The history of art is strung together by the travel logs of the masters: Velásquez arriving in Rome, Gauguin going native in Tahiti, Picasso setting off for the lights of Paris. Inevitably, though, no matter how far they go or how long they stay away, every artist's body of work reflects the tension between all the expeditions and the home turf where the journey began.
That thought lands us in and around the Tuscan city of Arezzo, staring at the masterpieces of native son and inveterate traveler Piero della Francesca, who, after centuries of being overlooked, is now considered one of the masters of the early Renaissance. Art historian Carlo Bertelli says Piero was appreciated at the time for his innovative way with perspective, but he is now also prized for his "enigmatic" touch. "He is a painter of enormous clarity, but also of great reflection," says Bertelli. "You could say that it was necessary that he 'slept' in these centuries so that he could be rediscovered." The most impressive gathering ever of his work, "Piero della Francesca and the Italian Courts," runs from March 31 through July 22. Appropriately, it is taking place in the far eastern corner of Tuscany, at Arezzo's State Museum of Medieval and Modern Art and in the surrounding area, which offers a chance to see works on loan alongside some of his best-known frescoes on permanent display in his home region.
Born in 1412 in the village of Borgo Sansepolcro, about 25 km from Arezzo, Piero got his first training from an accomplished painter in his hometown. Soon, though, he embarked on a quest to immerse himself in the swirling artistic currents of Renaissance Italy. By today's standards he didn't travel far, but he did pick up (and leave) influences across the peninsula. He spent time in Perugia and in Florence, where he assisted the Venice-born painter Domenico Veneziano. Later, he was commissioned by Pope Nicolas V and Pope Pius II to paint several frescoes in the palaces of the Vatican. Much of Piero's best output or at least the best that remains can be found in the midsized cities of central and eastern Italy, where he was a favorite of the major noblemen who ruled the towns of Urbino, Ferrara and Rimini.
Hailing from a family of prosperous merchants, the artist was particularly suited to capture the essence of his aristocratic subjects and satisfy their status-conscious sensibilities. His economic independence also gave Piero the opportunity to explore other intellectual pursuits, most notably arithmetic, algebra and geometry.
Once Piero had returned from his travels to Arezzo, the wealthy Bacci family commissioned what is widely considered his masterpiece in the city's Basilica of San Francesco. The Legend of the True Cross, a complex yet perfectly proportioned fresco cycle of 12 panels, uses contemporary models and references to tell the ancient legend of how the Emperor Constantine's mother discovered Christ's cross during a pilgimage to the Holy Land. The modest "skyline" of 15th century Arezzo, for example, served as his model for biblical Jerusalem.