrimage itinerary

First let’s start with a map to see the path of travel…


Click to enlarge map

Our itinerary starts in Florence from where we take the A1 highway to Arezzo. From Arezzo onwards take small roads – first follow signs for Borgo San Sepolcro. About half an hour outside of Arezzo, you’ll stop at Monterchi, then continue to Borgo San Sepolcro. From Borgo, cross the mountains on a treacherous pass to Urbino (great views!). To top it off, follow the road to Pesaro, and take a few kilometres of Autostrada for just one more fresco (and a cool church by Alberti) in Rimini. If you follow this loop, the way home to Florence can take 3.5 hours on the highway. This trip is best done with an overnight stay in the lovely Urbino. There are, of course, plenty of other wonderful things to see in the areas visited that are not covered in this itinerary dedicated to Piero della Francesca – so take your time.

Why is Piero della Francesca so important?

A little bit about Piero della Francesca (circa 1412/20?-1492) is required before we start. Born in the town of Borgo San Sepolcro in the province of Arezzo, Piero trained in Florence, probably in the workshop of Domenico Veneziano. He was highly influenced by Masaccio and can be classified as one of the foundational artists of the Renaissance. He was a skilled mathematician and the author of a treatise on scientific perspective and of other books on math. This obsession with perspective and geometrical volumes results in a style that is highly linear and calculated, characterized by an infused calm that derives from a lack of motion. In fact, not everyone loves him because of this stillness and plasticity that can be interpreted as being overly static.

Following the “Piero della Francesca Trail” takes you to see the following works and locations.

Piero della Francesca in Arezzo

Arezzo: Church of San Francesco, Fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross (circa 1460)

Piero della Francesca, Legend of the True Cross. Photo: Alexandra Korey
Piero della Francesca, Legend of the True Cross. Photo: Alexandra Korey

The high chapel of Arezzo’s main Franciscan basilica, which was founded by St. Francis himself, is decorated with a monumental fresco cycle commemorating the Legend of the True Cross as told in the 13th-century text “The Golden Legend” by Jacobus de Voragine. Where he departs from this text it appears to be at the wish of the local Franciscan community, where parallels between Christ and Francis are common. I won’t spell out what each scene is the way most guides would, but rather show you why this fresco cycle is innovative, and through that you’ll also get the jist of the very complex story.

Annunciation, Legend of the True Cross
Annunciation, Legend of the True Cross

The story is narrated in ten fields carefully divided by architectural elements – something he learned from Masaccio and from Giotto before him. It takes place over numerous centuries, from Genesis to the 7th century, and Piero chooses to tell it essentially chronologically, but to not arrange the scenes in any way that seems immediately logical to us as modern readers – perhaps because this kind of narrative jumping around would be more familiar to Medieval “readers” or consumers of visual culture. However, he cleverly sets up visual parallels amongst scenes. The two lunettes at the top of the side walls represent the beginning and the end of the story, each centered in the wood of the cross. The second level expresses the power of royal women to divinely recognize the holy wood. The lower compartments both contain battle scenes.

The dream of Constantine, Legend of the True Cross
The dream of Constantine, Legend of the True Cross

And on the altar walls, the composition and stories of two paintings are ingenious: the Annunciation (left) and the Dream of Constantine (right) incorporate the shape of a cross (pillar vs tent pole) into two stories of diving messages. Above these scenes are two scenes involving wells: what goes down the well on the right (men hiding the True Cross in a well) comes back up a well on the left (when Judas is thrown down a well and made to reveal the position of the cross).

The procession of the Queen of Sheba, Legend of the True Cross
The procession of the Queen of Sheba, Legend of the True Cross

This work makes a nice starting point for understanding Piero’s unique contribution to Renaissance painting. It is not the earliest work on the “Piero pilgrimage”, nor the latest, but it shows his mature style, having likely been painted between 1447 and 1451. The fresco counts 220 giornate, or days of work – restorers can count this by seeing how many patches of wet plaster have been laid out and painted. That’s no small feat, and is very fast for the time, indicating that Piero della Francesca set up a large and efficient workshop that made good use of cartoons to set out shapes. In fact, if you look closely, sometimes you can see that the same cartoon has been used for more than one figure, such as two of the attendants praying behind the Queen of Sheba on the right wall.

Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes, Legend of the True Cross
Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes, Legend of the True Cross

Piero, as I said above, was obsessed with perspective, kind of like Paolo Uccello was. There are certainly elements here that recall Paolo Uccello’s works, namely the Battle of San Romano (a story in three massive panels found in the Uffizi, Louvre, National Gallery). As the scenes generally are outside, Piero cannot use architecture like alternating tiles to create perspective so he works with what he can – namely lances in the battle scene to the left, broken and laid to create a grid. Within each compartment, the perspective is, of course, correct, but Piero makes no attempt to take into account the location of the viewer, opting instead for internal consistency.

But perspective is subsumed here in favour of monumentality of forms. All of Piero’s figures stand firmly on the ground, and all are solid and larger than life. Despite the action implied in the battle scenes, this solidity and immobility implies a tranquil atmosphere appropriate for communicating the truth, that of the True Cross.

Tickets to the Basilica must be purchased in advance by phone or email as limited groups of people are allowed to enter into the high chapel; visits are limited to half an hour.

Arezzo, Duomo: Fresco of Saint Mary Magdalen

Piero della Francesca, Mary Magdalen, Arezzo, Duomo. Photo Alexandra Korey
Piero della Francesca, Mary Magdalen, Arezzo, Duomo. Photo Alexandra Korey

This fresco was probably executed while Piero was working on the nearby cycle mentioned above. Elements such as the figure’s clothing and facial type recall those seen in the Legend of the True Cross frescoes, such as the flipped over cape. The facial shape however is less rigorously oval and may point to a slightly later dating. The form and colour are typically Piero, monumental and clear.

Monterchi: Madonna del Parto

Madonna del Parto, Piero della Francesca
Madonna del Parto, Piero della Francesca, image Wikipedia

The deceptively simple fresco named the Madonna del Parto hides ingenious compositional tricks and levels of deep meaning. When this small, remote town moved the fresco (already detached over a century ago) to the schoolhouse from its previous location in a cemetery chapel outside of town, local women protested. The work has had a talismanic function for many centuries, due to its representation of the pregnant Virgin Mary. Back in the mid fifteenth-century, when it was painted by Piero (but we’re not sure where or when, exactly), women had a lot to pray for, since pregnancy and childbirth were very dangerous affairs.

Piero’s pregnant Madonna is approachable and human. She looks just about as uncomfortable as any woman would be about eight months along. She stands with her weight in a heavy contrapposto pose, leaning on one foot and holding her back. On the other hand, she is majestic and monumental. Her perfect oval face and eyes open just a slit betray a reassuring calmness. Moving outwards now, she stands in a tent whose rich pomegranite-patterned damask (heavily damaged) sides are being pulled back by two carbon-copy angels. The angels are the same figure, reversed, which gives the composition balance. Nonetheless, Piero introduces variety (another prized element in renaissance composition) by alternating the colours of their robes, wings and boots.

Within this monumental fresco, of which just this detached fragment remains, are the Christian themes of birth and resurrection. Mary is shown here as the container of, or tabarnacle of, Christ. The composition and subject matter hence refer to the miracle of transubstantiation, or the host, the central mystery of Christianity.

Borgo San Sepolcro: Museo Civico

Borgo San Sepolcro (the town of the holy sepulchre) is Piero della Francesca’s birth place, and he carried out some important work here, of which we can see two in the Museo Civico di Sansepolcro. The museum was once the town hall, but is also the original location of Piero’s fresco of the Resurrection.

Resurrection (image from the Web Gallery of Art)
Resurrection (image from the Web Gallery of Art)

 

Although a religious subject, the topic is appropriate to a town named after the holy sepulchre, explaining why we would find a religious painting in a civic setting (think about Siena’s town hall, which contains an important image of the Madonna – this is quite common). Piero here shows us a scene in perfect perspective, with Christ who is entirely frontal and not shown within that perspectival scheme. This is a trick he got from Masaccio’s Trinity (Santa Maria Novella, Florence) as a visual cue that explains that the deity is outside our understanding of space and time. He also speaks of time through the background: on the left, before Christ’s Resurrection, the tree is dead and the landscape is wintry. On the right, the tree is leafy and the landscape is fertile.

Madonna della Misericordia, Piero della Francesca.
Madonna della Misericordia, Piero della Francesca. Image Wikipedia.

The altarpiece of the Madonna della Misericordia (shown in a reconstructed state and missing its original frame) was made for a local confraternity, whose members are shown protected by the tent-shape of the Madonna’s robe. This is a very early work by Piero della Francesca, which shows in the somewhat inept rendering of some of the figures. The use of a gold background was probably something Piero wouldn’t have liked, but perhaps was required by the patron. It didn’t allow him to work in perspective and to create realistic spaces.

Urbino: Palazzo Ducale

Urbino, rear of Ducal Palace
Urbino, rear of Ducal Palace

This lovely Renaissance palace is entirely due to one man, the patron Federico da Montelfeltro, a powerful condottiere (mercenary soldier) and eventually Duke of Urbino. Besides being a good warrior, Federico was very proud of his humanist education. He learned Latin, astronomy, music, mathematics and all that good stuff. With the profits of warfare, Federico da Montefeltro built up a large court in Urbino to rival all others in Italy. From 1468 onwards, he invested more money in art and architecture than any other italian ruler.

The palace was begun in the 1450’s, and Federico had work done on it for the next 30 years. The architects involved were Maso di Bartolomeo, Luciano Laurana, and finally the Sienese Francesco di Giorgio.

The courtyard is a light and airy renaissance space, in brick and articulated in white local marble. The effect is graceful and sophisticated. All around this courtyard is a long inscription in latin that is practically a biography of the patron! In short form, it says something like: “Federico Duke of Urbino, Count of Montefeltro and Casteldurante, Gonfaloniere of the holy roman church and head of the italian confederation, started from scratch this building for his own glory and those of his ancestors. He, who has fought many wars, six times lead armies, eight times won against the enemy, winner of all wards, has increased his dominion. His justice, clemency, liberality, morality equal and ornament, during peace, his victories.”

Piero della Franesca, Madonna di Senigallia,
Piero della Franesca, Madonna di Senigallia, Galleria Nazionale di Urbino. Image Wikipedia

The palace is entirely visitable (no reservation required) and houses the National Gallery of the Marches. This Museum has two important, yet small-sized works, by Piero: The Flagellation and the Madonna di Senigallia.

The Madonna di Senigallia shows the influence Piero felt of Northern European artists in two main ways. First, northern artists used oil paint; here, Piero mixed his tempera with a little oil (called “tempera grassa”, or fat tempera), which allowed him a longer drying time. Second, his delicate treatment of light reflects northern usage; observe the reflections in the objects on the shelf at right, and the rendering of dust on sunlight streaming through the window at the left (symbol of the Virgin’s conception). The figures still have the monumentality and geometric elements characteristic of Piero’s humans however, like in the egg-headed Madonna, and the halo-helmet of the figure on the left.

Piero della Francesca in Rimini: Sigismondo Malatesta and the Tempio Malatestiano

Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini.
Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini. Image Wikipedia

In the late 1440’s, the Lord of Rimini, Sigismondo Malatesta, started rennovating a Gothic church in Rimini now named the Tempio Malatestiano. He had a builder from Verona, Matteo de’Pasti, get started on the inside, just renovating one chapel. The project grew exponentially, and eventually he had Alberti on the project. In 1450 Alberti designed a marble encasing for the earlier structure that is still visible on the side of the building and at the top of the unfinished facade. This expansive restoration project, which was never finished, involved putting a Renaissance marble “icing” on all internal and external features. On the outside, Alberti’s job was to regularize the Gothic structure, whose proportions he found disturbing. The front and sides show the architect’s obsession with mathematics and proportion, and his strong reliance on Classical precedents.

The chapels inside are decorated with delicate low-relief sculptures by Agostino di Duccio and his workshop.

Fresco of Sigismundo Malatesta by Piero della Francesca
Rimini, Tempio Malatestiano di Rimini, Sigmondo Malatestiano, Piero della Francesco, 1451, Wikipedia

A detached fresco dated 1451 by Piero della Francesca (you were probably wondering how he fit in!) has been put on display in one of the chapels in the right aisle. It was originally located above the entrance to the sacristy. The fresco shows the patron, Sigismondo Malatesta, adoring Saint Sigismund. The simple composition in accurate perspective and the lack of motion are characteristic. The architecture, with the white pilasters in the background, are clearly Albertian and a reference to the church in which the fresco is located.

 

Article updated in October 2021.

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