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.