One of the small Tuscan villages that I like to visit and that I recommend to my guests to visit is Monterchi, just 40 minutes from Casa Bellavista. I suggest to reach it by the road that from Castiglion Fiorentino goes to Palazzo del Pero, for the beauty of the natural landscape, a route through the middle of ancient woods … Montechi is perched on a hill, formerly Mons Herculis, or “Monte d’Ercole”, from which Monterchi enjoys an enviable position in the landscape, between the hills that slope towards the Tiber valley, dotted with ancient medieval churches and convents, one of which is right next to the rampart’s walls.
Even the center of the town itself maintains that medieval imprint, despite the destruction caused by various earthquakes, and in the narrow streets there are small shops and characteristic refreshment points. But what makes Monterchi universally known is the presence of an absolute masterpiece: it is the fresco of the Madonna del Parto, painted by Piero della Francesca around 1459, probably to honour his mother, a native of Monterchi.
The work, which was originally located in the chapel of Santa Maria di Momentana in Monterchi, is shrouded in mystery, both for the choice of the site in which it was frescoed, an ancient place chosen for the devotion of divine figures, protectors of fertility; and for the client, still unknown today: a masterpiece, one of a kind, which could be the initiative of the master himself.
Piero painted the work on the back wall of the Church over a smaller fourteenth-century fresco, by an unknown local artist, depicting a Madonna with Child, recently declared a Madonna of Milk,
The Virgin is represented pregnant, in the centre of a tent opened by two angels. She wears a simple blue dress with openings that allow a glimpse of the white undergarment, a symbol of her purity. With one hand the belly is caressed, a gesture of protection and at the same time of a proud display of the miracle in progress. The other hand is resting on her side. The curtain that surrounds the scene is decorated with pomegranate flowers, evocative of the future passion of Christ.
The Madonna del Parto managed to reach the third millennium despite two disastrous earthquakes that seriously damaged the Chapel of the Cemetery of Monterchi: the first in 1789 and the second, particularly destructive of April 26, 1917.
In 1919 it was transferred to the Pinacoteca di Sansepolcro and in 1922 was relocated to Monterchi in the Chapel of the Cemetery.
In the spring of 1944 the government decided to concentrate the main Italian masterpieces in safe shelters in order to avoid the bombings and looting of the Germans: the list also included the Madonna del Parto.
Having reached the authorities in Monterchi, in the persons of Professor Mario Salmi of the University of Florence and Dr. Ugo Procacci of the Florentine Galleries, rumours spread among the local population that they were Germans in disguise. The Monterchiese women, in defence of the Madonna, rang the bells and “to that call from all sides began to gather an increasingly threatening crowd of villagers and peasants, armed with clubs and hoes,” says Piero Calamandrei in a beautiful article published in the magazine “Il Ponte”.
The mayor of Monterchi, in order to preserve the work from possible war damage, had the niche that preserved it closed off with a brick wall.
In 1950 the restorer Dino Dini was called, who carried out an initial conservative intervention.
The Chapel was affected by major renovations in 1955-1956, which changed the original east-west orientation in favour of a new north-south axis, with the closure of the ancient eighteenth-century entrance and the opening of a new one on the side Southern.
Consequently, the Madonna del Parto, was moved from it’s original position in the eastern wall and was placed in the north wall. With this intervention everything that remained of the ancient church was destroyed and the painting was placed in a position far removed from the lighting conditions in which it was frescoed by Piero della Francesca.
At the beginning of the nineties, on the occasion of the fifth centenary of the death of Piero della Francesca it became essential to carry out the necessary conservative restoration, entrusted to the expert hands of Guido Botticelli, under the direction of the Superintendency of Arezzo.
The fresco was temporarily transferred to a small school in the historical centre where it can still be admired today.
Another small gem is the Museum of Weights and Measures, housed in the sixteenth century Palazzo Massi: it is an extraordinary and numerous collection of instruments of all ages for the measurement of the most varied weights. They range from the gigantic scales of past centuries to precision scales for scientific experiments, illustrated by exhaustive captions, one of the most curious museums in central Italy.
So “Buon viaggio” ……