Cognoscenti 75 : The Best Picture in the World


There is a small low-comedy railway across the hills from Arezzo. Or you can approach it up the Tiber valley from Perugia. Or, if you happen to be at Urbino, there is a motor ‘bus which takes you to San Sepolcro, up and down through the Apennines, in something over seven hours. No joke, that journey, as I know by experience. But it is worth doing, though preferably in some other vehicle than the ’bus, for the sake of the Bocca Trabaria, that most beautiful of Apennine passes, between the Tiber valley and the upper valley of the Metauro. It was in the early spring that we crossed it. Our omnibus groaned and rattled slowly up a bleak northern slope, among bald rocks, withered grass and still unbudded trees. It crossed the col and suddenly, as though by a miracle, the ground was yellow with innumerable primroses, each flower a little emblem of the sun that had called it into being.

And when at last one has arrived at San Sepolcro, what is there to be seen? A little town surrounded by walls, set in a broad flat valley between hills; some fine Renaissance palaces with pretty balconies of wrought iron; a not very interesting church, and finally, the best picture in the world.

The best picture in the world is painted in fresco on the wall of a room in the town hall. Some unwittingly beneficent vandal had it covered, some time after it was painted, with a thick layer of plaster, under which it lay hidden for a century or two, to be revealed at last in a state of preservation remarkably perfect for a fresco of its date. Thanks to the vandals, the visitor who now enters the Palazzo dei Conservatori at Borgo San Sepolcro finds the stupendous Resurrection almost as Piero della Francesca left it. Its clear, yet subtly sober colours shine out from the wall with scarcely impaired freshness. Damp has blotted out nothing of the design, nor dirt obscured it. We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty; it stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.

That text, now ninety years old, remains a wonderful amuse-bouche. It is the opening of a famous essay by Aldous Huxley. (It is further quoted in another Cognoscenti post.)

The Resurrection on the wall of the town hall in ‘the town of the Holy Sepulchre’ seen from the street

(Thorough restoration in 2015-6, inevitably in situ, restricts this view but allows a really close-up view of this amazing work.)

The journey over the hills from Borgo Sansepolcro to Urbino remains one of my favourites in the world. This is partly memories of Mary having to drive it, with its numerous, numbered and very steep hairpins at exactly the same time as a summer weekend classic sports car speed trial, which clearly did not want anyone else on the road. A bit hair-raising.   But it also is, as Huxley rhapsodises, through a stunning landscape. Luckily for Cognoscenti travellers, today the coach takes a less hazardous if just as lovely and rather quicker, newer route.

Join us on our 2016 World of Piero tour to the cities, towns, villages where he lived and worked. Final details are very soon to be published.

Same view, pulling came back a few inches from the glass door

26 Aug 2015

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