I was balanced on a scaffold staring into King Solomon’s face, at cracked plaster and peeling paint, close enough to touch the 15th-century fresco, though I wouldn’t have dared. The restorers, who were cleaning and retouching it, were taking a lunch break; the smell of olive oil commingled with those of paint and chemicals. They offered me a sandwich, but I declined, too enthralled by the images to have much of an appetite. I made a promise to myself, that one day I would return to Arezzo and the church of San Francesco, to see if they had succeeded in rescuing Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross.
It has taken me a dozen years to keep that promise—and the restorers 15 years to complete their work—but I am back inside San Francesco. The Piero della Francesca trail will take me on a pilgrimage of small daily excursions from my base in Arezzo, in southeastern Tuscany, to Sansepolcro, Anghiari, and Monterchi, nearby towns that played host, or lent inspiration, to the artist’s most famous works.
Born in Sansepolcro around 1420, Piero della Francesca was, until the last century, seen as a lesser Italian master, his work minimal and almost primitive when compared with that of other, more boldfaced names such as Botticelli or Leonardo. I zero in on a depiction of the city of Arezzo, rendered in such simple geometry it brings to mind Cézanne and Picasso, and understand why it took a more modern perspective to identify Piero’s genius. There is something clean and clear in his formalism that makes a fresco cycle like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel seem almost too ravishing and extravagant by comparison.
The church is quiet, but I am spinning, trying to take in all 12 frescoed scenes at once. I gaze up at the painted prophets flanking the double-arched windows, which cast a soft, natural light onto the artwork. I work my way down the left side and stop at the Annunciation, practically at eye level: the Madonna, framed in an open loggia; Gabriel outside; and God above, his open hands gently directing our attention down into this, a dramatic one-act play in which time has stopped. It takes me a few minutes to realize that the cool church interior has lowered my body temperature and the order and quiet dignity of Piero’s paintings has almost calmed me.
Outside, the sky is the same cobalt blue I have just seen in Piero’s frescoes, the sun warming the mottled stone of San Francesco’s façade, the Piazza barely populated. A young couple walks by; their lips locked, eyes closed, they stumble but remain upright. A group of Italians at a nearby café is savoring cigarettes and coffee, softly nattering away, seemingly oblivious to time.
I realize I’m starting to get it: this is not Florence or Siena, where one races from one art monument to another, masterpieces coming faster than tennis balls from an automatic pitcher, one’s responses and reactions a foreshortened blur: Was that a Fra Angelico or a Michelangelo?The Duomo or a trattoria?This is the Arezzo province, Piero country, where life is more tranquil, the art less profuse but equally beautiful, a corner of Italy in which to fully experience one artist’s life and work.
Back inside San Francesco, I gaze at Piero’s Dream of Constantine, at the Emperor deep asleep in his tent while servants and guards stand by. I turn to the Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes, in which the artist deftly directs my eye through his densely packed composition with the simple bending of a horse’s head, the tilt of a soldier’s shield, the calculated angle of a spear. I remember not being surprised to learn that, when he wasn’t busy painting, Piero wrote extensively on mathematics and geometry.
On the opposite wall is another battle scene, The Victory of Constantine over Maxentius, with a symbolic rendering of the Tiber River dead center—a shimmering blue undulation that takes the viewer for a gentle ride in perspective as it snakes its way into the back of the painting. Everything is fresh and bright, but not colorized-looking.