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Finding inspiration in a Renaissance painter's Italian hometown

Sansepolcro is popular for its crossbow and flag-waving festivals. But viewing Piero's paintings 'Resurrection' and 'Legend of the True Cross' is sublime.

June 10, 2012|By Susan Spano, Special to the Los Angeles Times

The Tuscan provincial capital has its own favorite son Giorgio Vasari who wrote admiringly about Piero in his 1550 treatise "Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects." The town's hilltop historic center is reached from parking lots below by steps and escalators that landed me near Vasari's house and the 13th century cathedral, which has a Mary Magdalene by Piero.

She's lovely but just a warm-up for the "Legend of the True Cross" in the Church of San Francesco downhill from the cathedral. Completed between 1452 and 1466, its 10 panels fill the walls of a soaring chapel, chronicling the saga of Catholicism's most sacred relic, from the tree — planted on the grave of Adam — that supplied the wood, to St. Helena's rediscovery of the cross, lost after the Crucifixion. Other frescoes show armies clashing, horses rearing, lances rising, soldiers falling; the stately, if apocryphal meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; and Emperor Constantine dreaming of the cross on the eve of battle. Great swaths of history are telescoped by Piero's imagination, in a grand panoply of the Italian Renaissance world.

I left the chapel shell-shocked, then drove east to the miniscule hill town of Monterchi, surrounded by fields near the border of Tuscany and Umbria. Just below its walls another holy site awaits pilgrims: the "Pregnant Madonna."

She was painted by Piero for a country church that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1785. In 1991 the village built a little museum for its great treasure depicting a young, very human Mary, heavy with child, her hand on her belly, with two cherubs at her sides. Scholars say her pained expression prefigures the Crucifixion, but mothers recognize the 81/2-month look that asks, When will this be over?

I got back to Sansepolcro late, knowing I had to leave early the next morning. But before dinner I returned to the window at the Civic Museum for a last look at the "Resurrection." Sir Kenneth Clark called the rising Christ a "country god, who has been worshipped ever since man first knew that seed is not dead in the winter earth, but will force its way upwards."

Then I walked out into the spring night, warm, gentle, filled with the scent of new life.

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