Sansepolcro is the main town in the Valtiberina area, situated at the foot of the Apennines, on the border between Umbria and Marche regions. Its position on the eastern edge of the region means that the nearest sea is the Adriatic, on the other side.
The origins of Sansepolcro are shrouded in mystery: according to a legend, two pilgrim saints, Arcano and Egidio, on their return from the Holy Land stopped in this valley and, thanks to a sign from God, they decided to stay and build a small chapel to house the holy relics they’d brought from Jerusalem.
We put together all the things to see and do in Sansepolcro and here is our top 10! Feel free to tell us about your experience on facebook.
1. Civic Museum
The visit to the Sansepolcro Civic Museum starts from the room located to the left of the ticket office, known as the fireplace room. A number of artworks are housed there, notably related to the figure of Piero della Francesca, such as the Resurrection. Read more here. From Room no. 2 (Giovan Battista Mercati) you can reach the upper floor with detached frescos and paintings taken from some churches in Sansepolcro. An entire part of the museum is the basement, which houses a collection of medieval stones as well as an archaeological collection. In Sansepolcro Civic Museum you can also find the Della Robbia’s artworks. A great suggestion is to go and see the Nativities (“Madonna col Bambino e due Cherubini” and “Natività con l’Annuncio ai pastori e Annunciazione”). The ground floor and basement of the museum are accessible, but the rooms in the tower are denied.
Official website: http://www.museocivicosansepolcro.it/
2. The Cathedral of Saint John
Sansepolcro Cathedral (or Duomo di Sansepolcro; officially a co-cathedral) is a Catholic church with ancient origins. It was founded 1000 years ago as a Benedictine abbey along the pilgrimage routes (and the tradition attributes its foundation to the saints pilgrims Egidio and Arcano mentioned above). The earliest information about the church dates to 1012 and it’s where Saint Francis of Assisi preached in that period. Initially dedicated to the Four Evangelists and the Holy Sepulchre (that's the meaning of the town's name), now the church is dedicated to St. John the Evangelist (San Giovanni Evangelista). Over the years, it has been renovated and rebuilt many times. Between 1473 and 1474, Piero della Francesca worked in this church and in 1492 he was buried in a chapel inside the cloister of the Bishop's Palace, one part of the original abbey. Another piece of art of particular interest is the so-called Holy Face, kept in the left chapel of the presbytery, a polychrome wooden crucifix of the twelfth century from the East and an object of special veneration. It is one of the first artistic portrayals of Christ on the cross.
3. Aboca museum
The museum is located in the ancient Palazzo Bourbon del Monte and was set up by the Aboca Company, a market leader in the medicinal herb sector. The museum aims to safeguard and promote the traditional use of medicinal herbs and extracts to promote good health. It is home to a fine collection of mortars, ceramics, glassware, laboratory tools, books and ancient herbals down the centuries. A very important part of the museum is the Bibliotheca Antiqua, the botanical library with a precious collection of ancient books about medicinal plants.
Official Website: http://www.abocamuseum.it/en
4. San Lorenzo Church
Among the numerous churches of Sansepolcro, San Lorenzo deserves a special mention because of the masterpiece of Mannerist painting “The Lamentation over the Dead Christ” by Rosso Fiorentino (1528) placed on the main altar. The church was built in 1556, together with the adjoining convent to house the Benedictine nuns. The façade has an elegant sixteenth-century portico that runs in part also on its left side.
5. Other churches
The city has a large number of churches, in addition to the mentioned Co-Cathedral and San Lorenzo, in large part connected to monasteries, convents and confraternities, and many of them preserve the works of important artists of the Renaissance and Mannerism. Notable buildings are the sixteenth-century Church of the Good Jesus (Buon Gesù), which is more like a palace than a religious building, the Church of San Francesco (13th century), the Church of San Michele Arcangelo and the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
There's also the Church of San Rocco, built by the Company of the Cross (Compagnia del Crocifisso) in 1554. The single nave church with side altars in stucco and the main altar of the seventeenth-century houses an impressive thirteenth-century wooden sculpture depicting Christ taken down from the Cross. The church is worth mentioning for its Oratory of the Company of the Cross, with frescoes painted by the brothers Alessandro, Giovanni and Cherubino Alberti between 1587 and 1588, and an interesting copy of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in 1629, made of sandstone.
6. Hermitage of Montecasale
The Eremo di Montecasale (the Hermitage of Montecasale) built in 1192 is now a lodging facility for pilgrims. Donated to St. Francis in 1213, the Hermitage is a place of prime importance for the saint of Assisi and his spirituality. Today, it is possible to visit the site in which Saint Francis slept, prayed and lived his life in solitude, surrounded by nature, silence and spirituality. The architecture is a wonderful example of the “poor style,” which emphasises the simplicity of the religious order and the use of local materials.
7. The Palio della Balestra
The Palio della Balestra is a crossbow tournament held every year on the second Sunday of September and it’s an unmissable event in Sansepolcro. It involves a large numbers of citizens dressed in medieval costume who participate in a historical competition of the “Palio of the Balestra”. Taking place in the evocative Piazza Torre di Berta, the crossbowmen of Sansepolcro play against their challengers from Gubbio (Umbria). In the morning, as ancient habit requires, the Herald proclaims the challenge against the rivals. In the afternoon, after the crossbows are blessed, the crossbowmen come into the square after the flag-throwing exercise is completed. The challenge between the towns of Sansepolcro and Gubbio dates way back in time, attested in a 1619 document. The competition consists of hitting a target with bow and arrow from a distance of 36 meters. The event includes a parade with over 400 figures in medieval (Gubbio) and Renaissance (Sansepolcro) costumes, which are made according to the frescoes of Piero della Francesca.
8. Flag Games
Two events are held on the Saturday before the Palio della Balestra: the Market of Sant'Egidio, a re-enactment with craftsmen and artists in the streets of the town, and the Flag Games (Giochi di Bandiera), the historic feast of Sansepolcro flag wavers, worldwide ambassadors of the town. The event usually begins at 9pm in Piazza Torre di Berta and features the performances of many artists who are invited to take part.
9. The Crochet of Sansepolcro and the crochet school (Scuola di Merletto)
Thanks to two sisters, Adele and Ginna Marcelli, the crochet tradition of Sansepolcro dates to the beginning of the twentieth century. They began to study various Italian and foreign laces, and invented a new lace, with its very own characteristics. In 1900 they opened a school/laboratory that housed up to 100 women at a time. The work was successful and was soon known and appreciated all over Europe and America. In the ‘80s they organized the first exhibitions of lace, which were later organized every two years. In 1996, the municipality of Sansepolcro set up a "Crochet Space" with a permanent exhibition in which lace and authentic documents of the “Premiata Scuola di Adele and Ginna Marcelli” are preserved.
Please notice the sculpture by Franco Alessandrini in front of the school.
10. Biennale dell’Arte Orafa
In the Tiber Valley or Valtiberina check out the array of jewellery shops displaying pieces inspired by the works of Piero della Francesca. The goldsmiths are known for their refined activities working metal and stone. A valuable opportunity to show their works is during the Biennale of Goldsmith Art in Sansepolcro (Biennale dell’Arte Orafa). There you can see the jewellery, sculptures and works of sacred art inspired by the masterpieces of the Renaissance, which in the Museo Civico di Sansepolcro has one of its most representative works: the "Resurrection" by Piero della Francesca, defined as the most beautiful picture in the world.
- Use the Valtiberina Musei Pass to save money. Read more here.
- Every Friday evening from June to September there’s a flea market in the historic centre.
- Visit the museum of ancient stained glass. Check the opening days at this website before going.
- Visit the Riserva Naturale Regionale dell'Alpe della Luna, which covers a wide area, mainly of woodland. The uniqueness of Alpe della Luna lies in its isolation, which has given this area the chance to maintain an almost wild state; there are no main roads, only forest roads and trails for hikers. Today, there are also a riding school with donkeys and an educational farm.
- In Valtiberina, the figure of St. Francis is venerated. Read more here.
- Visit the Resistance Museum of Sansepolcro (Museo della Resistenza di Sansepolcro), founded in 1975 as a study and documentation centre on the Resistance movement to Nazism and Fascism. It is currently being reorganized. It owns memorabilia from the period of the Second World War and an interesting collection of documents on concentration camps in Italy.
- If you love history and in particular prehistory do not miss the Centro Studi sul Quaternario onlus. Read more here (in Italian).
How to reach Sansepolcro
By car: this is the easiest way to reach Sansepolcro. Take the A1/E35 (Florence-Rome) highway; take the Arezzo exit and then the E78 following the signs to Sansepolcro (34 km).
By train: the nearest train station is in Arezzo. From there, you can take a bus with the company Etruria Mobilità
By bus: the company that operates in this area is Etruria Mobilità.
The nearest airports are in Perugia, Rimini and Florence.
Cover image credit: David Butali