Fraternities and Frescoes: A Week in Arezzo

Arezzo Piazza Grande

Things have been a little quiet at The Idle Woman recently because I was away in Italy last week on the inaugural Arezzo Summer Course. This is aimed at doctoral students, curators and others with a professional or academic interest in prints. It offers the chance to hear from scholars in the field, who present lectures on their current research, as well as including field trips to various collections and print rooms. I imagine the feel will be different every year, depending on the scholars who come to act as ‘professors’, but this year the course was perfectly aligned to my interests. One of its themes was to look at the interaction between music and printmaking – specifically the way that prints were used to record ephemeral festivities, theatrical events and pieces of music like cantatas, which until the late 17th century existed only as part of an oral tradition.

Naturally, since we were based in Arezzo, there was much focus on the town’s most famous son: Giorgio Vasari, author of The Lives of the Artists and founder of the discipline of art history.* The course was arranged by Alessandra Baroni Vanucci (the specialist on the artist Stradanus and author of a recent catalogue of print albums in the Uffizi). It was based at the Fraternità dei Laici, a secular charitable society active in Arezzo since the 13th century (at least), which boasts an enviable position on the Piazza Grande as well as a museum of its own. But, for me, the joy of the course was the trips: to the archives of Casa Vasari itself, where we saw Michelangelo’s letters to Vasari (he had beautiful handwriting) and to Piero della Francesca’s Cycle of the True Cross in the church of San Francesco. We also ranged further afield, to the print room of the Uffizi and the Cappella dei Pittori in the cloisters of Santissima Annunziata in Florence; and to the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica, in its palazzo immediately behind the Trevi Fountain in Rome.

There was a lot of walking, a lot of note-taking and much buying of postcards. It was good fun, with pleasant company, the odd restorative aperitivo, and engaging lecturers in the form of Anna Bianco (who focuses on the relationship between art and music in the 17th century), Lisa Pon (an expert on Marcantonio Raimondi and Raphael) and Rick Scorza (a wide-ranging scholar with a particular interest in Vincenzo Borghini, a collector and artistic adviser who was a close friend of Vasari’s). But of course I found time to scurry off and do a few other things as well, and when the course finished I stayed on in Italy for two blisteringly intense days of sightseeing, first in Mantua and then in Verona. My head is still spinning, but I thought it’d be fun to share a few of the places I visited (not the print rooms, just places that might be of interest to a wider range of people) – some very famous and obvious; others, perhaps, less so. As I ended up with quite a long list of things, I’ve split it up: you can find the Arezzo section here, and my adventures in the other cities will be covered in another post.

* Other famous Aretines include the important early 15th-century fresco painter Spinello Aretino, and the exuberant 16th-century man of letters Pietro Aretino, who essentially founded the genre of modern pornography. Right. Let’s get started.

San FrancescoCasa VasariMuseo Ivan Bruschi

Museo dell’Arte Medievale e Moderna


This is something that really has to be seen to be believed. Photographs can’t capture the astonishing clarity and colour of the frescoes that make up The Story of the True Cross, painted by Piero della Francesca in the Bacci Chapel in San Francesco between 1452 and 1466. They’ve recently been restored and yet most of the images on the internet show them in a rather yellowed, pre-restoration light. Before I point out my favourite bits, I have to stress that I wasn’t an existing fan of Piero’s: I appreciated him, certainly, but it wasn’t until I stood in this chapel, surrounded by all this colour and his perceptive rendering of action, drapery and light, that I really understood why people get so excited about him. He’s one of those painters with whom you can only really fall in love in situ.

The frescoes tell the entire legend of the True Cross, including many scenes that were unfamiliar to me. To summarise: the wood of the Cross comes from a tree which is planted on the grave of Adam by his sons. King Solomon chops down said tree to build a bridge but, while crossing said bridge, the Queen of Sheba has a vision that this wood will cause the death of the Saviour of the World. King Solomon buries the wood, but it is found again, centuries later, and formed into the Cross. After the Crucifixion it vanishes from human ken until the Emperor Constantine has a peculiar dream on the night before a major battle. (This is represented in one of the earliest night-scenes in Western art, which looks even more stupendous post-restoration). Promised by an angel that he will conquer in hoc signo, Constantine rides out against his rival Maxentius under the sign of the Cross; Maxentius, confounded, flees in terror, in a wonderful scene full of horses’ legs and gleaming armour, which gave me flashbacks to Uccello’s Battle of San Romano.

Constantine’s indefatigable mother, the Empress Helena, sets out to track down the True Cross. She finds three crosses at Golgotha and identifies the right one by laying each upon the body of a dead man, and waiting to see which resurrects him. (Clever if you know how.) Thereafter the Cross is appropriated by the wicked Persian king Cosroes, who is defeated in battle by the Emperor Heraclius. The Emperor in turn enters Jerusalem in great humility, carrying the Cross, watched by various men wearing extremely peculiar hats. At every stage, you must stop and look at the minor details. Look at the expressions; the brisk strokes of paint which make up the hair. The remarkable light, perhaps best seen in the figure of Jeremiah way up high to the right of the window, where the sun casts a sheen all down his left side. And marvel at Piero’s amazing facility with drapery – tunics billow and crease naturalistically in the wind, while hose crease at the folds of knees, and gowns are visibly cinched in by belts. It is an extraordinary chapel. Go early, when the church opens at 9am. It’s highly likely you’ll be able to get inside all by yourself.

On the subject of Piero, I urge admirers to make the trek up the hill to the Duomo of S. Donato, where there is a frescoed figure of St Mary Magdalen quite as beautiful as anything in the Bacci Chapel. I got into the habit of visiting her every morning before classes started, and savouring her monumental serenity.

Find out more about San Francesco


Vasari is one of the most self-conscious artists who has ever lived. Indeed, his Lives of the Artists was written primarily to dignify the status of artists who, in the medieval period, had been regarded as just another kind of artisan. Vasari wanted to show that the great artists of his age had been befriended by kings, admired by the most discerning critics and blessed with flashes of divine inspiration. He felt that artists should occupy a status comparable to that of poets or other practitioners of the liberal arts, and he spent his life practising what he preached. When he bought a house in his native Arezzo, in the 1540s, he set out to decorate it in a manner befitting his new concept of the educated and intellectual artist. Remarkably, the house still survives as he left it.

Vasari had a house in Florence, too, but that was a house given to him as part of his salary by the Grand Duke. By contrast, the Arezzo house was his very own, and he could decorate it as he pleased: the result was probably the first example of such an ambitious – and didactic – decorative scheme composed by an artist for his own living space. Guests first arrived in the Room of Fame, where the spandrels are painted with the qualities necessary to achieve greatness and eternal remembrance. One of these is Disegno – the ability to draw and design, which Vasari enshrined at the very heart of his Lives. Another is History, a beautiful, elegant winged figure who writes in a book (doubtless recording the artist’s great deeds). Further rooms are dedicated to the Muses and to Abraham, each decorated with its own cycle of paintings that help to propagate Vasari’s worldview.

The final room on the tour is the grand entrance hall, dominated by a dramatic ceiling painting of Virtue overcoming Fortune and Invidia (Envy). Three figures tumble through the air, wrestling for dominance, showing the fundamental instability of reputation (note that, depending on where you stand in the room, different figures appear to have the upper hand). The walls are covered in frescoes in several registers: the lowest register are painted to simulate bronze reliefs, and show famous artists from antiquity. (Vasari wasn’t above posing as the heir of Pliny.) Above there are panels of fictive marble, then above those are landscapes, which have a curiously Roman quality. I wonder whether Vasari had the opportunity to see any Roman frescoes, perhaps in the Domus Aurea, which might have informed his style here. And then, just beneath the ceiling, and painted in the compartments of the ceiling itself, are virtues and signs of the zodiac and the gods of Olympus, all coming together to show off Vasari’s erudition.

It’s well worth a visit, especially if you’ve read the Lives at any point, and the number and quality of the frescoes make it one of the foremost artistic sights in Arezzo.

Find out more about the Casa Vasari


This little museum on the Corso Italia, just opposite the Pieve di Santa Maria church, is a treasure-trove of knick-knacks, oddities and art of all kinds. Ivan Bruschi (1920-1996) was the founder of the famous Arezzo Antiques Fair, which takes place on the first Saturday of every month, and he was also a voracious collector with a magpie eye. His former house now displays a selection of works, from antique Tanagra figurines to Renaissance sculptures, majolica, arms and armour, books, prints, paintings, jewels and bronzes. They are laid out in a cosily jumbled manner which means your eye is always drawn irresistibly to somewhere just beyond the thing you intended to look at.

The selection of photographs above give just a taster of the house. A few rooms are laid out with the objects ‘in use’, as in the first picture, where a corner has been transformed into something between a wunderkammer and a Renaissance alchemist’s study. Below is a rather glorious majolica plaque from 17th-century Deruta: an ex-voto which gives a rare glimpse of popular piety. Two travellers are thrown from their horse, which looks set to crush them, but the Madonna and Child appear in a nimbus and save them. The acronym P.G.R. stands for ‘Per Grazia Ricevuta’ and frequently appears on ex-votos.

Next I’ve chosen a slightly more familiar kind of majolica: a bust of Christ by the Florentine ceramicist Giovanni della Robbia (son of the more famous Andrea). Its pure white colouring is set off by a restrained band of gold around Christ’s neckline. Finally, just as a way to show the breadth of Bruschi’s interests, I couldn’t resist this page from an album, in which Italian postage stamps have been arranged in an intricate pattern. It’s the perfect place just to wander and stumble across things.

Find out more about the Casa Museo di Ivan Bruschi


Preparing to visit this museum is like tracking a rare and very wary wild animal. You have to stake it out beforehand and ready yourself to pounce just at the right moment. By that, I mean that the Museo dell’ Arte Medievale e Moderna has very quirky opening hours: it presently opens only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and varies between just opening in the morning and reopening after a long lunch hour. It is not an easy place to get into, although I have it on good authority that it’s much more accessible than it was several years ago. I highly recommend that you go to check the opening times pasted on its door before making any plans to visit; but do make the effort, because the collection is very fine and deserves to be seen.

There are medieval sculptures downstairs, including a case of intricate ivory carvings which I enjoyed very much, but things really got going for me around the Renaissance. The museum has many detached frescoes from churches around Arezzo, including a striking Spinello Aretino of The Trinity, of which I’ve included a detail above. There are three works by members of the della Robbia family, including The Stigmatisation of St Francis by Giovanni della Robbia. St Francis is quite popular here because his stigmatisation took place in the province of Arezzo, and Giovanni conjures up a delightfully detailed scene, set within one of the characteristically colourful della Robbia garlands. There is a very fine (and large) collection of majolica dishes too.

I fell in love with a gilded dragon, which formed the crest of a parade helmet from the mid-15th century and which now roars alone in its case, its jaws set with tiny, razor-sharp teeth. The days of gilded helmets may have passed, but jousting is still big business n Arezzo: each year, the Giostra del Saracino takes place in the Piazza Grande on the penultimate Saturday in June, and I was slightly miffed to have missed it by only a week (even though people assure me that it’s touristy, crowded and unpleasant). Elsewhere in the museum I found myself confronted by an absolutely enormous Vasari painting of The Banquet of Esther, which once ornamented a refectory in one of the city’s convents, and which is full of movement and detail. Ahasuerus / Xerxes looks slightly bored, but when you’re King of Kings I suppose it does take a lot to hold your interest. Even the anachronistic court dwarf by his side doesn’t raise a smile.

And finally, lest I ramble on all night, I have to mention the immense Madonna and Child enthroned with Saints by Luca Signorelli. It’s currently in restoration, but I inadvertently made friends with one of the gallery assistants, who let us in to see it. It looks splendid and I wish we’d had slightly longer to admire it. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to go back one day, because I had to rush round like a mad thing (thanks to the quirky timings) and there were so many things I wanted to study in more detail.


So that’s a few hints about Arezzo. For more worldly matters, I recommend lunch or dinner at the Ristorante La Pieve on the Corso Italia, handily located next to a gorgeous Romanesque church. The food is delicious, the presentation gorgeous, and the interior of the restaurant is beautifully designed with mock frescoes on the walls. For aperitivi, seek out Bar Costanti in Piazza San Francesco. It’s a perfect place to sit in the sun and watch the world go by; plus, they have an amazing ‘tapas’ concept where you buy an aperitivo and then help yourself to a selection of lovely food laid on inside.

Some thoughts on Rome, Florence, Mantua and Verona coming up. In the meantime, for more photographs of art, architecture and sculpture from my travels, take a look at my Instagram account, which I update very frequently when I’m off on my adventures.

One thought on “Fraternities and Frescoes: A Week in Arezzo

  1. Paweł says:

    It is worth going to Arezzo for at least two reasons and both of them were painted by Piero. I remember the enormous impression that “The Legend of the True Cross” made on me. The delight mixed with excitement put me in some amazing trance, in which I could stay for hours (and in truth, I stayed, because these images stayed for long in my head). Someone has said that Piero didn’t paint people, just the unearthly race of gods. It is true! The massive figures from his paintings are missing lightness but when I look at them I have the impression of being in the presence of spiritual giants. I admire their eminence and absence (or rather the presence in their own, divine world). I have the impression that even when our eyes cross, they don’t see me. They look somewhere further, over me, through me.
    If one loves or wants to love Piero, they should know that there are three cities they must visit: Arezzo, Sansepolcro and Monterci. His paintings in the museums, however wonderful, for some reason don’t have such glow and metaphysics. It just confirms my belief that some art works should be displayed in the places for which they were created.

    Ah, it seems you’ve had a great week! 🙂

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