One day last week, I took the bus down to Santa Maria degli Angeli and caught the train to Perugia, where I changed to the local train that took me San Sepolcro, Piero della Francesca’s hometown. I walked along the city wall on a street lined with Linden trees and entered at Porta del Ponte, then made my way by trial and error to what was, in Piero’s time, the Piazza Communale, once the industrial center of town (now the Piazza Torre de Berta, with kids on bikes and skate boards). It seemed cosmic that the first thing I came upon, walking out of it was the arched entrance to the Camaldolese monks’ quarters where Piero is buried.
I stepped up in to a cool, dim arcade lined with fragments of frescoes from the life of San Benedetto, who founded the order, and walked where Piero undoubtedly walked countless times on his way to visit his brother, Francesco, who served as the abbot there for a time. At the end of the arcade, down a corridor on the right, was a door to the monks quarters and another one to the Capella di San Leonardo o Monocato, which houses Piero’s tomb. Locked, alas, but I stood there a long time and breathed in his presence.
This is my favorite part of writing about history: being in the place where it happened— especially when it is a real person’s life I am writing about. Walking the streets Piero walked, standing where he stood, seeing what he saw, it is as if I can almost be him—for fleeting moments.
There is his family home, from which I suddenly realize he could see the steeple of the church of S. Francesco. He could walk to the church in less than five minutes, passing the Roman fountain from which I filled my water bottle. Or turn left instead of right and go through the Porta Pretorio to what was then the Abbey. Walking maybe seven minutes in the opposite direction from his house, jogging left then right he’d have reached the Confraternity of Santa Maria della Misericordia, now, sadly, in total disrepair.
I wonder what he’d have thought of the park nearby named in his honor with a statue of him, palette in hand, looking right down Via Piero della Francesco. This street was Via Borgo Nuovo in his time. It led past his school to Graziani Crossing at Via Maestro, where San Sepolcro’s wealthiest, most powerful families lived. Looking up and down the street, you can still see can still see the palazzos they lived in, with their fabulous doors. Most are apartments now, with businesses beneath—everything from gelato to lingerie to real estate.
I walked more than four hours, looking, thinking, imagining, snapping photos of anything that caught my eye—highlighting the streets on my map to remind me where I’d been. I’d forgotten that the museum and churches would be closed all afternoon, so there was nothing to do but walk—which wasn’t such a bad thing, after all. I felt like a pilgrim, which I was.
Near the end of the day, I sat on the steps of S. Giovanni Battista, waiting for it to open so that I could see where Piero’s “Nativity” had once been. I was hot and thirsty; my feet were killing me. Then I glanced up at the blue sky, floating with clouds just like the ones in the painting, and time fell away. It didn’t seem a stretch at all to believe that Piero himself glanced up and saw them as he stepped into the church, adding them to his vision of what the work would be.