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The Valdarno. what to see

The Valdarno is the valley of the River Arno and it begins where the river turns its course towards the north, close to Arezzo, at the point where it is crossed by the Ponte a Buriano. This is the bridge that inspired Leonardo da Vinci and which he included in the background to his most celebrated painting, the Mona Lisa. Nearby is the unique natural feature of gullies and ravines formed by erosion in the clay hillsides, and the valley then opens out onto life and luxuriant colourful landscapes, where there are wonderful views of towers soaring over such ancient villages, churches and castles as Gropina, Loro Ciuffena and Cenina.
Because of its riches, the Valdarno to the north of Arezzo was the theatre of bloody conflicts for the control of Tuscany between the Florentine Ghibellines and the Aretine Guelphs at the end of the Middle Ages. Indeed, in this territory at the end of the 13th century, the bishops of Arezzo possessed powerful and well fortified castles from which they could wage war on the territory of Florence. The Florentines, for their part and for their own defence, constructed three terre murate, or “walled settlements” in this valley, San Giovanni, Terranuova and Castelfranco. However, already in 1327 with the death of Bishop Guido Tarlati, the inexorable decline of Arezzo had set in so that, before the century was out, the city and its territory were subjugated to the control of Florence.
After you leave the city, the road crosses the River Arno and, going in a north-easterly direction, reaches LATERINA, a small township which grew up from the 11th century onwards and which, in 1272, was taken over by the Arezzo Commune as a means of blocking the expansion of Florence. Laterina stands on a hill where it can dominate the valley, and its centre is perfectly preserved. A perimeter of walls marks off the township whose oldest section is divided up by three parallel streets. The middle street, “Via di Mezzo”, leads off towards Rocca in the east and towards Torre Guinigi in the west. In the centre stands the Chiesa dei Santi Ippolito e Cassiano, its name taken from an ancient pieve that once stood in the village. On its exterior, you can see a fragment of Roman mosaic which came from the ancient pieve and, inside, the Madonna with Child between St Hyppolitus and St Cassian, by Domenico Puligo. Now take the Via Vecchia Aretina and, just outside Laterina, you can see the majestic Villa di Monsoglio with its rooms richly decorated with frescoes and with an Italian garden. The road crosses the river again and continues to PERGINE VALDARNO whose territory together with the territory of Laterina, Montevarchi and Terranuova skirt the Natural Park of the “Valle dell’Inferno e Bandella”, or the Valley of Hell and Bandella. Already a castle in the 11th century, Pergine originally belonged to an Abbey, Badia a Prataglia, and then passed in the 12th century to another, Badia di Agnano, but after the mid-14th century it was under Florentine domination. In the township, there is the Church of St Michael Archangel and the Museum of Industrial Archeology.
From Pergine, you take the road for BUCINE with its ancient centre and castle situated on a hilltop alongside the rivulet Ambra. Traces of the walls are still visible and a building in Via Castello, numbers 15-17, retains a structure that is believed to be part of the citadel of the Guidi Counts. At the top of the castle is the ancient pieve of Sant’Apollinare which was partly ruined in 1710 and became a chapel. The Chiesa di San Giovvani Battista, instead, was probably commissioned by a member of the Conti family of Florence, the same family who enlarged it in 1581. The airy interior is interesting because of the grey sandstone columns that separate the nave from the two aisles. The capitals are surmounted by a Brunelleschi-inspired cube which bears the Conti coat-of-arms.
In POGI, a locality of Bucine, in addition to the parish church dedicated to St Donatus and the few ruins of the castle that was once the domain of the Guidi Counts, there is a famous Bridge over the Ambra. Built in hog-back style and of Romanesque construction, it rests on even more ancient foundations. After Bucine, the road proceeds to the PIEVE DI GALATRONA, also called “Pieve di Petrolo”, dedicated to St John Baptist. Although erected above a very ancient church, the present-day building goes back to 1324, while the façade in limestone and sandstone and the belfry show signs of the 16th-century renovations. With its nave and two aisles, the church possesses a splendid glazed terracotta Baptismal Font with Episodes in the Life of St John Baptist in the panels, by Andrea della Robbia. He was commissioned by Leonardo Bonafe to make the font in 1516, and also the ciborium on the high altar. Opposite the church and enjoying a magnificent panorama is the Fattoria di Petrolo, standing in a slightly more elevated situation, with its beautiful manorial Villa built in the early 18th century. You can easily reach the top of the hill by car and see the solitary tower which dominates the slopes of the Valdarno and the crests of the Monti del Chianti. It is all that remains of the Castle of the Guidi Counts which, after it had passed into the hands of the Tarlati family, eventually became part of the dominion of Florence in 1335.


First an Etruscan and then a Roman settlement, the village and its development was influenced by the castle built over the gorge created by the Ciuffenna rivulet. Worth visiting is the Church of Santa Maria Assunta which possesses a triptych by Bicci di Lorenzo of the Madonna and Saints, and also the “Museo Venturino Venturi” in the Palazzo Comunale where there are drawings and sculptures by Venturi, who was born here in 1918 and who died in 2002.
The next village along the road is MONTEMARCIANO, the ancient seat of a hospital under the patronage of the Florentine family of Pazzi. There are the ruins of a castle destroyed by the Florentines in 1288 and the parish church of St Lucia and St Apollinare where the 13th-century architrave from the original building is still visible. A short distance away from the houses is the Oratorio della Madonna delle Grazie started in 1522 and finished in 1536. Outside, there is a 17th-century portico and, inside, the Madonna Enthroned between St Michael and St John Baptist once thought to be by Masaccio, but perhaps by Francesco d’Antonio from around 1420.
The Strada dei Sette Ponti continues now to CASTELFRANCO DI SOPRA, one of the so-called terre nuove or “new lands” of Florence. It was founded in 1299 on the remains of the Castello di Soffena and its design has traditionally been ascribed to Arnolfo di Cambio. The village with its chessboard layout still retains parts of its defensive walls and towers, and two of the original access gateways. Inside the walls is the Chiesa di San Tommaso, which dates back to the year 1000. In the 15th century it was given a pronaos, or outside portico, and it was enlarged during the 18th century.
Not far outside the walls stands the Badia, or Abbey, of San Salvatore a Soffena, constructed in the 14th century. Laid out in the form of a Greek cross, it possesses frescoes painted by Bicci di Lorenzo, Episodes in the Life of St John Gualberto, and by Paolo Schiavo, a Madonna and Child between St Peter and St Francis and also a Pietà in the lunette. On the right of the abbey stands the ancient monastery built during the 14th century by the monks from Vallombrosa on the remains of an 11th-century fortified structure. It was reconstructed during the 15th century and, after the suppression of the religious orders by Grand Duke Leopold of Florence, was finally acquired by the State and restored. There is rather lovely little cloister and columns inside the monastery.
From Castelfranco, the road leads to PIAN DI SCÒ, a village nestling beside the rivulet Resco, from which perhaps its name is derived. It was a flourishing agricultural centre during the period of the Grand Duchy. Close to the Poggio della Regina, there are the remains of the majestic castle of the Counts of the Guidi family, from between the 10th and the 13th centuries. You should also see the Romanesque Pieve di Santa Maria from whose recently restored churchyard there is a wonderful view over woodlands and hillsides covered with vineyards and olive trees. Documents attest the presence here of this church with its impressive bell tower from 1008. The façade is simple with two blind arches and two single-light windows. The nave is separated from the two aisles by columns with lovely, decorated capitals, and you can see a fresco of the Madonna and Child by Paolo Schiavo.

The Pratomagno is the mountainous district between the two valleys of the Valdarno and the Casentino separating Florence from Arezzo, and a drive through the district creates an interesting itinerary. To discover this delightful portion of the territory of the Province of Arezzo, take the Strada dei Sette Ponti which is famous for the numerous ancient pievi, or parish churches, along the way: Pelago, Pitiana, Cascia, Scò, Gropina and San Giustino, and it was once the link between Florence and Arezzo and, therefore, the link with Rome. A part of this road retraces the ancient Via Cassia Vetus, the old Via Cassia of the Romans, and the road itself is more than a thousand years old. The origin of the name Sette Ponti, or “seven bridges” has not yet been completely ascertained. It could derive from the fact that the road crosses numerous water courses, but these are many more than seven; or the name could be linked to the number seven, which would connect the pagan divinities once venerated in these places with the Christian saints to whom the churches along the route are dedicated.
You start discovering the Pratomagno when you cross the Arno River over the Ponte a Buriano. Very old documents assign the construction of this bridge to 1277 but, in all probability, it was built on the site of a previous bridge, perhaps from Etruscan times but, if not, certainly one of Roman origin used along a very important transport route, like the Via Cassia Vetus. A number of scholars have identified the gullies of the Valdarno, of the River Arno and of the Ponte a Buriano as being those depicted in the background to the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci in the Louvre in Paris. The road goes north-east and passes through the Natural Park, “Riserva Naturale Ponte Buriano-Penna” and reaches CASTIGLION FIBOCCHI. Of ancient origin, the castle was ceded as a feudal domain to the noble family Guidi ai Pazzi in the 12th century. However, like Arezzo, it became a possession of the Florentine Republic after 1384. In the upper part of the village with its narrow laneways, the 12th-century Porta Fredda opens into a stretch of defensive walls and encloses the Palazzo Comunale, or the Municipal Building, which was enlarged in 1863, and the Chiesa dei Santi Pietro ed Ilario. Inside the church there is a Madonna and Child Enthroned between Two Saints. The figures of the saints have been lost but they were probably a Bishop-Saint and St Michael Archangel. The work, from the first decade of the 16th century, is by Angelo di Lorentino, son of Lorentino d’Andrea the best known and most prolific of the artists who assisted Piero della Francesca on the Cycle of the True Cross in San Francesco in Arezzo.
The Strada dei Sette Ponti continues through San Giustino Valdarno towards Pieve di San Pietro a Gropina which is a short distance off the main road and reached by a steep ascent. The church, which is one of the oldest in the territory of Arezzo, was built around the year 1000. The exterior shows clear signs of renovations and the façade, in hewn sandstone, has two single-light windows and one mullion window with the coat-of-arms of Pope Leo X and the date 1522. The massive bell tower which rises at the side goes back to 1233. Inside, the nave is separated from the two aisles by columns with intricate multiform decorations on the capitals, and a splendid ambo or pulpit stands on one of these.
The road continues to the medieval village of LORO CIUFFENNA.
The road leaves Galatrona and goes to Montevarchi. On the hill above the city, you can see a castle standing in a strategic position above the valley which once marked the change from the territory of Arezzo to that of Fiesole. In the years immediately before the 11th century, it belonged to the family of the French feudal lords Bourbon Del Monte di Santa Maria. After the start of the 13th century, the manor house passed to the Guidi Counts and remained in their hands until 1254 when it was sold to the Florentine Republic. Later, it returned to the hands of the Guidi family but was definitively ceded to the Florentines in 1273. During the 13th century, the castle market developed in the floor of the valley and this gradually grew into a village. This evolution followed the typical growth pattern of towns along an important arterial axis, in this case the Via Cassia Vetus, or Via Roma in today’s Montevarchi. After various reversals in its fortunes, the village was fortified in 1328 with a powerful perimeter of walls and two gateways with towers. Today, however, very few signs of these remain. Already strategically important from the 14th century onwards and then, later, because it became a manufacturing and agricultural centre, a certain importance remained attached to Montevarchi into the age of the Grand Duchy.
In the centre of the town is the Collegiata di San Lorenzo whose existence is documented at the end of the 12th century, but which was completely rebuilt between 1706 and 1709. This collegiate church was designed by Massimiliano Soldani Benzi, sculptor, medallist and architect, who was born in Montevarchi in 1658. Between 1720 and 1722, the dome was covered with a fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin into Glory between Saints and the Holy Trinity by Matteo Bonechi. The fresco had already been whitewashed over by the late 18th century, but has recently been brought back to light. While Soldani Benzi was carrying out the reconstruction works, the demolition took place of both the Tempietto by Andrea della Robbia, which once housed the relic of the Holy Milk, and the Baptismal Font which was situated in the left-hand chapel symmetrically with the Tempietto. Based on existing graphical documentation, the Della Robbia Tempietto was faithfully reconstructed, and is on display in the Museo dell’ Arte Sacra della Collegiata. Also in the Museum is a detached and partly damaged fresco depicting the Madonna Enthroned with Saints, and a Nativity, both by Luberto da Montevarchi, another fragmentary fresco of the Madonna and Saints, by Agnolo Gaddi, as well as numerous, beautifully- made hangings and sacred objects.
The Palazzo Pretorio stands to the left of the Collegiate Church. It was rebuilt in modern times but its front wall retains the coats-of-arms of the different podestà going back to the 15th century. The nearby Palazzo Martini is of the 18th century. The Chiesa di San Ludovico built by the Franciscans from 1327 is also worth seeing. Enlarged and enriched in 1629, the church possesses a richly-decorated polychrome marble altar and a choir in carved wood. The ex-monastery Convento di San Ludovico was from the same Francisan foundation and has a beautiful cloister in the style of Michelozzi dating from 1471. In 1821, the monastery was handed over to the Accademia Valdarnese del Poggio which was instituted by Poggio Bracciolini, the humanist who was born in Montevarchi in 1380. The Academy houses a Library with a collection of more than 20,000 volumes including manuscripts and cinquecentine, and also the Museum of Paleontology with items coming for the most part from the upper Valdarno valley.
One of the characteristic features of Montevarchi is the remarkable number of buildings in Liberty style. The Villa Masini in Via Pestello is one of the more striking and rare examples in Tuscany. It is a private residence and therefore not open to visitors. It was built between 1923 and 1927 for Angelo Masini by Professor Giuseppe Petrini and by the architect Luigi Zumkeller. The three-storey residence is lavishly decorated with wrought iron and polychrome terracotta ornamentation. Another example of a private residence with opulent decoration is Palazzo Galeffi which Petrini and Zumkeller also built, at the end of the 1920s. The building houses the private collection of the Galeffi Museum of Modern Art which was donated to the City and consists of works by Ernesto Galeffi, an artist from Montevarchi.
The next place to visit after Montevarchi is CAVRIGLIA, a township known above all for its extensive Nature Park. There is also an ancient pieve dedicated to St John Baptist dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. After many reconstructions, the building has now become Baroque, an unusual style for this area. Adjoining the church, inside a small oratory, is the Museum which possesses sacred ornaments from the 15th to the 18th centuries. There are glazed terracotta pieces, a particularly noteworthy Ottoman Cross in gold-plated bronze, and also a small 16th-century Pax in painted copper inside a silver frame, from the Limoges works.
This district of Tuscany was, in the 1930s and 40s, an important centre for mining lignite and afterwards, between the 1960s and 70s, with the Santa Barbara thermoelectic powerstation, it became the economic hub of the area. In order to document the importance of this history, a Mining Museum was established in CASTELNUOVO DEI SABBIONI, to the west of Cavriglia. With displays of mining equipment and visual materials, the museum traces the very difficult work carried out in this mineral seam. To the north of Cavriglia, going towards San Giovanni Valdarno, there is a monastery on a hillside, the Convento di Montecarlo. With a church said to be founded by St Bernardine himself, this Renaissance complex of buildings once possessed the Annunciation by Frà Angelico which is today kept in the Museum of Sacred Art in San Giovanni Valdarno.
And so the road reaches SAN GIOVANNI VALDARNO. Originally known as San Giovanni in Altura and, later, Castel San Giovanni, it is the major production centre of this part of Arezzo Province. It was founded in 1299 by the Florentines as part of a project traditionally ascribed to Arnolfo di Cambio. The town was one of the “new lands”, the terre nuove, and it was planned inside a rectangle of walls, rebuilt in the latter half of the 14th century, from which four gateways opened. Between the two principal piazzas, Piazza Cavour and Piazza Masaccio, the Palazzo Pretorio stands. Today’s City Hall, this building has also been attributed to Arnolfo, although it was enlarged in the 15th century and underwent subsequent reconstructions. On the walls of the portico supported by pillars, there is a large number of coats-of-arms, in both stone and terracotta, of the podestà and other appointed representatives who were there to carry out their orders from Florence. At the end of Piazza Masaccio stands the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie which was elevated to the status of a Marian Shrine in 1986. It was originally erected in 1484 as a simple oratory, after a miracle had occurred in 1479 involving a 14th-century image of the Blessed Virgin. The building was enlarged in 1564-1569, and then lengthened in 1720-1725 with the construction of a large chapel which, as a result of damage suffered during the last war, was substituted with the present-day domed rotunda.
The façade dates to 1840 and is animated by a portico under which is a lunette by Giovanni della Robbia depicting the Virgin Mary offering her Girdle to St Thomas, alongside St John Baptist and St Lawrence, which can be dated to 1510-1513. Inside the shrine, and behind the high altar made by Bernardo Buontalenti assisted by Matteo Nigetti in 1597-1598, the miraculous image of Our Lady of all Graces by a Florentine artist of the 14th century is worth admiring. It is framed by the Glory of the Angels with a View over San Giovanni by Giulio Parigi. On the left, you will see some recently restored frescoes depicting Scenes from the Miracle of Monna Tancia, which explain the events leading to the construction of the Shrine and which were painted in 1510 by the Valdarno artist Luberto da Montevarchi, apprentice and assistant of Pietro Perugino who was painting between 1502 and 1523. Among other works, there is a canvas depicting St Joseph and the Baby Jesus by another artist born in the city, Giovanni Mannozzi who was called, in point of fact, Giovanni da San Giovanni and who lived between1592 and 1636. To the right of the Basilica is the Museo d’Arte Sacra di San Giovanni Valdarno. Established in 1864, when the most valuable paintings from various churches in the city were collected together in the Basilica’s sacristy, this museum was reorganised in 1959, and then refitted starting in 1990. Recently, with the refurbishment of this building, the whole collection has been transferred to its present home and it is truly a lavish gallery of art. On display is Frà Angelico’s Annunciation which was originally, and until 1979, in the monastic church of San Francesco at Montecarlo, on the road leading from San Giovanni to Cavriglia. Dated 1430-1432, the work shows the youthful artist on the way to maturity. The frame around the painting is a 17th-century reconstruction. The predella, on the other hand, is original, and it shows scenes from the life of Our Lady: the Wedding, the Visitation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple and the Funeral of the Blessed Virgin. Other works worth noting include the triptych by Mariotto di Nardo depicting, on the central panel, the Trinity between the Blessed Virgin and Mary Magdalen, which is placed between St James the Elder and St John Baptist and St John Evangelist and St Anthony Abbot, from 1400-1405; the Madonna and Child Enthroned with St Anthony Abbot, St Lawrence, St John Baptist, St James Apostle and four Clients, the 1453 work of Mariotto di Cristofano, Masaccio’s brother-in-law. There is a Madonna and Child Enthroned and Music-making Angels, both by Masaccio’s younger brother, Giovanni di ser Giovanni known as Lo Scheggia; and Music-making Angels and St Ansanus and St Biagio by Paolo Schiavo, part of a large shrine from 1435-1440 housed in the Church of San Lorenzo. The Archangel Raphael and Tobias, dated 1467-1470, is by Giovanni di Piamonte, who assisted Piero della Francesca in painting the Legend of the True Cross in San Francesco, Arezzo. Then there is a Madonna and Child Enthroned with Six Saints by the Florentine artist Domenico di Michelino, from the mid-15th century, and the Annunciation by Jacopo del Sellaio dated 1472. In addition to valuable 15th-century works, you should note the canvas, Beheading of St John Baptist, signed and dated 1620 by Giovanni da San Giovanni and, from the same artist, two frescoes detached from the side niches of the external portico of the Basilica, the Wedding of the Blessed Virgin and the Annunciation both painted in 1621. From the high altar of the Basilica, there is a St Lawrence and a St John Baptist by Gregorio Pagani with the date 1621 on the frames. In the Museum, you can also find a splendid collection of sacred furnishings and hangings, as well as certain manuscripts belonging to the Basilica’s historical Archives.
If you remain in Piazza Masaccio, you find the 15th-century Palazzetto Ricorboli and, beside it, the 14th-century Chiesa di San Lorenzo which has a polyptych by Giovanni del Biondo depicting the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin, Saints and, in the top point, the Crucifixion, dated about 1374. There are other frescoes from the 14th and 15th centuries. At the end of Piazza Cavour is the Pieve di San Giovanni Battista built during the first half of the 14th century. The portico outside stands on columns which are decorated with tondi in the della Robbia style and from a later date. Close to this pieve, you will see the Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata which possesses a Madonna and Child by Maestro della Natività di Castello, from about 1460, and two canvases by Giovanni Sagrestani, an Annunciation from 1684-1685, and a Madonna with Child who is offering the holy Girdle to St Monaca and St Agostino. Among the different buildings in the city, the Casa di Masaccio situated in the Corso is worth seeing. Masaccio is the celebrated painter born in San Giovanni in 1401 who died in Rome at the young age of twenty seven years. Inside the building, which is today an exhibition centre, you can find the Municipal Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art.

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