Sansepolcro on the trail of Piero della Francesca


Last Updated on September 8, 2017 by Laura Teso

Sansepolcro [sahn-seh-POHL-kroh] is an interesting town located in the Valtiberina, Tiber Valley, at the border between Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche. For this reason, Sansepolcro has a different flair. This area is more savage, more “harsh”, I dare say. The landscape at dawn reminded me of some Leonardo Da Vinci paintings.

According to a legend, Sansepolcro was founded by two piligrims, Arcano and Egidio, returning from the Holy Land, carrying a fragment of the Holy Sepulchre. That would explain the name Sansepolcro, form Saint Sepluchre.

Landscape reminding me of Leonardo
Landscape reminding me of Leonardo

What to see in Sansepolcro

  • Duomo, or Cathedral of San Giovanni Evangelista (X). It houses some remarkable paintings. The most important is the Ascensione by Perugino (Raffaello’s maestro). In the cloister you can see a fresco cycle about St Benedict’s life. We laughed a lot (sorry) cause St Benedict seemed rather pugnacious. In one scene he was hitting an undisciplined monk with a club, for example.
  • Palazzo delle Laudi (XVI century), seat of the Town Hall.
  • Piazza Torre di Berta, meaning Berta’s Tower, the main square. It has the only tower remained after the 1700’s earthquakes. Once they were 20 in town. During the Second World War la Torre di Berta was blown up by German soldiers on retreat. Sadly other bombings (this time by the USA and UK allies) damaged also other buildings of the historical centre.
  • Casa di Piero della Francesca, was the birthplace of the famous painter. Now it is the seat of a Foundation on its name, which carries researches and studies about his paintings.
  • Aboca Museum, established by Aboca, a local company that cultivates and transforms medicinal plants. The Museum’s aim is to recover and display the traditional use of those medicinal plants.
  • San Lorenzo church (the painting by Rosso Fiorentino was not visible at the moment)
  • Glass Window Museum
  • Fortezza Medicea, now closed to the public, was a military fortress built by order of the Medici family at the beginning of 1500.

Piero della Francesca

The highlight of the town is surely the Civic Museum, preserving some incredible masterpieces by Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. I studied some of these artworks at the University so for me it was a great pleasure to finally see them. It is precisely to visit this museum that I decided to include Sansepolcro in mycornerodtuscany tour.

A painting so beautiful to stop a bombing

Among the paintings there is The Resurrection, defined by British writer Aldous Huxley “the world’s best picture”. This definition marked Sansepolcro’s destiny during World War II. Anthony Clarke, commander of the artillery, remembered this quote and stopped the bombing to save the masterpiece. In 2011 a BBC journalist found a letter which testifies to the truth of this episode. The painting is under restoration, yet you can take a peek if you duck a bit 😉

PS now there is a A. Clarke street in Sansepolcro.

Polittico della Misericordia

To be honest, I prefer the Polittico della Misericordia. It is so magnificent and hieratic that it leaves a great deal of impression.

Other interesting works

I loved the remains of the Matteo di Giovanni painting (the main part is at the National Gallery in London). In the photo you can see the predella, i.e. the lowest part of the polyptych. Also remarkable were the works by Della Robbia (even if I must admit they’re not my favourite kind of art) and paintings by Raffaellino del Colle, Pontormo and Santi di Tito. Also the rooms dedicated to detached frescoes and sinopie (preparatory drawing for the frescoes) is interesting. I also loved the area displaying ancient locks. Wow! There was one lock big as a TV!


Palio della Balestra, Crossbow tournament, held on the second Sunday of September. It is an historic competition (the first document dates back to 1619) between Sansepolcro and Gubbio (Umbria). It is fascinating to see the parade of citizens wearing Renaissance costumes you can admire also in the paintings of Piero della Francesca.

Every third Saturday of the Month in the main piazza there’s a market of wine and food local specialities.

Madonna del Parto

Not far from Sansepolcro, in the village of Monterchi, there is another masterpiece by Piero della Francesca, La Madonna del Parto (Madonna of Parturition) which is a quite peculiar subject. And located in a quite odd place, some sort of modern school building. The painting is very sweet and intimate.

But the most moving thing for me was to see many letters at the foot of the painting. I immediately understood. They were all letters written by women who desire a child. The girl at the ticket office told me they all bring the letters in person at the museum. Touching. A nice and cheerful thing instead was the kids room. A room where the museum organizes activities for school children, full of colours and with a board displaying all the drawings of the Madonna del Parto made by the kids. Photos were not allowed but you can get an idea by seeing the drawings below 😉

The Scales Museum

Five minutes by foot away there’s another museum, very quaint, included in the same ticket with the Madonna del Parto: The Scales Museum. A man, called Velio Ortolani, donated to the town his collection of scales. More than a hundred different scales, made to weigh everything: cheese, salt, meat, persons, parcels, gems, medicinal plants, newborns. The collection includes models of all ages: from ancient Renaissance scales to modern industrial machines. I had never seen so many scales in my whole life. It was interesting indeed. Even if it was not the oddest museum I visited (the Thimble Museum along the Romantic Road in Germany for example).

Remember that by using the Valtiberina Musei Pass you can save some money. When you pay the first full price ticket you are given the pass. In the following museum, by showing the pass at the ticket office, you’ll pay the reduced ticket.

The Valtiberinaintoscana tourist office members will help you out to learn more about this fascinating area, because there’s much more to explore. For example there are two Nature Reserves and St. Francis piligrim’s trail. A special thanks to Lucrezia who helped me out a lot to organize my visit. Grazie ancora!

Monterchi landscape
Monterchi landscape

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