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The origins of Sansepolcro and the era when it was founded have not been historically ascertained. According to one deduction based on the town’s urban street plan, Sansepolcro was a Roman foundation. A different version comes from some medieval recollections which date the origin to the end of the 10th century when it was founded by St Egidius and St Arcadius. According to this version, when the two saints were returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, they stopped here and constructed an oratory dedicated to St Leonard, including some relics of the Holy Sepulchre, the Santo Sepolcro, and a village grew up around it. What is certain, however, is that the town’s foundation goes back to before 1012, when documents record how it was connected with an abbey of the Holy Sepulchre, Benedictine in origin and then Camaldolese. Starting from the 14th century, the town was the centre of conflicts between powerful potentates until 1441, when it became part of the Florentine domains. In 1515, during the papacy of Leo X de’ Medici, it was decreed a bishopric. Sansepolcro was important because of its strategic position on the commercial routes towards the Adriatic and, although there are still medieval buildings remaining, the city’s greatest moment of artistic splendour was between the 15th and 16th centuries, when so many artificers and craftsmen were born here, and not only Piero della Francesca who was born here around 1412 and died here in 1492, but also Matteo di Giovanni, Raffaellino del Colle, Cristoforo Gherardi known as il Doceno, Santi di Tito, as well as the Alberti family of architects, painters, sculptors and wood carvers who lived between the 16th and 17th centuries. During this time, the city gave birth to another family of painters and architects, the Cantagallina family.
So many artists and craftsmen in a town of such modest dimensions is reflected in the extraordinary wealth of artistic works present in buildings, above all religious buildings, and in the Municipal Museum.
If you proceed from the Porta Fiorentina which opens into the walls that surround Sansepolcro, you find the Chiesa di Sant’Agostino immediately on your right. Originally a Romanesque pieve dedicated to Our Lady, the church underwent a Baroque transformation in 1771. Continuing along Via XX Settembre, which runs from east to west through the city, from Porta Fiorentina to Porta Romana, and turning into Via Luca Pacioli, you reach the Chiesa di San Lorenzo. The church was reconstructed in 1556 on earlier 14th-century foundations and has the Lament for Christ Deposed from the Cross by Rosso Fiorentino. Nearby you also find the Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Servi, founded around 1272 and reconstructed in the early 18th century. Inside, there is a valuable triptych by Matteo di Giovanni with, in the centre, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin and, on the sides, St Philip Benizi and St John Baptist and St Paul and St Lucy. The artist, who was born in Sansepolcro around 1430, was commissioned to paint this work in 1487.
Via della Fraternita takes you from this church to the principal piazza of Sansepolcro, Piazza Torre di Berta. A medieval tower once stood here but it was destroyed by the Germans during the Second World War. Standing in a minor road which arrives into the piazza is the Duomo dedicated to St John Evangelist. Erected in the year 1000 as a Camaldolese abbey, the building was demolished and then reconstructed between the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th. From 1583 until the first half of the 20th century, it was changed many more times. From the outside, the Cathedral has a simple façade with a central portal and a rose window brought back to light in an 18th-century restoration. Inside, columns separate the nave with its trussed wooden ceiling from the aisles which have vaulted ceilings. Starting from the second altar on the right, you can see the Disbelief of St Thomas painted by Santi di Tito in 1577 and, following this, an extraordinary fresco of the Crucified Christ between the two Marys and St Egidius, St Arcanus, St Romuald, St Francis and St John Evangelist by Bartolomeo della Gatta from the last decade of the 15th century.
On the high altar there is a Polyptych of the Resurrection by the Sienese artist Niccolò di Segna, painted in 1348, and originally placed in the church of Sant’Agostino. In the chapel at the head of the left-hand aisle is a polychrome wooden Crucifix known as the Volto Santo, or Holy Countenance, which was transferred to the Duomo in 1770 from its original position in the Pieve of Santa Maria. This extraordinary work dates back to the Carolingian era, from the 8th to the 9th centuries, and the colour was added later when the cross was reassembled in the 12th century. In the same left-hand aisle, in addition to the glazed terracotta Tabernacle for the Blessed Sacrament made by Andrea della Robbia, there is the Ascension of Christ by Pietro Perugino which can be dated to the first decade of the 16th century. In the right-hand aisle, there is the Funeral Monument for the Abbot Simone Graziani, made in 1522, and also a painting of the Resurrection, done after 1522, by Raffaellino del Colle. Next to the Duomo is the Palazzo delle Laudi. Originally a 13th-century building, it was reconstructed at the end of the 16th century, to the design of the architect Alberto Alberti for a lay association, but today it is occupied by the City Council.
In Via Aggiunti, nearby, you will find the Museo Civico. It houses a considerable number of valuable works, including some of the more important works by Piero della Francesa. He painted the Polyptych of the Misericordia (Our Lady of Mercy) between 1445 and 1462, the mural of the Resurrection of Christ in a mixture of fresco and tempera around 1460 for the Palazzo del Comune and, about the same time, the detached fresco depicting St Julian which comes from the church of Santa Chiara. The St Ludovic, also about 1460, which was once in Palazzo Pretorio, is the work of one of Piero’s assistants, probably Lorentino d’Andrea from Arezzo. St Peter and St Paul by Matteo di Giovanni originally had, in its centre, Piero’s Baptism of Christ, today in the National Gallery of London. The double-sided processional banner which has the Crucifixion on one side and St Anthony Abbot and St Egidius on the other is by Luca Signorelli, Our Lady of Perpetual Help is by Gerino da Pistoia from 1502, St Quintinus was painted by Pontormo between 1515 and 1518, and there are two works by Raffaellino del Colle, the Assumption and Coronation of the Blessed Virgin and the Nativity of the Virgin. In the Museum’s collection there are also many works by Santi di Tito, by Agostino Ciampelli, and by Antonio and Remigio Cantagallina.
Among the many religious buildings to be found in Sansepolcro, in the vicinity of the Museum there are some of significance, such as the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, the Oratorio della Confraternita della Morte and the Chiesa di San Francesco.
Next to the Museum, in Via Aggiunti, you will find the Casa natale di Piero della Francesca, where the most famous “biturgense”, or citizen of San Sepolcro, was born. This is a well preserved 15th-century civic building which today houses the “Piero della Francesca Foundation”, a study, research and documentation centre for Piero della Francesca and the culture of the Renaissance. Near this palazzo, you will find the Chiesa di San Rocco and the Oratorio del Crocifisso and, not too far from here, is the splendid Fortezza designed by Giuliano da Sangallo and built upon an earlier 14th-century structure. It was completed in 1561 by Alberto Alberti and makes up the north-east section of the perimeter of walls that enclose Sansepolcro.

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