Landscape hunting in Italy
Andrea Watson follows a new art trail in the footsteps of Renaissance master Piero della Francesca
RIMINI seems a strange place to start an art tour because it is impossible to shake off the images wall-to-wall deckchairs and all that go with being Italy’s biggest seaside resort; the overtanned and underdressed girls; the circling predatory males; the smell of pizza. But at present that is all packed away and early spring is the very best time to visit this once important Roman city and pick up a newly created art trail, Terre de Piero, following in the footsteps of the early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca.
Who he? Well, you might ask. In Britain, outside of art cognoscenti, he is at best vaguely known from his Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery, acquired by its first director Charles Eastlake which, for a period, made him more famous in England than Italy.
Piero della Francesca was born in the town of Sansepolcro, Arezzo province, in 1415, and died there in 1492. The town is an important stepping stone in the trail and the English connection is re-iterated in a little known story dug up by a BBC correspondent some years ago. “British Army officer Anthony Clarke intended to bomb the town, suspecting Germans were hiding, and it seems he remembered that The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca was here,” says art historian Dr Susanna Buricchi. “It is the work which Aldous Huxley described as ‘the greatest picture in the world’ and so Clarke decided to suppress the bombardment. He was later made an honorary citizen of Sansepolcro.” The Resurrection is currently being restored and, most unusually, the public are admitted to see the work.
Pregnant Madonna – Madonna del Parte – by Piero della Francesca
Another cornerstone of the Piero trail is Monterchi, the medieval village where his mother came from and which is home to one of the most extraordinary of Renaissance works, Piero della Francesca’s image of a pregnant Madonna. A small museum is entirely devoted to this single work.
Following, on modern roads, landscapes that the painter may have criss-crossed through the years at the demand of his patrons, you discover hills and valleys that have remained virtually unchanged for 500 years and which, some believe, feature in paintings not only by Piero but also those of other Renaissance masters including Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Bellini.
When I took the trail in December, it ended in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Urbino and a tour of the imposing Ducal Palace built by Federico da Montefeltro, thus neatly book-ending the stories of Piero’s fascinating rival patrons, the Duke of Urbino and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, the so-called Wolf of Rimini. Malatesta was, like Federico da Montefeltro, a daring warrior, and the two men seem to have shared many characteristics, presumably crucial to power and survival in 15th century Italy, including valour, huge egotism and a tendency to invent noble ancestors.
Sigismondo’s most lasting legacy is the Malatesta Temple in Rimini, originally a Romanesque church which he had refurbished by the great Renaissance architect, Leon Battista Alberti. Inside you can see a damaged fresco showing the Wolf Sigismondo kneeling before a saint painted in 1451. The piety was skin deep; this work was all about vanity. Sigismondo (in true Renaissance style) was fascinated by science, alchemy, the occult, paganism and – as if that was not bad enough in the eyes of the church – sex. Sodomising a papal emissary in public inevitably precipitated his ruin. He was excommunicated and a crusade ordered by the Pope. It was led by Federico da Montefeltro. Piero della Francesca’s painting of the hook-nosed, red-robed and hatted Duke hangs in the Uffizi, Florence. Once seen, it is never forgotten; that is good portraiture. The picture is part of a diptych – two hinged panels which may be closed like a book.
The second image is that of the Duke’s wife Battista Sforza who bore him nine children and died at the age of 26. It is presumed that he carried this object on his endless travels. It was perhaps not only the image of his beloved wife that Federico wanted to accompany him. The background to these two paintings (as well as two scenes on the reverse) may not be imaginary landscapes. “You can identify many points including buildings, the river Marecchia, some peaks,” our guide Francesca Giommi said. “The landscapes on front and back represent the entire territories belonging to the Duke.”
It is part of new thinking that holds that the Renaissance painters did not invent their fantastic landscapes, but worked from sketches done en pleine air. Two self-styled ‘landscape hunters’ , Olivia Nesci, a geomorphologist at Urbino university, and photographer Rosetta Borchia, who have researched Piero della Francesca’s landscapes, even claim that they have identified the landscape behind the Mona Lisa as the hills of Romagna.
Be that as it may, the fact that four Italian regional councils have created the Terre de Piero project will be good enough for most people happy to join up as amateur art detectives and bounce around the landscapes, villages, cathedrals and castles of Emilia Romagna, Umbria, La Marche and Tuscany, gazing at ethereal Madonnas, gold ground alterpieces of saints, ancient stone carvings and, come evening, plates laden with funghi di porcini and pasta in deep country tavernas.
Not yet forming part of a Thomson-style package, this art trail demands your own planning, but to help there is a new App with routes, hotels, restaurants, guide names and details, and a general background on Piero della Francesca and his works.
Flights: There are regular flights to Bologna with easyJet and British Airways from London Gatwick, and Ryanair from Stansted, Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh and Dublin.
Hotels: A double room at the Villa Adriatica in Rimini starts from €54 per night on a room only basis (www.villaadriatica.it/en/). A double room at the Hotel San Domenico in Urbino starts from €128 per night on a bed and breakfast basis (www.viphotels.it/en/hotel/albergo-san-domenico-urbino).
Terre di Piero and APP. For more details visit www.terredipiero.it. The Terre di Piero App for both iPhone and Android can be downloaded from itunes App Store or Google Play. Visit https://itunes.apple.com/bf/app/terre-di-piero/id963688452?mt=8 or https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.apt.pdf&hl=en_GB