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Arezzo, Piero, and the True Cross

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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!

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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.)

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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.

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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.

Comments (13)

Anne:

Very interesting, I so hope to see these frescoes myself someday.

How exciting that you are going in June - woohoo!! Can't wait to read about your travel plans as they unfold!

Have you read John Mortimer's "Summer's Lease?" In that novel was the first time I'd heard of the Piero della Francesca trail. I'd love to follow it and see those marvelous frescoes! Thanks for an interesting write up. Gorgeous view from your upcoming summer lodging!

Most of June in Italy?! That's awesome! I knew you were trip planning but didn't know that you were going to be able to go for so long. How wonderful (and June will be here before we know it!).

There are a couple of churches in Venice that claim to have pieces of the True Cross which supposedly has miraculous healing powers. I imagine there are pieces of it all over Italy. :)

Those three angels holding hands remind me of the three goddesses in one of those famous Botticelli paintings in Florence.

Thanks for an interesting post, Sandra. I've never seen the Baptism of Christ icon portrayed like that. And the view from that house is fabulous, lucky you.

Great entry, Sandra, as yours usually are. I have fond memories of many years ago climbing up on the scaffolding with a helmet to see this amazing fresco cycle during the entailed work of its long restoration project. It afforded such a different perspective - intriguing and fascinating. How we are looking forward to having you with us again in June.

sheri:

Sounds like a wonderful trip,Sandra.Will be interesting to see the fresco cycle again after having attended the Lecture.

sandrac:

Thanks, Anne. My travel plans will help me fill many March Madness posts.

Hi Colleen, I have heard of Mortimer's Summer Lease but didn't realize it went into the PdF Trail. I think I'll pick it up! Thanks for the tip.

Hi Annie, according to the legend of the True Cross, it's authenticity was verified when it was held over a dead person, who promptly returned to life. I wonder if anyone in Venice has similarly tested the pieces there! :)

Candi, the more I learn about PdF, the more intriguing I find his work!

Mary, what a fantastic experience that must have been, to see the frescos up so close! You wouldn't believe how much I'm looking forward to returning to Umbria and to seeing you and everyone at Genius Loci in June.

Your photos this week on your blog have been so gorgeous, I'm getting really impatient!

Sheri, I can't wait.

Barb Cabot:

What a lovely view you will have from your apartment. A month in June will give you such luxury of time to indulge yourself in all the arts. Thank you for this informative post.

Great post, Sandra. I always learn so much from you when you post about your travels.
Enjoy Umbria and tell her hello for me.

Eden:

WOW, perfect location so have yourself a wonderful getaway!

Isn't it amazing the condition of some of these frescos - considering their age and setting. Lucky you to enjoy Italia for a month. Thanks for another informative post. m

Kathy (trekcapri):

Hi Sandra, I enjoyed learning about the Legend of the True Cross and your upcomming trip to Umbria sounds so wonderful.

Enjoy your trip planning.

I am so excited that you will get to return to Arezzo again! I must remember to send you the info on that hotel. Have you seen the Piero in the Duomo yet?

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