Arezzo and its Renaissance Art

Arezzo Tuscany New Year’s Eve

December 31, 2014

Lunch at the Trattori Cantuccio was a welcome bit of warmth after the icy winds of Cortona: crostini Toscani with chicken livers, house salumis, tagliatelle con cinghiale, potatoes with sausages, insalata (all with a crusty and the unsalted Tuscan bread) and a sweet finish of cantucci dipped in vin santo.   And back into the wintry day for the cultural highlight of the visit to Arezzo.

Arezzo was mercilessly bombed during WWII and most of its medieval buildings were destroyed. Luckily parts of the historic centre did survive and the guide is taking us to the Basilica of San Francesco, the Franciscan church in Arezzo.

In the apse of the 14th-century Basilica is the Capella Bacci, a chapel housing one of the works of Piero della Francesca. It is a fresco that depicts the Legend of the True Cross (the cross on which Christ was crucified). Painted between 1452 and 1466, it relates, in 10 “panels”, the story of the cross on which Christ was crucified. This medieval legend is as entertaining as it is incredible. The guide tells us that the word origin of legend is from legende or leggere to read –  which meant the story was written and verified. She also explains that there is an order in which you have to follow the story starting in the top left corner etc. Not having any kind of religious background at all, the story and how it was represented fascinated me and so I have included here a very short description of the frescoes.

The subject-matter of the stories illustrated by Piero della Francesca is drawn from Jacobus de Voragine’s “Golden Legend”, a 13th century text that recounts the miraculous story of the wood of Christ’s Cross. The story tells how Adam, who on his deathbed, sends his son Seth to the Archangel Michael, who gives him some seedlings from the tree of the original sin to be placed in his father’s mouth at the moment of his death. The tree that grows on the patriarch’s grave is chopped down by King Solomon and its wood is thrown across a stream to serve as a bridge. The Queen of Sheba, on her journey to see Solomon and hear his words of wisdom, is about to cross the stream, when by a miracle she learns that the Saviour will be crucified on that wood. She kneels in devout adoration. When Solomon discovers the nature of the divine message received by the Queen of Sheba, he orders that the bridge be removed and the wood, which will cause the end of the kingdom of the Jews, be buried. But the wood is found and becomes the instrument of the Passion of Christ. Three centuries later, just before the battle of Ponte Milvio against Maxentius, Emperor Constantine is told in a dream, that he must fight in the name of the Cross to overcome his enemy. After Constantine’s victory, his mother Helena travels to Jerusalem to recover the miraculous wood. No one knows where the relic of the Cross is, except a Jew called Judas. Judas is tortured and confesses that he knows the temple where three crosses are hidden. Helena orders that the temple be destroyed; the three crosses are found and the True Cross is recognized because it causes the miraculous resurrection of a dead youth. In the year 615, the Persian King Chosroes steals the wood, setting it up as an object of worship. The Eastern Emperor Heraclius wages war on the Persian King and, having defeated him, returns to Jerusalem with the Holy Wood. But a divine power prevents the emperor from making his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. So Heraclius, setting aside all pomp and magnificence, enters the city carrying the Cross in a gesture of humility, following Jesus Christ’s example.

I truly appreciated having this knowledgeable guide recounting her understanding of the work of art and how to look at the work. I say her understanding, because it seems to me there is a lot of “interpretation” that takes place in the world of art history. Giorgio Vassari, an artist and architect in his own right and born in Arezzo, is often referred to as “the first art historian”. He was also a cousin of Luca Signorelli (see the Cortona post) . His descriptions and stories are often the basis of the study and understanding of renaissance art. He invented the genre of the encyclopedia of artistic biographies with his Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. He was also the first to use the term “Renaissance” (rinascita) in print.   Among his works in Florence, Vasari built the long passage, now called Vasari Corridor, which connects the Uffizi with the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river. More of the connection of these small towns with the great works of art and architecture in Florence.

While as a layperson I could just look up and around and think to myself how impressive – I have to say that with our guide Laura, her enthusiasm and knowledge added so much to appreciating the context, the subject matter, let alone the layers of interpretation and complexity behind this major work of renaissance art.

We continue along Corso Italia and reach the Santa Maria Church decorated with what seems like endless columns. This 12th-century church (Arezzo’s oldest) has a Romanesque arcaded facade with dozens of carved columns, each uniquely decorated. Above the central doorway are 13th-century carved reliefs known as the Cyclo dei Mesi , a calendar of sorts representing the months of the year. January’s figure has two faces: one looks back on the previous year and the other looks forward.

Then on to Piazza Grande – the square has become famous as a set for the Oscar winning movie “La Vita è Bella” by Roberto Benigni. This steeply sloping piazza is located behind the pieve and is enveloped at one end by the porticos of the Palazzo delle Logge Vasariane – Vassari.

By this time it is getting dark and the streets are all lit up with festive lights. We head back to the bus looking forward to the festivities for New Year’s Eve.

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