The Santa Maria della Pieve is a church in the centre of Arezzo, next to the famous Piazza Grande and not far from the Duomo. Its shape is a bit odd (it is crooked, as this plan clearly shows), and its facade is even odder. A pieve is a rural church with a baptistery, and the name of the church suggests that is was once located in the country, perhaps because the centre of Arezzo was located further to the south in Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, i.e. on the Colle del Pionta. The famous sixteenth century painter and architect Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) and his wife Nicolosa were buried in the Santa Maria.
Let us take a closer look at the church. There can be no doubt that it is old. A first church on this spot is mentioned in documents dating back to 1008, so it was probably built somewhere in the first millennium. The present church, however, was constructed in the twelfth century. The peculiar Romanesque façade was added about a century later. It has four levels. The ground level has three entrances, five arches (two of which are blind) and several columns. The second to fourth levels have galleries with the number of arches and columns increasing with each level. The top level has no arches, but an architrave. All of the columns are different from each other. Note that the sixteenth column from the left on the fourth level is actually a caryatid, a column sculpted in the form of woman. Although the façade is interesting, it is also quite weathered.
A campanile was added to the church in 1330. It became known as the Tower of the One Hundred Holes (cento buchi in Italian). The name refers to the many mullioned windows in the tower. It pays to walk around the church and admire it from behind (see the image below). The apse of the Santa Maria della Pieve offers more arches, blind arches and columns. The apse and the neighbouring Palazzo della Fraternità dei Laici form the west side of the large Piazza Grande. The Fraternità dei Laici is a lay fraternity, founded in 1262, whose aim was to help the poor and the sick.
The Piazza Grande is famous for its antiques market. It is also the site of the annual Giostra del Saracino, a jousting event with roots in the Middle Ages (although it is a bit of a reinvented tradition). A loggia built in 1573 by Vasari and paid for by the Fraternità marks the north side of the square. Here, in the Via Giorgio Vasari, we find a restaurant named Osteria Mest. This is a somewhat funny name for people from the Netherlands, as “mest” means “dung” in Dutch. However, the restaurant has an excellent reputation and was highly recommended by our travel guide. Unfortunately, it was fully booked that afternoon.
The interior of the church is very simple. There is almost no decoration. Like so many other Italian churches, its appearance has been altered many times over the centuries. Changes were made in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century, before all Baroque additions were removed again in the nineteenth century and the Santa Maria was given back its original Romanesque look.
Giorgio Vasari, a native of Arezzo, was in charge of the sixteenth century renovation. After his death in 1574, Vasari was buried in one of the chapels. During renovations in 1865, his bones and those of other important Aretines were collected in chestnut boxes and buried in a pit in the centre of the nave. Today, a marble slab marks the spot where the pit was dug and the boxes were placed. [I have not checked this myself, as I was unaware that Vasari and his wife were buried in this church. I am relying on this article. However, the story sounds plausible and a slab is visible in the nave on the photo included in this post]
Inside the church we find the object which makes this church a pieve: a hexagonal baptismal font with scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist. It is attributed to Giovanni di Agostino (ca. 1310-1348?), the man who was also credited with the construction of the Ciuccio Tarlati chapel in the Duomo. The baptismal font was made in the 1330s. The reliefs are not in mint condition, to put it mildly. They look awfully weathered, much like the church facade.
The showpiece inside the Santa Maria della Pieve is the altarpiece, a polyptych painted in 1320 by the Sienese artist Pietro Lorenzetti (ca. 1280-1348). Pietro’s younger brother Ambrogio Lorenzetti was also a noted painter. Both seem to have died in 1348, the year in which the bubonic plague decimated the populations of many Tuscan cities. The brothers are believed to have both become victims of this Black Death, as no works of them are known after 1348.
The altarpiece in the Santa Maria della Pieve is known as the Tarlati polyptych. It is named after bishop Guido Tarlati (1312-1327), the man who commissioned it. Regretfully, when I visited the church in June of 2016, the original polyptych had been removed for restoration and replaced with a cardboard copy. The restoration had fortunately been completed by the time I visited the church for the second time, in April of 2023. The polyptych is composed of many panels, with the five largest showing the Madonna and Child in the centre, flanked by – from left to right – Saint Donatus (patron saint of Arezzo), Saint John the Evangelist, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Matthew the Evangelist.
Updated 31 July 2023.