Le Balze is a landscape of the province of Arezzo little known but of a beauty that amazes me every time I go there, a landscape that changes with the changing of the hours …as the sun changes the color of these rocks.
The Balze del Valdarno, also known as Smotte, is a characteristic landscape, consisting of sands, clays and stratified gravels, up to a hundred meters high, of diversified shapes interspersed by deep gorges. These are the result of the erosion of the sediments of the Upper Valdarno by atmospheric agents and watercourses after the drainage of a lake that covered the area two million years ago.
They are the most characteristic landscape of this part of Tuscany between Florence and Arezzo, landscape that has been the background for many paintings by Leonardo da Vinci; in the famous Gioconda, in the paintings of Sant’Anna, in the Virgin of the Rocks, the Annunciation and many others ….
Leonardo da Vinci, observing the Blaze of the Valdarno understood these processes a few centuries earlier than modern theories on erosion and sedimentation:
“… this valley (Valdarno Superiore) received over its bottom all the earth brought by the muddy water, which is still seen at the foot of Pratomagno to remain very high, where the rivers have consumed it, and in it is seen the deep sawdust of the rivers, which there have passed, which descend from the great mountain of Pratomagno, in which sawdust are not seen any vestige of evidence of marine lands »
A view that I recommend to reach is along the road of Sette Ponti, a road of probable Etruscan origin that in the central centuries of the Middle Ages enjoyed a particular fortune not only for the connections between Florence and the emerging centers between the slopes of the Pratomagno, but also for Rome as an alternative to the Via Francigena.
The road, as it developed, was punctuated by an alignment of plebian churches: San Pietro a Pitiana, San Pietro a Cascia, Santa Maria a Scò, San Pietro a Gropina, San Giustino Valdarno. These are churches that together represent the main testimony of Romanesque religious architecture in the Valdarno region.
Here, in addition to the church of San Giustino, near Castiglion Fibocchi, just after Arezzo, the road crosses the Arno with the grandiose Ponte a Buriano, an artifact that has preserved its mighty medieval structure with seven large arches, and is portrayed by Leonardo da Vinci in the background of “Gioconda” and “Madonna dei fusi”.
Along the road heading north, where it meets Castiglion Fibocchi, is the Romanesque Pieve di San Pietro a Gropina (12th century), one of the oldest religious buildings in the diocese of Arezzo. Of particular suggestion is the interior, divided into three naves with columns and capitals, evidence of the great art of knowing how to sculpt the stone by creating works of art that are handed down over time. An ambo engraved with bas-reliefs with human and animal depictions (a lion, an eagle and a deacon), supported by two knotted columns and two pillars, is the sculptural masterpiece of the church.