Arezzo is an Italian town of 99.199 inhabitants, capital of the homonymous province in Tuscany.
The city has ancient origins demonstrating the discovery of stone tools and the so-called Paleolithic Elm Man. There are traces of the Etruscan Arretium as early as the 9th century. B.C. and was one of the most important in Tuscany. Arezzo always maintained an important and prestigious role in Tuscany thanks to its position along the Via Cassia.
Known worldwide as the city of the Giostra del Saracino, Francesco Petrarca and Guido Monaco inventor of musical notation, fashion and gold, it was home to the oldest university in Tuscany, and one of the first in Europe.
When you enter the city of Arezzo, the feeling is always that of taking a step back in time. Its monuments, parks, archaeological remains, churches and squares hold the secrets of generations and generations of Tuscans who have helped build and protect this surprising city. Let’s start our journey through this suspended in time place!
Cathedral of Saints Donato and Pietro in Arezzo
The Cathedral of Saints Pietro and Donato is the main Catholic place of worship in the city of Arezzo and the cathedral of the diocese of Arezzo-Cortona-Sansepolcro.
Located on the top of the hill where the city stands, it is located on the site of an early Christian church and, probably, in the place where the town acropolis once stood.
The building we all see today, located on top of a stone staircase, was built in the early 1300s but, due to an ever-changing economic situation, it was not completed until the mid-1500s; over the centuries, various other changes have been made, such as the bell tower and the spire of the 20th century.
Decisive for the birth of the Cathedral was the visit of Pope Gregory X in December 1275, returning from the Council of Lyon. In fact, the Pope, seriously ill, died in Arezzo on 10 January leaving the sum of thirty gold florins destined for the new Cathedral. The works were started in 1278 by Bishop Guglielmino degli Ubertini and ended only in 1511.
The history of the city is preserved inside the church, including several monuments that pay homage to the particular attachment of the population to the Virgin Mary, as well as numerous works of art by famous artists such as Piero della Francesca and Guillaume de Marcillat.
What is most known as Piazza Vasari, known as Piazza Grande, represents the most beautiful square in the Tuscan city, rich in history and monuments. Although the buildings that surround it are from different eras, the square boasts an incredible harmony.
Among the buildings that characterize its outline, the imposing Palazzo delle Logge was built in 1573 by Giorgio Vasari and presents itself with its beautiful porch where the artisan shops still overlook. The small bell tower with the clock was added to the fourteenth-century Palace of the Laity fraternity, particularly elegant thanks to its Gothic and Renaissance façade. Beside it, the Palazzo del Tribunale offers itself to the visitor with a beautiful semicircular staircase. Then there is the apse of the Pieve di Santa Maria, whose facade is located on the opposite side, in Corso Italia.
And to further enrich the splendid setting of the square, the other interesting buildings that retain their original medieval character, the old houses with wooden balconies and crenellated towers.
Among the most characteristic buildings, there are the 13th century Torre Faggiolana, the Palazzo Cofani-Brizzolari and the Lappoli tower house, also dating back to the 13th century.
Piazza Vasari has acquired such fame because a good part of the film “La vita è bella”, the cinematographic masterpiece by Roberto Benigni, was shot here.
This square is remembered above all for the ancient Giostra del Saracino which took place here in medieval times and still takes place to evoke the medieval past of the city. Today the Giostra takes place twice a year, in June and September: a race between riders and a historical procession with three hundred between figures and flag-wavers enliven the square and revive a past with vibrant passion that the Arezzo are proud of.
The Giostra takes place on the penultimate Saturday of June (takes the name of Giostra di San Donato) and the first Sunday of September (Giostra di Settembre). Few people know that the protagonists are the four ancient quarters of the city: Porta Crucifera, Porta del Foro, Porta Sant’Andrea and Porta del Borgo, or Porta Santo Spirito.
If you visit Piazza Vasari, you will be immediately struck by its completely irregular but still harmonious shape. The inclination of the ground is very particular, which you cannot have found in any other square: ten meters between the highest and the lowest point.
Basilica of San Francesco
The Basilica di San Francesco is one of the oldest and most splendid churches in Arezzo: a thirteenth-century Gothic building, rebuilt in the fourteenth century and inspired in its simplicity by Franciscan aesthetics: the only ornaments in fact are a frame that runs around the entire rim roof, windows with pointed arches, and a rose window above the main door.
With the exception of the lower part of the facade, which is in travertine blocks, the whole construction is in brick burnished by time.
The Basilica of San Francesco is an important Catholic place of worship, famous above all for the Stories of the True Cross, a cycle of frescoes by Piero della Francesca present in the main chapel.
The decoration of the chapel of the choir of San Francesco in Arezzo was commissioned by the Bacci, a rich family of Arezzo merchants. In 1447, the task was entrusted to the elderly Florentine painter Bicci di Lorenzo who made the vault with the Evangelists, the Last Judgment on the entrance wall and two Doctors of the Church in the intrados of the arch.
In 1452, Bicci di Lorenzo died, the work was continued by Piero della Francesca (and aids including Lorentino d’Arezzo and Giovanni di Piamonte), who carried out the theme in all probability already agreed with the artist who had preceded it: the History of the Cross, taken from the Golden Legend of Jacopo da Varagine, an iconographic source on which many representations of Tuscan and Italian artists are based starting from the fourteenth century.
The execution of the cycle of frescoes covers a period of time between 1452 and 1458.
From about 1452, Piero had to start the decoration of the lunettes in the upper order with the Adamites and the Exaltation of the Cross, the two Prophets on the sides of the window and two Doctors of the Church in the intrados of the arch. In the register below (on the opposite walls) followed, around 1455-56, the meeting between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the discovery and verification of the True Cross and in the apse the Transport of the Sacred Wood and the Torture of the Jew.
The last scenes, made in about 1457-58, are the Victory of Constantine over Maxentius, the Battle of Heraclius and Cosroe, the Dream of Constantine and the Annunciation.
The basilica, built in stones and bricks, is located in the homonymous square of San Francesco.
The mendicant order of the Eremitani of Sant’Agostino was approved in 1256 by Pope Alexander IV and, the following year, the Augustinian friars laid the foundation stone for the construction of their church in Arezzo.
The building was small and for this reason, in 1330, works began on a new structure, with three naves, which in 1341 turned out to be one of the largest in the city.
Between suspensions and resumption, the religious complex, which also included a large convent, remained incomplete until the end of the fifteenth century. The substantial legacies of Mariotto di Cristoforo Cofani and his sons allowed, starting from 1491, the revival and completion of the works. In 1510 Martin Luther, still an Augustinian monk, according to tradition, stopped in the Arezzo monastery during his journey to Rome.
Upon entering, you feel the diversity between the elegant and simple exterior style with the opulence of the Baroque interior. Stuccos, polychrome colours with beautiful altars are the result of the renovation works carried out in the 17th and 18th centuries, the remains of ancient tombstones are still visible on the floor.
Vasari tells us that between the end of the fourteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth century, the church was embellished with splendid cycles of frescoes and paintings on wood, executed by imported artists such as Barna Senese (Stories of San Jacopo), Iacopo del Casentino (Stories of San Lorenzo ), Parri di Spinello (frescoes for the choir), Taddeo di Bartolo (Pope Gregorio XI), Bartolomeo della Gatta (Coronation of the Virgin and Madonna Assunta) and Luca Signorelli (San Nicola da Tolentino and some Angels for the Chapel of the Sacrament).
All these works disappeared between 1761 and 1766, when the sacred building underwent a huge upheaval that halved its size and transformed it inside. The new dominant canons were those of the Baroque and Rococo, which is why Francesco and Giuliano Rusca from Lugano and Carlo Speroni from Varese filled the church with sumptuous and opulent stuccoes. The Cantoria (1765) on the counter-façade represents the highest moment of that period.
Externally, thr proud face in stones and the superb quadrangular bell tower, both of the fifteenth century remained. The tip of the latter was ruined by lightning in 1825 and was rebuilt in the early 1920s. Four small cusps were added later.
Despite the serious losses, there are still numerous artistic testimonies preserved in Sant’Agostino that deserve to be reported.
Giostra del Saracino
The Giostra del Saracino (“Giostra ad burattum”) is an ancient chivalric game which, as an exercise in military training, has its roots in the Middle Ages and recalls the centuries-old struggle supported by Western Christianity to contain the Muslim advance.
Giostra del Saracino is the main historical re-enactment of the city of Arezzo. Twice a year, the Giostra del Saracino takes place in Arezzo. On the penultimate Saturday of June (Giostra di San Donato) at night and on the first Sunday of September (Giostra di Settembre) during the day, Piazza Grande becomes the setting for this ancient competition in medieval costumes.
The knights of the four city quarters must hit the shield of the “Buratto” with a spear, without being hit in turn by the puppet of Saracino.
The carousel recalls the period in which we trained against the possible invasion of the “Moors” but over the centuries it has become a simple celebration of skill.
The four ancient quarters of the city are the protagonists:
Porta Crucifera (green and red colors), Porta del Foro (yellow and crimson colors), Porta Sant’Andrea (white and green colors) and Porta del Borgo, today Porta Santo Spirito (yellow and blue colors).
The Giostra del Saracino is organized by the Municipality of Arezzo through a special institution, but the Rectors of the Neighborhoods are also present in the governing body (Board of Directors), chaired by the Mayor.
The Giostresca day opens in the morning with the reading of the announcement by the Herald and continues with a colorful historical procession that aligns 350 people in 14th century costumes and 27 horses through the streets of the city; the highlight of the procession is the blessing of the armed men on the steps of the Cathedral by the Bishop of Arezzo.
The chivalrous tournament that takes place in the precious setting of Piazza Grande, under the orders of the Maestro di Campo, opens with the entrance into the square, to the sound of trumpets and drums, of the historic procession, bearing the ancient banners of the city.
The tournament rules, contained in a “technical regulation” which reproduces, almost unchanged, the Chapters for the Carousel of Buratto dating back to 1677, are easy to understand, but at the same time such as to guarantee a prolonged suspense. The outcome of the clash between the Christian knights and the “unfaithful” remains uncertain until the last moment, due to the frequent twists and turns, from the disqualification of the carousel (in case of exit from the contest) to the doubling of the score ( in case of breaking the spear in the violent impact with the Saracino).
Giorgio Vasari’s home
Giorgio Vasari was certainly a prominent figure in the Italian Renaissance, especially Tuscan. He was a great mannerist painter and architect, but he was also an art historian and writer.
Giorgio Vasari was born in Arezzo on 30 July 1511 in a house close to Piazza Grande, the medieval square to which Vasari, commissioned by Cosimo I De ‘Medici, will give in the last years of his life (he dies in Florence on 27 June 1574) also a clear Renaissance style with the design and construction of the large loggias that bear his name. In addition, he also designed the left part of the building of the Fraternita dei Laici, a work that was only to be built in the 17th century.
In addition to these architectural works, in Arezzo we can also admire the great pictorial talent of Giorgio vasari in large tables that are preserved in the Church of Santa Flora and Lucilla della Badia in Arezzo, in the nearby Church of the Santissima Annunziata and in the nearby Museum of Art Medieval and Modern. But the place where we can feel strongly “wrapped” by Vasari’s art is his home in Arezzo, located in via XX Settembre, not far from Piazza San Domenico. This is not his birthplace which was, as mentioned above, near Piazza Grande, but a house that Vasari bought in 1541 for seven hundred gold florins when its construction had just begun so that he could develop it to his will. A house that Vasari wanted to be able to continue living from time to time even in his Arezzo, a city to which the artist was always very close, despite his friendship with the Medici and his great architectural and pictorial works made for Florence, as well as his periods spent in cities such as Rome, Naples, Bologna and Venice where he performed important works.
A house outside the center of Arezzo, a house that made it breathe country air and “among the vegetable gardens” as Vasari himself says. A house in which the great artist carried out a decoration work for several years in moments that recovered breath from his busy life full of commitments and movements. Paintings that have come to us very well preserved and that today have allowed us to transform this house into the Casa Vasari Museum in Arezzo.
The frescoes and paintings on wood that decorate the six rooms of the house show biblical and mythological scenes, sacred and profane allegories, his “fellow” painters. They make his home the highest synthesis of his art and his thought, enhancing the role of the artist as a great actor of the Renaissance period.
Casa Vasari, Chamber of the Arts Originally this house had an almost square plan and the facade was shorter than today. The ground floor was used as a warehouse. On the first floor lived Giorgio Vasari and his wife Niccolosa Bacci who tradition wants to be portrayed among the ladies painted in what is called the Hall of Apollo and the Muses. On the second floor, the servants and Pietro, an uncle of Giorgio who had the job of custodian in the long periods when the artist was absent, lived.
Upon Vasari’s death, the house inherited members of his family. In 1687, with the death of Francesco Maria, the last member of the family, by the will of Giorgio the house passed to the lay fraternity of Arezzo who had had a great bond with the artist also for having helped him economically to the death of his father in 1527. In 1911, the fourth centenary of Vasari’s birth, the house was purchased by the state. In the 1950s, the historic residence was enriched with a picture gallery composed of some paintings by Vasari, of those who were his collaborators and other artists close to his style.
The house can therefore be defined as a museum dedicated to mannerisms.
National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art
The museum is located in the historic Palazzo Bruni Ciocchi, one of the most beautiful Renaissance buildings in the city, located in the San Lorentino area, in the Porta del Foro district. It is one of the many little-known Italian treasure chests and always shaded by large galleries and is exactly what is expected from a museum: a nice selection of works, the tranquillity to be able to admire them without crowds, with the aid of competent and skilled guides.
The building was built in the mid-fifteenth century at the behest of Donato Bruni, son of the famous humanist Leonardo, chancellor of the Florentine Republic, on previous fourteenth-century settlements of the Ghibelline degli Accolti family. It was then acquired by the Ciocchi dal Monte family of Monte San Savino and was probably the seat of the town of Cardinal Giovan Maria Dal Monte, who later became pope with the name of Julius III. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the Barbolani counts of Montauto, originating in the Valtiberina, became owners, who renovated it by building the monumental staircase, the gallery and the large hall.
From 1816 the palace passed to the Tuscan government which used it to the state monopolies, making it a deposit of various kinds, above all salt, and placing the customs offices there, for this reason it is also known as “Palazzo della Dogana”.
The building, now owned by the state, is spread over three floors around a large porticoed courtyard on three sides with elegant sandstone columns, for which the name of Bernardo Rossellino was made, active in Arezzo in 1434, but the whose stylistic references are more in line with Brunelleschi’s architecture. On the back of the building, located on the first floor, there is a Renaissance-inspired hanging garden.
The National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art can be considered among the most interesting in Tuscany for the richness and variety of works which, reflecting the union of several collections and art collections of different backgrounds and origins, bear witness to the highest degree of history cultural and artistic development of Arezzo.
The Museum was born in 1958, following an agreement stipulated between the Ministry of Education, which then included the “Fine Arts”, and the Municipality of Arezzo, solving long-standing management issues for the collections of the municipal art gallery. These same collections were derived, among other things, from the suppression of religious Orders by the State after the Unification of Italy, from Bartolini, Funghini and Fossombroni’s antiquarial and erudite aretine collections, from the Bacci, Rossi and Subiano collections, merged in the artistic heritage of the Lay Fraternity, a civil and religious town institution founded in 1262, which had entrusted them perpetually to the Municipality since 1934, and which already in the nineteenth century thanks to the naturalist Marcantonio Fabroni, had founded its own Museum.
In addition to those from the area, works from warehouses from the Florentine galleries were added to these collector nuclei as early as the 1930s and then later in the 1950s, years in which, always with works from Florence, the setting up of the picture gallery was carried out of the State Museum of Casa Vasari. In 1964 the museum path was enriched by the Salmi Collection, at the behest of the illustrious historian of Arezzo’s art, which was followed in 2010 by a new donation wanted by his daughter.
After the heavy bombings of the Second World War at the Palazzo Pretorio, where the municipal art gallery was then housed, with serious loss of works, the collections find their place in the Palazzo Bruni Ciocchi, restored and set up by the Superintendencies for Monuments and Galleries of Florence, then with the institution in 1967 it passes to the Superintendency of Arezzo and finally, with the latest ministerial reform, it becomes part of the Polo Museale della Toscana.