In the footsteps of the Medici in Arezzo

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Arezzo and the Medici, a stormy and complex relationship, which has left behind works of art and engineering of great historical and cultural value. This itinerary will allow the curious tourist to discover them and to go beyond the most traditional tourist routes.

Arezzo is the birthplace of Giorgio Vasari, and in the context of a Medici itinerary, we can certainly recall the union established in the 16th century between the Grand Duke Cosimo I Medici and his favourite artist.

Following this red thread, we will start our itinerary in the footsteps of the Medici family right from his house, which today houses the beautiful Giorgio Vasari  House Museum, where it is still possible to breathe in the atmosphere of a 16th-century aristocratic palace, a place of retreat and intimacy for an artist who was always travelling among the most influential courts of his time.

A house that Vasari decorated by his own hand, one room after the other, and that he never wanted to sell, not even after the Grand Duke had given him a house in Florence to keep him closer. Walking through the rooms and corridors of this house illuminated by frescoes and allegorical paintings is like delving into the soul of Giorgio Vasari and his way of conceiving art and the figure of the artist. On the walls you can admire canvases by painters of his time, as well as portraits of Cosimo I and the Grand Ducal family, testifying the close bond that for decades united these two great figures of the 16th century.

Last but certainly not least, the Vasarian Archive, kept in the house, holds among others, autograph and private letters by Michelangelo, Pius V and Cosimo I: a treasure of inestimable value that allows us to rediscover the man hidden beneath the mask that fame imposes.

Leaving the Vasari  House Museum, we head towards Piazza Duomo, where the Cathedral of Arezzo towers majestically. Right here, on the scenic steps that frame the magnificent church, stands the elegant marble statue of Grand Duke Ferdinand I Medici in military clothing, the work of the best two sculptors at the Medici Court of the time: Giambologna, who drew it, and Pietro Francavilla, who sculpted it (1594). It is a self-celebratory work, the only sculptural portrait of the Medici that has survived in Arezzo, demonstrating the respect that the people of Arezzo had for the only Medici Grand Duke who brought benefits to the city with his interventions.

We leave the charming square behind us to reach the imposing Medicean Fortress (1538-1560), the first modern fortification of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, architect of the Fortezza da Basso in Florence, at the request of Grand Duke Cosimo I Medici for defensive purposes – to be effective in the event of attacks with firearms – but also to be able to more easily quell any revolts of the Aretini against the Medici government itself.  The Fortress lies on the Colle di San Donato hill, at the highest and most strategic point of the city, built on the site where the fortified Citadel of Arezzo once stood, culminating in the Medieval Cassero and the Church of San Donato in Cremona. Everything was destroyed by Cosimo I to make room for the new fortress.  Its star-shaped plan – typical of the fortresses of the Grand Duchy – is well suited to the irregular terrain of the hill. Its bastions have the typical elegant heart-shape, all except the Bastion of the Spina (Thorn), which faces the city in a threatening manner.  

Playing with the imagination, we can see it perched on the hill, surrounded by a deep moat and with three entrances. Inside, we can admire most of the defensive structures, as well as some evocative rooms, bastions, city gates, the remains of the ancient Church of San Donato in Cremona (11th century) and mosaics from a Roman house dating back to the end of the 1st century BC/beginning of the 1st century AD.  All these treasures were recovered during archaeological excavations carried out a few years ago.

Even walking on the ramparts is a wonderful experience, as a breathtaking view opens up over the towers and bell towers of the city, on one side, and the green hills overlooking the Casentino and the Alpe di Catenaia, on the other. From this privileged position, our gaze lingers on the 52 monumental arches that run along the slope of the San Fabiano hill to the foot of the cliff at the base of the Fortress: the external hanging conduit of the Vasarian Aqueduct, so called because it was designed by Giorgio Vasari on commission by the Fraternita dei Laici and with the approval of Grand Duke Cosimo I, to solve the city’s age-old problem of water supply. This aqueduct, which is still working today, transports water from Cognaia, on the slopes of the Alpe di Catenaia, to the main squares of the historic centre.

We continue our walk through the Park Il Prato, the oldest park in Arezzo, perfectly set between the Cathedral and the Medici Fortress, and we reach Piazza Grande, one of the most beautiful squares in Italy and a real treasure chest. The setting for the Joust of the Saracen and the beating heart of the Antiques Fair, this square is framed by palaces and monuments that tell about all the eras of Arezzo’s thousand-year history.

The presence of Giorgio Vasari is very strong here, starting with the elegant loggias that dominate the square from above, the last great architectural work of the master, designed to welcome the city’s aristocracy in the shade of its arches and inside the most refined shops that originally opened there. The Palace of Vasari’s Loggias was commissioned by the city, with the permission of Cosimo I, to elegantly conceal the demolition of the Medieval Citadel and the main government buildings – which overlooked it – in order to build the Fortress. Vasari designed the project on the model of the Uffizi Gallery, with a suspended corridor supported by an imposing arch dominated by the Medici coat of arms.

At its side, it is impossible not to notice the beautiful decorated façade of the Palazzo della Fraternita dei Laici, the city’s historic charitable institution which has had its headquarters here since the Middle Ages. The airy bell gable soaring on the building was designed by Vasari. Since 1552, it has housed the magnificent astronomical clock, one of the rarest in Europe and unique in Italy for its size and type.

The palace is now home to the Fraternita Museum, where you can admire valuable works of art from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, bearing witness to Arezzo’s history and culture. The so-called Sala dell’Acquedotto (Aqueduct Room) houses drawings, documents, surveys and a video on the Vasari Aqueduct, its history and design. Of great interest is the monumental oil painting entitled Pianta del condotto vasariano di Arezzo (Map of the Vasarian Duct in Arezzo), painted in 1696 by Giovan Battista Girelli, where it is possible to see the complete route of the aqueduct.

In the lower part of the square, a marble fountain in neoclassical style cheerfully springs up, the first point of arrival in the city of the water transported by the Vasarian Aqueduct, whose inauguration, the gush of water that came out after so much waiting, was a sign that the new aqueduct was working.

We continue our itinerary towards the wide and sunny Piazza Sant’Agostino, dominated by the church of the same name and now embellished by a modern fountain with a small waterfall that in the evening cheers up passers-by with a play of lights. From Piazza Grande, the water of the Vasarian Aqueduct reaches this square, where it once fed a horse trough and, a little further on, the public wash-houses, once in the building decorated with wide brick arches, now the seat of the InformaGiovani.

Arezzo and the Medici, a complex relationship that has not always been loose, but which has left us with traces and curiosities of great interest, all to be discovered and enjoyed at the pace that only our desire to explore and discover imposes.

And for the most passionate and dynamic, Arezzo also offers the possibility of following an itinerary through the hills surrounding the city, to discover the entire route taken by the water flowing inside the Vasari Aqueduct.

The itinerary, 8 km long, with difficulty E (hiking), begins at Molinelli, on the slopes of the Alpe di Poti, and ends in Piazza Grande, ideally at the fountain in the square.

In the valley of Cognaia we will find the so-called Conserve of the filter tunnel, which transports water from here to the Hill of San Fabiano via an underground route.

We will then climb up to the top of Poggio Mendico, from where we will have an exceptional panoramic view, and then descend to Villa Severi to reach the hanging conduit supported by 52 monumental arches that channels the water to the foot of Colle di San Donato, at the foot of the Medici Fortress. We will follow its route to enter the historic centre, first walking along the city walls and then reaching Piazza Grande.

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