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Piero della Francesca Trail – Sansepolcro, Monterchi and Arezzo

Piero della Francesca’s Paintings

Piero della Francesca (1416/17-1492) was a Renaissance artist and mathematician, perhaps because of his interest in mathematics his paintings are noted for their perfect perspective and the solid, almost sculptural, quality of his figures. Art historians often cite the way he painted his figures as being directly influenced by Masaccio, regarded by many as the first (but short lived) Renaissance painter, whose paintings he would have seen in Florence. Piero della Francesca is claimed by both the Tuscans and the Umbrians as one of their artists because the town where he was born, Borgo San Sepolcro (now San Sepolcro), was sold by a pope to the Tuscan dukes when he was short of money.

The Madonna Di Senigallia by Piero della Francesca

The Madonna Di Senigallia by Piero della Francesca

Piero della Francesca is probably not as well known as he should be because most of his paintings are in out of the way places. Many were commissioned by Federigo di Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, Urbino is a small town in the Marchè that was transformed into a Renaissance court by this cultured mercenary captain. Two of his paintings are still there, the Flagellation of Christ and the Madonna di Senigallia, but his famous portrait of the Duke and his wife, Battista Sforza, are in the Uffizi gallery in Florence. Others are still in situ in Sansepolcro, Monterchi and Arezzo and it is possible to easily see all of these in a day if you are based on the Tuscany Umbria border near the Upper Tiber Valley, Lake Trasimeno, Cortona or Arezzo. There is another incredible altarpiece in the Galleria Nazionale dell’ Umbria in Perugia but it would be too much to try and fit this in to a one day excursion, it’s best to visit Perugia and Urbino on separate days to complete the trail. I’ll write as if you are starting the trail in Sansepolcro, then visiting Monterchi and Arezzo but feel free to reverse the order of towns. Note that you have to book a time slot to see the frescoes in Arezzo, otherwise you may not be able to get in, you are asked to arrive 30 minutes before your viewing so allow plenty of time to park and make your way to the church of San Francesco.

Piero della Francesca Trail, Day 1

Sansepolcro, Monterchi, Arezzo

Piero della Francesca in Sansepolcro

Once at Sansepolcro park outside the town walls and head into the centro storico, following signs to the Museo Civico. Sansepolcro still has two of Piero della Francesca’s works, the Resurrection of Christ fresco and the Madonna della Misericordia, an altarpiece.

Piero della Francesca's Misericordia tryptych in Sansepolcro

Piero della Francesca’s Misericordia tryptych in Sansepolcro

The Resurrection Of Christ

Described by Aldous Huxley as “the greatest painting in the world” Piero della Francesca’s Reurrection of Christ is still in place in the exact spot where it was frescoed onto the wall. the painting is heavy with the symbolism of re-birth and renewal, The pink tinged clouds of the dawn mirror Jesus’ cloak as he emerges from the tomb, look at the trees on the left of the painting, they are are bare whereas on the right there are in leaf. The broad triangular base formed by the sleeping soldiers forces the eye upwards to the emerging Jesus who completes the top of the triangle. Jesus is painted as if we are looking straight at him, whereas we should should be looking from below, this deliberate trick of perspective serves to make him jump out of the painting. It is thought that the sleeping soldier without the helmet is a self portrait of Piero Della Francesca.

The Madonna della Misericordia

Painted over several years for a religious order with traditional artistic tastes, the flat gold leaf background to this painting only serves to make the figures look more three dimensional. Unlike medieval paintings with flat gold backgrounds, the Madonna’s cloak with which she shelters members of the order is painted in perfect perspective.

Museo Civico, Sansepolcro Opening Times:

15 June to 15 September 9.30-13.30 / 14.30-19.00

16 September to 14 June, 9.30-13.00 / 14.30-18.00

Closed 25 December and 1 January

Piero della Francesca in Monterchi

Madonna del Parto (Pregnant Madonna, or,  Madonna in Labour)

The heavily pregnant Madonna depicted in this fresco is quite unusual subject matter, very few other examples exist. Painted on a wall of the cemetery in Monterchi, the fresco was moved in the 199o’s to the old school building which has been converted into a one painting museum, much to the benefit of Monterchi’s tourist industry.

The Madonna del Parto (Madonna in Labour) in Monterchi

The Madonna del Parto in Monterchi

The fresco is a great example of less being more, two mirror image angels draw back the curtains of a tent to reveal the heavily pregnant Madonna, who stands supporting the weight of her child with her left hand on her hips and the right hand on her belly. The opening of the curtains and the slit allowing the front of her dress to expand could be construed as symbolic of the birth that is shortly to come. It is said that Monterchi was associated with a fertility cult and Piero della Francesca’s mother was from the village, so it is quite a suitable location for this painting.

Madonna del Parto Opening Times:

April to October 9.00-13.00/14.00-19.00, ticket office closes at 18.30

November to March 9.00-13.00/14.00-17.00

Piero della Francesca in Arezzo

The Story Of The True Cross, Cappella Bacci, San Francesco, Arezzo

This fresco cycle is one of the great masterpieces of Renaissance art. the story is a convoluted medieval tale telling the story of cross on which Jesus was crucified.

A detail from the Proof of The Cross by Piero della Francesca showing the same faces

Proof of the Cross – detail, note the repetition of the faces. Piero della Francesca, Arezzo.

It starts with the death of Adam and an acorn being planted in his mouth from which the tree grows. Instead of following a chronological order, similar scenes from this tale are juxtaposed on opposite walls of the apse, for example, the battle scene of the Byzantines defeating the Persians in the 7th Century is opposite the scene depicting Constantine’s  victory at the Milivian Bridge over Maxentius in the 4th Century. Higher up, you can see the Queen of Sheba recognising the power of the tree that the cross is later to be made from when she tries to cross the bridge it is made from. This is juxtaposed against Helena, Constantine’s mother, using the cross to resurrect a dead man. Note in a scene on the back wall of the apse, the angel visiting Constantine in a dream to tell him to paint the sign of the cross on his army’s shields, the composition has a remarkable similarity  to the Madonna del Parto.

Piero Della Francesca’s Legend Of The True Cross Frescoes In Arezzo, Opening Times:

Monday to Friday 9:00 – 18:30
Saturday: 9:00 – 17:30
Sunday: 13:00 – 17:30

Visits last 30 minutes

For information telephone 0575 352727

Mary Magdelene Fresco, Arezzo Duomo

From San Francesco, it’s a short walk uphill to visit the Duomo where you will find a small fresco of Mary Magdelene with her oil container on the left hand wall.

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The Paintings Of Piero Della Francesca

Art lovers who holiday on the Tuscany Umbria border are spoilt for choice when it comes to galleries and paintings, one painter, whose work you should try and see, is the Renaissance master Piero della Francesca. A mathematician and artist, Piero della Francesca spent much of his life working in the towns of the Tuscany Umbria border and the Renaissance court of mercenary soldier Federigo da Montefeltro in Urbino (in the neighbouring region of Le Marche). Determined fans of this remarkable painter can follow a Piero della Francesca Trail, taking in the towns of Arezzo, Sansepolcro, Monterchi, Urbino, Perugia and even Rimini on the Adriatic coast. A visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence can also be included in the Piero Trail as you will find his famous portraits of the aforementioned Duke of Urbino, Federigo di Montefeltro and his wife, Battista Sforza. The Piero della Francesca Trail forms the background to John Mortimer’s novel Summer’s Lease, if you haven’t already read it and you are interested in following the Piero Trail, it’s worth bringing a copy for holiday reading.

The Madonna Di Senigallia by Piero della Francesca

The Madonna Di Senigallia by Piero della Francesca

The faces in Piero della Francesca’s painting display an unusual lack of emotion, the solid figures draw their inspiration from classical sculpture and seem to be frozen in a moment in time. In 1897, the art critic Bernard Berenson wrote “Impersonality – that is the quality whereby (Piero) holds us spellbound, that is his most distinguishing virtue”.

A detail from the Proof of The Cross by Piero della Francesca showing the same faces

Proof of the Cross – detail, note the repetition of the faces. Piero della Francesca, Arezzo.

The same faces reappear throughout the paintings, and are sometimes repeated within the same scene with altered characteristics such as facial hair.

The same faces appear in different guises in Piero della Francesca's paintings

The same faces appear in different guises

Perhaps it’s stretching things a bit far to claim that this repetition influenced the Pop Art of Andy Warhol, but the overall effect is quite modern in style. The mastery of perspective and foreshortening in Piero’s painting is incredible. In true Renaissance Man style, Piero della Francesca was also a mathematician as well as an artist and the study of perspective naturally interested him, often the pictures depict Renaissance architecture and intricate floor patterns that show off his skill.

The Piero della Francesca Trail


The Legend of the True Cross in the church of San Francesco – book in advance as spaces are limited. A medieval tale telling the story of the cross on which Jesus was crucified and it’s magical properties throughout the centuries. It starts with the death of Adam and the planting of the acorn in his mouth, it ends with the defeat of the Persians by the Byzantine Emperor and the return of the cross to Jerusalem. Restored in the 1990’s, these vivid pictures are a “must see” on a trip to Arezzo.


The Resurrection, still in it’s original position and the Misericordia Polyptych are on display in the Museo Civico within the walls of the old town. Described by Aldous Huxley as the “worlds greatest paining”, the Resurrection shows Christ rising from a tomb while guards sleep beneath him. The pink tinged clouds reflecting the light of the rising sun and the bare trees on one side of the painting but in full foliage on the other are symbolic of renewal. The soldier second from the left is said to be a self portrait of Piero della Francesca.

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca

The Misericordia Polyptych is remarkable in that the traditional medieval style with a flat gold leaf background actually enhances the solidity of the figures, which, unlike medieval paintings, are painted in perfect perspective.

Piero della Francesca's Misericordia tryptych in Sansepolcro

Piero della Francesca’s Misericordia tryptych in Sansepolcro


The Madonna del Parto

The Madonna del Parto (Madonna in Labour) in Monterchi

The Madonna del Parto in Monterchi

Depicting an unusual subject, the heavily pregnant Madonna del Parto could easily have been lost during the Counter Reformation when it would have been considered inappropriate. It now costs €5.50 to get in to see the Madonna del Parto, making it an expensive entry ticket to see a single painting, For those that are interested, you also get access to Monterchi’s museum of scales and balances with the same ticket. However, if you have never seen it, it is worth gritting your teeth and paying the extortionate entrance fee, this seemingly simple painting will stay in your memory for years to come.


The Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca

The Flagellation of Christ

In the Ducal Palace in Urbino you can see two paintings by Piero della Francesca, the Flagellation of Christ and the Madonna di Senigallia. The Flagellation is the subject of much debate, what are the three men on the right talking about? Why are they ignoring the scene in the background? There are two sources of light in the painting, the interior is illuminated from the right and the exterior of the building from the left, does this mean that the two scenes are occurring at different times?

The Madonna di Senigallia (shown at the start of this post) is influenced by artists from the Low Countries who depicted biblical scenes in ordinary contemporary settings. Piero della Francesca would have met northern European artists at the court in Urbino.


The Annunciation on the Perugia altarpiece by Piero della Francesca

The Annunciation on the Perugia altarpiece

One of the masterpieces in the collection of the National Gallery of Umbria, the Polittico di San Antonio has a remarkable Annunciation, the perspective of columns in the background draw your eye to the back of the cloister. Look out lower down for St. Agatha, holding her breasts on a plate.

St Agatha holding her breasts on a plate

St Agatha holding her breasts on a plate


Portrait of Sigismondo Malatesta in Rimini

Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta praying in front of St Sigismund

In the Adriatic town of Rimini, Piero della Francesca met another famous Renaissance man, Leon Battista Alberti, an architect and mathematician. Alberti started to remodel the 13th Century church of San Francesco as a Renaissance building, now known as the Tempio Malatestiano. The redesign was never finished but Piero della Francesca left this painting of Sigismondo kneeling in front of his patron saint.


Florence / Uffizi

In  the Uffizi Gallery in Florence you can see the portraits of the successful mercenary soldier Federigo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, and his wife Battista Sforza. In the background of his wife’s portrait it is thought that the town is Gubbio in Umbria where the Duke built a Renaissance palace. Most books will tell you that the Duke lost an eye and part of his nose in a jousting accident, however, I overheard a guide at the Uffizi saying he had the top of his nose removed after the accident to improve his vision. The side on profile may have hidden his missing eye but it also copied the profile of Roman Emperors on coins, something the Duke would have been keen to allude to.

Portraits of Federigo Da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza

Portraits of Federigo Da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza

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