It is a stiff walk to the oratory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Arezzo. The building is not situated in the city centre, but about one kilometre south of it. The route to the oratory is nevertheless quite simple. From the train station of Arezzo one can follow the Viale Michelangelo, which at some point becomes the Viale Mecenate, named after the most famous inhabitant of Arezzo from Antiquity, the patron of art and culture Maecenas. Follow the Viale Mecenate all the way to the end and it is impossible to miss the Santa Maria delle Grazie.
The oratory stands north of a forested hill. In Antiquity there was a well here of which the water was said to have medicinal properties. It supposedly worked especially well against childhood diseases. Even long after Arezzo had become a Christian city its inhabitants continued to travel to the well in search of healing. This greatly offended the Franciscan preacher Bernardinus of Siena (ca. 1380-1444). In 1425 he held sermons in Arezzo and on that occasion tried to end the pagan practices at the well. His attempt was a failure and Bernardinus was chased from the city. Three years later, in 1428, he was back with a vengeance. The preacher mobilised a large mob and marched on the well, which was subsequently filled up with debris and rocks. Not much later a small chapel was built on the terrain, for which the local painter Parri di Spinello (ca. 1387-1453) provided a fresco of the Madonna della Misericordia.
Between 1435 and 1444 the chapel was replaced with a larger oratory, which was designed by the architect Domenico del Fattore. Bernardinus of Siena was canonised in 1450 by Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455), which is why a chapel dedicated to him was built to the right of the oratory between 1450 and 1456. I found it closed during my visit, but pictures of the little building can be found here. In 1470-1471 a large square was created in front of the Santa Maria della Grazie, which for a long time was used for an annual fair. The square was originally surrounded on three sides by a colonnade, but of this construction only small parts on the east and west side have been preserved. Fortunately the beautiful seven-arched portico in front of the Santa Maria della Grazie is still fully intact. It was built by the architect and sculptor Benedetto da Maiano (1442-1497). We do not know when exactly he was active here, perhaps between 1478 and 1482, or possibly around 1490. The finishing touch for the oratory was the installation of the large altar aedicule of Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525), made between 1487 and 1493.
Benedetto da Maiano’s portico is about three times as wide as the oratory itself. This may somewhat put visitors on the wrong foot: when they enter the little building it turns out to be much smaller than they had expected. In two steps one reaches the altar aedicule. Andrea della Robbia is mostly famous for his glazed terracotta works, which was the speciality of his family. The aedicule, however, is made of marble. The older fresco of Parri di Spinello has been installed in it. Parri was the son of the more famous painter Spinello Aretino (ca. 1350-1410). His Madonna della Misericordia is an interesting work. With her cloak the Madonna protects a group of kneeling men (left) and women (right). On the far right Bernardinus of Siena has been depicted, on the far right Catherina of Siena. There is also a pope among the kneeling men, easily recognisable by his tiara. He is Pope Gregorius X (1271-1276), who died in Arezzo and whose tomb can still be seen in the local Duomo.
On the right wall we find a damaged fresco by Lorentino d’Andrea (ca. 1430-1506). He was a student and follower of the more famous Piero della Francesca, whose work in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo I have discussed previously. In the centre of Lorentino’s fresco we see Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484), which is an indication that it was painted during his pontificate. The two cardinals can be identified by their respective coats of arms. The man on the left is cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini (1439-1503). In 1503 he was elected Pope Pius III, but he died after just 26 days in office (see Siena: Libreria Piccolomini). On the other side we see cardinal Francesco Gonzaga (1444-1483). He was the son of Ludovico III Gonzaga, marquess of Mantova (see Mantova: Castello San Giorgio and Camera degli Sposi). Below the pope and the cardinals several men are kneeling. Outside the frame of the fresco there is, remarkably, another kneeling figure. The website of the oratory suggests that this might be a self-portrait of the painter.