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.
I linger over the Death of Adam, the Torture of the Jew, the Exaltation of the Cross—scenes of subtle intensity, replete with figures embodying a reverence for the human form that I have rarely seen.
Moving out of the choir, I take a seat in the middle of the church, in the middle of a pew; a parishioner in the 15th century could view the cycle only from a distance. Perspectives shift and scenes are foreshortened, but the basic drama remains and is somehow clarified in its aggregate: Piero’s sculptural figures and ordered scenes were made for distant viewing.
Outside, the jewelry and antiques shops Arezzo is known for are closed for siesta as I make my way up the hillside to the Duomo. The sun is blazing, but with the streets empty, the square feels slightly ominous. Inside, the church is big, cool, and dark; a hooded monk leads me to a commanding Mary Magdalene beside the altar, her red robe curled around a green dress that’s more sculptural than painterly. Though modest in scale, she fills a painted niche, which makes her appear larger than life.
From Arezzo, it’s a 25-minute drive to Cortona, in the southern part of the province. I have dinner there, with friends who exchanged England for Tuscany 34 years ago, at the spectacular Il Falconiere hotel. We dine en plein air, talking about art and food as the sun sets over the Val di Chiana. The meal, which turns out to be three courses devoted to mushrooms, is earthy and sublime.
The next day I drive to Sansepolcro, a town characterized, like Piero’s paintings, by unadorned elegance. The Museo Civico, for centuries the town hall, contains what Aldous Huxley once referred to as "the best picture in the world"—Piero’s Resurrection—and it does not disappoint. Hidden for years under a whitewash that had the unintended effect of preserving it almost perfectly, the painting is arresting. A triumphant Christ rises from behind a quartet of sleeping Roman soldiers, leveling a hypnotically powerful gaze at the viewer, one foot planted on a painted sarcophagus as though he is about to step out of the picture. I imagine him presiding over the town’s civic meetings centuries ago, keeping its officials honest, or at least reminding them that someone important was watching. In an adjacent room is Piero’s Madonna della Misericordia (The Madonna of Mercy), a multi-paneled tempera, the centerpiece a monolithic Madonna towering over a symbolic Arezzo, cape open to protect the townspeople who huddle below her, above her a simple and haunting crucifixion.
I meet a friend for a lunch of truffle salad and porcini pasta just down the street at Da Ventura, a packed and lively restaurant where everyone, except the waiters, is taking his time. As I drive back to my hotel, I see Piero’s eye in the trees that line up and vanish in perfect one-point perspective, in the green-and-gold-striped hills. Nearby Anghiari—a hill town I’ve never set foot in—is somehow familiar, its geometric and orderly battlement architecture a fresco detail vividly come to life; everywhere, the world is imitating art.
I am staying at La Commenda, a beautifully restored 16th-century monastery just outside the town of Arezzo. I eat on my private veranda as the sky goes dark, my mind laying meticulously painted Renaissance scenes against a real landscape, the two dissolving into each other.
The next day, my last, has been saved for one of Piero’s best-known, most-studied works: the Madonna del Parto (the pregnant Madonna), which was moved 14 years ago from its small graveyard chapel to a modest museum in the center of the quiet town of Monterchi. I saw it years ago; everyone tells me I will be disappointed by its new, sterile home, but I am not. Maybe it’s because I am completely alone with the painting, which has been allocated its own room in the museum, or that the painting is so moving it doesn’t matter. Mirror-image angels part weighty curtains to reveal a young and beautiful Madonna, eyes downcast, posture timid and somber, her fingertips lightly brushing the swell of her belly. It’s as if she has been summoned for a performance she does not want to make, but knows she must. I peruse the beautiful illustrations of various Piero restorations that fill the museum’s other rooms, but am drawn back to stand in front of the Madonna again and again.
Leaving Monterchi, I consider making the drive over the Apennines to see some of Piero’s later works in Urbino—something to extend the trip, which I don’t want to end—but then think again of the Madonna del Parto and decide I have, for now, seen enough—that I will follow Piero’s lead, and keep it simple.
Arezzo province, Tuscany, Italy
United, Alitalia, Lufthansa, and Air France fly from New York to Florence’s Peretola airport with one stop; from there, it’s a 40-minute drive to Arezzo.
What to See
National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art "The Majesty of Piero della Francesca," March 31-July 22; 8 Via San Lorentino; 39-0575/409-050.
Church of San Francesco Book in advance to view the Piero frescoes. Piazza San Francesco; 39-0575/20630.
Arezzo Cathedral (the Duomo) Piazza del Duomo; open daily 7 a.m.-12:30 p.m., 3 p.m.-6:30 p.m.
Museo Civico 65 Via Aggiunti; 39-0575/732-218; 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m., 2:30 p.m.-6 p.m.
Museo Madonna del Parto 1 Via Reglia; 39-0575/70713.
Where to Stay
Relais La Commenda 6 Loc. Commenda, Tavernelle di Anghiari; 39-0575/723-356; www.relaislacommenda.com; doubles from $240.
Il Falconiere 370 Località S. Martino, Cortona; 39-0575/612-679; www.ilfalconiere.com; doubles from $340.
Where to Eat
Da Ventura 30 Via Aggiunti, Sansepolcro; 39-0575/742-560; dinner for two $100.