My first visit to Arezzo was in 2009. It was a complete fiasco. My friend had fallen off his bicycle, and we spent the entire day at the hospital. The only other building in the city that I saw that day was the railway station. Seven years later, I had a new opportunity to explore Arezzo. One of the monuments I visited was the Duomo, or Cattedrale dei Santi Pietro e Donato. It can be found on a hill in the northern part of the city centre, adjacent to a lovely green park with a monument for one of Arezzo’s most famous citizens, the poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch in English; 1304-1374).
Arezzo’s first cathedral, dedicated to Saints Stephen and Mary, was built on a hill that is known as the Colle del Pionta. I must have seen the hill in 2009, as it is located near the hospital, south-west of the railway station and a little outside the city centre. Tradition dictates that it was here that Saint Donatus of Arezzo was martyred in 362, during the reign of the emperor Julianus the Apostate. Donatus was considered a bishop of Arezzo and later became the city’s patron saint.
In 1203, Pope Innocentius III (1198-1216) ordered the cathedral to be moved to within the city’s walls. This is how it acquired its present location, about a kilometre further to the north. Of course, a new cathedral is not built in a day, so the seat of the bishop was first moved to the now demolished church of San Piero Maggiore. Construction of a new cathedral did not start until 1278, and the project suffered a heavy blow when the bishop of Arezzo, Guglielmino Ubertini, fell in battle in 1289. All building activities were put on hold after his death. One of his successors, Guido Tarlati – bishop between 1312 and his death in 1327 – fortunately managed to revive the project.
The Duomo was completed in 1511. It is dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Donatus, whose statues can be seen above the central portal. The facade was initially left undecorated. The Neo-Gothic sandstone facade that we see today was only added between 1901 and 1914. It was designed by Dante Viviani (1861-1917), a local architect. If you look closely at the sandstone blocks of the right side of the church, you will notice that these are much older and much more weathered than those of the facade. The right side has a Florentine style portal, which was constructed between 1319 and 1337. Behind the cathedral we find the campanile. The top part of it and the spire were only added in the twentieth century. The statue on the piazza in front of the Duomo represents Ferdinando I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany between 1587 and 1609.
Exploring the Duomo
The cathedral has a nave and two aisles. There is no transept, but in the left aisle we find a huge chapel, the Cappella della Madonna del Conforto, which is almost a church in its own right. The French painter and stained glass artist Guillaume de Marcillat (1470-1529) played a key role in decorating the interior of the Duomo. Born in central France, De Marcillat had moved to Arezzo in 1516 and worked on a wonderful cycle of seven stained glass windows for the right aisle. The windows were completed in two phases, between 1516 and 1517 and between 1522 and 1524. The Frenchman was also responsible for the Duomo’s rose window showing the Pentecost. He furthermore painted over half of the ceiling frescoes of the nave, depicting Biblical scenes. Salvi Castellucci (1608-1672), a Baroque painter from Arezzo, completed the work between 1660 and 1663. It is easy to notice the differences in colour and in style. To get a good look at the ceiling, you have to switch on the lights, which will cost you 2 Euros. There is a machine for the illumination in the back of the cathedral, near the entrance.
The polygonal apse is the oldest part of the Duomo, constructed shortly after 1278. Here we find one of the cathedral’s most prized possessions, the altar complex. The altar itself predates 1289 and was possibly consecrated by bishop Ubertini prior to his death on the battlefield. Behind the altar is the Arch of Saint Donatus (Arca di San Donato). Several Sienese, Florentine and Aretine artists have worked on the arch. The lower part is attributed to Agostino di Giovanni (ca. 1285-1347) and Agnolo di Ventura (ca. 1290-1349) from Siena, while Giovanni di Francesco from Arezzo, Betto di Francesco from Florence and several others worked on the upper part and completed the arch between 1364 and 1375.
The aforementioned Agostino di Giovanni and Agnolo di Ventura also worked on the cenotaph for Guido Tarlati after his death in 1327. This huge monument in the Gothic style can be found near the end of the left aisle, where it has been since 1788. It is almost thirteen metres high. The cenotaph was commissioned by the deceased bishop’s brothers Delfo and Pier Saccone Tarlati and perhaps – if Vasari’s claim is correct – designed by the great Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1266-1337), although it has to be said that this claim is very much disputed. The monument was completed in 1330. Sixteen reliefs show episodes from Tarlati’s life, including his military successes. Guido Tarlati was not just the spiritual leader of the Aretines, but – as Lord of Arezzo – also their worldly leader. He greatly expanded the territories of the city and certainly deserved this prestigious monument.
Next to the monument is an interesting fresco, the Maddalena by Piero della Francesca (ca. 1415-1492) from Sansepolcro. The painter executed this work between 1460 and 1466. The slightly plump, but very elegant Mary Magdalene is depicted with a jar of ointment in her left hand, her usual attribute. One of Piero della Francesca’s most famous works, his History of the True Cross, can be found elsewhere in Arezzo.
At the beginning of the left aisle, we find a hexagonal baptismal font with sculpted reliefs by Donatello (1386-1466) and his school. The font can be dated to ca. 1425. The relief of the Baptism of Christ is usually attributed to the Florentine master himself.
The Cappella della Madonna del Conforto, the chapel of the Madonna of Comfort, has already been mentioned above. It was certainly not part of the original plan for the cathedral. The Neo-Gothic chapel with Neo-Classical elements was designed by Giuseppe del Rosso (1760-1831) and built between 1796 and 1817. Although it is a relatively recent addition to the cathedral, the most interesting decorations in the chapel are much, much older. On display are several late-fifteenth century glazed terracotta reliefs by Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525) and his workshop. Agostino Albergotti, bishop of Arezzo between 1802 and 1825, had them taken from other churches in Arezzo and placed inside the new chapel.
A very interesting monument is located at the beginning of the right aisle. Here we find the Tomb of Pope Gregorius X. Born Teobaldo Visconti in ca. 1210 and elected pope in 1271 after the longest conclave in Catholic history, the pope was already in bad health when he left France in 1275 to return to Rome. He never reached the Eternal City again, dying in Arezzo on 10 January 1276. The pope would be buried in the Duomo, but since there was no Duomo yet – construction of the new cathedral only started in 1278 – Gregorius had to wait for a few more years before he could be laid to rest here. His splendid Gothic monument dates to the early fourteenth century. It shows an effigy of the deceased, lying on his deathbed beneath an ornate canopy. On the sarcophagus are five mandorlas with the Lamb of God in the centre, flanked by the four evangelists.
Finally, the chapel of Ciuccio Tarlati is of interest. It is the only remaining chapel in the right aisle. This member of the Tarlati family is apparently mentioned by Vasari in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, but it is not clear who he was. The tomb in the chapel can be dated to 1334, so Ciuccio Tarlati was a contemporary and perhaps also a relative of the bishop Guido Tarlati who has already been discussed above. In any case, the chapel is attributed to Giovanni di Agostino (ca. 1310-1348?), who happens to be the son of the Agostino di Giovanni whose name has been mentioned twice already in this post. The sarcophagus in the chapel dates back to Late Antiquity, and the frescoes were executed by an unknown fourteenth century master. The large fresco shows a scene of the Crucifixion attended by Saint Michael the Archangel, the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Franciscus.