We arrived in Arezzo, a lovely art-laden town in Eastern Tuscany, with reservations to see Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross fresco cycle. Actually, I’d booked two separate viewing times, since reservations are compulsory and limited to a 1/2 half hour and that’s not enough time for us. As it turns out, we were the only visitors during both of the scheduled viewings, so the time limitations were not enforced and we had several hours to study this complicated work of art. (Photos were not allowed, so I’ve taken all the fresco images from Web Gallery of Art).
Piero della Francesca painted the Legend of the True Cross cycle inside the main chapel of San Francesco Basilica in Arezzo in the mid 1450’s. The fresco’s narrative is cumbersome, and because it’s not commonly depicted in art, difficult to follow. Essentially it’s a credibility stretching tale (well, let’s be honest—most religious stories are credibility stretchers) of the history of the wood used in the cross of the crucifixion.
It all starts with the death of Adam, who I must say is looking pretty good for 930 years old. Adam is buried along with a seed from a tree from the Garden of Eden. You know Adam got kicked out of the Garden of Eden, right? Well what you also should know is that he held onto a seed from that one controversial apple tree in the garden, and kept it around for 900 years so his family could toss it in his grave.
A tree grows out the ground fertilized by dead Adam and is just a boring old tree for a while until one day King Solomon chops down the tree and makes a bridge out of it. The Queen of Sheba comes to town, drawn by King Solomon’s reputation as a wise guy, and she wants in on the action. But before she can see the King, Queen of Sheba stops at the bridge and—bam!—somehow she just know this is really sacred wood and right then and there she kneels down and starts worshipping that bridge. Because she has the sense to bow down to the holy wood, the bridge reveals to the Queen that one day this wood will be used to crucify a savior, and that the savior would be a fellow who would put an end to the preeminence of the Jews. Well, King Solomon doesn’t like this prophecy one bit, so he chops down the bridge and hires some guys to bury the wood.
Queen of Sheba’s horse says “Gah! Why is this story so complicated?”
King Solomon’s workers earnestly engaged in the burial of the holy wood under a sky of fabulous clouds. Notice that one of the men, (the dude with the sagging sock) is experiencing a wardrobe malfunction in the crotch area of his tunic—see if you can catch of glimpse of his holy wood.
So about 300 years later, Emperor Constantine is taking a nap inside a tent on the eve of a great battle. An angel (busting into the scene, upper left) tells him to look up into the sky. Constantine has a vision of a glowing cross in the sky and when he wakes up, has a replica of that cross made. He carries the cross into battle and, since he wins the battle, take that a sign he has to convert to Christianity.
This section of the fresco is truly sensational: full of drama and yet cozy, with the nighttime stars starting to fade into dawn.
Constantine’s mom goes to Jerusalem to find the original cross that her son dreamed of and miraculously finds it (yeah, so she had to torture a Jew first—it’s still a miracle, right?) Just to be sure she has the real deal, Mrs. Constantine uses the cross to bring a dead man back to life, and sure enough, she’s got it.
Check out that super cool building in the background. Piero della Francesca is like, “People, I’ve got this early Renaissance perspective thing down pat.”
In the seventh century, a Persian king steals the cross, and battles with an Eastern Emperor, who eventually gets it back to Jerusalem after lots of spears and rearing horse legs.
The Eastern Emperor exultantly delivers the cross back to Jerusalem. Guys in awesome hats revere it. None of the guys in awesome hats ever stop to wonder why that wood never rots or gets worm eaten or anything like that, because hey, this is holy wood.
Just because he can, Piero della Francesca throws a random annunciation scene in at the end of the fresco cycle. It doesn’t fit the rest of the story, but it’s still a beautiful painting (and a refreshing break from a narrative about the ongoing burying and discovering of a piece of wood).
After our two robust viewing of the Legend of the True Cross frescos, we were famished and stopped into a deli just off Arezzo’s main square. The owner made us each a sandwich, loaded with local delicacies and drizzled with wonderful olive oil. As we were scarfing our food, he came over and brought us two more sandwiches—for free!—because, he claimed, the first two “weren’t good enough.”
I love Arezzo.
How we got to Arezzo: train from Siena.
Where we slept: Hotel Piero della Francesca. Price: €77 for a double. Recommended: well, the hotel is great, but we only stayed here because our B&B cancelled on us at the last minute. Try to find a place that’s cheaper and closer to the historical center.