Here’s my guide to seeing Piero della Francesca’s magnificent fresco cycle, The Legend of the True Cross. The fresco cycle is located in the lovely little Tuscan town of Arezzo, in the three story main chapel of the Basilica of San Francesco. Arezzo is only 30 miles south of Florence, so the town is one of the best day trips from Florence.
Piero’s frescos are one of the greatest and most beautiful fresco cycles from the early Renaissance. Some art historians believe Piero’s work is second only to the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums, though I am also partial to Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. British writer Aldous Huxley called The Legend of the True Cross “the most beautiful painting in the world.”
Piero painted the fresco cycle between 1452 and 1466. Filled with dramatic and inventive scenes, it’s a grail-like storybook romance of the True Cross.
Piero is the most underrated and mysterious genius of the Quattrocento or early Renaissance. Piero was only rediscovered in the mid-19th century. Further time has only enhanced his reputation. Today, Piero is acknowledged as one of the foundational artists of the era, rivaling even Leonardo da Vinci.
With only a few exceptions, it isn’t in the convenient museums in Italy’s major touristic cities of Rome, Milan, Venice, and Florence. Though the Uffizi does house his world famous (and unflattering) double portrait of the Duke and Duchesss of Urbino.
Rather, Piero’s works are found exactly where they were painted. If you want to see them, you’ve got to get off the beaten path and head to some tiny towns in southern Tuscany and Le Marche. The locals have actually created and advertise a Piero della Francesca Trail.
Aside from its sheer beauty, one reason the Arezzo fresco cycle has some renown is that it was featured in the book and Oscar-winning film, The English Patient.
In a delicious love scene, Naveen Andrews hooks Juliet Binoche into a winch-harness. Then, he sends her soaring above with a torch, to illuminate the dark church and thereby reveal Piero’s delicate frescos.
The frescos discussed in the book are the same ones I’m talking about today. Full disclosure, the movie scene was actually shot in a church in the beautiful Italian town of Pienza. A digital reproduction of Piero’s frescos was used for the film.
Piero’s talent lie in rendering exquisite and serene images in dreamy light colors with perfect perspective. There are no overwrought colors or flourishes. Piero is luxe and calm, not ridiculous effervescence. He is majestic without being hysterical or theatrical.
Piero depicted biblical figures as if they were real people in modern settings. Piero’s figures have an ethereal timelessness. But they’re not saccharine, just pure beauty and self-possession. The Legend of the True Cross is considered his master work.
A Short Biography of Piero Della Francesca
In or around 1415, Piero burst forth into the world in the Tuscan backwater of Sansepulcro. He was born into a prosperous family of leather makers and indigo merchants.
As a merchant’s son, he was trained as a mathematician. Later in life, Piero would gained fame in that field, schooling Italians on Euclid and Greek scientists.
But Piero’s first vocation was painting. Historians don’t know much about his life and formation as an artist. His first documented exposure is in Florence.
And what better training than in the “Cradle of the Renaissance?” Piero likely met and had direct access to the works and influence of the greatest artists in Italy at the time — Fra Angelico, Donatello, Masaccio, Ghiberti, etc.
There was no better time to be training as an artist in Florence than in the early 15th century.
In 1439, it’s recorded that Piero collaborated with Domenico Veneziano. Piero took from Domenico a love of luminous pastel palettes.
He was also influenced by the Florentine artist Masaccio and the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden. By 1450, Piero was carrying out commissions in Venice. One of his paintings, St. Jerome and a Donor, is in Venice’s Galleria dell’Academia.
READ: Must See Sties in Venice
Piero was something of a math scholar, publishing three treatises on mathematics and perspective. In his day, he was known as much for math as art.
Piero’s mathematical prowess informed his art. He experimented with the architect Leon Battista Alberti’s theories on perspective and vanishing points. Piero’s figures were also highly realistic. They were likely shocking to 15th century viewers used to the stylized and gilded figures of the Gothic era.
Today, there is an official “Piero Trail” in southern Tuscany, taking you to Arezzo, Sansepolcro, Monterchi, Urbino, and Rimini.
The Legend of the True Cross Fresco Cycle
Piero’s monumental fresco cycle is in the Bacci Chapel of the Basilica of San Francesco. The Legend of the True Cross was likely painted between 1453 and 1466. The “true cross” is the term used for the physical remains of the crucifixion cross.
Occupying the entire chapel, Piero’s cycle narrates a fanciful (sometimes confusing) medieval narrative about the true cross. It’s drawn from a l3th century legend recounted in the Golden Cross by Jacopo de Varagine, which is a collection of idealizing hagiographies.
Commissioned by the wealthy Bacci family, the fresco (and legend) trace the history of Christ’s cross. It follows a sprig from the Garden of Eden through many historic vicissitudes of the Old and New Testaments.
Tree begets tree until we finally get to the wooden cross of the crucifixion. The overall theme is the triumph of the cross, which guides man to salvation.
The highly complex fresco is quietly majestic, each scene rendered with solemnity. The fresco captures all the special traits of Piero’s art — spatial structure with prefect perspective, subtle and diffused light, color contrast between warm and cold tones to create the illusion of space.
The images are so potent and pure that they ravish hearts. Giorgio Vasari claimed that the frescos were “so well-executed that but for the gift of speech they seemed alive.”
Close up, the emotive figures assume personalties. They smile, observe, exalt, grieve, and die expressive deaths. As was the common practice at the time, Piero include discrete portraits of his patrons in the narrative.
The story begins high on the walls. It enfolds episode by episode, like vignettes of a film, though not in exact chronological order. It doesn’t read like pages from a book.
Instead, Piero used the chapel’s vaulted shape and principles of symmetry to best convey the scenes. Thematically linked scenes face each other on the walls.
To help you crack the conundrum on a visit, you’ll get laminated cards parsing the order of the panels for you. For readers, you can click here for a 3D walk-through interactive model of the fresco cycle, created by an art historian, computer graphics experts, and a photographer.
The various scenes in the cycle are:
1. Death of Adam
2. Exaltation of the Cross
3. Queen Sheba in Adoration of the Wood
6. Torture of the Jew
7. Burial of the Wood
8. Discovery and Proof of the True Cross
9. Battle Between Constantine and Maxentius
10. Constantine’s Dream
12. Battle between Heracluis and Chosroes
Highlights of the Legend of the True Cross Fresco Cycle
Let’s go over the highlights of the rather convoluted fresco cycle.
You begin on the right hand side on top of the wall inside a lunette space, with the Death of Adam. Yup, as in Adam and Eve. The story goes that, after Cain and Able, Adam went on to have other children. Pertinent to this story is his third son Seth.
When Adam was very old, around 930 (!), he fell ill and became concerned about his health. He dispatched Seth to find a remedy or magic elixir.
Seth approached an angel to ask what could be done to save his father. The angel instructed Seth to go back into the Garden of Eden and take a branch from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Seth does as he’s told and grabs a splinter of the tree, intended to be put under his father’s tongue. But Adam is too far gone. When Seth returns, he finds his father dead. That’s what is depicted in the center of the first scene.
Seth buries Adam. He takes the branch and puts it on Adam’s grave. The branch then grows into a second tree of the knowledge of food and evil, which will provide the wood for Christ’s cross. The fresco isn’t in great shape, but you can still make out the tree.
From that painting, you come down one level. The next scene is divided by a white marble column. To the left is a woman dressed in blue, kneeling in front of a wooden beam.
The story goes that the second tree grew into a large tree, but fell over. The bent over tree was serving as bridge across a river.
On the way to King Solomon’s court, the Queen of Sheba comes across the second tree. She feels compelled to venerate the tree-bridge. In a ceremonial scene, she meets Solomon and tells her tale. Solomon realizes there’s something holy about the wood.
But he’s worried, fearful about his Jewish people. So, Solomon decides to bury the tree-bridge.
You can see this in a vertical painting, with some loss of the original paint. It’s one of Piero’s most powerful and lean images. Against a cloud-dappled sky, three workmen struggle to move the immense timber, which appears almost to crush them.
What happens next, which Piero doesn’t depict, is that the wood remained buried for nine centuries. But then, magically, it began to move of its own accord to an underground river. It surfaces in the year 33 A.D., just when the Romans were looking to crucify Jesus of Nazareth.
Christ is crucified, which is not depicted in the fresco cycle. But what of the wood? No one cares about it until the beginning of the 4th century.
At that time, the Roman Empire was divided up among four rulers. One of the rulers, Constantine, decided to march on fellow Roman Maxentius against all odds. The night before the battle, Constantine had a dream.
The fresco scene, Constantine’s Dream, is one of Piero’s most celebrated and moving images. It’s one of the very first nighttime scenes in Western art. A glow lights up the scene, revealing the artist’s sensitivity to light.
The dream scene is painted just below the cross being buried. There’s a red pinkish tent with a bearded monarch sleeping snugly in his bed.
An angel flies in the upper left side, holding a radiant torch. That’s the scene’s only light source. it wasn’t until Caravaggio, 150 years later, that another artist approached illumination this way.
Constantine dreams that an angel shows him a cross, telling him “thou shall conquer.” When he wakes up, Constantine orders his soldiers to paint crosses on their shields. Constantine’s forces clash with the forces of Maxentius and are victorious. The battle is depicted in a long rectangular scene.
Constantine leads the group with a golden cross in his right hand. Sunlight reflects off the soldiers’ armor. The man on the lower right on the brown horse is Maxentius, who is vanquished and slinks away in shame. Wearing heavy metallic armor, he drowns in a river.
The story ends visually on this wall. Then you move to the other side of the chapel. You pick up, post crucifixion, on the back wall. On the same level as the burial of the cross, you see a figure being ignominiously pulled out of a hole in the ground.
Because of the cross’ role in Constantine’s victory, his mother, Helena, decides to look for the actual cross. No one seemed to know where it was except a Jewish man named Judas (hmm …). He remembers that his ancient relative once told a story of just where the cross was buried.
The problem was that Judas wouldn’t spill the beans. Spurned, in an unedifying scene, Helena drops the man into a pit and starves him into confession. Her helpers drag him out — as shown in the fresco cycle. He gives them the locale under torture.
To the left, a large horizontal scene shows Helena and her gang digging up the cross. But they find three crosses, not one. What to do? Which one is Jesus’ cross?
As fate would have it, a funeral procession walks by at that exact moment. Helena lays the crosses over the lifeless body of the deceased to test their veracity. The third cross brings the corpse back from the dead, revealing that it’s the one true cross.
Next to this scene is an Annunciation. The image seems out of place, unconnected to the thread of the story.
But Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary is the beginning of Christianity’s story. The annunciation likely led to Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, and with it the conversion of the Roman Empire. So, it’s a related theme.
The cross was then kept in Jerusalem for a couple hundred years. But, then, it was stolen by the Persian despot, King Chosroes. Chosroes mocked Christianity by putting the cross in a temple dedicated to himself.
That act of heresy pissed off the Byzantine ruler Heracluis. He leads a military campaign to retrieve the true cross. That’s what’s happening in the lowest horizontal images — Heracluis defeating Chosroes in a swirling melange of horse and lances. The image contrasts sharply with Piero’s other more pastoral images.
Chosroes is down on his knees about to be beheaded for failing to convert to Christianity. The story ends in the lunette at the top of the wall where Heracluis brings the cross back to Jerusalem. There, the cross is properly venerated and exalted.
Renovation of the Fresco Cycle
Time was not gentle to Piero’s master work. During Napoleon’s occupation of the region, troops fired shots on the frescos, a similar fate to the Elgin Marbles on the Parthenon.
Plus, fresco is a fragile medium. It’s especially vulnerable to the usual climate-related problems — humidity, leaks, air pollution, and run-of-the mill natural disasters like earthquakes.
Later, restorers crudely applied non-porous paints that caused an unforeseen chemical reaction, disintegrating the fresco and causing spectral whitening.
In 1985, the “Piero Project” began, funded by a philanthropic organization. So complex was the restoration that the 15 year project rivaled the Sistine Chapel’s renovation. The first six years were consumed with assessing and fixing earlier restorations.
Unlike the Sistine Chapel, the restorers didn’t overpaint and fill in missing color. They used a subtle touch, patiently washing the frescos with de-ionized water. They attacked the problems with the application of barium hydroxide, which stabilizes the paint surface and re-coheres the paint layer.
As part of the restoration, the floor of the church was perforated for better circulation of air. The outer walls were plastered for better insulation from the elements.
In 2018, a new lighting system was installed to better view the frescos. The designers used compact low voltage LED luminaires, which spotlit the images.
More Time in Arezzo? What To See In Arezzo
Arezzo is a compact and colorful city. Like all steep Tuscan towns, it’s lovely to stroll around, with beautifully decorated buildings. Arezzo is quiet and less crowded than other towns in Tuscany, but stuffed with delicious things to see and do.
Arezzo offers many churches and museums. Arezzo Cathedral is a late 13th century Gothic church, with a rather austere exterior. But inside, you’ll find Piero’s luminous Mary Magdalene portrait and some beautiful terra cotta ceramics by Luca della Robbia. There’s also a stunning viewpoint.
Art lovers should visit the House of Giorgio Vasari. Vasari was a multi-talented fellow. He was a famed Florentine architect, artist, frescoist, and the world’s first art historian. You can see Vasari’s frescos in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio and the dome of the Duomo.
In 1550, Vasari published the treatise Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Much of our knowledge of the Renaissance comes from this book.
There’s also an antique fair in Arezzo the first weekend of every month.
How To Get To Arezzo
Arezzo is an easy day trip from Florence. You can drive or take the train. Arezzo’s train station is in the new part of town, only a 10 minute walk from the historic center. Florence is the nearest airport to Arezzo.
Practical Information and Tips For Seeing The Legend of the True Cross
Address: Piazza S. Francesco, 1 52100 Arezzo
Hours: Monday to Friday 9:00 am to 1:00 pm & 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Sunday 9:00 am to 1:00 pm.
Ticket Price: 8 € to access the Bacci Chapel
Pro tip: There are guided tours for 25 people every 30 minutes. Purchase tickets in advance.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the Legend of the True Cross. You may enjoy these other guides to Italian art:
If you’d like to see Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle in Arezzo, pin it for later.