Rich in culture
Off the A1, 90 km south east of Florence. Drive through or come out of the railway station and you see a modern town with a few expensive curio shops. Climb Via Guido Monaco (the monk who invented our musical notation) and cross Via Petrarca, where both Petrarch and Vasari were born, and you ascend to the Middle Ages, a wonderful old place of historic buildings and art treasures where all the façades have sockets for displaying banners on days of pageantry – which are frequent. Arezzo, of Etruscan origin, was for centuries in conflict with Florence and old antagonisms die hard. ‘See how the Arno turns away from Arezzo in disgust’, say the Florentines, indicating the river’s U-turn outside the town.
Romanesque churches of great dignity are grouped near the oddly-shaped sloping Piazza Grande. The cathedral houses Piero della Francesca’s sullen, sultry Maddalena. San Domenico’s church has Cimabue’s Crucifixion. Round the barn-like interior of San Francesco’s church on Via Madonna del Prato is the series of frescos illustrating the Legend of the Cross, which many consider Piero’s greatest work (reservation compulsory, see www.pierodellafrancesca-ticketoffice.it/en/). Indeed, whole books have been written about it.
Local Renaissance painters, Signorelli and Vasari among them, are represented in the Gallery of Medieval and Modern Art (see www.museistataliarezzo.it/en/museo-arte-medievale). Near an incomplete Roman theatre, close to the railway station, the archaeological museum (www.museistataliarezzo.it/en/museo-archeologico-gaio-cilnio) has very old red glazed vases called corallini, rare examples of a technique devised in this town.
Walking the streets and gardens of the high town you can see ordinary citizens involved in medieval tennis and other curious pastimes. The balestrieri (crossbowmen) and sbandieratori (flag-wavers) may be out, practising for a manifestation or deadly serious contest with some rival Tuscan town. The annual crowd-puller is the Saracen Joust (see www.giostradelsaracinoarezzo.it for more info), first Sunday in September, when horsemen in the battledress of chivalry attack a swivelling target.
Villa holidays: the Arezzo area offers many holiday rental properties.
Detour – Castiglion Fiorentino
20 km south of Arezzo. The rising ground opens out views of the Chianti hills and Val di Chiana. The tall tower gives panoramas of Tuscany and Umbria – all the mutinous lands it commanded when Castiglion was a Florentine outpost. In the township heaped around it you can see Signorelli’s Deposition from the Cross and a good-looking loggia in the central piazza.
Detour – Cortona
32 km south of Arezzo. Etruscan tombs are dotted about the neighbourhood in tumuli affectionately known as meloni (‘melons’). In the town antique tower-blocks give vertical space to a citadel compressed in walls. Precipitous streets lead to the upper church, to Fra Angelico’s Annunciation and works by native artist Luca Signorelli. Cortona continues to honour the arts with frequent exhibitions and an antiques market (www.cortonaweb.net/en/cortona-events/antiques-exhibition) in a fine natural setting under Monte Sant’Egidio (1,056 m). In the beautiful Palazzo Pretorio is the much-respected Museum of the Etruscan Academy (www.cortonaweb.net/en/museums/cortona-maec-museum-01).