Masterpieces, landscapes and palaces – follow in the footsteps of Piero della Francesca
An excuse isn’t really needed to visit Italy. There’s already the food, the language, the weather, the history, the architecture and the art. It’s a wonder that anyone ever goes anywhere else for a holiday and that all other countries haven’t closed down their tourism departments and hung a sign on the door saying We just can’t compete. However other countries do still tempt some travellers, so if you need a reason to sell the latest Italian trip to the rest of your family there’s a new excuse available, based on the paintings of artist, mathematician, geometrist and all-round-Renaissance-hero Piero della Francesca.
A new trail of Renaissance sights entitled i Balconi di Piero brings together original works by the 15th century master along with newly identified locations that feature in the backgrounds of his paintings. Around the intersection of northern Italian provinces Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Le Marche and Umbria you can morning in a gallery and then afternoon in the Italian countryside walking to the very spots from which Piero sketched. Thus you get some fresh air and avoid gallery leg, lethargy, art fatigue and all the other diseases that can result from spending too long indoors looking at paintings.
Piero’s pictures were painted in the mid-1400s so they’ve been around for a while. However it is only recently that the landscapes in their backgrounds have been identified. Artist Rosetta Borchia and geomorphology expert Olivia Nesci undertook the research project Piero della Francesca: Invisible Landscapes and have discovered what they believe to be the actual places from where Piero observed the Italian scenery. These locations, whether at the top of a hill or edge of a field, have now been polished up, signposted and embellished with reproduction metal balconies. The effect is bizarre. A walk up a muddy track to the top of a hill ends at a small balcony that would be at home at a small window on the side of a city palazzo. Instead it’s proudly hammered into the grass and looks more than a little out of place.
Nevertheless it draws attention to the view. Six of these balconies have been created, with each location including detailed signs showing a copy of the relevant Piero painting (the originals are a tad too valuable to leave out in a field overnight) and how it is linked to the view. So if looking at the painting isn’t enough you can now visit these sites and gaze in wonder into (a) the mist – or on a good day (b) the landscape painted by Piero five hundred years ago.
Of course even if five hundred years is geomorphologically a blink or two of an eye, there have been changes. As you look out at the Italian countryside you realise that lakes have dried up and landslides have lowered hills into hillocks.
There’s another issue. Personally what I like about landscape paintings is that you can look at trees, hills, skies and all the paraphernalia of the outside, without actually having to traipse around in the outside. Admittedly that’s the view of a chap brought up in cold, dark, dank, wet Britain, a country where it’s not unknown for months to go past between glimpses of the sun. The outside in Italy is a very different, more pleasant place and being able to say at the top of this hill you will see the background of Piero’s portrait of Battista Sforza, is good encouragement for those who often lag behind on country walks.
Plate-balancing, Piero style. The Madonna del Parto is on the trail in Monterchi
As well as the outdoor beauty spots the trail also includes original Piero works, such as the Madonna del Parto which has its own museum in Monterchi (in an Italian gesture that would not be seen in the UK, entry tickets are free for pregnant women. The discrimination.) The Arezzo frescoes of the History of the True Cross are well known but the trail also includes Piero images in other towns such as Rimini and Urbino.
The Balconi di Piero project is a successful way to add an outdoor element to your arty holiday. But to get to these places by public transport would be ragingly impossible. You could hire a car, but most sensible is to book a guided tour from the official website. (Francesca Giommi knows the local area inside-out if you want to name drop when booking ).
If you are into both walking and Piero the trail is a gentle mix of erudition and outdoor pursuits. It could be responsible for improving the cardio health of the average Renaissance art-lover.
Read Part 2 here
This trip was hosted and organised by the Terre di Piero Project, a joint project from the Emilia Romagna, Marche, Tuscany and Umbria regions. For more information on the trail, go to www.terredipiero.it
An app on the Terre di Piero for both iPhone and Android can be downloaded from itunes App Store or Google Play, containing information on the artists, his works, locations and associated events. There are regular flights to Bologna with easyJet and British Airways from London Gatwick, and Ryanair from Stansted, Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh and Dublin.