Toscana - Places to Visit - Sansepolcro
Sansepolcro is situated in the very centre 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 centre 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.