Finding inspiration in a Renaissance painter’s Italian hometown
SANSEPOLCRO, Italy — Sansepolcro, in the far northeast corner of Tuscany, can’t match Florence and Siena for culture. It isn’t even on the top of a hill like San Gimignano. It has, English writer Aldous Huxley noted, “some fine Renaissance palaces; a not very interesting church, and the best painting in the world” — the “Resurrection,” completed around 1470 by Sansepolcro native Piero della Francesca.
Never heard of it? Don’t worry. It is a special masterpiece by a master known chiefly to art historians, a multifaceted Renaissance man who wrote books on mathematics, geometry and perspective that guided his brush without dictating to it, leaving him free to paint with imagination and heart. His masterpieces exist in a singular zone where intellect and feeling meet, as in poetry.
But Piero was a slow painter who left scant testaments to his genius; few of his greatest paintings have made their way to big museums. His most representative works — the “Resurrection,” “Pregnant Madonna,” “Flagellation of Christ” and “Legend of the True Cross” fresco cycle — remain in or near the places for which they were commissioned.
And that’s the beauty part.
There they are, arrayed as if in a gallery across the upper Tiber River Valley, or Valtiberina, a fair but often overlooked corner of Italy where the present-day provinces of Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche meet.
Last spring I drove from Rome to Piero’s Valtiberina. Long before I caught sight of the “Resurrection” I was in the artist’s color box, passing cherry orchards all bridal white and pink, wisteria in purple cascades. I reached Sansepolcro, where Piero was born around 1415, at the divine hour of passeggiata when everyone takes an evening stroll. Home to Buitoni, the first Italian mass producer of pasta, the town is surrounded by business parks and suburban sprawl. But I kept following signs for the Centro, a modestly sized rectangle with walls built by the Medicis of Florence, who bought the town from the pope in 1441.
Tourists flock to Sansepolcro in September for medieval crossbow and flag-waving festivals that feature participants in costumes modeled after Piero paintings. But I found mostly locals coming home from Mass, spotless streets with limited car traffic and a hush of civility. Via XX Settembre, the main street, is lined with Renaissance palaces that have modish shops on the ground floor; it comes to a halt at gently sloping Piazza Torre di Berta. Adjoining is Huxley’s not very interesting cathedral.
But it is interesting, a Romanesque cavern built to enshrine relics brought from the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to Italy in the 10th century by pilgrims Arcano and Egidio, customarily credited as the founders of Sansepolcro. Piero’s house, bearing his coat of arms but not open to the public, is a block beyond, across the street from a small garden with a 19th century statue of him heroically holding a palette.
On the way back to the piazza I passed what might be a more reliable likeness. Tradition has it that Piero included a self-portrait among the figures of sleeping soldiers in his “Resurrection,” which is visible day and night through a window at the Civic Museum. I stopped short when I saw it, pressed my nose to the glass for several moments, then went on.
There aren’t many places to stay in the historic center, so it was easy to choose Locanda del Giglio, an inn with four comfortable suites above one of the oldest restaurants in town. My corner room had a simple platform bed, bleached oak floors and casement windows overlooking Via XX Settembre.
I found owner Alessio Uccellini, a large, slow-moving man with a red bow tie, leaning out the window watching the passeggiata. Wordlessly, he took me to the dining room, which has a carved wood ceiling, antique fireplace and decorations alla nonna. She or some other gifted Uccellini inspired the menu, full of hardy Tuscan specialties such as the roast duck in fennel I had that night, followed by the dessert cart heaped with every sweet in nonna’s recipe box.
I reserved the next morning to look more closely at the “Resurrection” in the Civic Museum, a well-planned suite of galleries in a 15th century palazzo. It has rooms devoted to local history, works by Piero followers such as Matteo di Giovanni and Piero’s own “Misericordia” altarpiece of the Madonna, her cape outspread to shelter worshippers at her feet.
But the indisputable star of the show is the “Resurrection,” thought to have been painted in the early 1460s. It depicts Christ climbing out of his tomb on Easter morning, eyes fixed on something beyond, still morbidly pallid but strong, in the very process of changing from mortal to god. Below him four soldiers sprawl, sleeping while on guard, in effect saying to the observer: Look what happened while you weren’t watching. New life. A second chance.
I carried tidings of the “Resurrection” with me that afternoon as I drove to Arezzo, about 20 miles southeast of Sansepolcro.
The Tuscan provincial capital has its own favorite son Giorgio Vasari who wrote admiringly about Piero in his 1550 treatise “Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” The town’s hilltop historic center is reached from parking lots below by steps and escalators that landed me near Vasari’s house and the 13th century cathedral, which has a Mary Magdalene by Piero.
She’s lovely but just a warm-up for the “Legend of the True Cross” in the Church of San Francesco downhill from the cathedral. Completed between 1452 and 1466, its 10 panels fill the walls of a soaring chapel, chronicling the saga of Catholicism’s most sacred relic, from the tree — planted on the grave of Adam — that supplied the wood, to St. Helena’s rediscovery of the cross, lost after the Crucifixion. Other frescoes show armies clashing, horses rearing, lances rising, soldiers falling; the stately, if apocryphal meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; and Emperor Constantine dreaming of the cross on the eve of battle. Great swaths of history are telescoped by Piero’s imagination, in a grand panoply of the Italian Renaissance world.
I left the chapel shell-shocked, then drove east to the miniscule hill town of Monterchi, surrounded by fields near the border of Tuscany and Umbria. Just below its walls another holy site awaits pilgrims: the “Pregnant Madonna.”
She was painted by Piero for a country church that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1785. In 1991 the village built a little museum for its great treasure depicting a young, very human Mary, heavy with child, her hand on her belly, with two cherubs at her sides. Scholars say her pained expression prefigures the Crucifixion, but mothers recognize the 81/2-month look that asks, When will this be over?
I got back to Sansepolcro late, knowing I had to leave early the next morning. But before dinner I returned to the window at the Civic Museum for a last look at the “Resurrection.” Sir Kenneth Clark called the rising Christ a “country god, who has been worshipped ever since man first knew that seed is not dead in the winter earth, but will force its way upwards.”
Then I walked out into the spring night, warm, gentle, filled with the scent of new life.
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