In Tuscany, on the Piero Trail
Visiting Tuscany following the Piero della Francesca Trail. All in a day.
by Noah Charney
One would be hard-pressed to find a lovelier drive than through the rolling verdant hills of Tuscany, off the main roads and on serpentine stretches that linked the major city of Arezzo to the small Borgo San Sepolcro, and miniscule village of Monterchi. You can do “the Piero Trail” in a day, or take your time and make a three-day weekend of it. But I did it all in one rain-swept day, and the journey was no less wondrous for the weather.
I’d anticipated seeing the Madonna del Parto ever since my first screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s wonderful film, Nostalghia. But I’m a few decades too late to really do it justice. In order to better preserve it, it was long ago moved from a tiny church to a frankly weird, but functional location: an old schoolhouse that has been converted into a museum exclusively for this painting. On the day I arrived, I dodged pummeling rain to slip into a cave converted into a bar, with sausages hanging from the ceiling, local wine and warming coffee. I was prepared to be under-whelmed by this translocated masterpiece. But then I saw it. I can see why it would be an object of pilgrimage. Perhaps the hopes of tens of thousands of would-be mothers have poured out onto the work, and we viewers today receive an echo of those impassioned prayers?
The last stop on the trail is the great city of Arezzo. After lunch at the neighboring frescoed restaurant, Buca di San Francesco, we head to the church of the same name, to see Piero’s most complete and impressive work. Here, Piero frescoed the entire apse (the walls behind the high altar of the church), with a cycle of works surrounding the legendary finding of the True Cross by Saint Helena. This work, and others like it, sum up why one cannot really study art history in a complete way from a classroom. This work comprises dozens of frescoes, their stories linked to one another, to the history of the church itself, to the relics it contains, to sculptural, architectural and other painterly works in it. It is a gesamtkunstwerk, that wonderful German word for which there is no English equivalent, meaning a complete work of art, multi-dimensional, multimedia. Visiting the church is the only way to experience it, and this even involves senses beyond sight. The scent of incense, the cool, slightly damp feel of the still church air, the pat-a-pat-pat of footfalls on the pavestones are all part of the experience.
About the author Noah Charney is a best-selling author and professor of art history at American University of Rome. He teaches the history of art crime on the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage
Protection, in Umbria.