In Arezzo

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On the first Sunday of each month the streets of Arezzo are lined with stalls filled with antiques and bric-a-brac for the Fiera Antiquaria, one of the best known antiques markets in Italy.

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The arcaded apse of the Pieve and its original campanile (1330) with its 40 windows are best seen from the delightful Piazza Grande, behind the church laid out around 1200… It is still the centre of city life, and the scene of the Giostra del Saracino in summer… and of the monthly antiques fair.

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The Pieve di Santa Maria… dating from the 12th century, is a particularly lovely church, with a memorable interior, left uncluttered and simply furnished. The superbly conceived facade has a deep central portal decorated with reliefs flanked by blind arcades which support three tiers of colonnades, the inter-columnations of which diminish towards the top. The 68 diverse pillars include a human figure.

Blue Guide Tuscany: Alta Macadam

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In contrast to the Pieve di Santa Maria, the church of San Francesco has a modest facade, especially surprising since it contains one of the greatest masterpieces of Italian painting.

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Inside we were greeted by St Francis of Assisi and I remembered some words of Patti Smith:

I dreamed a dream of St. Francis who kneeled and prayed
For the birds and the beasts and all human kind
All through the night I felt drawn in by him
And I heard him call like a distant hymn

I retreated from the silence of my room
Stepping down the ancient stones washed with dawn
And entered the basilica that bore his name
Seeing his effigy I bowed my head

The opening lines to Constantine’s Dream. This song was my introduction to Arezzo and its famous fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross painted by Piero della Francesca between 1452 and 1466.

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I felt another call from the basilica itself
The call of art, the call of man
And the beauty of the material drew me away

And I awoke and beheld upon the wall
The dream of Constantine
The handiwork of Piero della Francesca
Who had stood where I stood

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The Legend of the True Cross is depicted symmetrically rather than chronologically and tells the convoluted story of the wooden cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. According to the pamphlet we bought in the basilica bookshop it goes something like this –

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The Legend of the True Cross tells the story of the wooden cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified… The story starts with Adam, who is ill, and his son Seth who goes to the gates of Paradise to ask for the seed of the tree of knowledge… to restore his father to health. Seth arrives back too late and the precious gift is planted on Adam’s tomb: the tree that eventually grows from the seed is destined to supply the wood for Christ’s cross.

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Many things happen to the holy wood in the centuries that precede Christ’s arrival on earth and his crucifixion. First of all, the tree is cut down and uprooted by King Solomon, becoming a beam… to bridge a river. On her way to Jerusalem… the Queen of Sheba arrives at the bridge… she senses that there is something sacred about the wood and foretells its future use as the wood of Christ’s cross, leading to the destruction of the Kingdom of the Jews. When Solomon is told about the Queen’s prophecy, he fears for his kingdom and decides to have the beam buried and hidden.

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Several centuries later, during the days of Christ’s passion, the beam is unearthed again and is used by the Jews to make the cross, which is then lost.

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Three centuries after Christ’s death at Golgotha, Constantine and Maxentius face each other in 312 AD to fight the battle that will determine who is to rule the Roman Empire. The night before the battle, Constantine has a vision of an angel, who announces that he will win the battle under the sign of the cross… After his victory, Constantine converts to Christianity… then sends his mother Helen to the Holy Land in search of the remains of the three crosses: the cross of Christ and the crosses of the two thieves. The young Jew Judas, the only person who knows where they are located, is tortured and cast into a well until he reveals the place where they are buried. When the three crosses are unearthed, the True Cross, Christ’s Cross, is recognised because, when it is propped against the corpse of a young man who has just died, it restores him to life.

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After another three centuries, in 615 AD, the King of Persia, Chosroes II, invades Jerusalem with his armies, carries off the True Cross and has it built into his throne, as a statement of his own divinity. The story ends when the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius defeats the blasphemous Chosroes II in battle in 628 AD and kills him, before bringing the True Cross back to Jerusalem, carrying it himself and making his entry into the city barefoot in sign of humility.

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In Patti Smith’s version she extends the narrative to include St Francis and his Song of Nature, in whose basilica Piero della Francesca painted the Legend of the True Cross, and in particular the dream of Constantine in which an angel showed him the sign of the cross to foretell his victory in battle, dreamed of by Piero who painted it then lost his sight, and died on the same day that Columbus stepped foot on the new world, as if in Eden itself, and overwhelmed by its beauty fell into a sleep and dreamed of our world today and of our future, and saw it dissolve into light… here

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The entry into Arezzo, Scale Mobili Arezzo Pietri, the escalator from the car park.

Piero della Francesca

Frames of reference
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2 Responses to In Arezzo

  1. Hank says:

    Chris,
    Thanks for reminding Paula and me that we too visited Arezzo on a Sunday. Did you find any splinters of the true cross for sale at one of the stalls? Nice photos of the frescoes.

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