Different eras are mixed in the profile of Arezzo. The places you will visit are precious legacies. You can read the city’s past on the facades of buildings, in streets and squares.
It is like a big open-air museum with no borders and no ticket. From the Etruscans to the Romans, and then the Renaissance, the Unification of Italy, the Second World War: every era has left traces. But there is one that stands out: the Middle Ages.
A Dive into the Past
Walking in the old town you have the opportunity to travel through time. All you will need is a few pointers and a little imagination to go back to the so-called Middle Agesfrom the collapse of the Western Roman Empire to the discovery of America.
Imagine wearing a pair of special glasses or looking at the city through an augmented reality app. You can discover not one, but two cities: today’s and the Medieval.
Dark centuries? No, thanks. Arezzo upstream
An illustrious Aretino, the poet Francesco Petrarca, called as dark the centuries of the Middle Ages. Indeed, with the barbarian invasions began a period of demographic, cultural and economic decline throughout Europe. Yet it seems that Arezzo has been kissed by luck, the exception that confirms the rule.
For every fragment of that remote past that has managed to reach us, who knows how many buildings have been wiped out by time. There are only shreds of history left of some people.
Arezzo disappeared : The Old Cathedral and the Palazzo del Popolo
Do you know the hill of Pionta? It is located behind the railway station, where the university is based. There was built the Temple of Saint Donato, in honor of the bishop and martyr of Arezzo who is now the patron saint of the city.
Imagine the design of this majestic complex, consecrated in 1032. Probably the Old Cathedral – it was also called so – was a huge octagon, decorated with granite columns and inspired by the Basilica of Saint Vitale in Ravenna.
What would you give to see it live? Unfortunately, however, Cosimo I de’ Medici had it destroyed in the second half of the Sixteenth century. The same bad luck happened at the Palazzo del Popolo, behind Piazza Grande.
Built towards the end of the Thirteenth century, it formed a fascinating encore to the Palazzo del Comune, in the upper part of Via di Pellicceria. A few centuries later, however, it fell into ruin. Via dei Palagi took its name from these two buildings.
A city which changes, but not too much
Now that you know the lost pieces of the medieval Arezzo mosaic, focus on what you can see. The old town is full of buildings, streets and churches that look magnificently like they did centuries ago. The best comes now.
Piazza Grande, what a sight!
If you were a 13th-century Aretinian, you would not doubt about the most important part of the city. The Platea Communis or Piazza Grande was built at the beginning of the Thirteenth century, more or less when Arezzo became a free municipality. No matter where you look at it, you are looking at a fabulous Medieval site.
Photograph with your mind the crenellated towers and wooden balconies along the perimeter of the square. We are in the heart of the old city centre, where the Antique Fair and the Saracino Joust take place.
The palace of the Fraternita dei Laici and the Pieve of Santa Maria Assunta
On the side of Piazza Grande parallel to Corso Italia your look will meet two iconic buildings. The Palace of the Fraternita dei Laici is the headquarters of an ancient charity organization in Arezzo. It began to be built in the second half of the Fourteenth century, but it was concluded long after.
You will recognize in its structure two styles: Gothic and Renaissance. The Museum of the Fraternita is a true concentration of art and history, you cannot miss it. The mechanical astronomical clock by Felice da Fossato is one of the oldest in the worldwhich is still working. You can see it at the top of the palace tower.
Also the apse of the Pieve of Santa Maria Assunta overlooks Piazza Grande. It is one of the most beautiful churches in Arezzo, built since the year 1000. Already from the outside it will enchant you with the columns all different that decorate the facade and the bell tower in stone, almost 60 meters high.
When you enter, enjoy the silence and spirituality of its elegant interiors. Walk through the three naves, observe the view that offers you the raised presbytery, elevated over the crypt. There is a silver bust that contains the relics of Saint Donato.
Severalworks of art enrich this Romanesque church, a true pearl of the city in which to make the full splendor. You will come out regenerated, ready to continue exploring Arezzo.
The basilica of Saint Francis
In Saint Francis square there is a Church established by the friars, followers of the Poor man from Assisi: the Basilica of Saint Francis.
Built from the end of the Thirteenth century, the building as a whole is in light Gothic style. The façade , which has never been concluded, could fool you with its unadorned refinement. If you expect the Spartan interior, you are wrong: you will be amazed.
The church is a temple of art and among its masterpieces houses the cycle of frescoes of the Legend of the True Cross. It was painted by Piero della Francesca, a great painter born in the province of Arezzo who on the walls of the Bacci Chapel represented the history of the wood of the cross of Christ.
A magical interweaving of art and storytelling dating back to the late Middle Ages. Reading the story by images of this master of the Renaissance will be one of the most touching experiences of your holiday.
In one of the frescoed panels, you will find immortalized a glimpse of the Fifteenth-century Arezzo, disguised as Jerusalem. Guess which one!
The Basilica of San Domenico and Palazzo Pretorio
Among the churches you have to visit in Arezzo there is the Basilica of San Domenico. Welcome the invitation formed by the square sloping downhill in front of the main portal and approach the asymmetric facade surmounted by the bell tower.
The church dates back to the second half of the Thirteenth century. More or less to the same period belongs a work of art of inestimable value. It is the crucifix by Cimabue, in which a suffering Jesus depicts in an extraordinary way the human and divine nature of God’s son.
This wonder stands out thanks to the simple interiors of the basilica. And then the windows behind the crucifix create a particularly interesting contrast with Cimabue’s masterpiece.
Always in the upper part of the old city, go to Via dei Pileati to see at least the exterior of Palazzo Pretorio. For several years it has been the headquarters of the municipal library of Arezzo. It is unmistakable for its front wall, dotted with coats of arms of podestà and captains of the past. Since the Thirteenth century noble families have lived in this imposing building and, later, it was also a prison.
The Cathedral and the Walls
From Palazzo Pretorio a handful of steps separates you from the Cathedral of Arezzo. The Cathedral was built by Guglielmino degli Ubertini, bishop and leader who died in the historic Battle of Campaldino in which Dante Alighieri also participated.
This Gothic giant on top of the hill is one of the symbols of the city. If it strikes you for its solemn architecture from the outside, inside the sumptuousness of the building marries with many works of art.
Any example? The stained glass windows by Guillaume de Marcillat, the Ark of Saint Donato sculpted by various authors, the fresco by Piero della Francesca dedicated to Magdalen and the Chapel of Our Lady of the Comfort, protectress of Arezzo.
Next to the Cathedral there is the Medicean Fortress, which together with the city walls is part of the defensive structure of the town. Over the centuries, the walls have been expanded several times. Follow the most recent route and pass by the four gates of the city.
This distribution of the old city centre is still very current thanks to theSaracino Joust. The rival riders in contention are headed to the Districts, which are named from the city gates. Do you want to know their names? Porta Santo Spirito (formerly Porta del Borgo), Porta Crucifera, Porta Sant’Andrea and Porta San Lorentino (formerly Porta del Foro).
Your tour in the Middle Ages is over, it is time to return to the present. But do not worry, the splendors of Arezzo that you have known in this journey through time will welcome you with open arms on your next visit!