By: Donald Strachan Writer & Journalist | Specialist in Italy & European travel

Arezzo travel guide

The terrain southeast of Florence is shaped by the Arno. Tuscany’s great river rises among the crags and forests of the Casentino National Park, and flows past castles and lonely abbeys down to the gentler landscape of the Valdarno.

In medieval times, this valley was the main route south from Florence to Rome. It became Tuscany’s great cultural crossroads, populated with handsome towns whose museums and churches are decorated with a legacy of medieval and Renaissance art — nowhere finer than at Arezzo.

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In the Beginning...

Arezzo is the main city on these eastern Tuscan plains, with a history that stretches back to the Etruscan era, when it was part of the “Dodecapolis” of 12 leading city-states. It was powerful for many centuries, and later even became a free city-state to challenge Florence, until it was annexed by its rival in 1384.

Historic riches have left a legacy in many fine churches: San Domenico has frescoes by Spinello Aretino and a 13th-century Crucifix by Cimabue; the Pieve di Santa Maria has a Romanesque façade decorated with intricate pillars and arcades, and an altarpiece by Pietro Lorenzetti inside.

Beyond Arezzo’s walls, the Valdarno is an integral part of Tuscany’s spiritual heritage. Renaissance painter Masaccio was born in San Giovanni Valdarno; 14th-century poet Petrarch spent his early years close to Incisa.

At The Mall, outlet stores sell clothes from more than 20 of the biggest names in European fashion

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Piero della Francesca is an oddity in Italian Renaissance art. Although he made his name working for the princely courts and noble families of Florence, Urbino, and Rimini, he never really left his homeland, in the hills of eastern Tuscany. Here is where he did his best work, none greater than “Legend of the True Cross” frescoes at San Francesco, in central Arezzo.

Nine panels trace the apocryphal history of Christ’s cross from the death of Adam to Byzantine Emperor Heraclius’ victory over the Persian Empire in the 7th century. No painter before or since captured the geometry of a frozen moment so perfectly.

The (so-so) painter, (talented) architect, and (genius) art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511–74) lived and worked in Arezzo. His former home is preserved as a museum, the Casa Vasari. The Room of the Triumph of Virtue he painted (with help from assistants) gives an insight to the humanist interests of his Renaissance mind.

Vasari’s book, “The Lives of the Artists”, is still the best source of critique and scurrilous rumour (much of it unproven) about the great names of Italian art history.

Out of Town: The Valdarno

San Giovanni Valdarno’s history is intertwined with Florence — it was founded as an outpost of Florentine power in the 1200s. The town was the birthplace of Renaissance painter Masaccio, and has palaces and public buildings dating to the Gothic and Renaissance periods.

Arnolfo di Cambio, builder of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, probably designed its centrepiece Palazzo Pretorio.

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Arezzo hosts one of Italy’s busiest antiques fairs, with over 500 stalls. The Fiera Antiquaria fills Piazza Grande on the first Sunday of each month, and the previous Saturday.

Three Excursions from Arezzo

  • Sansepolcro: fans of painter Piero della Francesca should make a pilgrimage to Sansepolcro, on the Umbrian border. The town’s Museo Civico displays Piero’s “Resurrection of Christ” (1460), a work full of allegory — and featuring the most famous sleeping soldiers in the history of painting. The painting is so important to the town that anyone can view it (for free) through a window facing the street
  • The Mall: The Valdarno is a hotspot for haute couture labels like Gucci, Prada, Armani, Ferragamo, and even Stella McCartney. At The Mall, outlet stores represent over 20 of the biggest names in European fashion. Prices are still high — these are top-name threads, after all — but the discounts on one-offs and last season’s stock are huge
  • The Casentino: you could roam for days in the chestnut forests of this national park, where you can also explore the castle at Poppi, the source of the Arno and the Franciscan shrine at La Verna

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