With an impressive exterior, the Romanesque Santa Maria della Pieve is architecturally the most interesting church in Arezzo. There are impressive columns, a golden reliquary and a masterpiece by Pietro Lorenzetti on the altar.
Starting from the apse that contributes to elegantly decorate Piazza Grande in Arezzo‘s city centre, the exterior of Santa Maria della Pieve is simply awesome. The 12th century arched façade looks even more imposing because the church is built on a slope. Looking upwards from the relatively narrow street Corso Italia, the bell tower rises over you with its forty windows. That’s why it’s known as the “Tower of a hundred holes”. If you look carefully at the columns that constitute the façade, you’ll see that they are all different in style. One is in fact a statue.
One of the doorways is decorated with 13th century carvings of the months of the year (unfortunately protected by an unsightly net), but still vividly coloured. The two-faced January presides at once over the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new one. February oversees pruning activities in the countryside. June is represented by the reaping of wheat. September is the vendemmia (grape harvest). In contrast to these bucolic scenes is December, that shows a pig being slaughtered.
The interior of Santa Maria della Pieve:
The ample interior has three naves, imposing columns and an atmospheric crypt. Here the golden reliquary created in 1346 to keep the head of the town’s patron saint San Donato is kept. The bust is a masterpiece of Arezzo’s goldsmithing, a very elaborate work of silver, gold and precious stone that depicts a serious looking young Donato. In the saint’s mantle is the Annunciation and the symbols of the four evangelists.
Who was Saint Donato?
Donato was a 4th-century Bishop of Arezzo, who performed a series of miracles. Aside from exorcising demons he was also said to have slain a dragon. When pagans broke into a church where he was saying mass and smashed a chalice, Donato managed to put it back together save one piece. Still the chalice didn’t leak and this convinced 79 pagans to convert there and then.
Altarpiece by Pietro Lorenzetti, one of the masters of the Sienese school of painting. It is one of relatively few altarpieces that are still present in the church for which it was intended. Most other have been scattered around the world.