Detail of "Flagellation"
Detail of "The Flagellation" - Piero della Frencesca

Hidden Treasures Along the Apennines

Travel Essay by Bill Stockdale

In a country where art lives as in no other, Italy easily traps unwary travelers in the confines of Florence or Rome where the best known of the great art resides. In these cities the art is concentrated, and it is only the truest and most dedicated art lovers who refuse to give in to exhaustion from such total immersion---too much of a good thing over too short a time.

Anyone who has had the experience knows well the stamina it takes. They would also surely agree with Nicholas Tapscott's comment to Molly Pargeter on the subject in John Mortimer's novel, Summer's Lease.

"'Always stoke up well,' he advised Molly, 'when you're out.'...'Once knew a chap who tried to do the Uffizi on a ham sandwich. Fainted dead away in front of the Botticellis.' "

Another way of enjoying Italy and art, as a supplement to the intensity of the city, is to travel the Piero della Francesca trail. It is a tour that combines the satisfactions of the Italian countryside with a more measured and digestible intake of great art, art which receives much less attention than it should. Along this trail from Urbino to Sansepolcro to Arezzo lies the best art of Piero della Francesca, the early renaissance genius helped to lasting fame in books by men such as Kenneth Clark and Aldous Huxley . Here particularly are two of his works that must be seen, one called by Huxley, "the best picture", and the other known by many as the world's greatest small painting.

Making the journey from east to west, the traveler begins at Urbino in the Marche region. Only a half hour drive from the Adriatic, Urbino stands on two plateaus overlooking the Metauro and Foglia valleys. The town is dominated by the magnificent Ducal Palace of Federico di Montefeltro who transformed Urbino into an artistic center in the fifteenth century.

Shortly after World War II, Aldous Huxley in his book of travel and reminiscences called the Ducal Palace, "most exquisite palace in Italy." He went even further by saying that, "Even on the most wearily reluctant tourist Urbino imposes itself; there is no escaping it; it must be seen." Its most striking external feature is the twin-towered facade, which projects out from the main body of the palace and connects and contains the structure of the building. The towers give a fairy-tale touch to the palace.

Inside is the National Gallery of the Marche, which is a match for the splendor of the Pitti Palace in Florence. It not only houses works of Raphael, who was born in Urbino, but of other renaissance painters, including "The Ideal City" by Luciano Laurano, one of the architects of the Ducal palace itself, the man responsible for the twin towers.

And it is here in this gallery that we come face to face with della Francesca's "Flagellation" arguably the world's greatest small painting.

When viewing the picture, even the untrained eye can tell it is in the presence of something special. It commands attention, but here is nothing maudlin nor melodramatic about it. Its subjects are cool and detached.

Huxley writes in Along The Road that,

"In the extraordinary 'Flagellation' at Urbino, the nominal subject of the picture recedes into the background on the left-hand side of the panel, where it serves to balance the three mysterious figures standing aloof in the right foreground. We seem to have nothing here but an experiment in composition, but an experiment so strange and so startlingly successful that we do not regret the absence of dramatic significance and are entirely satisfied."

The painting's symbolism has received much scholarly attention. What are the three mysterious figures in the foreground up to? They totally ignore the flagellation in the background as they confer in their own tight little group, tending their business without noticing the violent act taking place nearby. The beating itself evokes no revulsion or harsh reaction. The players are almost impassive; Pontius Pilate in hat with long peak sits quietly, unmoved in the background. The flogger's motion is almost feminine. In one view, the flagellation of Christ represents the decadence of the Church. In the foreground one character is thought to be Cardinal Bression, who presumably commissioned the work. He supposedly is trying to convince the Duke to take part in a crusade to resolve the fate of the Church itself.

Traversing the della Francesca trail is less than a full day's journey by car. One day is not enough to do justice to the art or to the countryside itself. Urbino deserves a full day and a stay overnight in the area. The next leg of the trail deserves an early morning drive.

Few views are as haunting as the one that greets the morning traveler at Bocca Trabaria, the Apennine pass between the Tiber valley and the upper valley of Metauro in Umbria. Approached on a typical morning up the north slope, heading away from Urbino toward Sansepolcro, the summit reveals cloud-sheathed valleys below and Umbrian mountains stretching southward.

Behind, the sun, still shrouded in mist, casts a hazy glow over the scene.

One can visualize a flotilla of boats sailing through that wavy sea of clouds flooding the valleys below. Stopping to take in the vista, the traveler can hear sporadic bursts of gunfire echoing through the hills, the unbounded Italian hunter on his morning foray. This view from the Mountain of the Moon alone is worth the motor trip from Urbino across the Apennines, but there are better reasons yet for travelers to make the journey. Across this pass lies the "Resurrection."

Huxley described the trip across the Apennines into Tuscany and Sansepolcro in Along The Road. For him it was a far different journey than it is today.

"..., if you happen to be at Urbino, there is a motor bus which takes you to San Sepolcro, up and down the Apennines, in something over seven hours."

That journey today by car takes a little under two hours unless you linger over the Apennine scenery.

When he arrived, what did Huxley see?

"A little town surrounded by walls, set in a broad flat valley between hills; some fine renaissance palaces with pretty balconies of wrought iron; a not very interesting church, and finally, the best picture in the world."

Today as fifty years ago (in the words of Huxley)

"...the visitor who now enters the Palazzo dei Conservatori at Borgo San Sepolcro finds the stupendous "Resurrection" almost as Piero della Francesca left it. Its clear, yet subtly sober colours shine out from the wall with scarcely impaired freshness. Damp has blotted out nothing of the design, nor dirt obscured it. We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty; it stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world."

Whether you agree or not that one picture can be the greatest, there is no mistaking the grandeur of the "Resurrection". Again in the words of Huxley,

"He achieves grandeur naturally with every gesture he makes, never consciously strains after it."--- (The same image an aging sports fan, who can still remember, see in his minds eye when he thinks of Joe Dimaggio playing for the Yankees.)--- Like the architect Alberti, "Piero seems to have been inspired by what I may call the religion of Plutarch's Lives---which is not Christianity, but a worship of what is admirable in man."

What hits you about this and della Francesca's other paintings, made in a time when all content of art was religious, is that the art is not about religion. It is, as Huxley says, "...the resurrection of the classical ideal." It has in it that measure of transcendence that goes beyond subject matter and stands alone, a work of art complete unto itself.

Four sleeping guards form the base of a triangular framing that rises to the center where the image of Christ stands erect, athletic, impassive, right foot on the tomb from which He rises. He holds a Christian flag as a soldier might at attention his left arm and robe resting on his thigh. In the background, the hills of Tuscany and sky. The effect is enigmatic and captivating.

Here in the town hall you will find another masterpiece, della Francesca's altar piece of the Madonna della Misericordia, which hangs near the "Resurrection". One of his earliest works, the virgin stands with her arms outstretched embracing with the folds of her heavy blue mantle two groups of supplicants on either side.

Sansepolcro is no longer Huxley's "little town surrounded by walls." It is today the most important and densley populated town of the Tiber Valley in the Arezzo province. Finding accommodations is not the problem it was for Huxley. Traffic teems. But you can still park close to the town hall where the artwork stands and enter without a line for about five dollars. Nor is Sansepolcro shy about boasting that it is the birthplace of Piero della Francesca. Literature, posters and street signs bear his name, and a few yards down the street from the Museo Civico itself is another memorial to him: his birthplace.

The della Francesca trail would not be complete if the traveler missed his "Madonna del Parto", or "Pregnant Madonna". It is in the small village of Monterchi about twelve kilometers south and west from Sansepolcro. It is along the road to Arezzo, trail's end.

Once the "Madonna del Parto" adorned the inside of the chapel near the cemetary of the village. Deterioration of the prized fresco led to a major restoration project, which saw the fresco moved to a building, now a museum, on the village outskirts. The restored fresco is in the words of John Mortimer, "brown, pale pink, blue and green---the colours of the earth, the sky and the olive trees." In the center is the blue-clad madonna, hand on swollen womb, flanked by two angels who hold open curtains that surrounded her.

The new setting for the madonna is impressive, because of how well she is displayed and because it presents a detailed audio visual explanation of the restoration of the fresco. Unfortunately, it is all in Italian, and without a command of the language most of the restoration story is lost. The madonna, however, speaks for herself.

In a way Arezzo is anti-climactic, but only because of the way the art is presented to the viewer, not because of its quality. Della Francesca's frescos adorn the chapel of San Francesco here. They represent the work of more than a dozen years for the artist. As with art in a number of Italian churches, the frescos are illuminated only when someone puts money into a metered switch. So the viewer is often plunged suddenly into darkness.

The frescos depict "The Story of the True Cross", which begins with a branch of the tree from which Eve took the apple. The frescos illustrate events related to this tale: the branch planted in dead Adam's mouth; the branch cut down to decorate the palace where Solomon received the Queen of Sheba.

These are followed by other scenes of battles in which Christians triumph over infidels--for example, Heraclius restoring the True Cross to Jerusalem.

The paintings were done at a time when Christianity was on the defensive: the infidels had recently won at Constantinople. Some say the frescos were created as propaganda for a new Crusade.

Here at Arezzo as in the other work viewed along the trail, Piero creates idealized faces. In the words of Huxley, "They are all of one peculiar cast: the foreheads are high, rounded and smooth; the necks are like cylinders of polished ivory."

Throughout they reflect the artist's passion for solidity. The frescos mark the end of the della Francesa trail. Here in Arezzo, the eastern end of Tuscany, other jewels of art await those so inclined. The other parts of Tuscany itself also beckon--Siena to the south, Florence to the north, all the picturesque villages strewn between with the "in Chianti" suffix attached to their first name--Radda in Chianti, Gaiole in Chianti and the others.

But what you remember the most are those gems of the trail. Huxley observed that "It is unfortunate for Piero's reputation that his works should be comparatively few and in most cases rather difficult of access." Then, Arezzo and Sansepolcro were out-of-the-way places. Only Urbino was a sure tourist attraction. Huxley goes on to say that, "If the principal works of Piero were to be seen in Florence, and those of Botticelli at San Sepolcro I do not doubt that the public estimation of these two masters would be reversed. Artistic English spinsters would stand in rapturous contemplation before the story of the True Cross, instead of before the Primavera.

Raptures depend largely upon the stars in Baedeker, and the stars are more freely distributed to works of art in accessible towns than those in the inaccessible."

Travel in Italy today makes that observation less of a truism than it once was. The Piero della Francesca trail is there, it is accessible, it is worth the journey.

I'm a semi-retired businessman. My business, though, has been writing. I was in advertising and public relations for more than twenty five years. I have done magazine writing and some business journalism as well plus an assortment of newsletters and company annual reports. I have also done TV commercials and multi-media presentations for outfits ranging from local banks to Kodak and Xerox. So, business writing has been my principal activity---even though most of it was puff city. All that has changed. I'm now in my sixties. I sold my business. I am writing for myself, not handling clients.

I did the piece you are publishing because of our trip to Italy. Actually, we went to Italy for a visit in part because of my interest in Piero della Francesco being stimulated by reading John Mortimer's book Summer's Lease and later Along the Road by Huxley. We planned the trip around the della Francesca trail, stayed only in the countryside at bed and breakfast's and drove the perilous roads of that ancient land in an underpowed but surprisingly reliable compact of Italian make.

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