The town lies in the foothills of the Appenines fanning out into the broad fertile river valleys of the Arno, Tiber, Casentino, and Valdichiana. Arezzo is the administrative and economic capital of the large province of the same name, whose economy over the last fifty years has grown rapidly, shifting from agriculture to industry. It is now a major goldsmith center while tourism is the town’s other major employer. Arezzo’s ability to combine its cultural heritage with a modern entrepreneurial identity makes it an important centre for the whole of eastern Tuscany.
Eight defensive walls have been constructed around the the hill on which the ancient town was built, each larger than the previous one. The most recent wall, built in the 16th century, effectively curbed urban expansion until modern times. Each time the town’s boundaries expanded a ‘new’ Arezzo emerged, blending with the pre-existing town. This is the key to Arezzo’s historical identity: the sum of very different parts – medieval Arezzo, the town of the grand-dukes, the Medici and the rule of Lorraine. This fundamental aspect of the town’s character helps us understand how the ‘new’ town, inspired by late 19th-century town-planning principles, could so readily connect to the ‘old’ town.
At the top of the hill, the Piazza Grande is at the heart of the town. As in the earlier walled Etruscan settlement (6th–5th century BC), the forum of the Roman city was in or near this square, perched between the hills of San Pietro (where the cathedral now stands) and San Donato (today occupied by the Fortress). Arezzo used to be as major a center for farming and industryas Romeand Capua in ancient times. It was famous for itsspelt wheat, bronze statues and terracotta. The works that have survived (including the bronze Chimera, now in Florence) show the high level of technical and aesthetic sophistication achieved. In Augustan times, items made of ‘sealed Arezzo earth’ (ceramics) were much sought-after.
The walls built in 1194, along what is now Via Garibaldi, enclosed a town of 20,000 inhabitants. The town was organized into the four quarters that compete in the Saracen Tournament to this day. The Studio Generale or university (the successor to the episcopal school whose illustrious pupils included Guido Monaco) added cultural importance. Arezzo produced such geniuses as Guittone and the eclectic Ristoro. “Alas! Now is the season of great woe”, sang the great 13th-century poet Guittone d’Arezzo. The defeat of Arezzo by the Guelphs of Florence at Campaldino in 1289 was a severe blow to the rich and powerful Ghibelline commune, which had adorned its ‘acropolis’ with churches and public buildings.
Between the 13th and the 14th centuries the town expanded fan-wise as can still be seen on modern town maps, with main thoroughfares leading toward the Chiana river and Florence. Before Florentine expansion overwhelmed Arezzo’s independence, the town enjoyed one further period of progress under the pro-imperial bishop Guido Tarlati (1319-27). Tarlati helped to bring about economic and cultural developments: art and architecture flourished, and work began on the new walls that were to form the largest defence system the town had ever known. When Guido died his brother Pier Saccone was unable to continue the work and in 1384, the town of Arezzo and the surrounding territory, were incorporated into the Florentine state.
The 15th century brought both decline (in the population and social life) and some economic recovery. The town’s main architects were Florentines (Bernardo Rossellino, Benedetto and Giuliano da Maiano, Antonio da Sangallo the Elder and his brother Giuliano) but it was the work of Piero della Francesca, that was fundamental to early Renaissance art: the “Legend of the True Cross” fresco on the apse walls of the church of St. Francis. The town lost its most cherished landmarkswhen the Florentine Grand Duke Cosimo I demolished the towers, churches (including the old cathedral built by Pionta) and other private buildings that smacked of political autonomy. In their place appeared new walls (1538) and a star-shaped fortress.
Arezzo began to take its present form in the second half of the 18th century, but it was not until a century later, with the arrival of the railroad (1866), that urban redevelopment really began. The ‘new town’ grew up around Arezzo’s ancient core, without impinging upon it. The town that greets visitors today is remarkable in the sheer abundance of its art and architecture, and its culture and local traditions: a rich heritage, ranging from awe-inspiring monuments to smaller treasures, offering interesting insights into a town and civilization.
This is a city worth a visit!