Arezzo’s medieval core centers on the charmingly lopsided Piazza Grande. An elegant loggia by native son Giorgio Vasari (author of the gossipy Lives of the Artists) anchors one side of the piazza, while the rest of the space seems to drape rather casually across the slope, with slanting cobblestones and an irregular shape. The Duomo crowns the hilltop, while next it to the green expanse of the Parco del Prato, with airy views of the countryside, surrounds a ruined 16th-century fortress. 

Perpendicular to where the cafe-filled tunnel-like loggia runs out of the square sits the composite Palazzo della Fraternità dei Laici. The Gothic lower half (1377) has a detached Spinello Aretino fresco of the Pietà and a Bernardo Rossellino Madonna della Misericordia (1434) in bas-relief above the door. The upper loggia was built in 1460, and the clock bell tower added by Vasari in 1552. One palace down to the left is the arcaded apse of Santa Maria della Pieve.

Legend of the True Cross

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Piero della Francesca based his great Arezzo frescoes on a story from Jacopo da Varazze’s 1260 Golden Legend, a compilation of saintly lore that was a wildly popular medieval bestseller. As the story goes, Seth, son of Adam, planted on his father’s grave the seeds from the apple tree that had led to his parents’ fall from Eden; timbers from the tree were eventually made into a bridge. Many years later, the much-mythologized Queen of Sheba recognized while crossing the bridge that its wood had special significance. She predicted to Solomon, king of Israel, that a savior would one day be hung from the timbers and cause the downfall of the Jewish nation. Solomon prudently had the wood buried—but, you guessed it, Romans inevitably discovered the beams and used them to crucify Christ.

Two centuries later, Roman emperor Constantine the Great saw the cross in a vision, emblazoned the image on his army’s shields, defeated his co-emperor Maxentius, and converted to Christianity. His mother, Helen, went in search of the true cross in Jerusalem (her methods included torturing Jews to reveal the cross’s whereabouts). Fragments of the Cross became popular medieval religious relics. It’s a far-fetched story indeed, but in the hands of Piero della Francesca, its twists and turns become riveting.

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