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Sansepolcro

Sansepolcro is situated in the very center of Italy - an area of Italy populated first by the Etruscans, then by the Romans. The Etruscans had their principle cities in Perugia, Cortona and Arezzo (all towns within a 40 mile radius of Sansepolcro) and the used the Valtiberina (Valley of the River Tiber) as a source of timer - at that period (c. 1000 BC) the valley was covered in walnut trees. However, toward 700 BC the might of the Roman army had destroyed all the Etruscan empire and a group of Roman centurions chose the site where Sansepolcro is today to build a camp - Birtugia. A number of other Romans, including Pliny the Younger, build their summer villas in the Valtiberina.

Legend has it that the town of Sansepolcro was founded by two pilgrims returning from the Holy Land with a fragment of Christ's tomb and they chose the area as a site for a religious community and a shrine for this holy relict. The name Sansepolcro is derived from Santo Sepolcro meaning "holy sepulchre".

There is another legend that the settlement Biturgia was destroyed by a massive earthquake and so many people died entombed in the rubble that the town became known as San Sepolcro in reference to the victims. Sansepolcro, like the whole of Italy, is a seismic area and has been destroyed by an earthquake at least once in recent history. The earliest standing palazzos date from 1300 (i.e. the stone palazzo in the corner of the Piazza Torre di Berta which houses the "Happy Bar") due to a massive earthquake at the beginning of the fourteenth century which destroyed Sansepolcro. Since then there have been a number of smaller earthquakes and now all modern buildings must be built anti-seismic. Even now there are a lot of small tremors --in the last fortnight alone there have been two big tremors.

Sansepolcro is essentially a Renaissance town and it was during this period (14th and15th centuries) that the town flourished. Sansepolcro had 26 noble families who all had stone towers attached to their elegant palazzos. However, when the powerful Medici family took over the control of Sansepolcro, they made the nobles shorten their towers to the height of the adjoining palazzos as a sign of subservience. These towers can still be seen as you walk around the town. The only tower left standing at its original height was in the center of Piazza Torre di Berta. In fact, the square was named after its tower, the Berta tower. However, the tower, having survived the Medici, was blown up by the retreating German army in 1944.

The Medici were not the only family to govern Sansepolcro. Due to the position of the town on the very edge of Tuscany, bordering with Umbria and Le Marche, control of Sansepolcro alternated between the Medici, the powerful Dukes of Montefeltro from Urbino, and, very briefly, the Church. However, Sansepolcro has never had its own ruling family and the democratic feeling that held it together during the Renaissance can still be felt today.

The town has an abundance of churches and monasteries (about 18), most dating back from the 13th and 14th centuries. For this reason, the town museum and, indeed, many of the churches are extremely rich in art. The most famous son of Sansepolcro is Piero della Francesca and four of his works can be found in the town museum.

Of these the most famous is the Resurrection. This was painted for the council chamber of the town hall (in the 1400s the museum building was in fact the town hall) and has never been moved. Aldous Huxley described the Resurrection as the "greatest painting in the world," and even if you do not agree it is hard not to be impressed by this fresco. There are two points of particular interest in the picture. The first is that the figure of Christ stand with his left foot on the grave edge and, at the side of the fresco, all the plants and trees in the background are alive and flourishing (representing the rebirth of life), while the other side, where Christ's foot is still in the grave, has a desolate, dead background. The other point of interest is that one of sleeping soldiers is a self-portrait of the artist.

Other renowned artists of the same period came from Sansepolcro - Santi di Tito, Matteo di Giovanni, Raffaellino del Colle - and their works can be found in the museum and various churches. A dramatic Deposition by Rosso Fiorentino, a mannerist artist (called "Rosso Fiorentino" because he had a huge red beard and a lot of red hair and cam from Florence), can be seen in the church of San Lorenzo at the bottom of Via Luca Pacioli. This is well worth seeing even though the colors are rather odd - Christ's body is purple. The picture was in this church for years, getting dirtier and dirtier until it got sent away to be cleaned so no one can remember if these are the real colors or if something went wrong with the cleaning!

An unusual piece of art that is worth seeing is in the left-hand apse of the Cathedral. This is a carved wooden Crucifix called the Volto Santo which dates from 900 AD. It is very unusual - one of just 3 surviving examples in the whole world - and has recently been restored. It used to be so discolored from candle smoke and centuries of dirt that when it was carried around the town in processions it frightened children! The cathedral itself dates from about 1350 and, like the majority of Italian churches, has been altered over the years. However, in the 1930s, nearly all the alterations were torn out so that the cathedral has reverted to roughly how it was in the 1300s. The only noticeable addition that remains, dating from the 1600s, is the chapel in the right-hand apse that is a pretty example of baroque style.

Sansepolcro's other famous son was the mathematician Luca Pacioli. For part of his life he lived in the monastery of San Francesco and two years ago a statue of Pacioli was erected in honor of the five hundredth anniversary of the publication of the Summa. It was in this book that he set out the theory of double-entry bookkeeping.

After the glories of the Renaissance, Sansepolcro went into a kind of decline. Up to the second half of the 19th century the main source of income for this area was from agriculture - mostly tobacco. Towards the end of the last century, the Buitoni family started the now famous pasta company which was extremely successful. Until then, all Italian families made their own pasta and Buitoni offered the first ready-made pasta. The company was family-owned until the mid-1980's and it is now part of Nestle. However, it is still the largest employer in Sansepolcro.

Most towns in Italy have some kind of festival during the year and Sansepolcro is no exception. On the second Sunday of September, Sansepolcro holds the Palio della Balestra - and ancient contest against the nearby town of Gubbio, where crossbowmen (balestrieri) from the two towns aim at a target set up in the Piazza Torre di Berta. The bold nearest the center wins. The contest dates from the Renaissance and those that take part are dressed in authentic costume, made by the same designer from Rome that makes the costumes for Zeffirelli's films.

As an adjunct to the crossbowmen, there are the flag-wavers (sbandieratori). This is an art developed by standard bearers going into battle, armed with nothing but a flag. Certain movements were developed to enable the flag to be used as a weapon and now in the 20th century form part of a unique display. The flag-wavers are also dressed in costume and the flags are made from silk, hand-painted with the coats of arms of Sansepolcro's noble families. Sansepolcro's flag-wavers are world famous and each year travel to festivals throughout the world to give displays.

SANSEPOLCRO: BIRTHPLACE OF PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA

Sansepolcro is in the high valley of the Tiber, at the foot of the Appennines, the last edge of Tuscan land between Emilia Romagna, Marche and Umbria. Some people take its origins back to a Roman camp. According to legend, it was founded by two pilgrims, Egidio and Arcano, who stopped here on their return from the Holy Land.

It is thus the name of Sansepolcro is explained.

Originally it was a fiefdom of the monastic order of the Camaldolesi and was, unusually, for those time, a totally independent city founded. However, it subsequently became the domain of the Malatestas, the Medecis and finally the Lorenas.

Pope Leo X then gave it the title of City and made it a bishopric in 1570. Sansepolcro is above all the City of Piero della Francesca. In the museum are preserved some of his most important works: "The Resurrection"; the polyptych of the "Madonna della Misericorida"; the "San Guiliano" and the "San Lodovico".

At Monterchi maybe see the beautiful "Madonna del Parto". In the museum there are also on show many works of art by important artists, among them the Albertis, the Della Robbias, Matteo di Giovanni, Perugina, Pontormo and Luca Signorelli.

Of particular interest in the room displaying carved stone-work, is an impressive original Romanesque frieze.

In Sansepolcro were born not only important artists but also influential men of intellect such as Dionigio Roberti, teacher of Petrarch, and men of science such as Luca Pacioli, renowned mathematician and Nicolo Aggiunti, disciple of Galileo.

Sansepolcro is also the city of the Palio of the Crossbow and the ancient games of flag-waving.

The historic center is a fascinating example of stone-built towers, the splendid Medici Fortress of Giuliano of San Gallo, the many palazzos of noble families, the surrounding city walls all bear witness to those times. Worthy of notice are the Gothic church of San Francesco and the Romanesque cathedral, both with their characteristic bell-towers. Other important churches are the "Servi di Maria", the "Madonna delle Grazie" and the "San Rocco" all adorned with beautiful works of art. The church of "San Lorenzo" is the custodian of a "Deposition" by Rosso Fiorentino.

The Tiber Valley and the Appennines forming as they do a wide and picturesque amphitheater from La Verna to the source of the Tiber itself to Montecasale, refuge of St. Francis, provide unspoiled scenery of rare natural beauty. Of interest nearby are Monterchi, Anghiari, Caprese Michelangelo, Pieve Santo Stefano, Badia Tedalda and Sestino.

In Sansepolcro, the tradition of craftsmanship lives on: especially in the making of exquisite lace, fine jewelry and the Italian crossbow.


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