I’m planning to visit Arezzo again in June, and I’m interested in returning to the Basilica di San Francesco for another look at Piero della Francesa’s The Legend of the True Cross, an early Renaissance masterpiece.
This is a fantastic fresco cycle, and I’m particularly interested in seeing it again since I recently heard a wonderful lecture on della Francesca’s work. Naturally, The Legend of the True Cross (aka The History of the True Cross) figured very prominently in the lecture.
As a bit of background, my plan is to spend most of June in Italy. Once again, the bulk of that time will be very happily spent in Umbria. But I’ve also agreed to rent a house with a friend for one week, in the small Tuscan town of Anghiari. I’m just learning about Anghiari, but I know that it’s very near Arezzo, on the border of Tuscany and Umbria. So, the location sounds great for interesting day trips!
This is a view of the countryside around Anghiari from a terrace in the house that I’ll be renting. It’s owned by a friend of the friend I’m traveling with, so I think we’re getting quite a good deal.
But back to Piero della Francesca.
Much of his work was done in this area; Piero was born in Borgo Santo Sepolcro (today’s Sansepolcro) which is only a few kilometres from Anghiari, and there is a fresco in a Sansepolcro church that I’m anxious to see. (Thank God for frescos – since they were very difficult to steal, being painted right into the walls of buildings, it’s possible to view them in their original state.)
The above photo is of The Baptism of Christ by della Francesca, finished around 1448-1450. It now rests in the National Gallery in London.
But it was originally commissioned by the Camaldolese abbey of Sansepolcro and portrays Christ being baptised by John the Baptist, Christ’s head surmounted by a dove.
The lecture I heard emphasized the geometric precision of della Francesca’s work, easily seen here. Christ, John's hand and the bird all together form an axis which divides the painting in two symmetrical parts. A second division is created by the tree on the left.
The three angels on the left wear different clothes and, unlike traditional iconography, are holding each other’s hands rather than supporting Christ's garments. This is supposedly an allusion to the contemporary (1439) council of Florence, whose goal was the unification of the Western and Eastern Churches. The Camaldolese Ambrogio Traversari was a strong supporter of the union. Such symbolism would be also confirmed by the presence, behind the neophyte on the right, of figures dressed in an oriental fashion.
Returning to complicated and spectacular The Legend of the True Cross, the cycle is della Francesca’s largest work, and generally considered one of his finest. Its theme is drawn from a 13th century book about the lives of the saints and tells of the triumph of the True Cross. According to legend, the cross upon which Christ was crucified came from a branch of the Tree of Knowledge, which sprang over the grave of Adam.
The wood from the True Cross, with all of its historical importance, has been lost for centuries but then is regained after a great victory by Emperor Constantine (seen in the above photo, dreaming in his crimson tent that he will prevail in a coming battle under the sign of the cross.) Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge turns him into the first Christian emperor and leads to the recovery of the True Cross.