Those who love history, legends and religion will find Arezzo to be the ideal destination, where the winding streets are infused with traditions, culture and the fragrances of ancient recipes. The surrounding area is also home to all kinds of beauty, like churches, sanctuaries and hermitages, that are worth visiting. In this article, we suggest some of the most fascinating places of worship in this corner of Tuscany, starting with the golden city and ending in Castiglion Fiorentino.
We begin our pilgrimage through Arezzo’s places of worship at the Cathedral of Santi Donato e Pietro, whose construction was approved in 1277 with a decree for a church that would “honour God, the Virgin Mary and the patron saint Donato”. But the official incentive for work to commence was the visit by Pope Gregory X, who in December 1275 stopped in the city on his way back from the Second Council of Lyon and died here on January 10, leaving a sum of 30 fiorinid’oro to the new cathedral. The exterior façade, undecorated for centuries, was completed between 1900 and 1914. The interior has three naves, no transept and five bays divided by striped pillars, as well as a polygonal apse. The seven stained glass windows by Marcillat and his workshop are true masterpieces, painted in two phases between 1516-1517 and 1522-1524. He is also attributed with the biblical stories painted in the vaults of the first three bays of the central nave and the first bay in the left aisle and the design of the staircase that leads into the basilica. It’s also worth noting what is probably the most important work held inside Arezzo’s cathedral, the fresco of Mary Magdalene by Piero della Francesca, painted in the 1460s.
Also in Arezzo, we find the Church of San Francesco, home to frescoes by Bicci di Lorenzo and Piero della Francesca commissioned by the Bacci family, as well as the important crucifixion over the altar – whose features express pain and resignation – attributed to Duccio di Buoninsegna and probably dating to 1289.
Next we move on to a place of worship between the mountains and the countryside, the evocative La Verna Sanctuary, where according to legend, St. Francis received the stigmata on September 17, 1224. The sanctuary, immersed in the Casentino Forest, includes the small Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, the corridor and the Chapel of the Holy Stigmata and the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, where still today visitors can admire an Annunciation, one of the masterpieces by the sculptor Andrea della Robbia.
We continue on to visit the small Montecasale Hermitage in Sansepolcro, once the main centres for worshiping St. Francis and one of the oldest gathering places. Hidden in the Casentino Forest, we find the Camaldoli Monastery, characterized by a large cloister, the upper floor of which is surrounded by corridors with barrel vaults flanked by monks’ cells. Amongst the works of art held in the monastery, the seven panel paintings by Giorgio Vasari are impressive.
Now we move to Cortona to visit the Sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Calcinaio, founded, according to legend, because of an image of the Madonna and Child (painted on the walls of a leather-tanning basin), which on Easter Sunday in 1484 began producing miracles. That icon, venerated as sacred, is still today visible on the main altar inside the Sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazie. There is a similar legend behind the image of the Virgin Mary held in the small church inside the Sanctuary of Maria del Patrocinio in Castelnuovo Berardegna, said to conduct miracles for centuries.
We end our brief pilgrimage in the Arezzo territory with the Collegiate Church of Santi Michele e Giuliano in Castiglion Fiorentino, preceded by an elegant porch that was completely renovated in the 1800s.