Tuscany gave birth to one of Italy’s much admired painters of all time, the enigmatic Piero della Francesca. The Early Renaissance master was born in the small town of Sansepolcro (near Arezzo) in 1416. Though he worked all around central Italy, he maintained a strong link to his birthplace, where some of his greatest works are to be found today.
This itinerary will guide you to the exploration of Piero della Francesca artwork around Tuscany: we’ll travel from Arezzo, which hosts his famous True Cross fresco cycle, to the small towns of Sansepolcro and Monterchi. Exploring the (so-called) ‘ Terre di Piero’ , discovering the heritage of the great master in his homeland.
Piero della Francesca artworks in Tuscany
1. Museo Civico Sansepolcro
Our itinerary starts in Sansepolcro, hometown of Piero della Francesca, a quiet and pleasant little town 38 km. east of Arezzo.
The Museo Civico hosts what is considered to be his absolute masterpiece, the fresco that English writer Aldous Huxley called “the greatest painting in the world”: the “Resurrection of Christ“, painted around 1463 and recently restored.
The figure of Christ is unlike many that we are used to seeing. His body is robust and he has a fixed gaze that seems powerful and defiant of death. He looks like he’s about to step out of the painting. Against a metaphorical landscape – that mirrors the views that you see near Sansepolcro – Christ is unbowed, victorious, looming over the guards who lie, unconscious, at his feet.
As in his best works, the artist mixes geometric proportion and feelings, using the colours to create a contrast between the environment and the protagonist of the scene, a Christ that is at once human and otherworldly.
=> Discover the most famous Renaissance art masterpieces in Florence.
The other Piero della Francesca artwork you can admire here is the “Polyptych of the Misericordia” (or “Virgin with the cloak”), painted between 1445 and 1462. Here the artist has created a most impressive portrait of the Virgin Mary, majestic and intense-looking while she keeps the community of faithful safe under her cape, in a symbolic embrace.
2. Monterchi, Museo della Madonna del Parto
From Sansepolcro we travel 15 kms. to reach the village of Monterchi, near the Umbrian border. This is where Piero’s mother was born. He originally painted his famous fresco of the ‘Madonna del Parto’ for the Church of Santa Maria a Momentana, located atop of a hill, a spot that was famous for its links to ancient fertility rites.
The fresco was eventually moved to the Museo della Madonna del Parto, where today we can admire one of the most original portraits of a pregnant Mary, a typical theme at the time. The museum is located just outside the village’s walls. (to plan your visit, see official site).
Through the geometric construction and the colouring of the picture, the Virgin is portrayed as a vessel to God’s will. But she’s still very much a young woman, looking protective and almost overwhelmed by her task. She’s holding herself up with a hand on her back while gently caressing her belly, probably foretelling the destiny of her son. Symbols and reality harmoniously coexist in the work of Piero della Francesca.
3. Arezzo, San Francesco Church
The last stop of our itinerary is the charming town of Arezzo, where in the Church of San Francesco we find one of Piero della Francesca’s most famous works, the fresco cycle “Legend of the True Cross“, (LINK).(1447-1466),
This mesmerising frescoes tell the story of the cross on which Christ was crucified, beginning when the tree was planted (a seed put in the mouth of the dying Adam) to when the cross was buried by King Solomon, and recovered by Emperor Heraclitus after being stolen.
Piero della Francesca was amongst the first artists to use perspective and to give realism to the space. His interest in geometry is clear in his solemnly constructed compositions. He also pays great attention to the light, being one of the first artists to represent the different qualities of atmospheric phenomena.
=> Check out Florence’s most famous Renaissance art masterpieces.
4. Arezzo Cathedral, portrait of Mary Magdalene
Visit the Cathedral of Arezzo to admire Piero della Francesca’s fresco “Mary Magdalene”, painted at the same time as he was working at the frescoes in San Francesco Church. It’s located to the left of the main altar.
He follows tradition, using large patches of bright colours to create the figure, but introduces realistic elements, like her long hair, the heavy shoulders and the details in her facial expression. Especially interesting is the way he depicts the light reflecting on the small bottle she’s holding.
PRACTICAL TIP: FOR THIS ITINERARY ONE DAY IS ENOUGH, IF YOU’RE SHORT OF TIME, BUT 2 DAYS ARE ADVISABLE IF YOU WANT TO PROPERLY SAVOUR AREZZO’s OTHER ATTRACTIONS.
5. Florence, Uffizi Gallery
At the Uffizi Gallery in Florence you can admire the famous “Duke and Duchess of Urbino “ (1467-1472), an extraordinary example of portrait painting, a genre that become very popular throughout the Renaissance.
Here Piero della Francesca manages to captures the psychological and physical features of Federico da Montefeltro and his wife: the ample forehead and elegant pale skin of the duchess and the machiavellian profile of the duke, who is showing great authority with his unmistakeable crooked nose. The endless landscape in the background also suggests the expansive extent of their rule.
Piero della Francesca in brief
Piero della Francesca (1415-1492) lived in his home town of Sansepolcro for most of his life and was made deputy of his town, alternating periods in various Italian courts like Urbino and Ferrara, where intellectual life was rich.
Apart from his artworks, he was known as a mathematician and geometer by his contemporaries, and it’s clear that the study of geometry helped him to capture reality, with detailed studies on perspective.
Relatively underestimated by his contemporaries, he was rediscovered in the 19th century, and today is considered one the greatest and most representative artists of the Italian Renaissance. Totally original, he mixes sensitivity and rationality, poetry and science. He’s an artist of his time, the 1400’s, but his works have a timeless quality that seem to put them beyond any classification.
=> If you’re interested in other important sites around Italy where you can see Piero della Francesca’s works, like Perugia, Urbino and Rimini, see the official site “Terre di Piero”.