Sansepolcro, Italy - history, art and architecture



Piero della Francesca

Sansepolcro map

Sansepolcro is a pleasant and interesting town located on the plains of the Upper Tiber Valley, in the southeast of Tuscany, Italy, bordering Umbria and The Marches. It is worth visiting for its ambiance, for its art works, to a lesser extent for its architecture, and if possible for the Palio della Balestra (crossbow tournament) held every year on the second Sunday of September when large numbers of citizens dress in mediaeval costume and the evocative Piazza Torre di Berta becomes the site for the historical competition of the “Palio of the Ballestra”, during which the crossbow-men of Sansepolcro challenge those from Gubbio in neighbouring "Bella Umbria". In the morning, as an ancient custom requires, the Herald proclaims the challenge against the rivals. In the afternoon, after the crossbows are blessed, the crossbow-men come into the square after the flag-throwing exercise is completed. For both of these displays, Renaissance costume is worn, inspired by the paintings of Piero della Francesca. The challenge between the towns of Gubbio and Sansepolcro has very ancient origin: in a document dated 1619, the crossbow-men of Sansepolcro invite those from Gubbio to take part in the Palio of Saint Egidio on the second Sunday of September.

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Balestieri di Sansepolcro

Balestieri with their banner

Palio della Balestra in San Sepolcro

Palio della Balestra

Parade in Sansepolcro

Commemorative Parade

Sansepolcro is situated in an area of Italy historically populated by Etruscans whose principal cities were Perugia, Cortona and Arezzo (all within a 60 km radius of Sansepolcro). The Upper Tiber valley was covered in walnut trees that were a source of timber to both Etruscans and Romans. The Romans succeeded the Etruscans in the area and Birtugia, a Roman camp, was built where Sansepolcro is situated today. A number of Romans, including Pliny the Younger, build their summer villas in the Valtiberina, and Pliny praises the climate and the health of the natives in a famous letter.

According to tradition, Sansepolcro was founded in the 10 C by two pilgrims, Arcanus and Aegidius, who, returning after a long stay in Holy Land, brought with them a fragment of the Holy Sepulchre. They constructed an Oratory which, because of the holy relic, became an important spiritual site. The first historical records date from slightly later and refer to the construction of a Benedictine Abbey. The historical centre Sansepolcro reached its current size around 1400, and in 1500 Giuliano da Sangallo ordered the construction of its walls. Sansepolcro has been ruled by Milan, the Malatesta of Rimini and then Florence.

Sansepolcro was initially a fiefdom of the monastic order of the Camaldolesi but because of its important geographical position on the trade routes linking central Italy with the Adriatic, various city states have fought for control of it since the Middle Ages, beginning with the Camaldolesi (12 C), followed by Arezzo, represented by Uguccione della Faggiola (13 C) and the Signoria of the Tarlati family (14 C), passing under the power of the Ghibelline League for a short time and then in 1351 returning to the Tarlati family. In 1352 an earthquake practically destroyed the town. While rebuilding was underway, the Holy See of Città di Castello, represented by Guglielmo di Grisak, granted the town to Galeotto Malatesta, Lord of Rimini. In the 15 C, Sansepolcro  was acquired by Florence, with the support of Pope Eugene IV. In the 16 C, Pope Leo X conferred upon Sansepolcro the title of City under Florentine territorial jurisdiction. In the 18C, Sansepolcro passed under the control of Duke of Lorena.


Palazzo delle Laudi

Sansepolcro is surrounded by the fertile plains of the upper Tiber valley where tobacco is a major cash crop, and it was in Sansepolcro that Giulia Boninsegni and Gio Batta Buitoni started their production of pasta in 1827, the first pasta factory in Italy, and one of their old factories still stands inside the town. The durum wheat used in pasta was imported mainly from Apulia. Buitoni now belongs to Nestlé but retains a strong presence in the area.

But Sansepolcro is above all the birthplace of the painter Piero della Francesca (ca. 1416 -1492).
Other famous artists born here include Santi di Tito, Matteo di Giovanni and Raffaellino del Colle, one of Rafael’s best pupils.

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Tuscany private minibus tours (up to 8 persons) with Maurizio Manuelli

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Pre-organised full day tours from the Florence and the Chianti area to Arezzo, Cortona, Sansepulcro and Assisi, or your own itinerary. Fixed prices offered.

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Sansepolcro - the main sights

• The Civic Museum of Sansepolcro (Palazzo della Residenza, constructed in the 13 C and 14 C) houses four works by Piero della Francesca. Its highlights are two of his main works: “La Resurrezione” and “La Madonna della Misecordia”. It also houses important works by Santi di Tito and other artists mostly from churches of Sansepolcro and the surrounding area.

• The Cathedral of Sansepolcro (The Duomo, dedicated to S. Giovanno Evangelista) replaced the ancient Oratory on the same site and was enlarged in the 14 C and subsequently modified over the years. However, in the 1930s nearly all the alterations were torn out so that the cathedral has reverted to roughly how it was in the 1300s, with three naves supported by Romanesque columns and showing Gothic influence. The only noticeable addition that remains, dating from the 1600s, is a chapel in baroque style in the right-hand apse. The cathedral retains many beautiful works of art and its masterpiece is “Il Volto Santo”, an unusual carved wooden Crucifix of Carolingian origin made from a single walnut log between the 8 C and 9 C. It was restored between 1983 and 1989, and its polychrome finish was largely recovered. 

Il Volto Santo of Sansepolcro Il Volto Santo of Sansepolcro

• The Fortress of Sansepolcro was built in the 14 C reconstructed in the 16 C by Giuliano da Sangallo. In 1800 was transformed into a farm. It is private property.

• The Palazzo Pichi Sermolli from the 15 C

• The Palazzo Vescovile (the Bishop's Palace), erected on the site of an pre-existing Abbey, first Benedictine then Camaldolese.

• The Palazzotto Giovagnoli, of 13 Cy origin, with renaissance windows.

• The Porta Fiorentina, closing Via XX Settembre, the mediaeval “Porta della Pieve”, the only remains of the ancient urban walls.

• The Palazzo Alberti, constructed in the 17 C, has a bust of Cosimo II Medici on the facade.

• The Church of S. Maria delle Grazie, from 1518, has an unusual 16 C wooden door worked in bas relief with small skeletons.

• The Church of S. Agostino, initially the parish church of Santa Maria, it was rebuilt in 1771 in Baroque style. The bell tower is adapted from an antique mediaeval tower.

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Piero della Francesca

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