Travel
Route awakening

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 19

Travel
Route awakening

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 19

Travel
Route awakening

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 19

Travel
Route awakening

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 19

Travel
Route awakening

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 19

Travel
Route awakening

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 19

Lucinda Bredin goes on a tour of Tuscany and Umbria in search of works by Piero della Francesca

One doesn't need many excuses to tour around Tuscany and Umbria, but perhaps there is a need for a framework. Otherwise, how does one choose which glorious hill town to visit? After years of confining myself to the greatest hits of the Renaissance, what I needed was a thread to follow to give myself a chance of encountering the overlooked and unexpected. That was how I chanced upon the tiny, walled hill village of Monterchi, which, as it houses the weirdly compelling Museum of Weights and Measures, certainly falls into both categories.

Monterchi is the sort of place you speed past on the way to Città di Castello, but I had decided to trace the work of Piero della Francesca, and Monterchi, thought to have been the birthplace of his mother, is the setting for the painter's gloriously fecund fresco the Madonna del Parto.

The town has always been very attached to this painting, now kept in a slightly antiseptic museum – a former primary school – where it is the sole exhibit. I heard longingly about how, before 1992, the painting was in a chapel in an isolated church in the Tiber valley.

During the Second World War, the government tried to move the work to prevent it from bomb damage, but the citizens of Monterchi cut up so rough that they prevented it from being moved. So Piero's Madonna was walled up – which protected it, but caused mold. Finally restored in 1992, it now hangs in splendid isolation on a wall with a row of chairs in front of it, an audience for the Madonna who looks as if she is about to give birth in front of you.

Just north of Monterchi is Sansepolcro, where Piero was born around 1415 and died in 1492. His family were relatively well-to-do merchants. Although the painter traveled throughout Italy to work at the courts of his patrons, he often returned to this quiet yet charming town, which is described by Aldous Huxley as having "some fine Renaissance palaces; a not very interesting church, and the best painting in the world". This is Piero's Resurrection, hanging in the civic museum along with the Madonna della Misericordia. Christ is shown emerging from his tomb while four sleeping soldiers lie slumped at his feet. Having just driven through the Val Tiberina, the landscape behind Christ seemed so recognizable. To his left, the trees are barren just as they are in my November journey, but to the right there is a luxuriant panorama – the promise of renewal.

Sansepolcro also has a niche museum, clearly it's a must-have in these parts. Here it's the Museum of Herbs – complete with its own poison cellar – set in the spectacular Bourbon del Monte Palace.

About 20 miles south of Sansepolcro is Arezzo, where Piero painted his masterwork, The Legend of the True Cross, in the church of San Francesco. I have made a pilgrimage by various modes of transport to see this work in the past, only to be faced with the dreaded 'Chiuso per restauro' sign that cruelly announces the work is under wraps for restoration. The Legend of the True Cross re-emerged in 2000 after 15 years of labor to stop the plaster turning to dust. The colors are now vibrant and the figures once more have substance. Giorgio Vasari, the brutally frank chronicler of the Lives of the Artists, claimed Piero "often made wax models and covered them with soft cloths with an infinity of pleats to draw them". Now the fresco has been cleaned, one can see what he was on about.

Arezzo itself is a substantial town which never seems to suffer from a tsumani of tourists, despite its artistic attractions. The focal point is the Piazza Grande, set on a tilt and surrounded by medieval and Renaissance palaces, all built with supreme disregard for their neighbors. Clearly, planning permission wasn't an issue. There are a couple of other sites that should be taken in: the glorious façade of the Pieve di Santa Maria, with its multi-levels of arches (Pietro Lorenzetti's 1320 altarpiece – in restauro since 2015 – is the church's great treasure) and the Casa di Vasari, the house which Vasari, a native of Arezzo, bought and decorated for himself. After walking around and being assailed by the frenzied decorative schemes, you think... don't give up the night job, Giorgio.

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

For information on the Terre di Piero, a joint project from the Emilia Romagna, Marche, Tuscany and Umbria regions, go to terredipiero.it

Where to stay

The question is whether to stay in the town – or out. Both have much to be said in their favor, although if you choose to stay in the countryside, it is worth checking how far the hotel is from the center. I've found that when hotels claim they are within spitting distance of il duomo, it is more like 45 minutes. Inside the city walls, Arezzo has comfortable – rather than lap-of-luxury – places to stay, one of which is Graziella Patio Hotel, (hotelpatio.it) set in an historic house. It has a spa, and bicycles to rent as well – although as the town is on a steep hill, walking is probably the best option. Outside the town, Hotel Badia di Pomaio (hotelbadiadipomaio.it) has many admirers, although you need a car.

This is not the case for Residenza d'Epoca Palazzo Magi (palazzomagi.it) which is bang in the center of Sansepolcro. Although it is set in a townhouse, the rooms are palatial in size. Run by a charming family, it is €80 per night.

In Perugia, the Brufani Palace (brufanipalace.com) is the place to stay, with lots of marble and a pool. Set on the edge of city, its wonderful – and vertiginous – views over the valley show what hill towns are about.

For the more adventurous, Castello di Petrata, (castellopetrata.com, pictured right) an ancient 14th century fortress and chapel, is 20km east of Perugia, and surrounded by a 20-hectare park. Wonderful Umbrian cooking in the restaurant.

Where to Eat

As befits a Tuscan provincial capital, Arezzo has a number of picturesque restaurants, but not all of them deliver on the food front. Le Chiavi d'Oro (ristorantelechiavidoro.it) however, certainly does. Close to the Basilica di San Francesco, this quirky restaurant is run by Francesco Stilo and his two sisters. Dishes manage to straddle innovation and tradition. In the summer it has excellent outdoor seating in the piazza. There is also Ristorante Logge Vasari, (loggevasari.net) which has a superb setting on the Piazza Grande and excellent pasta dishes.

Sansepolcro has a stand-out winner – Ristorante Fiorentino (ristorantefiorentino.it) – which has been run by the Uccellini family for 50 years. It is now in the capable hands of Alessia, who also lectures on the history of food. Elements of Renaissance dishes find their way into the menu with interesting spicing and piquant flavors infusing the traditional Tuscan cuisine. Stuffed zucchini, truffles, pasta and inventive meat dishes all feature in the heavily beamed dining room.

Perugia has a number of good places, including Osteria a Priori (osteriaapriori.it). This restaurant/wine bar specializes in the best regional Umbrian food. It also has more than 250 Umbrian wines. In season, they also offer superb pasta dishes with white truffles.

Monterchi can serve up a cup of coffee, but not a cup of tea, as we discovered. And for a meal you are better off going to Castello dei Sorci (castellodisorci.it) at nearby Anghiari. This medieval castle specializes in simple peasant food at very reasonable prices. In fact, one food critic declared it to be the best cheap restaurant in Italy with set meals at €25 per person. The wine is basic, but it is reasonably priced. L.B.

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