Introductory Study Day on May 28th: For those who are able to come, there will be a study morning the day before our departure at the National Gallery giving us an opportunity to explore works by Piero della Francesca such as the Baptism and Nativity and learn how they came to be in England. We will also look at paintings designed for various cities on our itinerary, again tracing their provenance and history, such as Raphael’s Mond Crucifixion and Signorelli’s Adoration of the Shepherds which were designed for Citta di Castello, and works by Justus of Ghent made for the Duke of Urbino.
Day 1: Depart from London Gatwick in the late morning with British Airways to Pisa airport. We travel by private coach to our elegant 4-star hotel in the centre of the charming walled city of Cortona. On arrival we will eat together in a local restaurant – dinner with wine is included this evening.
Day 2: We spend a leisurely day exploring the medieval streets and architecture of Cortona, looking in particular at the work of three important painters associated with the city: Fra Angelico, Pietro da Cortona and Luca Signorelli, who was a pupil of Piero della Francesca. Our visits will include the Museo Diocesano (where Fra Angelico’s luminous Annunciation can be found), the Etruscan Museum, and the Cathedral designed by Giuliano da Sangallo, architect of St Peter’s in Rome for some years under the patronage of Julius II. In the afternoon we walk through the upper town exploring various churches including San Domenico. Another local artist, the Futurist painter Gino Severini, designed 14 stations of the cross which were later realised in mosaic and placed in niches along a road which leads to the Church of Santa Margherita, where St Margaret is buried. Lunch and dinner are arranged if you would like to join the group.
Day 3: We travel to the Umbrian town of Citta di Castello, an important trade centre under the Romans who named it Tifernum Tiberinum, and again during the Middle Ages when its name changed to Castrum Felicitatis or Town of Happiness. And indeed there a fewer places more pleasant to spend a day, boasting as it does a charming historic centre and the second-most important art gallery in Umbria after that of Perugia, housed in an elegant 15th century palace which once belonged to the ruling dynasty of the Vitelli family. Here we examine masterpieces by many artists who worked in the town, from Signorelli to the young Raphael.
The afternoon is spent in the home town of Piero della Francesca, Borgo Sansepolcro, which contains arguably his most famous painting, The Resurrection of Christ. It is this painting which the writer Aldous Huxley famously described in an essay of 1925 as “The best picture in the world”, a description which was recalled by Captain Anthony Clarke, who had been ordered to bomb the town during the Second World War, and prompted him to command his men to stop the bombardment at the last minute. We discover more about the dramatic history of this painting and explore another masterpiece by Piero, the Madonna della Misericordia, as well as the panels by another local artist Matteo di Giovanni which were designed to be placed either side of the National Gallery’s Baptism of Christ. En route back to Cortona we will drive through the tiny town of Monterchi and see Piero’s beautiful fresco of the Madonna del Parto, or Pregnant Madonna. Lunch and dinner are arranged if you would like to join the group.
Day 4: Cortona is a perfect base for discovering the art cities of Tuscany and Umbria, and today we drive to nearby Perugia, an elegant city situated on hills overlooking the Tiber Valley. Here life centres around a beautiful medieval square dominated by the Fontana Maggiore, sculpted in the 13th century by Nicola Pisano, pre-eminent in the Italian revival of the classical Roman sculptural style. This is a grand civic monument made to celebrate the arrival of water in the town via a new aqueduct, and takes its inspiration from the design of Pisano’s many famous pulpits. Our visits will include the Palazzo dei Priori, the impressive medieval town hall which now contains the National Gallery of Umbria, famous for its works by Perugia’s famous son Perugino, as well as Piero’s Polyptych of St. Anthony. Our other visits will include Perugino’s Frescoes in the Collegio del Cambio: Perugino was greatly influenced by Piero della Francesca, and taught the young Raphael. Lunch and dinner are arranged if you would like to join the group.
Day 5: Urbino is without doubt one of the most attractive hill towns of Italy. Situated to the north of Cortona in the region of Le Marche it is the epitome of elegant Renaissance town planning, and one gets a sense of stepping back in time to the age of the great Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. Montefeltro was one of the most successful condottieri or mercenary soldiers of his age and yet also a highly enthusiastic patron of art and learning. He created one of the greatest libraries in Italy, perhaps the largest after the Vatican, and assembled around him at Urbino a great humanistic court situated in one of the great architectural gems of the early Renaissance, the Ducal Palace, where we begin our day. Artists flocked to his court, including the great Piero della Francesca whose enigmatic Flagellation can still be found within the sturdy palace walls. There is a temporary exhibition "From Piero della Francesca to Raphael" which we will see.
We also discover other well known artists at his court, including Justus of Ghent and Giovanni Santi, father of Raphael who was born within the city in 1483. After lunch in one of the city’s most famous restaurants boasting spectacular views over the countryside, we take time to pay homage to the great painter of the Renaissance by visiting Raphael’s birthplace, as well as some delightful frescoes by the little known Salimbeni brothers. Dinner tonight is independent
Day 6: Today we depart for Arezzo where our theme will again be Piero della Francesca. It is always a treat to discover his paintings and particularly those in situ, in this case a whole series of recently restored frescoes dedicated to the Finding of the True Cross, found in the 13th century church of San Francesco. Much of the information we know about Piero is found in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, and since this famous author himself came from Arezzo we will also visit the house which he himself built and decorated. Later on we will spend time in the Cathedral where another little-known fresco by Piero della Francesca can be found, as well as other churches where we discover other famous alumni such as Spinello Aretino and Margarito d’Arezzo. A delicious lunch is organised in the main square, under a loggia designed by Giorgio Vasari. We then transfer to Florence, where we spend 2 nights in an elegant and well-appointed 4-star hotel with excellent facilities and a panoramic rooftop terrace overlooking the city. Dinner is arranged in a newly opened restaurant, situated in the courtyard of an elegant 15th century palace.
Day 7: Today we visit the exquisite Strozzi Palace, which has put on some of the most important and fascinating exhibitions in recent years thanks to its dynamic director Dr James Bradburne. Americans in Florence, Sargent and the American Impressionists celebrates in part the anniversary in 2012 of the 500th year since the death of Amerigo Vespucci, after whom America is named. The exhibition explores the American impressionists' relationship with Italy, and with Florence in particular, and will include works by Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Later today we visit the Ognissanti church where Amerigo Vespucci is buried, and where we find the recently restored Ognissanti Crucifix by Giotto. We are also lucky enough to have a private visit of the laboratory of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, and meet the experts currently investigating Leonardo da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi.
Day 8: Today is free for independent exploration. If you like I can arrange tickets for you to visit the Uffizi and see Piero’s diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza, alternatively join me on an optional walking tour in which we discover some of the city's lesser known masterpieces of art hidden in churches and chapels. We will then leave Florence by private coach to catch our afternoon flight with British Airways from Pisa to London Gatwick.