Cognoscenti 93 : All too short a date

All too short a date – speedo or bungee Piero? 

“The villa will appeal in particular to devotees of Italian painting. It makes a perfect centre for the study of the Sienese school. More importantly, perhaps, the work of Piero della Francesca can be followed from the frescos in Arezzo to the pregnant Madonna in the small chapel at Monterchi. Enthusiasts can take the trail to Sansepolcro and on, across the Mountains of the Moon, to see the sublime ‘Flagellation’ in the Ducal Palace at Urbino, undoubtedly the greatest small picture in the world. Those making this journey should ensure that the stopcock is closed and all electrical appliances switched off before departure. The pleasures of art tend to be diminished by returning to a complete absence of hot bath water.”

Well, this was the note awaiting John Mortimer’s visitors at the Tuscan villa whence, in Summer’s Lease, they embark on “The Piero Trail,”ending at ‘the sublime Flagellation’ – with its romance, its coded meanings and its mystery (as intimated in the other cover pictured here).

All on one day, they ‘do’ Piero, from Arezzo to Monterchi, and Sansepolcro to Urbino. Mortimer’s three tourists leaving their rented holiday villa after an early breakfast to ‘do the Resurrection before lunch.’   They make a perfunctory stop at Arezzo, glance at the vast and wondrous frescoes in San Francesco, and ‘not ten o’clock yet, and we’ve done Arezzo,’ says one. ‘It won’t take us long to knock off the pregnant Madonna.’   And knock it off they do at Monterchi; they pop in to nearby Sansepolcro for the Resurrection, where ‘you can see what all the fuss was about.’ Then, after a hasty lunch they continue to Urbino and the Flagellation, which was the picture they had particularly wanted to catch.


John Mortimer, in his charming book, enjoys this gentle satire on the “Piero Tourists.” Their tour, however, could not be more different from ours. We will guide you at leisure and with space to breathe in the wonders. We will assume you have no wish to have “done Arezzo and it’s not yet ten’oclock, ” and that your enthusiasm is even the equal of Juliette Binoche’s.

In the film The English Patient (following hints in Michael Ondaatje’s fine novel), the nurse, during World War Two, marvels at this amazing chapel in San Francesco. Sandbags are piled high, very little daylight penetrates.

And the Sikh sapper helps her fly. No, today you can’t light flares, nor will you dangle from the roof beams. But today the frescoes are recently gloriously restored, they are beautifully lit and we gaze in wonder at our leisure.

For the English patient’s nurse, as for Mortimer’s tourists, their Piero summer’s lease certainly had all too short a date. Join us in September in the world of Piero della Francesca, and feel the time expanding.

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