We visited Arezzo for the day in June while we were in Tuscany and loved it. It's on our list to go back to because the Vasari house was closed and there are other things we didn't see. What we did see though were the Piero della Francesca frescoes depicting the Legend of the True Cross in the Basilica of San Francesco (now a museum).
Piero della Francesca (c1412 - 1492) came from a fairly wealthy family and was trained as a mathematician before becoming an artist. Because of his interest in mathematical concepts such as perspective he pioneered a new style of fresco, with images depicting depth and naturalistic light effects. His characters are lifelike, not stiff, formulaic and stylised.
His subject matter in San Francesco is a story cycle, arranged in panels around the altar. It was commissioned by the Bacci family. It tells the story of how the True Cross came into being, from Adam's time, through Solomon and up to Helena, the mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine.
The small panel to the left shows the Emperor Constantine asleep in bed, guarded by servants. He dreams that an angel visits and tells him he will be victorious over his rival Maxentius. The next day, the dream comes true, as revealed in the long panel on the right, as Constantine watches Maxentius flee across a river (and ultimately drowns).The lighting in the night time scene is a technical triumph, delivered in a way that had never been done before. The source of the light is the angel's torch. No one had thought to depict light this way before and it wasn't until Caravaggio 150 years later that the technique was used again. Light is used in a new way in the other panel too, with the armour of Constantine and his companions glinting in the sun.
At the top, in the semi-circle, the death of Adam. It is his request that his son Seth asks the Archangel Michael for a cure that begins the whole story. Seth comes back with a branch from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. But he is too late and his father has died, so he places the branch on Adam's grave, whereupon it grows into another Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and will ultimately be made into the True Cross.
The small panel on the left shows the wood from the tree being buried on the orders of Solomon. The men represent lust (not wearing hose and one of his testicles is escaping from his loincloth), wrath (clenched teeth), and gluttony (well dressed, wearing a crown of vine leaves).
The central scene shows the Queen of Sheba encountering the sacred wood on her journey to visit Solomon. He had cut the tree to use in the Temple, but it was not suitable, and was then used as a bridge. The scene on the right is Solomon receiving the Queen of Sheba, when she tells him of the prophecy of what the wood will ultimately be used for.
Centre left Helena (in black), mother of the Emperor Constantine, unearths three crosses near Jerusalem, one of which is the True Cross. She identifies which one by placing them over a dead body. The True Cross is revealed because a young man is resurrected. On the right, a Jew who knows the whereabouts of the True Cross is being tortured so he reveals the location to Helena.
In the semi-circle the True Cross is being worshipped after it has been successfully recovered from the Persians, who stole it. Below that you have the crosses being dug up by Helena's team.
The Christian Emperor Heraclius defeating the Persian pagan Kosroes. The fresco depicts a great melee of men, horses and weapons. In the foreground Kosroes is about to be beheaded.
The Bacci chapel.