We stumbled upon this lovely little church when we were kind of lost, looking for Vasari’s house in Arezzo. The San Domenico was not in our travel guide, but the information on the panel in the piazza sounded quite promising. The Dominicans have been present in Arezzo since about 1236 and they first used an oratory that was later incorporated into the sacristy of the present church. Construction of a proper church dedicated to their founder Saint Dominicus – canonised in 1234 – started in 1275. The San Domenico was completed in the fourteenth century. The church has retained its undecorated, rather peculiar facade. It is not symmetrical, and the bell-tower is part of the facade.
Funds for the church were provided by two powerful local families, the Ubertinis and the Tarlatis. Both families also provided the city with bishops, as we have seen when discussing the Duomo of Arezzo. Inside, we find a sober church with a single nave. The information panel claims that “its stylistic similarities with the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence is attributable to Florentine craftsmen”. The similarities with this huge Dominican basilica in Florence are indeed notable, but keep in mind that the San Domenico is a much, much smaller church. It measures some 55 by 16 metres. The Santa Maria Novella is about four times as large, and that is not including the cloisters.
The walls of the San Domenico must have once been completely covered with frescoes, but most of these are nowadays damaged and badly faded. Some are still in acceptable condition. The most interesting are two frescoes by father and son Aretino. Spinello Aretino (ca. 1350-1410) painted a fresco cycle about the lives of Saint James the Less, Saint Philip and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, while his son and pupil Parri (ca. 1387-1453) executed a fresco of the Crucifixion with Saint Nicholas (hardly recognisable), the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Dominicus.
Spinello Aretino’s cycle consists of seven scenes. The top two are about the life of Catherine and depict, among other things, the breaking wheel that became her attribute. The central scene shows James on the left and Philip on the right. The smaller scenes on the left tell the story of the activities and martyrdom of James, while those on the right are about episodes from the life of Philip. These are, in my view, the most interesting. They bear striking thematic similarities to the frescoes by Filippino Lippi in the Cappella Filippo Strozzi in the Santa Maria Novella. We see Philip driving off a dragon and being crucified by pagans. Lippi completed his cycle in 1502. Spinello Aretino’s frescoes are at least a century older. We have previously seen some of his work in the sacristies of the San Miniato al Monte and the Santa Croce in Florence.
The San Domenico also has a glazed terracotta statue of Saint Peter Martyr (or Peter of Verona) by Giovanni della Robbia (1469-1529). The tomb of this Dominican martyr can be found in the Portinari Chapel in the church of Sant’Eustorgio in Milan. Arguably the most interesting artwork inside the church is a large crucifix by the Florentine painter Cenni di Pepo, known as Cimabue (ca. 1240-1302). The nickname apparently means ‘ox-head’. It is not easy to date the crucifix, but it is generally assumed that it was painted between 1265 and 1270, making it a very early work of the painter and the earliest work attributed to him. Cimabue was known as an innovator, breaking with Byzantine traditions (but quickly eclipsed by Giotto). However, this crucifix is still very medieval in style, with an exaggerated six-pack and Christ’s body violently curved to the left.